Year in ReView: Vanyaland’s 20 favorite comedy specials of 2020

Photo Credit: Todd Rosenberg Photography

Stand-up comedy has run a gauntlet of obstacles in 2020, but none of them have stopped the grind of comedians who have continued to bring forth their art that stand as both a sign of the times, and as a distraction from them. Over the course of the 46 (maybe 47?) months since quarantine started, we’ve seen so many specials and general comedy content cranked out, with some representing the pivot to self-produced specials (try Sam Morril’s I Got This or Ted Alexandro’s Stay At Home Comedian), as well as the savior of the summer in outdoor shows (try Sam Morril’s Up On The Roof and Colin Quinn & Friends: A Parking Lot Comedy Show), and of course, some politically charged material amidst the rising tensions resulting from social and racial injustice (like Dave Chappelle’s 8:46). It certainly wasn’t easy to weed through the cavalcade of comedy gold that made its way around this year, as every special we’ve mentioned is a must-watch in our eyes, but here are our 20 favorite stand-up specials of 2020. 

Eric Andre, Legalize Everything

While we waited to be greeted by the fifth season of The Eric Andre Show, the Berklee alum’s debut stand-up special was the perfect dose of what we were looking for. Hell, even after the fifth season premiered, it was still the perfect dose of what we were looking for. A bit of stand-up, a bit of sketch comedy, and a whole lot of shenanigans and Eric Andre’s bare skin make this hour a masterclass in controlled creative chaos.

Hannibal Buress, Miami Nights

Taking the traditional stand-up special format, and turning it into an all-out multimedia event, Hannibal Buress upped his game in his YouTube-released special this summer. Meshing his observation-heavy stand-up with special effects and a periodic autotune, Buress makes the most of his time on stage by tying it all up at the end with a detailed rundown of his run-in with Miami police. At the surface, Buress’ hour is strong material-wise, but the finale is an incredibly important and timely opportunity to speak truth to power and peel back a layer on racial injustice when it comes to corrupt law enforcement, and we’re happy Buress took it while he had the chance.

Ronny Chieng, Asian Comedian Destroys America!

Yes, this special may have dropped in mid-December 2019, but since it didn’t have very much time at all to make its claim at the end of the decade, that makes it all that much easier to include it here. Simply put, Ronny Chieng’s first special is straight gas without letting up. Largely focusing on racial and cultural differences, the Daily Show correspondent sharply captures the hypocrisies and shortcomings of American culture, while sharing the cultural foibles he encountered growing up in his own home. The similarities and stark differences that Chieng paints a portrait of are not only funny, but so wonderfully crafted that this special deserves the love it’s gotten, and then some.

Dan Cummins, Get Outta Here; Devil!

Having delved into dark waters and standing strong beside comedically harsh judgments of society in past hours, much of this special exhibits the abilities we’ve come to know and love Dan Cummins for. But what separates this from the herd isn’t just the Timesuck host’s heavily introspective and self-deprecating viewpoints, or even his views on extreme conspiracy theories and pleasuring himself with a banana peel, but also his ability to take his frustrated musings on modern culture and wrap them up in a fairly wholesome and agreeable message to close the show. Except, perhaps, for the pro-death campaign stances — but statistically speaking, some of us would probably get behind those ideas, too.

Fortune Feimster, Sweet & Salty

Whether it’s her adventures to church, Chili’s or Hooters, Fortune Feimster’s latest hour is as wholesome as it is laugh-packed with unwavering charm and dynamite material. But what makes it even more of a worthwhile special is the journey Feimster guides us through as she details her quest to discover who she truly is. Interweaving messages of support for the LGBT community with her stories of food appreciation, a failed attempt at swimming and her favorite parts of being a Girl Scout, Feimster’s willingness to be open, honest and true to herself and her craft make for a special that is as important as it is entertaining.

Hannah Gadsby, Douglas

While there was a lot to be said about Hannah Gadsby’s debut hit special, Nanette, in regards to how it may have strayed out of the comedy realm, the same can not be said for her follow-up, as it is as much of a laugh riot as it is the vehicle for another important message. If there’s one thing that the Aussie stand-up star brought to the table this time around, it was her ability to bring a bit more balance to the humor/heavy ratio, as she crafted one of the most potent, power-packed specials of the year. With tales of a childhood affected by having high-functioning autism, Gadsby’s heartfelt and soul-baring hour takes whatever criticism that followed her up to this point and tossed it right out the window.

Sam Jay, 3 In The Morning

Everything that Sam Jay brings to the table in her first hour special is exactly what we’ve come to love most about her over the years. It’s brutally honest and in your face, yet introspective and vulnerable all at the same time, and the Dorchester rises to the occasion by telling her truth through thoughts on race, politics, power structures in a relationship, the audacity and over-ambition of white people, and traveling with your significant other. That’s not where it ends, but this hour is so packed with comedic power from so many different angles that you have to watch it to fully get the grasp of Jay’s crushing hour.

Jim Jefferies, Intolerant

There’s a special amount of talent and attention to detail that goes into crafting an entire hour out of digressions from a single story, and still having it make sense, and Jim Jefferies shows us how it’s done. Taking the scenic route to his end point, Jefferies dishes an updated view of an evolving social landscape and his disdain for Italians, interwoven with multiple justifications for his “forbidden” culinary choices while he’s aware of the consequences, before ending the set on a dramatic and messy note. Jefferies’ latest hour may not be his cleanliest, but it’s damn near his finest.

Joe List, I Hate Myself

There isn’t any sort of overarching theme to Joe List’s latest hour, but his ability to delve into aspects of the human condition that you wouldn’t normally think about, and turn them into widely relatable riffs is a constant throughout. Not to mention, he’s one of the best in the game today when it comes to going hard in the paint on himself without making it seem forced or just outright depressing. From frustrations you face on airplanes and the overly fancy terminology at McDonalds to the oddity of the term “Ear, Nose & Throat Doctor” and his burning experience at the Dead Sea, List’s playfully cynical outlook on life’s little details is not to be passed over.

Marc Maron, End Times Fun

Any special that ends with Mike Pence, erm, servicing Jesus belongs on this list, sure. That’s a given. However, Marc Maron’s approach to it, and the scenarios he presents leading up to it, are what make this hour an all-around high-quality special. Dark at times, but funny and thought-provoking throughout, Maron’s philosophy on everything from vitamin supplements to keeping that box of random wires around “just in case,” his viewpoint is almost painfully relatable. From his nostalgia for free mental space of days gone by to his fears of how the future looks, Maron may not have exactly predicted the future, since Iron Man still has yet to come and save us from this Dumpster fire, but for better or worse, he comes pretty damn close to it. 

Middleditch and Schwartz Improv

At the surface, there’s really not much more that you think could be said about fully improvised comedy specials, aside from the obvious fact that it displays all-star comedy talent and versatility regardless of who is executing it. However, what Thomas Middleditch and Ben Schwartz bring to the art form far exceeds the element of surprise. Far from the characters we came to know and love on Silicon Valley and Parks and Recreation, respectively, the improv veterans display both their professional and personal chemistry with precision as they get up close and personal with the crowd in order to “yes, and…” their way through three packed shows, and create on-the-spot comedy gold.

Mark Normand, Out To Lunch

At the top of his latest hour, Mark Normand states that he feels it’s a problem that he just says what he sees, but that is literally what makes this batch of material such a fulfilling comedy experience. Whether it be self-deprecating or pushing the boundaries of racially-charged or socially taboo humor, which he does without hesitation or delving into venomous musings, Normand shows that not all high-octane comedy gas comes in the form of a theatrical presentation or over-the-top performance. It’s a shame that this special wasn’t picked up by any sort of streaming platform, but judging by the reaction its gotten on YouTube (nearly four and a half million views), Normand definitely seems to have gotten the last laugh. 

Nick Offerman, Full Bush

While his Swanson-led notoriety may be what draws people to his stand-up specials, Nick Offerman’s ability to not only be funny, but also blushingly crass and poetically eloquent are what truly make his recorded hours worthwhile. His latest is, of course, no exception. With the chocolatey smooth delivery of near ASMR proportions, oftentimes mixed with a respectable level of literary filth that would make James Joyce blush, Offerman’s musings on everything from the sick art of pubic waxing and flaunting “the sexy niblets from which we are all made” to his familiar tropes about the bible and some gut-busting musical comedy meld together to create a handcrafted ukulele of comedic finesse that is both relaxing and exciting.

Patton Oswalt, I Love Everything

Over the years, Patton Oswalt has maintained a type of charming innocence, in a way, while still remaining at the ready with childishly hilarious dick jokes when discussing topics of life, love, fatherhood, pop culture — all of which he’s brought to a fairly masterful level. In his latest hour, Oswalt remains the charismatic, well-spoken and self-deprecating comedy wizard we’ve come to know and love, as he details the sad side of reaching the big 5-0, his previous life as a DJ, and the joys of fatherhood — or the caveats of such if you’ve been invited to a major movie premiere. He covers so much in a finite amount of time, but still manages to detail it like a skilled portrait artist, and that’s what makes Oswalt’s specials worth it — Every. Single. Time.

Natalie Palamides, Nate

It’s odd. It’s awkward. It’s all over the place — all in the best way possible. Bridging the gap between social activism and comedy, Natalie Palamides’ one-man show does a brilliant job of bringing to light the importance of identity, sexuality and the simplicity of consent. Delivering the important messages as bumbling macho man Nate, Palamides navigates a timely and desperately necessary conversation while getting the audience in on the action and facilitating a healthy dose of left-field interactions to keep the funny coming.

Tom Papa, You’re Doing Great

Hands down, Tom Papa’s optimistic pep talk, veiled in smart and snarky comparisons is exactly what we needed to get through the year. In and of itself, Papa’s latest hour is top-shelf comedy. But when you add in the fact that he doesn’t stray from his upright stance behind the mic for even a single minute of the set, and still maintains the ability to deliver straight gas as he dissects the human condition as it pertains to self-worth in the age of social media and the bait-and-switch of getting older without the buffer of a physical element, it makes the experience even better.

Esther Povitsky, Hot For My Name

Maybe her parents aren’t a big fan of her new hour, but we’re here for all of Esther Povitsky’s Comedy Central-released special. Half special, half family documentary, and even a little bit of a musical number in there to drive it all home, Povitsky delivers a top-tier creative middle finger to fitting into the mold your parents sought out to fit you into, amidst a myriad of both naturally and awkwardly funny tales chronicling her failed attempts at love and acceptance, her successful ones, and a refreshing dose of being able to be upfront with her parents and discuss the shortcomings of her upbringing.

Tom Segura, Ball Hog

With his second special in two years, Tom Segura has further claimed his place as “the devil on your shoulder” of modern stand-up. Not in an evil sense, but rather in the sense of broaching squirm-worthy subjects that burrow deep into the back of your mind for months, or even years, and stay there until you hear him talk about it. From your parents’ sex life to doubling down with scathing thoughts of certain southern states, and helping us realize that certain thoughts and beliefs are a lot closer to the surface than we may have thought, Segura’s latest ought to be on your all-time binge list.

Beth Stelling, Girl Daddy

Take whatever weird, half-baked viewpoint you have on women in comedy, and leave it at the door. Beth Stelling brought the big guns for her HBO Max special, as she tackled commonly treaded territories of sex, relationships, and living as not only a female comedian, but as a female in general in the modern era, and raised her snarky approach to an all-out art form. Without excluding herself from criticism, Stelling offers an unapologetic rundown of how she sees the world, how her experiences have shaped that viewpoint on life and a whole lot of her friends’ life-changing decisions, and making sure to include the crowd for some perfectly placed and executed crowd work along the way. 

Taylor Tomlinson, Quarter Life Crisis

Your 20s are not as glamorous and exciting as everyone thinks, and we’re totally pumped that Taylor Tomlinson was here to come out and say it for the people in the back. In her debut hour, Tomlinson unleashed a refreshing criticism of life in the modern age, as she details her overall ambivalence toward a number of social norms when it comes to dating, marriage, growing up in a religious household, casual sex, and the prospect of parenthood. Stressing the need to make mistakes in order for her to give great life advice down the line, Tomlinson’s hour goes beyond comedy, in a way, as it raises a lot of points that aren’t brought up nearly enough by millennials (or anyone in generations after, for that matter), and while that alone is a reason to watch this special if you haven’t already, there’s literally not one joke or story that misses throughout the show.