How did the top stand-up comedians all end up on Netflix? When the streamer started premiering original stand-up specials last decade, it entered a world with a pretty clear structure. Comedy Central might’ve had the most original stand-up every year, but HBO was still the biggest game in town, the opportunity every comedian hoped for. Netflix quickly upended that by cranking production up to a new special a week, opening the floodgates of comedy to a home audience hungry for new content. Netflix hasn’t stayed put with just a weekly hourlong, though—it’s experimented with formats and release schedules, letting younger comics make a national debut with 15-minute specials, and allowing some comedians to drop multiple career-spanning specials at the same time. Netflix quickly conquered comedy not just because of the sheer volume of content, but because of a sharp critical eye that helped turn comedians like Ali Wong and Hannah Gadsby into breakout stars. There’s an overwhelming amount of stand-up comedy on Netflix, and much of it is very good; here’s the best of the best stand up comedy specials on Netflix.
One quick note, though: perhaps the best original Netflix stand-up special isn’t even on Netflix. Dave Chappelle’s powerful 8:46—an impromptu response to the murder of George Floyd produced in support of the Equal Justice Initiative—is exclusively on YouTube, and is an absolute must watch. I’ve left it off this list since it’s not actually streaming on Netflix itself, but it would come in at number three below if it was on Netflix.
Alright! Let’s get to it.
Richard Pryor’s Live in Concert is the ur-stand-up film. It wasn’t the first stand-up routine to be released as a long-form video, but it was the first to be released in theaters, and as the greatest single work of the greatest stand-up comedian in history, it’s probably the best stand-up special of all time. Pryor’s extremely dark material—he pulls from his impoverished upbringing in a brothel, his addictions and heart attack, and the unending racial turmoil in America—shouldn’t be funny, but his ability to turn this pain into unforgettable comedy is a kind of real-life alchemy. Despite all the things in this world that limited Pryor’s freedom, from drugs to race to health, he comes off as the freest and most clear-eyed observer of what it means to be human and alive during these 78 minutes.—Garrett Martin
Bo Burnham’s expertly edited suite of silly songs and sketches about the pandemic, depression, and the vapid and aimless state of today’s almost certainly doomed culture is the comedy hit of the season, capturing the late pandemic zeitgeist in a way that clearly resonates with a large audience. Burnham constructs a façade of profundity to point out how thoroughly unprofound pretty much every aspect of life is today, a technique best crystallized in the song “That Funny Feeling”. He punctuates certain songs and moments with prolonged shots of himself staring sadly into the distance, and underscores the isolation of the pandemic and the passage of time through his increasingly haggard appearance and depressed countenance. Burnham knows how to give the special an artificial weight, the sense that he’s saying something big and timely and evocative, while revealing how easy it is to use the language of film to make something seem wiser or more important than it actually is. Inside and Burnham, like all of us, are trapped by the terminal superficiality of modern life, and although that means this comedy special is ultimately a sad, draining bummer of a show, that makes it more self-aware than a lot of comedy. And hey, it’s funny, too, which has gotta count for something.—Garrett Martin
Raw is not quite at the level of Delirious, Murphy’s first stand-up film, but it’s still a brilliant, blistering snapshot of one of the all-time best during the most radioactive period of his nuclear popularity. It’s also deeply problematic by today’s standards, and should’ve been by the standards of 1987; although it’s not as virulently homophobic as Delirious, it’s still full of outdated material guaranteed to offend many. Still, Murphy at his peak might be the most purely charismatic comedian of all time, and his confidence on the stage this night is unparalleled. His well-known evisceration of Bill Cosby, which has become only more relevant over the decades, can be found here, and is a must-watch for any comedy fans. If you haven’t seen Raw, tread carefully; you’ll find it either hilarious or horrible.—Garrett Martin
Nanette grows past the confines of a comedy special and into something completely different—a riveting screed against misogyny in all forms that utterly abandons its reliance on jokes. It is, despite being extremely funny, the anti-comedy special. That’s not a label I’m putting on it—Gadsby announces her intentions for the special very clearly. It’s a work of art that—as someone who both loves comedy and often feels conflicted about its place in our cultural landscape—I’ve been waiting for for a long time without even realizing it.
It is an extremely angry hour, an extremely cathartic one and an extremely necessary one. An art form cannot thrive if it refuses to look itself in the face and question its own necessity. If it does, it might emerge on the other side stronger and more vital.—Graham Techler
John Mulaney: Kid Gorgeous at Radio City is of a piece with his last two specials. As before he doesn’t tell jokes, per se; he weaves long, elaborate stories out of his daily life, both now and as a child, focusing on how absurd the mundane can be. That might make him sound like some kind of Seinfeldian observational comic, but he avoids the clichés of that genre. It’s not the observation that makes Mulaney funny, or the recognition we might have for whatever he’s talking about. It’s the level of detail that he goes into, like when he talks about elementary school assemblies. He doesn’t just bring up that familiar setting and tell a few broad jokes about kids, teachers and school. He goes deep into one specific assembly he had to attend every year, describing in detail the Chicago police officer who specialized in child homicide and would give annual presentations on how to avoid or escape “stranger danger.” Mulaney creates a whole tableau out of this assembly, from the outlandish appearance of Officer J.J. Bittenbinder, to the cop’s increasingly ridiculous scenarios, with the comedy growing with every new detail. There’s no conventional setup or punchline, and little reliance on the universality of his topic; it’s just a story ostensibly pulled from Mulaney’s life and told in a fantastic fashion.—Garrett Martin
Tamborine proves that Rock’s comedy is just as smart and sharp as it’s always been. He immediately starts off by talking about cops shooting black kids, wasting no time to dive right into one of the most depressing problems undermining our country. He effortlessly cuts through the feeble “bad apples” defense regularly carted out by police departments when this happens, and calls for a “world with real equality”—one where as many white kids are shot by police each month as black kids. From here he segues into gun control, and then into an extended bit about how one of his main goals as a parent is to prepare his kids for the white man and also making sure they get bullied enough. As he puts it, the main reason Trump is president today is because we no longer know how to handle bullies. Rock hits on one hot button issue after another, regularly flirting with jokes that some might be offended by, but with a perspective that’s so thoughtful, original, and, in its own wicked way, respectful that it would be hard to argue that he ever crosses a line, even if you believe there are lines that shouldn’t be crossed.—Garrett Martin
big>7. Natalie Palamides: Nate: A One Man Show
Nate: A One Man Show is a daring farce about consent and machismo that’s often hilarious and always provocative. Don’t expect anything like a traditional stand-up show, which is one of its strengths. Natalie Palamides is far more outrageous and boundary-pushing than those jurassic stand-up bozos who act like racism, sexism and homophobia are somehow still shocking after being the standard for most of human history, and she raises serious questions about real issues along the way. It’s not as tense, transgressive, or hilarious as seeing it live, but it’s still one of the most unforgettable things you’ll watch on Netflix.—Garrett Martin
After years of paying her dues, Chelsea Peretti has more than earned her moment in the spotlight. Considering the special’s title, it’s tempting to ask the obvious question: Is Peretti indeed one of the greats? Long answer—for anyone who has tracked her growth, it’s clear that she has always been a voice to be reckoned with. In this way, her special only reiterates what any serious comedy fan had long ago determined. Short answer—yeah, she’s pretty friggin’ great.—Mark Rozeman
Notaro, one of the true masters of deadpan, seems almost comfortable with her life on her latest special. Sure, she’s still self-effacing, to an extent, and still approaches her celebrity and success with a bemused distance, but she positively beams when she talks about her marriage and her two young twin sons. After all the grief that she mined for her career-making stand-up specials and sitcom, Notaro has more than earned the confidence and joy she shows in Happy to Be Here. Also fans of the Indigo Girls absolutely need to watch this special.—Garrett Martin
Like her demeanor, Bamford’s material ranges from the intimate to the grandiose. An early joke, delivered to her husband and their pugs, pokes at the apologetic language people use to describe their relationships. “Um, well we just met, and we genuinely liked each other, and, you know, there’s ups and downs, but we like each other, so we stay together,” she intones, in character, her tone painfully earnest. Then her face turns cold and stony; she’s back to herself: “Oh, I’m sorry—if you’re bored with your miracle!” Her husband chuckles, patting the dog. You can tell he’s heard this joke before but it’s not a pity laugh. The beauty of their domestic setting is that it’s imbued with context, from the painting of their dog to the little bride-and-groom figurines resting atop the couch. This feels like any old day for them, just hanging out and goofing around.—Seth Simons
Acaster has the casual confidence and slightly buzzed, motormouth tendencies of clear influences Dylan Moran and Stewart Lee, which extends to a certain loose-fitting, corduroy-heavy wardrobe—straight out of a less aggro era of British alternative comedy. Recognise, the first of four hours in Repertoire, rolls along as many specials from that era did, and it’s a wonderful, tipsy, bubbly ride with no clear moment-to-moment form but a remarkably cohesive worldview by the time he wraps it up. It’s pretty amazing how formally assured it eventually reveals itself to be, given that Acaster seems constantly bored by our expectations of where we think the show might go.—Graham Techler
This is the risk Rory Scovel takes with his absurdist approach to stand-up: our official review wasn’t especially kind to his Netflix special, even though our comedy editor (uh, me) found it to be one of the smartest and most refreshing specials in years. Scovel balances conceptual metacommentary on the conventions of stand-up with fully-formed political material as biting as any other comic working today in an hour that sends up the very idea of stand-up even while showing how powerful it can be.—Garrett Martin
In defiance of the pain and anguish he is clearly still feeling, and as a mode of catharsis, he makes the discussion of his wife’s death the centerpiece of this hour. To watch him wrestle boldly with the emotions of that experience and the aftermath of it, while still finding those pockets of joy and strange humor, is affirming and beautiful. But it’s not easy by any stretch. That’s evident when director Bobcat Goldthwait pushes the camera in to focus on Oswalt’s face as he talks about the worst day of his life, which wasn’t the death of his wife, but having to break the news to their young daughter, Alice. We hang on his every word, following him as he takes his brave daughter back to school the next Monday. Then he pulls the ripcord, remembering getting peppered with questions by Alice’s classmates and learning a little too much about their home lives. The laughter that follows is so rich and relieving, like that first gulp of water after an hour on the treadmill.—Robert Ham
Galifianakis is one of the most unique comedians of our time and this tour documentary shows him at the peak of his stand-up career. The Purple Onion was the perfect place for this to be filmed. It’s a small, intimate room and it gives Zach the freedom to be loose with his material. But what makes this film stand out are the scenes spliced in between the stand-up. Watching Zach travel, make his friend try on dresses and interact with a redneck is just as fun as watching him perform. Three short years before The Hangover films made him a household name this fascinating documentary shows a comedian on the rise. —Chris Donahue
Hannibal Buress is the platonic ideal of your extremely stoned friend. In Comedy Camisado, he rides the fame bump of outing a famous rapist to treat you to the searing specificity of his anger, be it towards the woman who wouldn’t let him check into a 2 and half star hotel without proper ID, or how 32 is a pointless age. He’s not dropping culture changing bombshells this time, but he’s still the guy you wanna smoke a bowl with.—Gita Jackson
Homecoming King has a lot to unpack and asks more of its audience than the average special. It isn’t afraid to enter dark territory where even a full minute goes by without a single joke. The reason this works is that first and foremost, Minhaj is an all-around great storyteller. The performance could have had zero jokes and still would be a compelling piece of work. Luckily, he’s a smart comedian who knows how to use his material wisely, even if that means holding back to let the important points hit home.—Christian Becker
In her new Netflix special, Joke Show, Wolf jumps into her set immediately—no introductions, no opening goofs to ease us in, just straight into an otter rape bit. It’s about as jarring as it sounds, but in Wolf’s seasoned hands, her most abrasive jokes are also the funniest. Part of why this works is her quick connection with the audience. She’s not necessarily going to hold our hands, but she’s ready with a flashlight to guide us through the dark places she’s taking us, and it’s always worth the journey (no matter how vaguely uncomfortable).—Clare Martin
Yes, Jim Gaffigan’s breakthrough special features the Hot Pockets routine. There’s so much more here, though. If you’re wondering why Gaffigan is respected by basically all corners of the comedy world—able to play in the biggest venues and to the most mainstream audiences, while still maintaining credibility with the alt-comedy scene—Beyond the Pale should answer your questions. He’s a master craftsman who’s smart and sharp enough to bring his own unique viewpoint to universal topics.—Garrett Martin
For my money, the most sublime pleasure in stand-up is less often in the punchline than the path to it. In so many routines it is too possible, I think, to predict a joke’s third act in its middle, and sometimes even the beginning. But when you cannot, when you are suspended for the entire journey in a state of orgasmic unknowing, then you might remember the mind-quaking possibilities that drew you to comedy in the first place. Reggie Watts is as virtuosic as it gets, a form-bending raconteur unsatisfied to tread too long in any single territory. In Spatial, his second Netflix special, he dances between joke-telling, storytelling, song, dance and an improvised play, featuring guest-stars Kate Berlant and Rory Scovel. The hour is infused with a level of emotion rare in stand-up, and which brought me nearly to tears in his closing number. This one really is remarkable.—Seth Simons
The political comedy in On Drugs is done both incredibly casually and with discernible commitment. If sometimes it seems hard to tell whether the Lucas Bros. are making it look effortless or simply not trying, we never really get the sense that they themselves are too cool for this. As far as comedy duos go, they seem to have taken a few cues from another set of twin comedians that eschewed a straight-man/funny-man dynamic, and not just because both the Lucas and Sklar Bros. reportedly attended law school. Kenny and Keith will occasionally check in with each other on a given topic, agreeing to “smoke on it.” Their hive minded brotherhood is routinely delightful, whether they’re pausing a joke to wipe sweat off each other’s noses, or tag teaming a letter to republicans on gun control.—Graham Techler
Wanda Sykes has never been one to dance around a point, and lands many direct hits throughout Not Normal, her new special for Netflix. The title refers to the state of the nation under Trump’s presidency—“It’s not normal that I know that I’m smarter than the president,” she says—and material about Trump dominates the first section of the hour. Trump’s presidency hasn’t aged him, she argues, but it’s aged us. The tough thing about comedians addressing Trump is that it still feels that this must be addressed at some point in order for the special to be valid. The perfunctory-ness of this trend and the common approach it generates does often affect the performances. One of the successes of this special is that it largely avoids this, and though some jokes at Trump’s expense can still feel like the kind of surface-level late night barbs that feel ineffective after a few years of being inundated with them, Sykes generates her criticisms from an extremely sharp place, and it shows.—Graham Techler
What makes this hour of material so refreshing is that everything Kirkman discusses is the sort of subject that women are unfortunately supposed to be ashamed about in our culture. She’s supposed to be still reeling from her divorce and sad that she’s a childless single woman, living on her own at age 40 who will get discovered dead in her bathtub with her face eaten off by a cat. Instead, Kirkman is light on her feet, happy about her current situation and ready for the adventures that the second half of her life will bring.—Robert Ham
Anointed voice-of-their-generation comedians can sometimes stumble when initially thrust into the cultural spotlight—as Hard Kondabolu has been with the fallout from The Problem with Apu. Not this time. Warn Your Relatives, his first Netflix special, is a searingly confident statement from an extremely, proudly political comedian who injects his rapid material with a strong current of justified anger. “My stand-up isn’t for everybody,” he says, to laugher at such a ballsy statement from an outwardly nerdy persona. “It’s okay, it’s okay. That’s why it’s good.”—Graham Techler
The Tennessee Kid is a special filled with quiet, shifty confrontations with authority, all of which leave Bargatze displaying the nervous confusion of a smart kid who knows what the adult in the room is saying doesn’t make sense, but also doesn’t know if it’s worth it to correct them. When Bargatze is told a clerical error with JetBlue would require his birth certificate to solve, he’s simply left to frown and say “I thought I was the proof of my birth.” It’s this disbelieving attitude that makes Bargatze an extremely agreeable presence, especially since he doesn’t put the kind of spin on the ball that would turn the approach sour or smarmy. Even in a bit where he tries to reassure us that we shouldn’t need to worry about climate change given the state of every other planet in the solar system, he appreciates the value of sincerity. “It’s unbelievable,” he says of the other planets. “They’re nowhere right now.”—Graham Techler
Baby Cobra is more than the product of a carefully honed craft. It is an unusual portrait of transition: from young adulthood to adulthood, single life to marriage, marriage into motherhood. It is also the first network special to feature a deeply pregnant comedian, which is not a gimmick but a very practical undertaking. Wong refuses to slow down for the simple reason that slowing down, especially for a woman and mother in Hollywood, is the first step in a long fade to obscurity.—Seth Simons
On her first-ever Netflix comedy special 3 in the Morning, Jay continues to hone her reputation as a hilarious truth-teller, but this time regarding the world around her rather than herself. 3 in the Morning leaves you walking away with more questions than answers, which is exactly what Jay is trying to do. Subject matter aside, careful directing choices, like a heavy use of close-ups and on-the-beat cuts, make this special feel more lively than most Netflix comedy specials. Jay isn’t afraid to make a special that’s funny yet challenging, proving herself one of the most intriguing voices in comedy today.—Clare Martin
Mike Birbiglia employs callbacks regularly in The New One, his one-man play about becoming a father, but with a significance that these references usually lack in lesser performances. Yes, occasionally they’re just for laughs, but in the show’s most meaningful moments, Birbiglia harkens back to earlier jokes to demonstrate how he’s grown from a man all but sure he doesn’t want to be a father, to a dad that embraces his new, utterly changed life. He tracks this progression in tandem with his love for his couch, represented onstage by a stool. It’s a funny, appropriate modern metaphor; the couch symbolizes the state of his life and, coincidentally, is where he spends much of his time. Soon it is commandeered by his daughter Oona, who loves sleeping on it, and likewise his marriage and daily routine aren’t as they used to be. The show is well-crafted in every dimension. The title itself can refer to his new couch, his newest family member (Oona quite literally means “one”) and his new life.—Clare Martin
Quarter-Life Crisis is a hilarious and easy watch thanks to Taylor Tomlinson’s self-assured cadence. Her physical comedy is slight, but effective: the occasional flourish here and there to punctuate a bit, but nothing ever too over-the-top. Storytelling-wise, she is a natural and feels more akin to comedians from decades past rather than her peers. Tomlinson manages to marry her self-deprecation and self-confidence well, never coming off as too pathetic or too cocky. She sticks to relatable, tried-and-true topics—online dating, fucked-up childhoods—but keeps the material fresh nonetheless. You could call her the Goldilocks of comedy, the way that she ensures that everything, from the set up to the punchline, is just right. Many a millennial comedian tries to deconstruct the traditional comedy formula; Tomlinson decides to work within that frame, but make it entirely her own with gut-busting goofs.—Clare Martin
The same wild ethos of The Eric Andre Show informs Andre’s first-ever stand-up special, Legalize Everything, which includes an awfully timely opening segment with Andre as an unruly New Orleans cop and anecdotes about the various drugs he’s taken. Legalize Everything anticipates what 2020 has become: a time to question authority and the racist systems we’ve been conditioned to accept, and also to be on a lot of drugs.—Clare Martin
Is Marc Maron finally likable? Maron’s always been an incredible comedian and, in recent years, a talented and insightful interviewer on his podcast WTF. But those skills always came under a rage-filled veneer as Maron’s on-stage persona lashed out at the world around him, the women he dated and the goings on in his head. It was hilarious but a little off-putting. The Marc Maron in Thinky Pain is gentler, bringing a humility to his heady, introspective comedy that’s a welcome change. Starting with an anecdote about comedy legend Bill Hicks and continuing onto Maron’s fears of being an old dad or his midlife crisis, Thinky Pain still showcases all the best parts of Maron’s comedic voice, it’s just speaking a little softer. —Casey Malone
The title isn’t just a gag. Armisen, who was a professional drummer for indie rock bands before segueing into comedy, devotes a solid chunk of this hour to jokes that will mostly be appreciated by drummers or anybody who’s ever been in a band with one. He riffs on awkward soundcheck banter between drummers and sound men, about the common nuisances of touring with a drum kit, and about how bad non-drumming members of a band are at keeping time. This has to be the only stand-up special to start with a drum solo, include jokes about paradiddles, and feature cameos from Sheila E., Blondie’s Clem Burk, Green Day’s Tre Cool, Warpaint’s Stella Mozgawa and legendary session drummers Thomas Lang and Vinnie Colaiuta. Early on Armisen talks about the pride of being a drummer, and how it means “you’re just better than everybody.” That pride suffuses the entire special, undercut only slightly with a touch of tongue-in-cheek self-mockery.—Garrett Martin
100% Fresh is incorrectly named. Not because it isn’t good, but because it suggests a tone of ironic bitterness that isn’t represented in the special. Directed by Sandler’s frequent collaborator Steven Brill (with some sequences filmed by Paul Thomas Anderson), 100% Fresh contains one small dig at Rotten Tomatoes (an aggregate website that collects reviews from outside sources), but is otherwise shaggy, earnest and inventive. Sandler grins and mutters his way through it all, but he seems to be having fun, and it unlocks much of his old charm in an instant. Sandler’s giggling rubs off on you. The off-kilter songs are back, with lyrics like “I guess that calls for a death pillow over your face.” There are duds every once in a while. But then Sandler does a song about Chris Farley. It’s funny, sweet and sad. And when he sings “I wish you were still with me, and we were getting on a plane to go shoot Grown Ups 3,” it’s chilling, but also humiliating. Because somehow we never thought to think about how a guy who lost someone so young like that might want to spend his adult life making as many movies with his closest friends as possible.—Graham Techler
Leslie Jones’ physical bits are Time Machine’s greatest standouts. This accomplishment is made all the more impressive by the fact that she has a knee brace visible over her jeans. She’s an indomitable force of nature as much as she is a comedian. After mulling over her five decades of life, Jones ends her special with the truism that we must live in the moment rather than become preoccupied with the past or future. In the hands of a lesser comedian, this “moral of the story” moment would feel trite and unearned. However, after an hour of Jones preaching to 20-year-olds about the importance of glitter and cocaine, it instead is imparted with all of the wisdom and good humor she possesses. This is surely a special that’s worth being present for.—Clare Martin
Hughes’ storytelling style slaps a fresh coat of paint on familiar avenues, as she takes us back all the way to her grandmother’s relationship history to explain the origins of her own dick-catching adventures. She guides us on a journey from past to present, inviting us in on the revelations she’s had along the way. The overall narrative she weaves may not be the most tightly constructed, but it gives us a clear idea of Hughes the person as well as the performer. Her bits are made all the better by the singing and dancing she integrates enthusiastically into the set, making one-liners into playful chants. By the time the special ends, she collapses onto the stage, and it’s well deserved. She put her all into it.
The real draw here, though, is Hughes herself. Charisma doesn’t even begin to describe how magnetic and electrifying her presence is. The opening skit before the special starts shows her basking in Meg Stalter-like overconfidence, and she regularly brings that same energy throughout the special as she declares herself “Comedy Beyonce” and “The Female Richard Pryor.” She’s one of those rare people who seems to have been born with a mic in hand.—Clare Martin
Bill Burr is proof that the right mind and a careful pen can make anything funny. If the terrible things he says make you turn off your ears, you’re going to miss out on a shockingly nuanced and, dare I say, sensitive look into one of comedy’s greatest minds. In many ways, it’s reflective of a problem in our culture, where someone says something terrible and that one moment defines them as if people aren’t equally a collection of terrible and sensitive moments. This back and forth between terrible and genuine ideas makes Paper Tiger a truly breathtaking special, capable of punching you in the gut before patting you on the back with a big smile. These jokes require tension and release, and to accomplish that there’s an unspoken agreement you’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.—John-Michael Bond