Netflix has gone all in with stand-up comedy, managing to talk Jerry Seinfeld, Dave Chappelle and Tracy Morgan into doing their first specials in years. This year, they’ve already done the same with Chris Rock, Ricky Gervais and coming soon, Ellen DeGeneres — also pumping out a comedy special a week. But it’s still an incredible amount of stand-up to wade through. We’re here to help, ranking each special from worst to best.
23. Harith Iskander – “I Told You So”
Malaysian comic Harith Iskander endlessly pats himself on the back just for landing an international stand-up special. He asks, what am I going to wear on stage? How should I do my hair (he’s bald)? Should I call my special, “The Funniest Comedian in the World?” Check out my hot wife! Throw in some pointless crowd work and a hacky rimshot, and this is just painful.
22. Fakkah Fuzz – “Almost Banned”
Another Malay comedian, Fakkah Fuzz’s stand-up is strictly limited to differences between Malaysians and people from Singapore, which would be even more reductive if international audiences had any idea what he was talking about.
21. James Acaster – “Repertoire”
The pale, scruffy haired London comic James Acaster has not one, but four stand-up specials on Netflix. They’ve been framed as part of a comprehensive series, each color-coded and with a supposed theme. But after kneeling down for 15 minutes as a “loophole” to avoid actually starting the show, his childhood life story quickly unravels into goofy nonsense. He’s wacky, off-kilter and unusual, sure, but who has the time?
20. Katt Williams – “Great America”
Is Katt Williams even telling jokes anymore? His cranky exuberance feels awfully tired when aimed at Trump. He’s performing to a Jacksonville, Florida, crowd (and he unwisely opens with material that only plays to that room) that likely is pretty split politically, and his bland observations barely cut left or right.
19. Kevin James – “Never Don’t Give Up”
When did lactose intolerance become a sign of the decline of American masculinity? Kevin James makes a pretty feeble attempt at trying to jump into the culture wars of 2018. His stand-up is derivative, generic and barely even utilizes his best physical comedy gifts. He has a lengthy story about how he became obsessed with a guy who gave him a cigar that has a whiff of being a rejected concept for an episode of his sitcom.
18. Enissa Amani – “Ehrenwort”
Enissa Amani is a German-Iranian comedian, the first woman in Germany with a Netflix original special. Her very literal and lengthy setups to every joke feel appropriately German. She’s charming and is just happy to be part of the Netflix club. “Does Netflix have porn? Or news? I’d binge a whole season of news in advance. It’d be a spoiler though.” But she falls into the same trap as other international comics on Netflix, trying to play to every different culture in the room and spreading everything thin.
17. Ricky Gervais – “Humanity”
Ricky Gervais’s special is called “Humanity,” but it’s all about him. Not ashamed of comparing himself to Jesus to start the show, Gervais spends the remainder of his time scoffing at his critics and explaining away already bad and tasteless jokes about Caitlyn Jenner he made at the Golden Globes years ago. “People get offended when they mistake the subject of the joke with the actual target,” he says, writing off any online backlash as just a misunderstanding. Inflating his ego is part of what you’re paying for with Gervais, but this is irritating even for him.
16. Rachel Feinstein – “The Standups” Episode 4
Neurotic, overly personal, loud and far too familiar to be surprising, Rachel Feinstein’s routine falls into cliche awfully quick. Why so many accents? And wow, you have parents who are bad on Facebook too?
15. Gad Elmaleh – “American Dream”
Gad Elmaleh’s material is inoffensive and pleasant, but rarely surprising. Some of his weaker gags can be boiled down to, “Americans tip like this, and French people tip like this.” He’s smart at deconstructing language. But what should’ve been fresh for Elmaleh, his first special entirely in English, results in some recycled gags about “em-PHA-sis” and French doors from his 2017 Netflix special.
14. Gina Yashere – “The Standups” Episode 2
Gina Yashere observes that most people in Hollywood think black women look either like Halle Berry or Precious. Yashere is neither, a Nigerian woman from London, and she’s uniquely funny. But you wish her material would focus more on her own life rather than on clichéd, outdated observations of American culture. One joke stops just short of insights about why racism is far subtler in Britain and defaults to an easy swipe at the South. “I treated Alabama the way white people treat Africa the first time. Wow, they have cars and shoes and s—,” she says. And how many times does she have to sing the “Team America” theme song?
13. Brent Morin – “The Standups” Episode 5
Brent Morin is that bro who dominates the conversation at a party rattling off a story you lost track of hours ago. He’s got great little callbacks and one-liners and a hilarious observation about how if you’re a white guy, how flattering it is to be complimented by a black or gay guy. But is he still doing that butler impression of his Uber driver? How did he start complaining about bread at Italian restaurants? What’s a “sunshine hand?”
12. Marlon Wayans – “Woke-ish”
This is Marlon Wayans’s first ever stand-up special in a three decade career, and yet you know what you’re getting with him. It’s fun, raunchy and stupid, and it isn’t long before he crosses more than a few lines, thus his special’s title “Woke-ish.” Like Gervais, Wayans also has a tone deaf Caitlyn Jenner joke. “I ain’t seen a white chick that ugly since me and Shawn did the f—in’ movie!” But you might consider sticking around for his impression of Designer’s “Panda” or an amusing, if stereotypical, bit about white people going through customs to earn the privilege to say the N-word.
11. Joe List – “The Standups” Episode 1
White guy insecurities, childhood name calling and nearly 10 minutes about being awkward at the gym are a dime a dozen, but Joe List does it justice with a deadpan delivery and relatable awkwardness. List’s best story is about how as a kid, a girl said his big forehead looked like a “fivehead.” Yeah, that’s a pretty good burn.
10. Kavin Jay – “Everybody Calm Down”
The best of the three Malaysian comedians, Much of Kavin Jay’s charming material comes at the expense of his weight. But he acknowledges he’s not playing just to the room he’s in. “In Asia, parents use [my weight] to discipline children,” Jay says. “In America, I’m a medium.” At one point he even talks to some New Yorkers in the crowd. “I don’t know where that is. And now you know how that feels.”
9. Greg Davies – “You Magnificent Beast”
“The more upset you are, the funnier I find it,” Greg Davies says to someone in his crowd. This Welsh comic takes glee out of telling charming stories about his parents and his childhood before turning them disgusting. He has one routine about getting a giant teddy bear as a kid. He named it BT, like the alien ET. Aww, how sweet. He makes us think that’s the end of the story before revealing that as a teenager, “I f—ed that bear.” He couldn’t go out with friends because he was “too busy knocking the back end out of it!”
8. Fred Armisen – “Standup for Drummers”
Every word out of Fred Armisen’s mouth sounds like the start to some absurd, rejected “Portlandia” sketch, and I love it. Armisen is literally performing to a room full of people who know how to drum (Green Day’s Tre Cool pops up in the audience). Isn’t putting together a snare so annoying? I know! Sometimes his observations may genuinely be for an audience of one. But anyone will love his mini impressions of accents around the country and drumming impressions of Ringo Starr, Keith Moon, U2’s Larry Mullins Jr., Stewart Copeland and Meg White.
7. Tom Segura – “Disgraceful”
Those who want a replacement for Louis C.K. in the schlubby, cynical and brutally honest middle-aged white guy department can look to Tom Segura. But Segura isn’t trying to challenge social norms in the way C.K. used to; he’d rather troll people in the parking lot or talk up how great it is to never have to leave the house. One of his best gags makes a smart comparison to show how future generations will never understand how hard it once was to buy weed. Pigeons used to deliver messages? Are you crazy?
6. Aparna Nancherla – “The Standups” Episode 6
At first, Aparna Nancherla stands out as a socially awkward goofball, her cartoonish voice enhancing silly anxieties like what to say to a pilot upon leaving a plane. But she soon hauls out a PowerPoint presentation and brilliantly manages to translate internet humor to the stage. Nancherla deconstructs emojis that look like a “multicultural boy band” or bullet points she grabbed from a Ted Talk random name generator, and she does it all in a deadpan weirdness that should make her a star.
5. Natasha Leggero & Moshe Kasher – “The Honeymoon Stand-Up Special”
Natasha Leggero and Moshe Kasher each have their own 30-minute special, but I can’t separate these two. Leggero toys with this Texas crowd about whether or not she’ll keep the baby she’s pregnant with and delivers scathing material about her white trash family, all while embracing her own trashy side. And Kasher’s brain is moving a mile a minute as he rattles off personal stories about your horny grandmother and feminist lesbian porn, all with energy and intensity rare for comics who talk about their neuroses. But they bring crowd work to the next level when they take the stage together and offer couples counseling. It’s hilarious insult comedy with a loving and pleasant twist that shows why Leggero and Kasher make a great pair.
4. Todd Glass – “Act Happy”
Todd Glass has put together a truly strange and subversive hour of comedy. More performance art than strictly jokes, Glass has a big band playing only public domain songs to put a button on his ironically hacky gags. He’s playing to a tiny room of 75 people, but he’s giving rants and monologues that he presents as larger than life, even asking the sound guy to give some reverb on his voice. The band taunts his “bragging” and the audience seems to be in on the joke. He even twice busts out into “song,” singing a time-killing anthem that he wrote in case he didn’t have enough material. But I could watch him for hours.
3. Chris Rock – “Tamborine”
For his first special in nearly a decade, “Tamborine,” Chris Rock immediately comes out swinging. His practical takes on the shootings of black kids, gun control and poverty are vintage Rock. But his material now reflects his middle age. You may disagree with some of his more Millennial-bashing takes, but he shows remarkable candor and great wisdom when he addresses his divorce and what it takes to keep a relationship going. The secret is to approach it like a tambourine player in a band. “You play that motherf— right!” Rock sure does.
2. Kyle Kinane – “The Standups” Episode 3
Kyle Kinane may be from my hometown of Addison, Illinois, but that’s not the only reason I can relate. His material has been bleak in the past, but in this set he speaks to the moment with insightful material about why he’s still recycling in the face of an apocalypse, Kurt Cobain’s Christmas album and a theory that the Ku Klux Klan has a great chef (“same outfits, different hats”). His finest gag takes full advantage of the pulse of the country and even plays on knowing he was taping this in advance for Netflix: “What if by the time this airs, there’s no mass shooting,” he asks. “This is America.”
1. John Mulaney – “Kid Gorgeous at Radio City”
John Mulaney has matured into such an effortless, likeable performer. He stands tall as he gallops around stage and proudly declares everything he says even as he’s confessing his deepest fears and embarrassments. He’s the butt of nearly every joke, but it’s astutely observational humor, like Seinfeld did in his hey day. But each of Mulaney’s stories are told with such prose and imagery. He’s never been political, but he works his way into the partisan mine field through a genius analogy about a horse loose in a hospital. We have “no idea what’s going to happen next.”