The average stand-up special today falls under one of three categories: slice of life, political or shock-inducing. Now that India is seeing a somewhat rise of the stand-up industry, there’s a plethora of specials available, mostly to stream, in all of the above categories. However, there are only a few that actually transcend their individual pigeonholes to become genuinely profound and of course, hilarious at the same time.
We round up the best comedy stand-up specials to watch as of 2018, for those who love their comedies cerebral and a little dark! You can ignore everything else that pops-up on your recommended list.
#1 Daniel Sloss: Live Shows
Rebellious and mainstream; in Daniel Sloss we might have found a worthy (and perhaps better) replacement for Louis C K. Daniel Sloss’s Live Shows is in two parts and includes two very different narratives in Dark and Jigsaw. Be it together or individually, Daniel wipes the floor with every stand-up comedy special that has come out in 2018. He uses his boyish charm to weave a narrative that is dark and uncomfortable. Dark, because of the hilarity he finds in awkward subjects – be it vegans, religion or the tragic death of his sister when he was young. Sloss lands the shocks with a sense of self-assuredness that is rare to find in comedians that young. In one of the most brilliant moments of the show, he points out why it is not okay to be uncomfortable while laughing at his tragedy – and it makes perfect sense. In Jigsaw, he deconstructs the definitions of life fulfillment, our intrinsic need to link the former to our relationships and our unnecessary habit to hang on to them. Sloss delivers Jigsaw like a Preacher Man, and you believe his gospel. Which is why Daniel Sloss, a man on a mission, has, as of me writing this, broken up 4000 relationships, 16 engagements and 20 divorces.
#2 Hasan Minhaj: Homecoming King
There are times when some stand-up sets break the mold to transcend into hilarious, but powerful theatrical performances. Hasan Minhaj’s Homecoming King is just that. Devised as a meta-narrative and complemented by new age graphics and pictures, Homecoming King is at the core of it, dark. Not because it aims to offend, but because it tells a deeply poignant, occasionally hopeful, and mostly hilarious story of immigrants – specifically Indian Muslim immigrants in America. From the story of his parents’ move to America and a sister he didn’t know for eight years, to the post 9/11 period and the fears that capture a parent’s mentality, Hasan lands every story with hilarity, sadness and a pinch of optimism. Homecoming King is reflective, captivating and fluid, with tremendous repeat value; unlike a Hannah Gatsby’s Nannette (which we deal with later in the list). Triumphs like Homecoming King are rare to come by – because they are scarily ambitious – and Hasan manages to hit the ball out of the park with aplomb.
#3 Chris Rock: Tambourine
One is usually weary of former comedy superstars making comeback specials. They tend to be, well, how to put this politely, indulgent and they basically…suck (Cough! Chappelle! Cough!). What most comeback kings have had a tendency of doing in 2018 is “ignite to be relevant” – without a larger picture understanding to back it up, or drive home that relevance. Not Chris Rock though. From race and politics to parenthood – Rock burns the rug, then the floor and then makes you realize why the floor shouldn’t have been there in the first place. His segment on police shootings of black people is particularly flammable, if you were to edit out the larger context. But that’s the thing – Rock knows how to weave it all together so you know exactly why he said what he did. From infidelity to Tinder, from bullying to nurturing survival instincts in children, from race to God – Chris Rock’s Tambourine is the gold-standard for comedians making comeback specials.
#4 Hannah Gadsby: Nannette
Nannette by Hannah Gadsby has been hailed by many to be a landmark special and it is understandably divisive. Many argue that it isn’t really a comedy set, but more a theatrical performance. However, the same argument can be made for Hasan Minhaj’s brilliant Homecoming King as well. Hannah Gadsby’s set throws in one laugh, probably at the expense of her queerness and then lands two punches at you for laughing at the joke. So, yes, the show is excruciatingly painful to watch, but that’s what makes it worth sitting through – so that you can judge for yourself (and judge yourself!) at the end of her show. The ending is powerful – and that’s all I say about it. Go watch.
#5 Marc Maron: Thinky Pain
Marc Maron is more popular for his podcast today, than for his shows. However, Maron has had a long-standing comedy career and now has a starring role in Netflix’s hit series Glow. From a solid career comes his world-weary confidence that he brings to the set in his stand-out special Thinky Pain. Calm, composed and sage-like, Maron reflects on his past, drugs, depression, atheism and horniness – and leaves you wiser or wearier for it. Maron is the shrink who is tired of your shit, as well as his own – but still finds all of it funny.
So those covered the top 5 – now let’s quickly consider some that almost made the list.
Patton Oswalt: Annihilation
If the competition wasn’t so strong, this would have made it to the top 5 list. Patton Oswalt deals with politics, the loss of his wife and being a parent – all in one viciously dark and eventually hopeful set. Perhaps, one of the best, most honest of his career.
Vir Das: Abroad Understanding
Criminally underrated, and lost amongst the flurry of mediocre sets by Indian comedians on Amazon Prime, Vir Das’ Abroad Understanding has to be one of the smartest sets done by an Indian comedian in recent years. While I’ve always had some issues with Vir Das’s delivery, his content remains top-notch. The well edited cross-location gimmick helps too!
Jim Jefferies: This is Me Now
Jim Jefferies continues his successful run from his previous special Freedumb. Brash and political – his ability to make fun of America is at its peak here.
Sarah Silverman: A Speck of Dust
While it doesn’t get much love Sarah’s Silverman’s comeback gig has many irreverent and genuinely funny moments.
That was our list, let us know what else you think should have made the list in the comments section.