Years before streaming took over the media, HBO dominated the standup comedy market. To make it as a comedian was to have an hour-long special on HBO. Plus, comedians had specials on Showtime, Epix, even the traditional networks, and they could sell DVDs recorded live from their tours.
However, Netflix is now the dominant power in the standup comedy special game. Everyone from Jerry Seinfeld to Ellen DeGeneres to Chris Rock to Amy Schumer is signing up to do a special for Netflix these days. Prepare for your sides to split, because here are our picks for Netflix's funniest standup specials.
10 Ali Wong: Baby Cobra
Ali Wong took the comedy world by storm when she released the incredible standup special Baby Cobra, which she performed whilst heavily pregnant. As comics’ debut specials tend to be, Baby Cobra is a tight hour, with Wong’s greatest bits, routines, and one-liners packed into it. The great thing about the pregnancy angle is that the material is so great, you’ve forgotten she’s pregnant by the end of it.
She doesn’t use it as a gimmick to lean back on – she uses it as a statement, as she criticizes comics who leave their wives at home to look after their kids while they go up on stage and do routines about “being a great dad.”
9 Marc Maron: Too Real
Best known for his podcast, Marc Maron has a delightfully improvisational standup style. All the ideas and bits are there, but the way they’re conveyed and delivered is spontaneous. It’s very captivating. Maron’s first Netflix special, Thinky Pain, felt very loose and improvised. It was funny, but not necessarily a great hour of standup. His second and most recent, however, Too Real, is.
It maintains his improvisational tone with material that is much tighter. It’s the best of both worlds. The special has, among other things, a great riff about the Rolling Stones getting old. The seed of the idea is hilarious and Maron performs it beautifully.
8 John Mulaney: Kid Gorgeous at Radio City
In the opening minutes of his latest Netflix special, John Mulaney acknowledges that the architects and early occupiers of the stage in the Radio City Music Hall would turn in their grave if they knew he was performing there. But he still managed to sell the place out with his sharpest hour of standup yet.
Mulaney is like a modern-day Jerry Seinfeld. He’s a confident performer, he rarely curses during his standup performances, he has a clean-cut look with a shaven face and a suave suit when he’s performing, and his observational routines are among the best in the business.
7 Mike Birbiglia: My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend
While he’s not the loudest or brashest comedian out there, Mike Birbiglia is one of the funniest comics working right now. My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend is more of a one-man show than a simple hour of standup comedy, but it stars a comedian delivering the show on his own from a stage, Netflix categorizes it as a standup special, and there’s a laugh every minute, so it’s close enough to a standup special – and hilarious enough – to be included on this list.
Birbiglia walks us through his unfortunate past on the dating scene with brilliant wit, hysterical one-liners, and relatable anecdotes.
6 Jim Jefferies: Bare
Australian standup comic Jim Jefferies has really made a name for himself in the last couple of years. After building up a following in England, he moved to America, where he has since used Netflix as a platform to become a star and gain his own news satire series on Comedy Central. His first Netflix special, Bare, is both his funniest and most defining.
It features the comic’s infamous brand of dark comedy, the sort of material that will make him new fans as surely as it turns away other potential viewers. Just keep that in mind going in.
5 David Cross: Making America Great Again
David Cross’ politically-charged Netflix special has plenty of moments that are both shocking and hilarious, a blend that makes his standup so unique and incisive. Midway through the special, Cross gets a few walkouts – which he acknowledges has happened at every show during the tour that led to the special – thanks to some particularly dark jokes about the state of the world that are sure to strike many nerves.
He tells the walkouts that they should’ve checked out the tone of his past standup routines before buying tickets – something that would be advisable to everyone who’s thinking of checking out this special, frankly.
4 Tig Notaro: Happy to Be Here
Tig Notaro is one of the funniest, freshest, most perceptive voices in comedy. It’s astounding, actually, how good she is. Her deadpan delivery places the focus on the material, where it should be. Towards the end of the special, there’s a gambit involving the Indigo Girls where Notaro teases her audience, saying the Indigo Girls are backstage and they’re going to do a surprise live appearance.
She keeps the audience hooked for about ten minutes as they teeter between believing the Indigo Girls are actually there and being skeptical. It has to be seen to appreciate how well she keeps her audience hanging in suspense the whole time.
3 Bill Burr: I’m Sorry You Feel That Way
Bill Burr is one of the most incisive comic minds on the scene today, and his cutthroat wit won’t be for everyone, but he has a way of bringing the audience around. He’ll bring up an idea or opinion, the audience will be iffy about it, and as he piles on joke after joke to justify why he has that opinion, the audience will come around.
This is on perfect display in his second Netflix special, I’m Sorry You Feel That Way (by the way, it’s important to note that he’s being sarcastic in that title). The special is shot in gorgeous stark black-and-white, which places the focus on the material, not the production, as every standup special should.
2 Patton Oswalt: Talking for Clapping
A lot of standup comedy fans – especially older standup comedy fans – are apprehensive when it comes to so-called “alternative comedy.” However, Patton Oswalt’s rise to the stature of possibly the greatest living standup comic has proven that whether comedy is classified as “alternative” or not, funny is funny.
By the time his first Netflix special was released, Oswalt could pretty much churn out anything and get a huge turnout. But the fact that Talking for Clapping is a terrific hour of standup in its own right is a testament to both this comic’s dedication to his craft and the special itself.
1 Bo Burnham: Make Happy
Bo Burnham’s first special exclusively for Netflix, Make Happy, is also the last one he did before taking a break from live performances to focus on other projects, like his critically acclaimed 2018 directorial debut Eighth Grade. Make Happy is as good a note as any to end a standup comedy career on.
The overarching theme that Burnham takes on in this special is performance itself, with songs that tackle stadium country music, Kanye West-style autotuned rants, and the uplifting pop songs of Taylor Swift and Katy Perry. As with all Burnham performances, this one has surprising affecting moments that undercut the comedy with startling emotion. It’s a spectacular experience.