Just when we’re desperate for a laugh, there’s mercifully an awful lot of comedy to ease the pain. The expanding glut in stand-up in our lives comes courtesy of the streaming revolution, especially Netflix, which has made a colossal investment in the hourlong stand-up format that HBO pioneered 40 years ago.
Comedy watchers have been asking lately whether the growing pile of new specials might be setting up the industry for another fall, like the one that followed the proliferation of comedy clubs with nutty names — all those Zanies and Chuckles and Wackadoodles — in the 1980s. The great Chris Rock reportedly dispenses one bit of advice to the swarms of young comedians currently angling for specials: “Make sure it’s a special and not a normal.” In a year when the new normal was no laughing matter, these 10 hours were pretty special in their own weird, wonderful ways.
Maria Bamford, “Old Baby” (Netflix): There is nothing “normal” about Bamford, who jokes freely about mental illness and makes precious little effort to filter her absurdist, scattershot brain. As in her “Special Special Special!” (2012), she performs much of “Old Baby” in front of small groups of friends and family, at home and in a bowling alley. In a bit that lampoons the relentless pressure to “follow your dreams,” she fake-rages through gritted teeth that we’ve all got to “make . . . real . . . every . . . passing . . . FANCY!”
Norm Macdonald, “Hitler’s Dog, Gossip & Trickery” (Netflix): As he thickens with age, the former “SNL” cast member is starting to resemble the late Jonathan Winters. It’s a good look for the marble-mouthed comedian, who has emerged as he nears 60 as stand-up’s daft uncle. He’s audacious enough to make light of suicide: When someone doesn’t understand how it could come to that, he’s incredulous: “You don’t? What, do you live in a cotton candy house or something?”
Rory Scovel, “Rory Scovel Tries Stand-Up for the First Time” (Netflix): Don’t let the title fool you: This is actually the 37-year-old comic’s second hour-long special, and he’s been in the business for more than a decade. But he’s definitely coming into his own, milking ridiculous gags like hiking his Members Only jacket up around his armpits, then claiming it’ll be a new fad when Kanye hijacks it. He’s a fresh voice, in more ways than one.
Patton Oswalt, “Annihilation” (Netflix): Even when he’s killing time by doing crowd work, he’s a consummate turd-polisher. Asking audience members to describe their jobs, he finds a Chicago architect who is working on the Obama Presidential Center in Chicago. “And you have the last cubic inch of hope under glass in there,” he jokes, not missing a beat. He was a world-class cynic even before the tragic, unexpected death of his wife a year ago, which he discusses over the last third or so of the show, with profundity and, remarkably, no shortage of humor.
Jerrod Carmichael, “8” (HBO): The baby-faced transgressor has earned a reputation for smiling broadly as he broaches our most fraught subjects. Though it was filmed last year, Carmichael’s second special features a line that seems like he wrote it yesterday: To steer clear of rape accusations, he says in his calm, collected delivery, “I’ve been avoiding them by doing this thing where I just don’t rape anybody.”
Jerry Seinfeld, “Jerry Before Seinfeld” (Netflix): First, an unpopular opinion. “Seinfeld,” the sitcom, was silly, in the dismissive definition of the term. But Seinfeld the stand-up comedian has always been silly in just the right way. Here he demonstrates by revisiting his earliest years onstage in his first special for Netflix. Explaining to his juniors what it was like to grow up in the anything-goes, unregulated, unhelmeted ’60s, he notes with trademark exasperation how “checked out” his folks were: “I was like a raccoon to my parents. You know there’s one around, but no one’s tracking the actual whereabouts.”
Michelle Wolf, “Nice Lady” (HBO): The resurrection of “The Daily Show” under Trevor Noah has been a very pleasant surprise after the calamity of Jon Stewart’s departure. And it’s not just the guy on the marquee: the show’s current cast of correspondents includes Hasan Minhaj, Roy Wood Jr., and Wolf, all of whom have cranked out their own recent specials. Wolf’s HBO hour, chock full of real talk about the gender wars (“I want equal pay! And a Chardonnay.”), confirms what the stand-up gods have known for some time: She’s all done opening for dudes.
Neal Brennan, “3 Mics” (Netflix): This was a big year for Dave Chappelle, who returned to stand-up after a legendary absence. But while his two simultaneously released specials were very good, it was his longtime writing partner who really shone. Not content to take his turn at the mic, Brennan used, uh, three: one for one-liners, one for “emotional stuff,” and one for regular stand-up. “You guys are dorks,” the 44-year-old chided the generation behind him, but it takes one to know one.
Jim Norton, “Mouthful of Shame” (Netflix): He’s filthy, he’s been around a very long block, and at this point he’s a master craftsman. After filming his last two specials (both for Epix) in Boston, he shot his Netflix debut in his natural habitat, New York City. In a taped intro, he asks a few grumpy, more-famous friends, including Ricky Gervais and Robert De Niro, to cut quick testimonials for his new special. Louis C.K. shuts the door in his face. Take from that what you will.
Bill Burr, “Walk Your Way Out” (Netflix): Speaking of master craftsmen, Canton’s own Bill Burr has been riding a decadelong high. In his latest, shot in Nashville, he tries out a western shirt with stars on the shoulders, hammers the president for his plan to build a wall (pretty soon it’s going to be the Americans who want to scale it, he jokes: “I heard on the other side the Orange Crush tastes like it did in 1978”), and grouses about the new normal that forbids him to comment on a woman’s appearance: “Honestly, I’m a bald, redheaded male. You don’t think there’s a glass ceiling on the kinds of parts I can get in Hollywood?”James Sullivan can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.