This list is depressingly white-male-dominated. There are two entries here that blatantly benefited from affirmative action (guess which two!), because I got to number seven and was like, "Oh my God, there isn't a female comedian on this list."
I don't think that's because there's a shortage of funny women in the world. I think it's because for whatever reason, mainstream stand-up comedy is a woefully masculine world, and old habits die hard. So I have two honest requests for you, world:
- Ladies: If you make stand-up comedy (I'm looking at you Megan Anram, Brandie Posey, Addy Najera, Lauren LaBorde, Chelsea Paretti, Ariel Elias, Jessi Klein, Alexis Johnson, I COULD GO ON AND ON): put out an album, OK? Even if it means just recording it the next time someone gives you fifteen minutes on stage and then releasing it on SoundCloud, get it out there. Aren't you tired of having to tell people that Yes, there are funny women out there? Me too. Let's all just break down the doors and prove it.
- Everyone: Celebrate the fuck out of funny women -- especially the ones who have the guts to do stand-up comedy in an undeniably male-dominated industry. I'm sure there are great albums I missed this year by women whose names are shamefully unknown in the business. Post their names in the Comments section; find them and post about them on Facebook; go to their shows, and tell other people to go to their shows. It's 2013, but of the 17 30-minute stand-up specials Comedy Central awarded this year, only two comedians were women. (It probably goes without saying that only one was a woman of color.) Let's evolve or something, OK America?
OK I'm off my soapbox now. THESE ALBUMS WERE REALLY FUNNY. You should listen to them.
10. Kathleen Madigan - "Madigan Again": Madigan recorded her special in Detroit, where she was warmly received probably by a crowd of the mostly-40-somethings who wanted a fun, not-too-challenging night out. The thing about being a polished comedian (Madigan is 48, and has been doing stand-up for more than 20 years), is that you learn how to perform comedy. Madigan is endearing and clever, and her unoffensive album may be vanilla, but it's far from unpalatable. She makes a joke about mail delivery here that I laughed out loud at -- alone, and in public.
9. Eugene Mirman - "A Night of Comedy In A Fake Underground Laboratory": Eugene Mirman is one of my three favorite living comedians, because he's wickedly smart, seemingly endlessly prolific, and really, really weird. This album, however, is not really a comedy album so much as it is a crazy gimmick -- which works, because Mirman is a genius, but doesn't if you don't completely buy in, and also doesn't if you'd not physically watching the thing. "Underground Laboratory" relies a lot on visual satire, so if you're going to watch it, you're going to have to watch it. It's not on YouTube, but you can get it from Netflix. It's worth it, if you have an hour, and you're feeling like watching a hilarious, psychotic genius. (The excerpt is not from this special -- but it's funny anyway.)
8. Amy Schumer - "Mostly Sex Stuff": Amy Schumer does one thing, but she does it really well. It's a double-reversal sort of joke: "Here's something offensive; no I was only kidding, of course I don't think that; I actually think this more offensive thing." It works for her because (1) She's gorgeous, (2) She's self-deprecating, (3) She's adept at satire, and (4) She's really fucking smart. I appreciate Schumer in a way that is similar to the way I appreciate Sarah Silverman: it's fun to watch someone who is the master of their trade, and who works their ass off to be good at it. This album departs from some of the material Schumer is usually good at satirizing (racism, sexism, ableism, etc.), in favor of, well, mostly sex stuff. But that's OK. She's good at it.
7. Mike Lawrence - "Sadamantium": This is a good, solid, nerdy, white-guy-with-glasses-and-a-beard comedy; it goes over well with the hip L.A./ Portland/ Seattle set. (He was born and raised in Florida, but we forgive him.) He's good at pop culture references, and will win a crowd with them, because he's unafraid to have opinions that everyone else has, but he has them in an affable and funny way. He's like that guy at that party that you are happy you're standing around: he's amusing and sharp and doesn't seem to want to sleep with you, really.
6. Holy Fuck - "Holy Fuck": Holy Fuck is a wonderful free comedy show in Los Angeles, and everyone who they put on the show is really good-looking and really, really smart about joke-telling. (You have to be good in Los Angeles, because everyone is telling jokes in Los Angeles, and so if you're going to do it, you better be good at it.) I'm calling it "joke-telling" and not "stand-up" here, because L.A. comedians specialize on jokes: perfectly-written one-to-three-liners that punch you right in the stomach and don't take a lot of time investment to enjoy. This album features 47 -- yes 47! -- tracks on two discs. (It is able to manage such a stunningly long line-up because each comedian gets roughly three minutes to perform her material.) Pretty much every track is good, but highlights are Brandie Posey, Beth Stilling, Matt Ingebretson, Kyle Kinane, Jake Weisman, Allen Strickland Williams, and Jarrod Harris.
5. Aziz Ansari - "Buried Alive": Look. I actually did not love Aziz Ansari's last stand-up special ("Dangerously Delicious"). It was too glittery and sparkly and his-character-on-Parks-and-Rec for me. But this one is kind of wonderful. The first hour or so is just about having kids and getting married and how ridiculous all of that is to Ansari, which I think speaks to some pretty genuine (and at moments political) changes in the framework of our generation. Ansari isn't loud about it, but some of his perspectives are almost radical, and I appreciate when a comedian can talk about scary stuff (hey -- getting married and having kids is definitely scary territory for some of us, and it can also be a pretty divisive topic) and not be aggressive about it. This is his smartest work to date, and I salute him for it.
4. Louis C.K. - "Oh My God": The Onion AV Club ranked this album as the best of the year, noting, "Louis C.K.’s hot streak continues, to the point that it feels anticlimactic to have him in the No. 1 spot again. It’s expected that a new hour from C.K. would be excellent—it’d only be news if his latest album weren’t great." And this album is. It's his best album yet, and that's saying something, because everything he does is wonderful. This one is powerfully political and it never shows its cards: he talks about real, important things, and not just for the sake of being funny, but for the sake of inviting dialogue around the injustices in the world. In my opinion, that's what comedy is for. And Louis C.K. is a genius, and I'm in love with him, just like everyone else.
3. Mike Birbiglia - "My Girlfriend's Boyfriend": OK I'm obsessed with Mike Birbiglia. I wish there were 20 more people who told hourlong stories professionally, and were as good as he was at it. It's a strange, ancient, beautiful super power, and someone at some point told Birbiglia that that was what he was good at, and so he went ahead and perfected the art. This is a magnum opus for him: it's a perfect story. It meanders here and there without missing a beat. It's funny and poignant; it's strange and mundane; it's everything you ever wanted a story to be, and I'm jealous that I didn't write it. In the end, this comedy special is about love and life and loss and meaning, and that's profound and weird and you are doing yourself a major disservice for every minute you're not watching it.
2. Kumail Nanjiani - "Beta Male": This album is so damn smart and cool that you just want to go on a date with it. That's the only way to describe it. Kumail Nanjiani does this thing where he weaves in and out of telling stories from his childhood (difficult to pull off on a stand-up special, but he does it with ease), making observations about society (especially interesting from a non-Christian, non-dominant perspective), and infusing humor into the mundane (perhaps the funniest moment on this whole album is about the color yellow). Every bit and joke here is painstakingly chosen, worked, and re-worked, so this is a comedy album at its finest: there is no wasted space and nothing that seems superfluous. Every single part merits laughter, and Nanjiani is a genius on stage: you want to be his best friend immediately, and he makes you feel like you are. (There's a moment on this album where he ruthlessly makes fun of a guy in the audience who likes The Brothers Karamazov, and it makes you want to try to pretend like you've never read a book, just 'cause you want to be cool like Nanjiani.) This album is a purely delightful, artful experience.
1. Jamie Kilstein - "What Alive People Do": I occasionally feel pressured to apologize for my deep-seeded belief that stand-up comedy not only is allowed to be political, it absolutely should be political. Every moment that we (as individuals) have the attention of a group of people, I believe it is our responsibility to try to make the world a better a place, by opening up dialogue around the issues of our time. In my opinion, those issues are (primarily) human rights and the human-environmental impact. I have strong beliefs about "right" and "wrong," but what I think is most important is that everyone (myself included) keep an open mind and try with all their hearts to be the best person they can be. I am fully aware that that sounds naive. The argument is that if you're too heavy-handed with your politics, you can shut people off and further dichotomize an already estranged and divided world. My argument is that if you sit quietly by while you know that injustices are being committed in the world, you're contributing to them. Now, there's a balance, of course. You can believe what you believe with your whole heart, but still enter into conversations with a listening ear. You can stand up and fight for justice without being mean or antagonistic or quick-to-judge. You can make political comedy that makes people think before it makes them heckle. All three of those are qualities Jamie Kilstein has, and for that, I believe in him profoundly. Kilstein has an amazing ability to humanize himself through his personal stories, and to be self-deprecating without being alienating, so that when he has critiques about American systems that frustrate him, they feel earned. He and his wife (Alison Kilkenny, of The Nation) make a great podcast where they talk earnestly (and in jest) about news stories that go largely uncovered by the mainstream media, and I think that's really cool. But mostly, Kilstein is the rare kind of political comedian who is free-wheeling, honest, and is still trying to figure it all out. The result is that he invites conversation, not contention. This album is far and away his strongest yet, and it meanders beautifully and seamlessly. It's not just for-a-cause; it's straight-up good comedy, and we're all lucky that he's still going strong.