The Internet’s relentless, rigorous demand for content, combined with show business’s relentless, rigorous desire for cash money, has combined in 2017 to bestow us with a bounty of stand-up comedy hours and variety specials, as well as a rash of rankings by amateur and professional armchair critics alike.
My two cents?
As you may already have guessed by clicking the headline, if you’re going to coax a list or ranking out of me for a completely subjective art form, then I want you to know the hows and whys of my preferences. So even the title matters.
What’s funniest to me may not be funniest to you. Some gags, particularly slapstick, need no translation and play on a global scale. Some bits and comedians, you need to know more about them personally to appreciate the jokes. And the more comedy you see, the less chances you’ll be truly surprised by a premise or a misdirection.
What’s best in comedy depends upon what you believe matters most in comedy: The laughs, or the point of the laughs.
What’s award-worthy isn’t up to you or me, unless the Emmys, Grammys or other award distributors ask us personally to cast a vote in the matter. And how they categorize awards can help or hinder a performer’s chances, depending upon whom he or she is competing against.
My overlords at Decider.com asked me to rank all of the 35 specials listed on Netflix’s For Your Consideration site for Emmy voters this summer. In 2017, 99 entries in all sought consideration of an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Variety Special! We’ll find out in mid-July which handful received nominations. Usually, the Emmys lump comedy hours in with awards, tributes and variety hours, which means The Kennedy Center Honors, last year (and potentially this year, too) a James Corden primetime Carpool Karaoke, and perhaps the Oscars or the Tonys or the Grammys. But the Emmys did single out Patton Oswalt in 2016, and with the comedy boom exploding even larger in the past 12 months — the eligibility period is June 1, 2016, through May 31, 2017 — more comedians may hold out hope for an Emmy nod.
Among the Netflix entries, I feel that the truly special entries should rise to the top of the pile. That means Maria Bamford’s Old Baby, filmed in a variety of venues for a variety of audiences; Hasan Minhaj’s Homecoming King, a one-man tour de force in a year that’s making him a star; Colin Quinn’s The New York Story for a timely look at how immigration has shaped the city and America; and Neal Brennan’s 3 Mics for showcasing the comedian’s versatility. Of course, Emmy voters may just as likely reward Tracy Morgan for making a complete comeback from his near-death car accident a few years ago.
And among other networks, only a couple of comedy specials were truly special enough to compete for Outstanding Variety Special. Laurie Kilmartin’s 45 Jokes About My Dead Dad, on Seeso, is cathartic, touching, powerful, and also quite funny, while also managing to include Oswalt’s raw feelings about the sudden loss of his own wife last year. And Jeff Ross Roasts Cops, on Comedy Central, may not have as many laughs-per-minute as most comedy hours, but by riding along with Boston police officers, Ross manages to find humor from both the blue lives and the black lives, and show how they both matter.
That’s not to say there haven’t been many other funny or great comedy works in the past year, or even the first six months of 2017.
So far in 2017, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed and laughed my ass off watching not just the specials I’ve already noted above, but also the following funny hours (in alphabetical order):
- Dave Chappelle, “The Art of Spin” (Netflix)
- Louis C.K. “2017” (Netflix)
- Jen Kirkman, “Just Keep Livin’?” (Netflix)
- Norm Macdonald, “Hitler’s Dog, Gossip & Trickery” (Netflix)
- Al Madrigal, “Shrimpin’ Ain’t Easy” (Showtime)
- Jim Norton, “Mouthful of Shame” (Netflix)
- Mark Normand, “Don’t Be Yourself” (Comedy Central)
- Rory Scovel, “Rory Scovel Tries Stand-Up for the First Time” (Netflix)
- Roy Wood Jr., “Father Figure” (Comedy Central)
And these additional hours are still in the running for my own best of 2017:
- Mike Birbiglia “Thank God for Jokes” (Netflix)
- Jerrod Carmichael, “8” (HBO)
- Chris Gethard, “Career Suicide” (HBO)
Note: I have yet to watch Brent Weinbach’s Seeso hour this year, otherwise I might expect to add him to one of these lists.