I’m a lifelong comedy nerd. Growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, The Simpsons, Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, Eddie Murphy, The State, Ghostbusters, the Marx Brothers, Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis’ Justice League International comics, Tom Lehrer, Bugs Bunny, The Tick, Laurel and Hardy, Spike Jones, Seinfeld, and a dog-eared book of corny old Henny Youngman one-liners helped mold and shape my sense of humor.
I love good comedy, and I specify “good,” because there is so much bad comedy out there. Too much, really. Comedy is one of the hardest things to write and perform well, so I have the utmost respect for the writers, actors, and stand-up comics who make me laugh, especially because laughing is such a better alternative to crying and/or screaming. These days we need all the help we can get to not cry or scream. I know I do.
I especially love stand-up comedy, so here is my list of my favorite stand-up specials to come out in 2022:
9. Patton Oswalt: We All Scream (Netflix). Oswalt is one of my all-time favorite stand-ups and the last comedian I saw live before the pandemic struck, back in February 2020. I always root for him as a fellow nerd who made good, but We All Scream meandered a bit too much for me. It wasn’t as tight or focused as some of his previous specials, but I’m so happy he has found happiness in his life again after losing his first wife, and that he’s still doing what he does — almost an elder statesman of stand-up at this point.
8. Jerrod Carmichael: Rothaniel (HBO Max). I wasn’t super-familiar with his work before, but this was a very bold, brave, heartfelt, and personal performance leading up to a huge moment. If you’re going to watch it, please don’t read anything about it first, because almost every reviewer spoils it.
7. Atsuko Okatsuka: The Intruder (HBO Max). I wasn’t familiar with her at all and still have no idea where she came from. We just clicked on this randomly, and Okatsuka was silly, clever, and likeable. I look forward to whatever she does next.
6. Lil Rel Howery: I Said It. Y’all Thinking It. (HBO Max). This was just joyful. Rel is a comedian who doesn’t set out to be some kind of bold truth-teller or a combative curmudgeon. He just brings infectious enthusiasm to his stories and anecdotes, like a less obnoxious Kevin Hart, and it was delightful. I enjoyed this special a lot more than his previous one, Live in Crenshaw.
5. Neal Brennan: Blocks (Netflix). Another bold and fearless performance. If there’s one thing I can’t stand about comedy, it’s “angry alpha bro” stand-ups who come out with a heel stage persona and try to be acerbic and confrontational, punching down and reveling in being bullies. Brennan isn’t a bully by any means (unlike what his former collaborator has become), but I loved how confrontational he got at times here, discussing some big issues from his own life and life in general while being unafraid to alienate the audience.
4. John Gondelman: People Pleaser (Amazon Prime Video, Tubi). Another new name and face for me, but I just liked the guy immediately. He’s such a mensch! Loves his wife, doesn’t punch down or go for shitty cheap shots, clever wordplay, good crowd work, terrific payoff at the end. Whatever he does next, I’ll be paying attention.
3. Catherine Cohen: The Twist…? She’s Gorgeous (Netflix). This was as much a musical cabaret show as a stand-up performance, and I was enrapt. Cohen’s stage persona is an attention-craving Millennial diva caricature, somehow sexy, raunchy, and deeply neurotic all at once. Accompanied on the piano by unsung hero Henry Koperski, this was the kind of lounge act I’ve loved ever since I was a kid, even though they didn’t exist by the time I was born and haven’t made much of a comeback since then. She’s a true star in the making, and I hope to see her perform her bawdy, melodramatic musical comedy live some day, before she gets too popular to keep playing in small, intimate cabaret venues.
2. Kyle Kinane: Trampoline in a Ditch (YouTube). This was a recorded version of the tour set I saw Kinane perform in Orlando in 2018. He has such a great deep voice, and he’s one of the best storytellers in the comedy game. He is a self-proclaimed “dirtbag” who nevertheless seeks out the joy and wonder in everyday life. A story he tells about taking his mother to a bowling alley left me in tears at the live show, and I was so glad it was included in this recorded version. Yes, the link above leads to the entire show, completely free. You’re welcome.
1. Tom Papa: What a Day! (Netflix). As a performer, Papa is so cool, even though his stories about marriage and fatherhood are anything but cool. He does everything Jim Gaffigan and Mike Birbiglia do on stage, only smoother, faster, and more effortless-looking — and don’t get me wrong, I like those gentlemen too, and I’ve seen Gaffigan live twice. I discovered Tom Papa from his “Out in America” segments on the late, lamented Live From Here radio show (a reworking of A Prairie Home Companion that made it much more music- and comedy-focused and in touch with modern sensibilities, but was unfortunately another victim of the pandemic). Papa has a few other stand-up specials, and each one is a breath of fresh air and well worth seeking out. His stories may be about the mundane trivialities and annoyances of middle age, but his delivery is anything but mundane.