There’s a certain respect, and therefore standard, that I hold for stand-up comedians. It takes a lot of courage to get up on stage in front of a live audience in a frightful attempt to make them laugh, think and perhaps even challenge them at times. All done without the safety nets of canned laughter, editing or reshoots. You tell one bad joke, it’s out there for life. Since time immemorial, comedic legends like Richard Pryor and George Carlin have used the medium to make powerful and provocative statements about the human conditions. Pointing out the inherent absurdities and foibles of society, religion and politics while at the same time disarming these difficult topics of their sting. The hallmark of a great comedian is their ability to elicit laughter from the audience, even when the joke is at the expense of their most cherished beliefs.
We’ve scoured the endless sea of stand-up specials on Netflix to bring you some of the most provocative, thoughtful and downright hilarious comedy specials found on the streaming service. So grab your popcorn and leave your moral hangups at the door cause here we go!
1. Bill Burr: Paper Tiger (2019)
Rant comedy can be extremely difficult to pull off. It requires comedians to be both deeply passionate about a subject matter and knowledgable as well. The comic has to deliver a heated diatribe while telling anecdotes, juggling jokes and setups, and maintaining consistent energy throughout the bit. It’s emotionally draining, to say the least. Contemporaries like Lewis Black and Jonathan Pie are great exemplars of this subgenre of humour. That being said, they pale in comparison to the King of Crank. The Boston loudmouth with a head full of hornets and a heart of gold. I’m talking about the one and only Bill Burr. The best way I can describe Bill Burr is as your favourite cynical, grumpy uncle who always has something clever to say about the world. Even when it’s dressed in an endless torrent of vulgarities.
In his comedy special, Bill Burr: Paper Tiger, the man delivers a masterclass in controlling expectations and building character. It’s amazing how Bill Burr manages to talk about racism, phoney feminist representations and losing his dog with such amazing intensity throughout. Burr’s no-nonsense demeanour and trigger-happy delivery make his tirades against increasingly shallow liberal platitudes all the more punchy and hilarious. Till this day, I can’t help but chuckle whenever I recall his jabs at film representation. The most surprising aspect of his performance, though, is how Burr becomes more human and sentimental with each passing joke. Almost as if, he’s a character in a film trying to be a better husband, father and person.
2. Hannibal Buress: Comedy Camisado (2016)
But hey, maybe having an angry, bald Irishman yell at you for a little over an hour isn’t your cup of tea. Perhaps, you’re more of a mellow, low chuckle kind of person. If that’s you, then I cannot recommend The Eric Andre Show‘s Hannibal Buress enough. His perpetual poker face and signature nonchalance make him an absolute master of deadpan and shock comedy. Half the time, the guy looks stoned out of his mind. Don’t let his calm demeanour and monotonous voice fool you though. Hannibal has some killer lines that require a moment or two before you finally realize the horridly hilarious implications behind them.
The best way I can describe Hannibal’s comedic style is to liken it to the shark from Jaws. One moment he’s rambling on about some strange but innocuous anecdote, the next moment he makes some awful comment that throws the whole thing in a different light. Never have I heard someone describe the joys of being an uncle in such a revolting, yet accurate, manner. He calls him own nephews “hookers for his sense of nurturing”! Yes, he’s not as high-strung as comedians like Kevin Hart, Tom Segura or Gabriel Iglesias. Nonetheless, the Handsome Rambler will still have you rolling on the ground. All while looking like a man waiting at the bus stop.
3. Dave Chapelle: Sticks and Stones (2019)
Much has been said about Dave Chapelle: Sticks and Stones comedy special last year. The man’s 2019 stand-up show raised much hell within the neo-liberal elite circles. This is in stark contrast to Sticks and Stones‘ rave reviews by viewers and audience members of the show. Controversy aside, I believe Chapelle delivered a magnificent critique of mob mentality, sexual and racial double-standards and the potential threat of PC-Culture. Many would have you think that Chapelle simply marched up on stage, told a few “edgy” offensive jokes, ribbed on the “libtards” and asserted his male privilege. To say so would be a dramatic mischaracterization of the man’s craft. Chapelle has always prided himself on pushing boundaries, therefore it’s comes as no surprise that it’d push back.
Most of Chapelle’s jokes are in line with the Incongruity Theory of Humour. This school of thought proposes that humour is derived when there is a break in reality between what is idealized and what is reality. So when you hear Chapelle describing the LGBTQ movement as a catty and awkward road trip, it is pure poetry. This method of comedic juxtaposition allows him to strip a subject of all cultural pomp without necessarily encouraging hate speech. And trust me when I say that Chapelle is ruthless in his approach to Incongruity Humour. The man went after everyone. By far his most brilliant moment in the show was when he delivers a bracing, mocking impression of consumers. At the risk of his own paycheque! Now that’s ballsy.
4. Jo Koy: Live From Seattle (2017)
Growing up within a diverse Asian community made me essentially impervious to the novelty of Asian jokes. Before I graduated from secondary school, I thought I heard every “Asian parent” punchline, Hentai gag and bad Indian/Chinese/Malay impression under the sun. For the longest time, I just couldn’t find it in me to laugh at any of them. They all felt like they belonged in the 1980s. So you can believe me when I say that that Filipino-American comedian Jo Koy and his Netflix special Jo Koy: Live From Seattle was gut-busting. His 62-minute comedy extravaganza incorporates the best elements of racial humour, self-depreciation and relief theory. In hindsight, a lot of the shit he says is really sad but you just can’t stop yourself from laughing!
There’s an explosive earnestness to his performance that is rather disarming, even for the most jaded of audience members. It is simultaneously pathetic, relatable and amusing to hear him describe his mother’s view of his comedic career. The brilliance behind each joke is that the punchline is rarely ever just “it’s funny because we’re Asian”. No, Koy deftly uses the guise of race-based jokes and impressions to comment on immigration, the American Dream and consumerism. It certainly helps that Koy is one hell of a showman. If you’re not breathless after seeing the man’s attempt to mimic the Jabowockis, you ain’t got a soul!
5. Bo Burnham: Make Happy (2016)
Speaking of showmanship, our final pick on this list is a truly rare specimen: a musical comedian, Bo Burnham. Growing up, I remember grooving and chuckling along to comedians like Weird Al Yankovich and Stephen Lynch as they sang parodies of “Ridin’ Dirty” or jingles about being a bloodthirsty superhero. It takes an immense amount of talent and charisma to be able to hold a note and tell a good joke at the same time. A skill I thought lost to the ages…until I saw Bo Burnham’s 2016 Netflix comedy special, Make Happy. A stand-up (or rather sit down at a piano) special in which Bo goes through a number of comedic bits from traditional stand-up to funny songs to lip-sync shenanigans.
In spite of the buoyancy and charm of Burnham’s delivery, there’s an impressive amount of forethought behind each punchline. A lot of his bits and songs focus on the shallow aspects of modernity. Think of him as a modern-day Albert Camus but a little more musically capable. The man is a cultural critic first and a musical comedian second and more often than not that lands him in hot soup. Even heckled at times. By far the most memorable of his songs that night is “Lower Your Expectations”. A melodic diatribe against the double-standards of men and women have in their less-than-authentic journey to find true love. Don’t let his youth full you. Burnham’s cynical sense of humour is just like any other weathered comedian’s. The only difference is that Burnham’s societal screw-yous come in the form of a serenade.