Seven Great Standup Specials
Photo: Great Standup Specials
From the very inception of entertainment, the art of making people laugh has been a crucial part of every culture in the world. Since the day when political satire was performed by comic poets in the theaters of ancient Greece for the first time, the art of the “witty monologue” has arisen from the comedy genre and transitioned to the standup comedy of the 20th century as we know it. In recent years, standup has been rapidly growing in popularity and has peaked in the current boom of streaming platforms.
The market has become simply oversaturated with standup specials, and the competition for getting your material on the air is at its all-time high as throughout all these years the standup comedy industry has found a tendency to punish everything that is not based on fresh or innovative material by simply substituting it with the new stuff. That certainly does not make the process of finding a niche act easier as comedians now have much less time and experience significantly more rivalry when they try to discover their unique act and deliver it to the public.
Accordingly, releasing a standup special has become the ultimate achievement for every successful comedy artist. Let’s now take a look at some of the most innovative and important specials throughout the rise of the genre that still set the standards for today’s aspiring comics who try to leave their mark on the history of comedy:
7 Great Standup Specials:
Richard Pryor – Live on the Sunset Strip (1982)
Richard Pryor was already recognized as one of America’s greatest stand-up comedians by the time he filmed this special in 1982. However, ‘Live on the Sunset Strip’ marks a very special time in the history of comedy – it is Pryor’s first public performance after his descent into drug addiction that ended with him setting himself on fire. Instead of avoiding talking about it, Pryor dedicates half of the special to those chimeras and distills every single wrongdoing of his from that period into the material, giving way to one of the most breathtakingly cathartic performances of self-irony ever recorded.
This mature honesty paired with his extraordinary voice and physical acting talent creates an unforgettable experience delivered by a man who profoundly and publicly toys with his dark inclinations to isolation and self-destruction. You need to be a great comedian to make all that look funny, but if you are Richard Pryor, you make it one of the most hilarious shows ever performed, and ‘Live on the Sunset Strip’ is definitely that good.
Eddie Murphy – Raw (1987)
Most frequently, when people talk about Eddie Murphy’s comedy, his 1983 special “Delirious” comes up first. To me personally, the difference after the four years that he took before recording “Raw” was the decisive factor as his second special is simply funnier in a more mature way – loaded with a more heavy, surreal humor that leaves very few stones unturned. In “Raw”, Eddie jokes about practically every racial and sexual stereotype in America, most of which are still topical after 40 years. People argue that some of the jokes didn’t age well in today’s more tolerant world and that opens a separate debate, which makes the special somewhat controversial and accordingly, more interesting to watch. In one moment, the way his own humor was influenced by Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor is depicted through hilarious storytelling, which is a remarkable homage to Black comedy.
George Carlin – Jammin’ in New York (1992)
“We used to listen to politicians and laugh at comedians. Now we listen to comedians and laugh at politicians” – this quote probably first came true when George Carlin took the stage. Because he had important things to say and did not need to do quick-fire jokes to make his points, Carlin’s specials are rarely loaded with punchlines and his later performances arguably have more elements of preaching than of comedy. Despite that, much like in his 1992 special, where he calls out every one-sided mentality from pro-life conservatives and gun enthusiasts to feminists and environmentalists, the question-everything mindset that Carlin preaches in his unbiased performances – something that was not common even by then in America – drew lots of laughs, as it came from a true master who definitely knew how to perform those “reality check monologues with cynical overtones” he is now so famous for.
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Bill Hicks – Relentless (1992)
Of all the great standup artists, Bill Hicks’ style probably has the most similarities with the “standup prophet” act of George Carlin, but with a bigger twist on sex, drugs, and Rock ’n’ Roll. His humor was also way darker, to the extent that the marriage of the true and the funny in his performance was disturbing to many Americans in the ’90s who were used to the general vibe of pretending that everything was awesome while the country was actually on a downward spiral. As by that time comedy in America was still very much a nightclub form of entertainment, his sharp, satire-driven social commentary, and angry rock star attitude created a very confrontational stage presence that was very new and foreign at that time in the USA. Today, however, his material is as topical as ever as you can easily recognize his mark on that particular twist of standup comedy and an array of great comics that are directly influenced by his act.
Louis CK – Chewed Up (2008)
Before joining the ranks of men whose careers have been damaged by their own wrongdoings, Louis CK was (and arguably still is) one of the most important and popular comedians in the industry. Just like every great comic, he was able to dive deep and pull out the perspectives of life that were left unspoken, and much of his material was actually philosophically very intense and touched a nerve. His 2008 special starts with the usual self-deprecating stories about his own life but transitions into some genuinely thought-provoking insights. Just like with his TV projects ‘Louie’ and ‘Horace & Pete’, while on stage he brings his own personal life into his act and exposes his own deep vulnerabilities and insecurities, and his skills of doing just that remain unmatched to the present day.
Norm Macdonald: Me Doing Standup (2011)
“Alternative comedy parodies the traditional idea of telling a joke by delivering a line that is intentionally not funny and the whole point of the practice relies on the expectation of something humorous by the audience, and when this does not happen, the irony of the disappointment itself is of comedic value” – and if you’ve seen at least one of Norm Macdonald’s standup acts, it is virtually impossible not be reminded of him upon reading this description of the anti-humor genre. In this 2011 special, his dry, deadpan humor is perfected to absurdity as he repeatedly fires twelve-minute jokes about exactly what it feels like to be an alcoholic, or what goes on in the head of a serial killer, in the most disturbingly hilarious details.
Patrice O’Neal – Elephant in the Room (2011)
‘Elephant in the Room’ premiered in February of 2011, nine months before Patrice O’Neal passed away at the age of 41, leaving behind just a couple of public performances and TV appearances. However, that hasn’t prevented the special from becoming one of the most beloved performances for almost every modern standup comedian, who repeatedly put it on their “best of all time” lists. Patrice masterfully weaves his web as he lures his listeners with his very own, nonchalant manner of setting up a joke and hits with the punchline in the most unexpected moments, leaving the participating audience gasping – only to transition to the next venture. ‘Elephant in the Room’ is a one-hour masterclass of groundbreaking, beautiful performance from the true wizard of comedy.
By David Tsintsadze
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David Tsintsadze is a music industry executive, investigative reporter and a film enthusiast. As far back as he remembers, he always wanted to be involved in the entertainment industry. When that started to happen and he began to really understand how it all worked, he found that his love of both the creative arts and the relevant industry allowed him to move between the two worlds and make them relate to each other. David’s belief in meaningful entertainment coincides with Hollywood Insider’s values and in his vision, cultural intermediaries play a crucial role in shaping and exchanging culture, which he firmly believes is one of the main contribution in creation of a free and vibrant society that people want to live in.