Comedy is constantly evolving, but the comedy special had largely remained the same, until recently. Stand-up is a simple setup: all you need is a stage, a microphone, and an audience (ideally given chairs). It’s that simple template that helps comedy grow as it can be easily adapted to different spaces and situations. Art itself doesn’t have a hard set of rules but rather general guidelines, and if you’re going to break from them you need to do so with purpose. The recent slow-but-steady rise of unorthodox comedy specials has seen comedians stand apart from their peers by moving beyond the cookie cutter setup, albeit with varying degrees of success.
A few duds are the price of experimenting with the form, efforts that eventually lead to some truly innovative viewing experiences. We’re not talking box standard specials from comedians with unique voices, but specials that experiment with format, location, editing, and audience interaction. These comedians challenge your expectations and understanding of what a special (and comedy) can be.
Paste’s number one special of 2019, My Favorite Shapes was a surprise hit not because we don’t love Torres but because we’ve never seen prop comedy done quite like this before. While the phrase “prop comedy” conjures images of Carrot Top, smashed watermelons, and more Carrot Top, contemporary jokesmiths like Demetri Martin and Torres have found refreshing ways to use visuals to accent their written material. Torres has always had a distinct form-breaking comedic style that’s evident even in his Comedy Central Stand-up Presents special. With his first hour, Torres was able to build something that fully embodies his sensibilities, sitting down in front of a conveyor belt full of knick knacks and dioramas on some Willy Wonka meets MoMA designed stage. Torres does stand-up with a twist, with props that are not jokes themselves but rather inspire abstract musings, impressions not of people but of concepts and objects, and observations but of things no one but he could possibly see. He also employs filmed sketches scattered throughout the show for one last dose of unusual.
It’s uncommon to share the stage with anyone for a special, typically saved for showcases and charity galas. Married comedians Kasher and Leggero embarked on a co-headlining tour that focused on their relationship and the very concept of marriage. Leggero takes 30 up top, followed by Kasher before the two come together for a final segment that’s half crowd work, half roast session. They open the spotlight up to even more people as they get to know other couples in the audience. It’s a risky move to go off-script with cameras rolling, but when done well can capture some of the feeling of being at a live show for the at-home viewers.
A lot of comedians don’t like doing crowd work but Todd Barry certainly embraces it. While crowd work often only takes up a small segment of a show or serves as a plan B the comedian can pivot to when needed, Barry shook things up by staging a whole hour around it. He embarked on a tour forgoing his usual material in favor of a completely unplanned set. Typically, what you see in a special is a set years in the making having been workshopped over and over and it’s that hard work and those tight jokes that earn the industry greenlight. It’s quite the gamble on everyone’s part to, essentially, turn on the cameras and just wing it. You have to have a lot of trust in a comedian to take that route and Todd Barry pulls it off.
I’ll let you in on a little comedy secret: sometimes, crowd work is more planned than it appears. Great comedians know how to lead the audience, any audience, into giving them the specific response they’re looking for, setting them up to walk straight into a pre-planned joke as if they were a plant. That dynamic is more obvious than usual in Nate, where the relationship between audience and performer is more akin to a magic show than a comedy show. Natalie Palamides, in character as the hyper masculine Nate, steers the room into setting up elaborate jokes for her like the reveal of a giant Lyft bicep tattoo (with an Uber one on the other side ready to go) and a shirtless wrestling match. Nate’s use of crowd work makes no effort to hide its motives and instead operates like a choose your own adventure show in which whatever Palamides does next depends on who in the audience is willing to participate and to what extent. Is it stand-up, is it improv, is it theatre? It might be a bit of all three.
Uncomfortable exchanges are the heart of Street Special, wherein Carmen Christopher performs uninvited and unwanted stand-up on the streets of New York during the height of the pandemic. Despite the show’s pop-up, semi-confrontational nature, Christopher’s less interested in Borat-style guerilla pranks than in criticizing the concept of stand-up itself. With Street Special he mocks the self-impressed and obsessive mentality that dictates so much of stand-up culture, primarily the notion that stand-up is some kind of elevated life calling that pushes everything else to the background. Christopher implicitly targets self-aggrandizing stand-up shibboleths like the belief that simply telling jokes on a stage makes somebody a vital truth-teller, or that you have to constantly perform every night in order to be a serious comedian, even during a deadly pandemic. By forcing his comedy on those who don’t want it, he’s parodying the self-importance and selfishness of comedians who acted like the world couldn’t survive without their stand-up for even a few months—those comics who started booking shows again just a couple of months after the pandemic really started. Christopher makes himself look pathetic in Street Special, but it’s really the culture around stand-up that’s far too often embarrassing and cringeworthy.—Garrett Martin
Rory Scovel is notorious for blending improv and stand-up, though leaning more on the latter. He’s constantly fluctuating between planned jokes and improvised bits all while commentating on his set as he’s performing it. As the title suggests, he sort of mocks the very idea of making a big budget, high production special by taking all the formality out of it (the special comes to a halt halfway through for a mock interview with Scovel and Jack White to promote the special itself). There’s no sense of perfection but rather a more authentic view of live comedy thanks to Scovel’s fluid and interactive approach magnified by the venue’s short ceilings and lack of a raised stage.
Specials are typically filmed in one place during one show (or two for editors to pick out the best parts). In case of the latter, the editors string these clips together seamlessly so as to appear as one non-stop set, so it’s a big deviation to purposely shoot a special over the course of multiple shows, each wildly different from the next. This anthology route has become more popular lately but Bamford ups the ante by steadily increasing the stakes with each show, changing up the audience size and the location and formality of the venue. She starts with an audience of zero, performing for herself in a mirror, then an audience of one (and two pugs), then of four, to tens, to hundreds. She moves from her home to someone else’s, from outside to inside, from a bookstore to a bowling alley, before concluding in the kind of theatre you’d expect for a headliner on her level. The lack of laughter up front is jarring and awkward at times but proves that good jokes are all you really need to put on a good show.
Regardless of the logistics, a Bo Burnham show will always be a different experience than the average comedian. But even with his piano, songs, and lighting cues, he was still just a guy on a stage with a microphone in his specials until Inside. It’s a special without an audience that’s actually better off for it. Since Burnham is a musical comedian, the audience doesn’t play into his set the way they typically do for others. He doesn’t have to change his rhythm or pace or course correct mid-joke in response to the audience’s reactions, he sings his songs as planned regardless. And since musical comedy often straddles between stand-up and sketch, Inside allows Burnham to essentially create a series of music videos and sketches that are more captivating and better serve his writing than a live show can. Though it’s the product of some terribly unprecedented circumstances, there’s very little reason for Burnham to ever go back to a concert format.
Bamford was possibly inspired by her friend Tig Notaro, whose 2013 special/documentary Knock Knock, It’s Tig Notaro saw the comedian performing DIY shows at random fans’ living rooms and geodomes across the country. Notaro is no stranger to the experimental and goes beyond the norm once again with her latest special Drawn. The entire special is animated, creating sketch comedy out of traditional stand-up through illustrated reenactments of varying styles. Animation has found a place in stand-up lately largely thanks to platforms like YouTube and Instagram with comedians hiring animators to turn short jokes into shareable posts. Notaro one-ups everyone by animating an entire hour of recordings taken from several years of sets at the Largo in Los Angeles for the ultimate “best of” compilation.
Olivia Cathcart is a comedian and writer.