Ultimate Netflix guide: Dark comedy specials
Netflix has been killing it in the comedy game for the last couple of years, dropping some of the best work from the US and beyond’s most unhinged, diverse, and creative standup performers.
From one-off specials that have launched the careers of the likes of Ali Wong, experimental and extended sets from kooky favorite James Acaster, and comeback tours for the not quite forgotten stars of the 90s, the streaming platform has been the place to go for all your comedy needs.
Now that comedians are starting to feel the pressure from the “woke” audience, we thought we’d shine a light on the darker side of standup. From social satire to bleak confessionals, take a look at this, our guide for all things politically incorrect, and we’ll let you know which comics are best at straddling that elusive line betwixt offensive & hilarious.
Ali Wong: Baby Cobra and Hard Knock Wife
Ali Wong serves pregnant chic in both her fierce & relatable comic sets. The Fresh off the Boat writer made herself known in 2016 with a raunchy, punchy hour of comedy that covered everything from sexy Asian men, subs & doms, and how feminism ruined her life.
Performing seven and a half months into her first pregnancy, Wong still displayed more energy and agility on stage than most comedians, and returned last year during her second pregnancy to do it all over again.
Anthony Jeselnik: Thoughts and Prayers
If you like your standup to build a narrative with anecdotes and segues, this won’t be for you. Similarly, if you’re generally a fan of snappy delivery, impeccable timing and genuine wit, Anthony Jeselnik is likely to disappoint on all fronts. A comedian whose only goal is to insult and shock every single member of his audience with quippy punchlines, Jeselnick unfortunately forgets he’s meant to be funny while at it.
Bill Burr: I’m Sorry You Feel That Way and Walk Your Way Out
The universe’s 21st-century rejoinder to George Carlin’s signature screw-you standup is definitely an acquired taste for those not accustomed to comedians shouting their opinions down your throat. Luckily, Burr’s monochrome special I’m Sorry You Feel That Way is loaded with cutting observational humor and well-researched musings on overpopulation, religion, sex & suicide that, unlike the stuff you can find from other shock comics, actually manages to be funny.
You’ll find exactly the same kind of thing in Walk Your Way Out, but given its insincere spontaneity and rinse-and-repeat style writing, your mileage will definitely vary.
Bo Burnham: Make Happy and what.
Starting life as an awkwardly irreverent YouTube star, Burnham has been making a huge name for himself recently, in no small part thanks to his revelatory directing debut Eighth Grade. Make Happy is still a stone-cold modern classic of musical comedy and makes his first show what., still a work of genius in its own right, look like a dress rehearsal.
Existentialism meets showbiz satire and bizarre, melodic set pieces in two finely tuned specials from a master who is still only 28. Damn him!
Chris D’Elia: Man on Fire
Transparently miserable rants on day-to-day annoyances are always amusing when they come from a coworker having a bad day, but it’s just not worth investing an hour of your time with them. Chris D’Elia starts strong, but his verbal attacks don’t have much momentum and he usually undercuts his own jokes when he just. Keeps. Going.
Christina P: Mother Inferior
When it comes to standup, self-deprecation is frequently the name of the game, especially when it comes to comics who can’t help but insult their audience. That’s the main reason why Christina Pazsitzky’s sets are always solid gold, pushing the buttons of her fans far enough to get a rise, but reeling them back with brutal honesty about her childhood and hilarious experiences as a mother.
That, and an unusually skilled blend of timing, deadpan, and vulgarity.
Dave Chappelle: The Age of Spin and Equanimity & The Bird Revelation
Dave Chappelle lately is like a half-decent Liam Neeson flick. The guy knows what he’s doing and it’s great to see he’s still employed, but you can’t help but notice he’s a little tired and out of touch.
When Chappelle really leans into a good anecdote, you can’t help but get sucked in and laugh when he wants you to – but when he tries out some edginess, featuring misjudged shots at the trans community and sexual assault victims, you might just find yourself fast-forwarding.
David Cross: Making America Great Again!
David Cross is an essential comedic voice, and is always a gem in his frequent TV and film appearances. Sadly, that mastery hasn’t quite worked its way into his standup sets, with his writing & delivery lacking complexity and a political soapbox-style delivery that aims for applause more often than laughs.
Frankie Boyle: Hurt Like You’ve Never Been Loved
If you grew tired of Frankie Boyle’s schtick of strenuous rants and one-liners built to shock, rest assured this showcase of standup offers something slightly more sophisticated. This special displays Britain’s angriest comic at his most pissed off, but also his most sophisticated.
Directing his hatred to the people he feels deserves it most, Boyle’s characteristic punchlines are still there, but within the context of acidic rants and effective diatribes that catch you off guard to make you bust a gut laughing before reeling in the horror of what he’s actually said. Essential for Brits, but other viewers should at least know who Boris Johnson is before proceeding.
Hannah Gadsby: Nanette
Equally hilarious and heartbreaking, this explosive series of anecdotes & confessions hits the self-destruct button on Hannah Gadsby’s career but also single-handedly disassembles the entire structure of standup. After delivering the most scathing punchlines ever seen on Netflix, Gadsby transitions into honest and crushing details of her experiences as a gay woman that ask for neither laughs nor applause, simply recognition. Comedians are gonna need to try harder after this one.
Jim Jefferies : BARE, Freedumb, and This Is Me Now
For Freedumb, Jim Jefferies sets out to prove he isn’t just a witty political satirist or purveyor of rape jokes, delving into important topics such as poo, doing wees and poos at the same time, and how to execute the perfect sit down wee.
If your palette is slightly more sophisticated, you won’t find anything much more highbrow than that even in his more R-rated material, but Jefferies being let loose on the stage with all the glee of a ten-year-old kid who just overheard his first swearwords is undeniably entertaining.
Jim Norton: Mouthful of Shame
Another exercise in dirty jokes, rambling rants, and desperate attempts to be offensive without the intelligence of construction needed to make the punchlines land as hard as they should. The gags are strong and those without a sensitive disposition will catch themselves laughing when they shouldn’t – but nothing here is more impressive than your own funniest tirades four or five drinks in on a Friday night.
Joe Mande’s Award Winning Comedy Special
One of the genius writers behind Parks and Recreation and The Good Place takes center stage with a self-aware deconstruction of the standup special. Flipping the traditional approach of anecdotes sprinkled with short and sweet gags upside down, Mande keeps the audience on its toes every step of the way.
Joe Rogan: Triggered
Rogan’s comic sensibilities are incredibly divisive, a didactic, frantic collage of subjects, anecdotes, and tangents pulled from a vast pool of knowledge and experiences. Flipping between conservative and progressive mindsets, each with their own smart observations and insecurities, he’s the ultimate politically on-the-fence guy.
If something in Rogan’s set lands with all the impact of a damp sponge, you can be sure another gag will come along to catch you off guard.
Marc Maron: Thinky Pain
The brilliance of Marc Maron is his ability to sit down two feet away from his audience and make an hour of standup feel like a cosy night in your local bar. Chill and relaxed, his laid-back style takes you through personal grievances and universal truths before disarming you with the some of the nastiest stuff you’ve ever heard. Appallingly funny.
Maria Bamford: The Special Special Special
Bamford’s ability to switch from easygoing comedy to crushing confessions and self-evaluation is unprecedented, and all the more impressive for remaining consistently hilarious throughout her specials.
Her latest delves deep into a prolonged battle with suicidal depression and struggles inside a nightmarish mental hospital, transforming a dark account of anguish & regret into a refreshingly challenging yet frequently hysterical piece of comedy.
Patton Oswalt: Annihilation and Talking for Clapping
Patton Oswalt may not be the wittiest standup on the scene today, but he’s one of the most necessary, and absolutely one of the most personal. Talking with face-value candor with an enraptured audience, Oswalt gets real about the tragic loss of his wife, putting on a brave face for his daughter, and tackling his constant depression, all the while still somehow making you laugh as you’re taken on a deeply involved journey of one man’s misfortune.
It’s gonna get dark, but there’s some light & laughs at the end of the tunnel.
Richard Pryor: Live in Concert
Pryor has been called an alchemist of comedy, with an uncanny ability to turn his pain wrought from an impoverished upbringing, debilitating addictions, and even a heart attack into gutbusting standup performance. Absolutely essential for anyone interested in the modern roots of standup.
Ricky Gervais: Humanity
The once great incendiary comic returns with more cheap pot shots, maddening contradictions, and a generous helping of insecurities. Gervais begins rather brilliantly by satirizing the infamous over-inflated ego of the standup comic before his dissection of his own failed jokes and Twitter interactions reveal it’s all true. A disappointing turnout from the man who gave us The Office.
Rory Scovel Tries Stand-Up For the First Time
No, the title isn’t accurate, but it sadly feels like that sometimes, as Scovel’s eccentric mind doesn’t quite operate within the standard standup format. Occasionally exciting in its surrealism, this one’s mostly a weird concoction of awkward chuckles and wishing it was over.
Russell Peters vs. the World, Almost Famous, and Notorious
Russell Peters is on form when it comes to the tried-and-true style of unchallenging, stream-of-consciousness storytelling. His concepts land, his impressions are solid, but the mishandled shots at edginess are pretty feeble and the crowd work isn’t quite sharp enough to propel us through the whole hour. Peters’s latest are entertaining and absolutely worth throwing on in the background – just don’t expect to be out of your mind with guffaws.
Sarah Silverman: A Speck of Dust
Sarah Silverman proves here that her comedic style hasn’t changed a bit. Raunchy, deadpan, and in terrible taste, despite this there’s an air of slight maturity to this new set and you won’t be able to help finding it agreeable. Despite her critics, Silverman has not backed away from the gross-out comedy that became her trademark. If anything, she’s leaning on it even harder, and it’s all the funnier for it.
Seth Rogen: Hilarity for Charity
Seth Rogen has been guiding us through the modern comedic landscape for practically two decades now, with the laid-back demeanor of a college stoner and the uncanny ability to appeal to kids & adults alike.
It’s only natural, then, that his first comedy special for Netflix breaks the traditional barriers of the standup form, instead going for a big budget variety show extravaganza, with guest appearances from Tiffany Haddish, John Mulaney, Kumail Nanjiani, and even The Muppets. A fantastic dismantling of the comedy special that quickly goes off the rails.
Theo Von: No Offense
Another standup set from a white dude building his entire show around offending everyone he can and ironically apologizing for it. Okay for some decent anecdotes from his peculiar childhood in the South, but it demonstrates a level of naivety that Von still hasn’t quite grown out of.
Tom Segura: Mostly Stories and Disgraceful
Tangents, non-sequiturs, and quick, sharp punchlines all add up to one of the most captivating & hilarious storytellers on stage right now. From awkward backstage encounters to pulling out during sex, Segura’s sets are always fresh, relatable, and slap-your-thigh funny, bound to remind you of that one friend who somehow had a bizarre new story every week.
Tracy Morgan: Staying Alive
When it comes to dark standup, you don’t get much bleaker than Tracy Morgan recounting his near-death experience that led to a two-week coma. Thankfully, the unpredictable comedian is in higher spirits than ever and still going full throttle when it comes to crazy stories and sharp observations on life, family, and everything in between.
Trevor Noah: Afraid of the Dark
Noah is an exceptional performer, gifted with a natural stage presence and charisma that makes his standup set impossible to look away from. Unfortunately, his performing skill does the heavy-lifting here, as unsophisticated observations and recycled gags would fall flat in the hands of a lesser performer.
W. Kamau Bell: Private School Negro
Bell’s humor is some of the most thoughtful and considered you’re likely to come across, bringing his audience to a mass consensus through careful observations and undeniable truths. It gets challenging and political, but it’s all worth it for a sporadic rendition of Don McClean’s “American Pie” that everyone in the house gets in on.