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The best comedy albums and specials of 2013

As much as the post-Internet era has harmed the music and film industries, it has benefitted stand-up comedy in unpredictable ways. The debut of the iPod fomented the creation of podcasts, which have been indispensible distributors of comedy and comedians; and the rise of streaming services like Netflix (and until recently, Chill) gave comedians a way to release specials without a TV network—or they could just skip the middle man altogether and self-release their material. Comedians have never had more possibilities available to them, which is perhaps why 2013 was such a good, prolific year for comedy. It seemed to come from everywhere: the old guard (HBO, Comedy Central), upstarts (Netflix), indie labels (ASpecialThing), and the comedians themselves. There was so much of it that The A.V. Club could scarcely keep up—and so much of it looked good.

This year, we changed things a bit to allow specials, not just albums, to be eligible for voting. We also changed our voting process. Instead of giving our writers a certain number of points to work with, we asked for a simple list of five of their favorites. The top entry received five points, the second one four points, and so on. We added them together and disqualified anything that only received a single vote. That left us with eight top albums out of the roughly 20 that our reviewers selected. See everyone’s individual ballots below for more thoughts on releases that didn’t make our best-of list. 

To vote for your favorite comedy of 2013, visit our readers’ poll.

8. Anthony Jeselnik, Caligula (seven points, two votes)
Twitter has helped resuscitate the one-liner, and no one wields brevity more skillfully than Anthony Jeselnik. His second album, Caligula, recorded in Chicago, is another stellar set of quick jokes constructed from ordinary setups that veer in dark directions. Jeselnik is chiefly an audacious comedian, never afraid to take on any topic—the album begins with a track called “Rape” and escalates to a series of deliberately button-pushing bits. That offends a lot of people, but Jeselnik likes to test the limits of comedy and find something to laugh at even the darkest places. Plus, his jokes aren’t at the expense victim; they’re about the idiocy of a way of thinking. Comedy Central may have canceled The Jeselnik Offensive too soon, but Jeselnik still has one of the best albums of the year.

7. Eugene Mirman, An Evening Of Comedy In A Fake Underground Laboratory (seven points, three votes)
An oddball title like An Evening Of Comedy In A Fake Underground Laboratory has a lot to live up to, but Eugene Mirman has always set the mood quickly. (Two of his previous albums are entitled En Garde, Society and God Is A Twelve-Year-Old Boy With Asperger’s.) On Laboratory, Mirman shows off more of the offbeat humor that makes him a uniquely adventurous performer, from uploading his own slogans to a Tea Party website (“Taxation without tea? Hell no King George Obama Stalin!”) to giving ridiculous advice to audience questions. (“‘My consciousness keeps projecting into my direwolf; what should I do?’ Get a job.”) Like his previous bit about the putrid service on Delta Airlines, the best part of the album finds a way to hilariously skewer an easy target: Time Warner Cable. Mirman has been outstanding as Gene on Bob’s Burgers, and Laboratory shows he’s not far removed from an adult stand-up version of the character.

6. Pete Holmes, Nice Try, The Devil (seven points, four votes)
Pete Holmes had a big year, thanks to a high-profile gig hosting a late-night talk show after Conan on TBS, his popular podcast, You Made It Weird, and his first hour-long special, Nice Try, The Devil, which Comedy Central Records also released as an CD/DVD. Nice Try, The Devil builds on what Holmes established with his great 2011 album, Impregnated With Wonder, with Holmes as a likeably goofy, highly enthusiastic comedian who’s as at home with light-hearted wordplay (see “Pierce!!!/Juan!!!”) as he is deconstructing his own racial issues (“Atlanta”). A bit of conceptual silliness about a video-game character going to the doctor is followed by another where Holmes breaks down how screwed up people should be from breast-feeding. Many comedians, particularly in the alt-comedy scene, seem uneasy with outright silliness—where’s the commentary, where’s the edge, man?—but a lot of those folks would kill for the kind of guffaws Nice Try, The Devil produces.

5. (tie) Kurt Braunohler, How Do I Land? (eight points, three votes)
Kurt Braunohler has been a familiar face (and voice) to sketch and podcast fans for years, but the goofy, affable How Do I Land? is his first album. Recorded in Portland (“Is your main economy bucket-drumming?”), it’s mostly observational, but always sharp and inviting—he’s prone to laughing at his own jokes, but in a charming way. A long bit about buying a huge dildo—for comedic purposes—and then falling on his face while jogging home with it is hilarious, as is a presumably true story about bringing a date home to his apartment filled with huge notes about sketch ideas that double as super-creepy phrases like “Do bad decisions exist?”

5. (tie) Aziz Ansari, Buried Alive (eight points, three votes)
As his long, surprisingly personal interview with us from last February showed, Aziz Ansari has a lot on his mind these days, and that heavily informed his special for Netflix, Buried Alive. As Ansari neared 30, other signifiers of adulthood started to hit him harder—friends marrying, having kids, and generally settling down. These are some of his same goofball friends who, as Ansari says at one point, still wear chain wallets. Ansari honed the material over the course of a 75-city tour and filmed the special in Philadelphia. It’s always a bold move to incorporate crowd work into a televised special, but Ansari’s questions for an engaged couple near the stage pay dividends that he clearly didn’t expect, to his delight. Buried Alive feels like Ansari’s first special as a grown-up, and it bodes well for what comes next.

4. Amy Schumer, Mostly Sex Stuff (13 points, three votes)
Amy Schumer’s second collection, Mostly Sex Stuff (recorded in 2012 but released as an album this year), has the most appropriate title for a comedy record this year, which is extra nice since it’s filled with fantastically inappropriate material: A funny story about spilling secrets ends with her admitting, “One time, I let a cab driver finger me.” Elsewhere, she examines her own relationship with porn, her fascination with the morning-after pill, and Teen Mom. (“Or, if you’re from the South, Mom.”) It’s all a little over-the-top, naturally, but in such a way that it’s charming when, in lesser hands, it might just be gross.

3. Maria Bamford, Ask Me About My New God! (13 points, four votes)
With track titles like “Suicide, Anyone?,” “Homeopathic Depression Remedy,” “Stay Alive Out Of Spite,” and “Joy Whack-A-Mole,” Ask Me About My New God! sounds like Maria Bamford’s darkest album—and it is. Bamford recorded it after a brief hospitalization following a breakdown, and many of the jokes reflect her well-publicized struggles with mental illness. But Ask Me About My New God! is, most importantly, very funny, as Bamford uses her elastic voice to imagine Paula Deen’s recipes as a suicide note, present herself as a mentally challenged café customer, voice the skeptical kids she’s trying to mentor, and others. Bamford’s comedy is unfailingly empathetic and self-effacing, but hardly toothless. In “Stigma,” she adopts her pitch-perfect bitch voice to portray people talking about diseases like cancer as dismissively as they do depression and mental illness. It’s painful and true—but also very funny.

2. Kumail Nanjiani, Beta Male (21 points, six votes)
Although he’s been a fixture in the alt-comedy world for years at this point, Kumail Nanjiani had yet to release an album prior to Beta Male, his first hour-long special for Comedy Central. The extra wait was worth it, as Beta Male is an assured, funny debut and the only album anyone will hear this year that goes from a horrifying and funny story about a birthday party in Karachi, Pakistan, to a track called “Meowminos.” Born in Pakistan and raised Muslim, Nanjiani has a well of material unshared by anyone else in the overwhelmingly white comedy scene, and he uses it without shtick. While not many people can relate to growing up in a Muslim country with overzealous strictures against pornography, plenty can empathize with his story about getting a pornographic tape stuck in a VCR and nearly getting caught by his parents. Beta Male delivers on the promise Nanjiani has been showing for years.

1. Louis C.K., Oh My God (28 points, eight votes)
Louis C.K.’s hot streak continues, to the point that it feels anticlimactic to have him in the No. 1 spot again. It’s expected that a new hour from C.K. would be excellent—it’d only be news if his latest album weren’t great. No news is good news for Oh My God, which debuted as an HBO special in April before he released it for $5 via louisck.net. C.K. is as sharp as ever as he returns to some of his favorite topics: divorce, his failing body, aging, and parenting. The track “Of Course, But Maybe” explores the dark corollaries lurking beneath our most accepted opinions—“Of course children who have nut allergies have to be protected… but maybe if touching a nut kills you, you’re supposed to die,” goes one—and finds C.K. in his element, making the squeamish hilarious.


David Brusie
1. Louis C.K., Oh My God
2. Kumail Nanjiani, Beta Male
3. Maria Bamford, Ask Me About My New God!
4. Pete Holmes, Nice Try, The Devil
5. Todd Glass, Todd Glass Talks About Stuff

Jimmy Pardo, Sprezzatura
It’s not entirely fair to compare Jimmy Pardo’s Sprezzatura with other comedy records, because its improvised effortlessness is like nothing else you’ve heard this year. “Sprezzatura” is an Italian term meaning “studied carelessness,” and the word perfectly fits Pardo’s affect, which combines Rat Pack chumminess with unexpected vulnerability. His asides, whether about the kindergarten teacher who created a cold remedy (“She invented Airborne one day, the next day she taught the kids how to make turkeys out of a handprint”) or his stage attire (“If push came to shove, I would probably describe this sweater as ‘too tight’”) are better than most comics’ polished bits. And did we mention that Sprezzatura’s tracks are all named after songs from Chicago 13? Studied carelessness indeed.

Dave Foley, Relatively Well
Not everything on Dave Foley’s first record lands; it’s clear that the kid in the hall is still working on transitioning from sketch to stand-up. But there’s enough pathos on Relatively Well to translate into amusement, especially a long story about how Foley turned down the opportunity to sleep with a 19-year-old Uma Thurman (“the most beautiful thing or event you’ve ever seen”), because he was trying to remain loyal in his troubled relationship. At times, Foley seems to be trying too hard to see what tone or wording works best, but there’s no sign of flop sweat—only the sweat that comes from remembering past, and hilarious, embarrassment.

Marah Eakin
1. John Hodgman, Ragnarok
2. Kurt Braunohler, How Do I Land?
3. Amy Schumer, Mostly Sex Stuff
4. Aziz Ansari, Buried Alive
5. Kumail Nanjiani, Beta Male

Will Harris
1. Kumail Nanjiani, Beta Male
2. Ron White, A Little Unprofessional
3. Louis C.K., Oh My God
4. Eugene Mirman, An Evening of Comedy In A Fake Underground Laboratory
5. Dana Gould, I Know It’s Wrong

Steve Heisler
1. Bill Cosby, Far From Finished
2. Maria Bamford, Ask Me About My New God!
3. Chris Hardwick, Mandroid
4. Anthony Jeselnik, Caligula
5. Louis C.K., Oh My God 

Kevin McFarland
1. Anthony Jeselnik, Caligula
2. Kumail Nanjiani, Beta Male
3. Louis C.K., Oh My God
4. Pete Holmes, Nice Try, The Devil
5. Eugene Mirman, An Evening Of Comedy In A Fake Underground Laboratory

Josh Modell
1. Aziz Ansari, Buried Alive
2. Kumail Nanjiani, Beta Male
3. Amy Schumer, Mostly Sex Stuff
4. Louis C.K., Oh My God
5. Kurt Braunohler, How Do I Land?

Steve Moore
1. Louis C.K., Oh My God
2. Eugene Mirman, An Evening Of Comedy In A Fake Underground Laboratory
3. Moshe Kasher, Live In Oakland
4. Kurt Braunohler, How Do I Land?
5. Jamie Kilstein, What Alive People Do

Kyle Ryan
1. Louis CK, Oh My God
2. Maria Bamford, Ask Me About My New God!
3. Kumail Nanjiani, Beta Male
4. Pete Holmes, Nice Try, The Devil
5. Aziz Ansari, Buried Alive

Others that I really liked that didn’t make my top five, in no particular order:
Marc Maron, Thinky Pain
Jimmy Pardo, Sprezzatura
Eugene Mirman, An Evening Of Comedy In A Fake Underground Laboratory
Dave Anthony, Shame Chamber—Dave Anthony should be much bigger than he is, and this album is hilarious.
Mike Schmidt, The Big Angry—Schmidt is more storyteller than traditional stand-up; his comedy hews into the Mike Birbiglia/Paul F. Tompkins vein. It’s definitely worth checking out.
Mike Birbiglia, My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend
Mike Lawrence, Sadamantium—Another up-and-comer who will likely be a big name soon.
Greg Fitzsimmons, Life On Stage
Todd Glass, Todd Glass Talks About Stuff
Brian Posehn, The Fartist
Anthony Jeselnik, Caligula

Didn’t get around to seeing/hearing these, but I’m sure they’re good:
John Hodgman, Ragnarok
Amy Schumer, Mostly Sex Stuff
Chris Hardwick, Mandroid 

Christian Williams
1. Louis C.K., Oh My God
2. Amy Schumer, Mostly Sex Stuff
3. Myq Kaplan, Meat Robot
4. Maria Bamford, Ask Me About My New God!
5. Pete Holmes, Nice Try, The Devil

Illustration by Dan Henrick