W. Kamau Bell; Ali Wong; Hannah Gadsby
Photo: K.C. Bailey; Ken Woroner; Ben King (Netflix)

Ah, summer—the hottest time of the year everywhere but in TV land. At least, it was until Netflix set a goal of 1,000 original releases by the end of 2018. But fear not: The A.V. Club is offering life preservers for those who are adrift in this sea of content, starting with the best of scripted and nonscripted series. Next up is a roundup of comedy specials that stand out in the deluge. This is by no means a comprehensive list—Netflix seems intent on making that nearly impossible—but every special, whether it’s 15 or 60 minutes long, is worth your increasingly precious viewing time.


Hannah Gadsby: Nanette (Netflix)

Hannah Gadsby’s new Netflix special, Nanette, begins as recognizably standard stand-up. So it seems like a bit when she says, about 15 minutes in, “I’ve decided to quit comedy.” But it’s not a bit at all, and the ride Gadsby takes the audience on moves through van Gogh’s sunflowers and Picasso’s many-perspectived faces and growing up gay in a city where homosexuality was a crime until 1997. Nanette evolves, in just over an hour, into an intimate, raw come-to-Jesus between Gadsby and her audience. Gadsby says she needs to tell her story, and from that point, Nanette boils with real anger as she re-tells jokes that have been frozen in time—but now, unburdened of the need to be funny, the jokes thaw into gut-wrenching stories. Nobody emerges unscathed, least of all the audience. Even watching it on Netflix from the comfort of your sofa doesn’t provide much distance from Gadsby’s fury—once she begins to unravel her story, she untethers herself from the comedic obligation to resolve the tension in the room, and the free fall that ensues will stick with viewers long after the credits. Gadsby is a brilliant writer and has a knack for revealing truths, but there’s one thing she’s wrong about: when she says you won’t come out of her show a better person. [Laura M. Browning]

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Jo Firestone, Comedy Central Stand-up Presents

Some comedians make you laugh because their material finds common ground with your own thoughts and experiences; some make you laugh because they’re articulating those shared thoughts and experiences in ways nobody else could or would. Jo Firestone’s work falls into the latter category, demonstrated in her installment of Comedy Central Stand-up Presents by her chosen pop culture touchstone for horniness (“I was really acting like the green M&M”) or an extended bit where she makes a valiant effort at connecting with audience members who feel as passionately about yogurt as she does. In this segment, or in the closing game of “I Have Been There”—a call-and-response in which she reads a list of increasingly ridiculous and/or desperate anecdotes, and anyone who’s gone through the same shouts back, “I have been there!”—Firestone feints toward the easy laughter of the relatable, then lands a harder laugh by doubling down on the peculiarity. [Erik Adams]

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W. Kamau Bell: Private School Negro (Netflix)

As a racial justice advocate and the host of The United Shades Of America, W. Kamau Bell can’t help but get political in his stand-up. Accordingly, Private School Negro has many solid knocks against the detainer in chief, whose incompetence is so indisputable that Bell’s preschool-age daughter questions how he could have the most important job in the country. But if you’re looking for a progressive echo chamber, you won’t find it in this thoughtful special. Private School Negro is full of rightful criticism, but it’s also compassionate. Thanks to the center placement of the stage, Bell literally stands in the midst of his audience as he describes performing in the Midwest and American South, where he listened and learned to “expand our ideas of what an American is so we don’t think of others as doing ‘American’ wrong.” The next time someone disingenuously scoffs about the disappearance of the “tolerant left,” direct them to this special. [Danette Chavez]

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Comedy Central Stand-up Presents: Julio Torres (Comedy Central)

Part of what makes Julio Torres such an exciting comedian to watch is that you never really know where his jokes will land. Yes, even though the Saturday Night Live writer and self-described “Space Prince” speaks dreamily and deliberately while on the mic, there’s a surprising amount of tension in his setups. Torres’ 20-minute set as part of Comedy Central Stand-up Presents is full of the most delightful free association, a bit about the loneliness of veganism shifting seamlessly into a little character work as a melancholy Melania Trump. In case his viral SNL sketches and stints on The Tonight Show aren’t big enough indicators, Torres proves he’s a jack-of-all-trades, combining observational humor, celebrity impressions, and a couple swipes at the establishment. But he puts his distinct, iridescent stamp on these comedy standbys. [Danette Chavez]

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The opening of Phil Wang’s episode of The Comedy Lineup and the closing of Ian Karmel’s episode of The Comedy Lineup (Netflix)

Wang (left) and Karmel in The Comedy Lineup
Photo: Jackson Davis (Netflix)

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Netflix’s quarter-hour stand-up series is a sampler platter, but taking in such a wide variety of comedy in such quick succession manages to get some of the medium’s finer points across. You get to see how different comedians are choosing to process the same subject matter—like the #MeToo material in Michelle Buteau’s and Jak Knight’s episodes—and how a crop of up-and-comers are rethinking the conventions of stand-up, figuratively and literally from top to bottom. I’ve probably watched the opening to the Phil Wang episode four of five times now, and each time I’m tickled by the way he attacks a major hurdle for a series like The Comedy Lineup—the audience not knowing who the fuck he is—with a bunch of corny fake nicknames and showbiz clichés that suggest the audience knows exactly who the fuck he is. (“Quit rubbin’ your eyes, buddy. Believe ’em, it’s me: Phil Wang!” has been playing on a loop in my head for a week.) Wang uses that as a segue to break down the basics of a stand-up opening, which is sort of what Ian Karmel does for endings five episodes later, before delivering a strange, abrupt killer coda that proves his point that “Weird can be more memorable than good.” To so openly discuss the ingredients and preparation of what goes into The Comedy Lineup could completely nullify the “comedy” part of that equation, but Wang and Karmel do it with such humor and precision that the main takeaway, after the laughter, is a better appreciation of the craft. [Erik Adams]


Michelle Buteau’s act of resistance while in stirrups, The Comedy Lineup (Netflix)

Photo: Jackson Davis (Netflix)

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Michelle Buteau radiates warmth and intelligence in any setting, whether it’s in studio for a taping of her Late Night Whenever podcast, or onstage with 2 Dope Queens Phoebe Robinson and Jessica Williams for their four-special run on HBO. She’s quick with a smile and a quip, and tells the story of her engagement with such passion and hilarious details that you’d think it had just happened yesterday. Turns out, she’s been married for seven years, but because she’s still paying off the wedding, it feels much more recent. Although she’s able to find plenty to laugh and smile about, even in this darkest of timelines, Buteau is also ready to engage in a few uncivil acts of protest. Farting on your Trump-voting gynecologist during a pap smear might not be taught in activist workshops, but it should. [Danette Chavez]


Ali Wong: Hard Knock Wife (Netflix)

Plenty of comedy sets have pulled back the curtain on married life and parenthood, but in Hard Knock Wife, Ali Wong burns the whole stage down. The actor-comedian is “little but fierce” in her second Netflix special, which also happened to take place during her second pregnancy. She quickly disabuses viewers of the notion that she might have mellowed out sometime between breastfeeding her first daughter and becoming so famous that she now has to worry about her penchant for haggling with Craigslist sellers. But Hard Knock Wife’s most inspired moments come from Wong’s ability to make the natural sound almost alien, and sometimes even downright terrifying. When she digs into the birthing process and recovery, you’ll either be in complete awe of the human body or in the fetal position. [Danette Chavez]

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Michelle Wolf: Nice Lady (HBO)

Reading over the White House Correspondents’ Association’s attempts to distance itself from this year’s WHC Dinner host, Michelle Wolf, we have to wonder if anyone in that organization even bothered to watch her searing 2017 special, or if they just took Nice Lady at its title. But Wolf makes it clear that she’s not trying to live up to that ideal by immediately embracing the “shrill” and “feminist” labels. She picks up and lets off steam in a riveting set that’s bracingly funny; political, but never didactic. A stand-up standby gets a refreshing and all-too-real twist when the comedian and Break host outlines the disparate stakes for men and women on first dates, but Wolf’s real objective is to see how she measures up to the personal beliefs she espouses. So, fuck “nice”—Wolf’s special is introspective, which is much more meaningful. [Danette Chavez]

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