Over the years, comedy specials have become a much more established art form, with comedians continuously experimenting and pushing the limits of what a special can be. These days, the best comedians do more than solely tell a couple of silly jokes. From riveting debuts to returning performers, 2022 contained plenty of comedy releases to lighten the darkness, even if only momentarily. Whether you’re looking for generously shared personal struggles, silly observational bits, or lavishly performed musical numbers, this list contains twelve of the best specials from the year that prove how beautifully varied the genre is.
Cinnamon in the Wind, Kate Berlant (Hulu)
From co-starring in A League of Their Own and Don’t Worry Darling to co-creating and starring in sketch comedy special Would It Kill You To Laugh? and taking over New York City with her off-Broadway one woman show KATE, it has been a busy year for Berlant. Cinnamon in the Wind, Berlant’s largely improvised debut special, was shot in 2019 but unreleased until earlier this year. Intimately performed with mirrors forming the back of her stage, Berlant delivers her trademark absurd comedy with a metatextual element. With a constant reflection of herself following her, Berlant spends the special’s 44 minutes going against expectations. Just as one might feel sure about where something will end, she pivots to something else. A riveting performer, Berlant consistently uses her own performance as a masterclass to examine performativity and artificialness. Are the slip-ups accidental or intentional? Is the telephone call real? When does a performance start, and does it ever end? One can never tell, but that is part of the beauty. In a world where many rely on imitation, it is a privilege to be alive during the same time as Berlant, whose performances are always wholly unique and mesmerising.
Good Fortune, Fortune Feimster (Netflix)
Sometimes all one needs is some carefree fun, and it is impossible to not feel a little lighter after experiencing the sweetness that is Good Fortune. While Feimster’s previous Netflix special, Sweet & Salty, was spent reminiscing on her awkward childhood years, Good Fortune reflects on the good in life but also how everything good often carries some misfortune. When telling stories following that pattern, including drunken misadventures in Des Moines and a proposal that didn’t go as planned, she continuously intertwines a specific personal realisation throughout the set. A self-identified “dainty lady,” Feimster recently realised that she doesn’t fit neatly into stereotypes before following it up with the realisation that she isn’t “the protector” of her family. With contagious energy and positivity, one advantage Feimster has as a comedian is how she continuously makes her audience feel comfortable. Her stories have happy endings and positive outlooks, and sometimes that’s all one needs.
Look at You, Taylor Tomlinson (Netflix)
Talking about her fear of intimacy, therapy, emotional eating, and how her bipolar disorder affects her various relationships, Tomlinson organically weaves comedy into these topics despite their dark elements. One of the most poignant moments of the special is when Tomlinson presents an analogy about mental illness being akin to not knowing how to swim. Comedy carries the power to make viewers feel less alone — comforted even — especially when the performer dares to share so openly about their own battles. Look at You is a notable development from Tomlinson’s previous work, especially in its fearlessness. It’s brutally honest, but it’s also hilarious and thoughtful. She doesn’t try to hide elements of the darkness anymore; instead, she invites it in, and is better because of it. Comedians talking about mental health on stage is nothing new, yet few of them are as sincerely crafted as Tomlinson’s second Netflix special.
Presque/Almost, Panayotis Pascot (Netflix)
Whilst reminiscing on his upbringing and present love life, Pascot tenderly balances his first Netflix special between funny and heartfelt as he finds a connection between the two. Beginning the special with the reveal that he doesn’t know how to kiss girls, Pascot moves into an example of this specific struggle before likening kissing to parallel parking. Compared to the comedians that have made careers of relying on punching down, Pascot’s approach is vastly different. Offering a healthier type of masculinity, Pascot dares to be sensitive and showcase his vulnerabilities openly instead of dismissing them. An equally earnest and hilarious debut, Presque captures the big emotions and struggles within the smaller moments in life. Few write as beautifully yet subtly poetic about life as Pascot, and Presque is a delightfully composed and intimate special that concludes in a way that is so special it should be watched and not referred to in less worthy words.
Psychosexual, Joel Kim Booster (Netflix)
The summer of 2022 was undeniably the season of Joel Kim Booster, as everyone was talking about Fire Island, the romantic comedy film he co-produced, wrote, and starred in. During the same time, he also co-starred in the TV series Loot and released his first Netflix special, Psychosexual. Quickly taking command of the room, Booster covers an array of topics, including code-switching, drug use, and leaked nudes. Beyond the raunchier jokes, there is a generous openness about his being bipolar and his relationship with his adoptive parents. Riffing off stereotypes of identities (yet never in a way that feels repetitive), the charismatic Booster has composed an entertaining and unapologetically candid special that is a riot to watch. Additionally, with each audience interaction — including the frequent check-ins with audience member Ben, the representative of all straight, white men — Booster displays both great stage presence and quick wit. It doesn’t come naturally to all, but Booster makes everything in Psychosexual look effortless.
Rothaniel, Jerrod Carmichael (HBO Max)
Shot at the Blue Note Jazz Club in New York City, Rothaniel quickly establishes an intimate environment as Carmichael sits on a folding chair rather than standing, thus levelling out the space between performer and audience. Rothaniel is a performance of complete control, even when its performer momentarily appears to be searching for words to express himself. He allows himself to be in the moment and doesn’t rush to fill every silence with a joke or laughter when it isn’t authentic. The beautifully crafted special unravels organically, with Carmichael walking in from the snow outside and entering the warm, welcoming audience that allows him to open up during a heart-to-heart. Rothaniel is essentially a beautifully staged therapy appointment. Born into a family prone to keeping secrets, Carmichael intertwines his family’s hidden truths with his own process of coming out and trying to come to terms with his sexuality. Highly contemplative, Carmichael also opens up about the difficulties of growing up in a highly masculine environment. Even though it’s far from what one might imagine when thinking of comedy specials, Rothaniel might be one of the most impactful performances of the year.
Rothaniel is undeniably great, but it is worth mentioning that Carmichael uses an ableist slur once whilst attempting to convey one of his inner conflicts after coming out. For a special that is groundbreaking on many levels, it feels notably outdated to punch down on a group in society that already has been a part of the punchline for way too long.
Speakeasy, Ronny Chieng (Netflix)
Between educating the audience about the complexities of birth control pills and trying to trick them into shouting out which race they think is the worst, Chieng spends his special connecting and toying with his audience all at once. Continuously subverting expectations, Chieng creates setups that generate much tension before releasing the pressure in the most ridiculous of ways. Even though Speakeasy ventures into both differences in cultures and politics, Chieng’s vendetta against the UK leaves the deepest mark. The extended story, which tackles his experiences as a working comedian in the country, also underlines a contempt for Mr. Bean, with Chieng going as far as plugging Cold Lasagne Hate Myself 1999 — a brilliant special by his friend James Acaster — to underline his point. Standing on top of a small stage surrounded by a late night crowd whilst wearing a white tux, the classy setting works well in contrast with Chieng’s slightly angrier “I don’t care” approach in his delivery. He happily shrugs off the potential threat of cancellation from society and instead encourages anyone to come after him. Speakeasy is a balancing act between controversial and fun, but Chieng successfully manages to find steady footing.
Sweet and Juicy, Sheng Wang (Netflix)
Has the thought of throwing away warm, newly printed paper ever crossed your mind as feeling borderline criminal? It sure has for Wang. Less idiosyncratic than the late comedian Mitch Hedberg — someone Wang is often compared to due to a shared love for deadpan deliveries — Wang has evidently cemented his own style that’s both laidback and enthusiastic. Whether talking about expensive eye creams, his potential heist crew, or the harsh reality of entering a bookstore as an adult compared to when one was a child, Wang is effortlessly humorous. Sweet and Juicy — one of the more classic examples of stand-up from this list — is brilliant in its simplicity because of Wang’s smooth delivery, nuanced stage presence, and excellent timing. The result of all these elements merged is a special that feels like a breath of fresh air. Standing alone on stage without any kind of gimmicks to hide behind, Wang delivers some of the most fun observational jokes of 2022.
The Domino Effect, Ali Siddiq (YouTube)
There’s storytelling, and then there’s storytelling. Self-released on YouTube, Ali Siddiq’s The Domino Effect is undoubtedly the latter. Aptly titled, Siddiq’s special tackles how lives can turn out very differently based on one single decision made years ago. Vividly retelling stories from his life — from being handed a gun at ten years old and left home alone to sell drugs to navigating a myriad of encounters during his time as a “street pharmaceutical salesman” — each story is as spellbinding as the next. It is a pleasure watching the unflinchingly honest Siddiq confidently move across the stage whilst keeping the audience listening eagerly to each word. In control of each moment, he manages to merge equally complex, heartfelt, and humorous stories into a coherent whole. With a terrific callback ending, The Domino Effect is a masterclass in self-reflective storytelling.
The Intruder, Atsuko Okatsuka (HBO)
Even though the title mirrors the intrigue of a thriller film, Okatsuka’s The Intruder is one of the most charming specials of the year. With material built around something so deeply human — namely, variations of fear — Okatsuka moves swiftly from scary teenagers to burglars. Focusing on sources of anxiety that anyone can relate to, The Intruder is an alluring special that invites conversation. As a performer, the charismatic Okatsuka is very generous. Conveying so much in her delivery through body language and vocal changes, Okatsuka is both funny and vulnerable as she shares her own stories and engages with the crowd. The Intruder is colourful and playful due to not just its stunning neon backdrop but also Okatsuka’s persona and delivery. There is so much heart and love behind everything, especially when she talks about her grandmother. Some people make being hilarious look effortless, and The Intruder is a stunning debut that cements a bright future for Okatsuka.
The Twist…? She’s Gorgeous, Catherine Cohen (Netflix)
Ever tried to steal someone’s hat in a flirty way, only to have it fail miserably? Cohen personally knows the struggle. Combining stand-up comedy with cabaret-style songs in her debut special, Cohen exudes a natural stage presence. A complete performer born to entertain, she oozes confidence throughout the set. Whether reading poems or discussing internalised fatphobia, polycystic ovarian syndrome, and sex, Cohen’s theatrical approach to the material is an added layer to the performance in itself. In perfect harmony with her piano accompanist Henry Koperski, the melodies move from catchy to painstakingly beautiful with lyrics that mirror the vast spectrum of emotions. Whether singing about marathon runners or women’s clothing sizes, Cohen’s lyrics move from confessional and intimate to relatable and very funny. The Twist…? She’s Gorgeous is a generous special meticulously planned in detail — pink rhinestone romper and white boots included. An equally self-assured and self-deprecating performance, Cohen touches upon the most human of emotions and struggles, one of them the search for validation in life. Come for the delightfully playful songs, stay for the depth underneath them. J’adore!
Trash White, Moses Storm (HBO Max)
In his debut special, Storm promptly underlines that his set will not resemble any of the “TED Talk comedy specials” that have risen in popularity these past years. However, throughout it, he shamelessly flirts with the idea of entering that very territory. Moses has developed an irresistibly charming debut that feels remarkably seasoned. Standing on a stage surrounded by various objects and junk painted white, the comedian generously shares heartfelt and hilarious stories from his life whilst shedding light on class and the systemic issue of poverty. During the autobiographical hour, Storm is unflinchingly open about his experience with poverty, something he underlines is a stark contrast to his exterior, which he describes as looking like someone who was conceived at an Ivy League a cappella concert. Whether he talks about participating in America’s Funniest Home Videos, the time spent at cheerleading camp, or using his junk blanket, Storm has found a sweet spot in the intersection of humour and pain. Few specials end on cliffhangers, but Trash White is an exceptionally ambitious debut that reveals unmistakable potential for the future.
Don Wong, Ali Wong (Netflix)
It Ain’t for the Weak, David A. Arnold (Netflix)
Socio, Daniel Sloss (https://danielsloss.com)
Y’all Wanna Hear Something Crazy?, Ms. Pat (Netflix)