We here at Goliath have spent an awful lot of time talking about what films can keep you doubled over with laughter, but we’ve never committed an entire article to that other medium of comedy that’s guaranteed to have you in stitches: the stand-up comedy special. That’s why we’ve decided to hone in on 11 stand-up comedy specials we think are sure to make you howl with laughter, and with any luck we’ve managed to find something for everyone here. Some maintain that the true art of stand-up has been lost in recent years, but we’re not inclined to agree; there’s plenty of great comedians having a go of it out there, and some of them are even included on this very list. So take a look and be ready to laugh, because these classics are absolutely riotous.
11. Jammin’ in New York (George Carlin)
Recorded in 1992 at the historic Madison Square Gardens in New York City, George Carlin’s Jammin’ in New York sees the acerbic and legendary comedian take shots at everything from politics to American culture to war in the Persian Gulf. Featuring Carlin’s customary wit and vitriol, Jammin’ In New York was the late comedian’s favorite work of his own and the passion with which he attacks the subjects chosen is a testament to the energy and experience he brought to the stage each and every night. Carlin exemplified an old-school approach to comedy, one where making jokes wasn’t enough…the jokes had to draw attention to the inconsistencies present in contemporary life and offer a corrective solution for others to follow. Known for tackling the tough issues and telling it like it is, George Carlin is best represented in this comedy special which is sure to have you laughing and thinking critically in equal measure.
10. We Are Miracles (Sarah Silverman)
It can be tough to making a living as a female comedian; it’s an industry that’s still far from equal in its representation of and opportunities for the fairer sex. That said, there have been some female comedians (comediennes, if you like) who have been able to transcend these boundaries and break into the mainstream; Janine Garofelo paved the way, and more recently artists like Sarah Silverman and Amy Schumer have been able to achieve popular success. It’s Silverman we’re going to talk about here today, because after years of manning her own show on Comedy Central, she’s released a standup special called We Are Miracles that is astoundingly funny, a testament to what women can do with comedy (spoiler alert, it’s the same things a man can do) and a must-watch for any fans of the stand-up medium. Witty, intelligent and refusing to pull any punches, Silverman’s special is classic work that will be used as laugh track material for decades to come.
9. You People Are All the Same (Bill Burr)
A Netflix exclusive that portrays the foul-mouthed, politically incorrect Bostonian in all his glory, You People Are All the Same is a hilariously bad tempered peek at the twisted mind that is Bill Burr. Taking shots at everything from other people’s dogs to masculinity in the 21st century, Burr is the kind of comedian who revels in controversy and refuses to curb his act to suit any sort of vested interest in not offending folks. The result is something hilarious and strangely honest; in the age of digital technology where online backlash can be swift and fierce, it’s refreshing to see a comedian who refuses to acquiesce to the idea that people somewhere are judging him for his words. Burr, in his trademark Boston accent that’s so thick you could cut your coffee with it, has (like many puerile comedians before him) become an unconventional truth-sayer in an age that has very few of them.
8. For What It’s Worth (Dave Chappelle)
Prior to his departure from show business circa 2005 (he’s since returned to comedy specials and acting in a reduced capacity), Dave Chappelle was the reigning king of stand-up comedy in America. Labelled “the comic genius of America” by Esquire, Chappelle released two HBO stand up specials, Dave Chappelle: Killing ‘Em Softly and Dave Chappelle: For What It’s Worth. Both specials are absolutely stellar, and although we’ve chosen to draw attention to the latter special here (released in 2005), both merit a watch. For What It’s Worth centers around Chappelle’s experience growing up as an African American male, and while most of the jokes are lighthearted and take shots at the stereotypes that afflict most black Americans, he underscores the jokes with a sad sincerity that points to many of the harsh truths surrounding those stereotypes. Sure to keep you doubled over in laughter, Chappelle is classic in all his specials but most notably the one mentioned above.
7. Live at the Beacon Theater (Louis C.K.)
Similar to Chappelle, there isn’t really a bad Louis C.K. comedy special. In fact, they’re all pretty damn hilarious; we’ve just chosen to put Live at the Beacon Theater in the header because we can’t very well write “WATCH EVERYTHING HE’S DONE” and call it a day. Actually, that might work… Anyways, Live at the Beacon Theater is a side-splitting endeavor that sees Louis C.K. working his magic in Manhattan, New York, as he takes shots at everything from white history (“No man, like… you guys are Indians, right?”) to what to do when you see a soldier on an airplane. Distributed by Louis C.K. himself in a landmark of sorts (he made the special available on his website to all customers for exactly $5, eschewing traditional distribution practices), Live at the Beacon Theater sees the patron saint of middle aged white guys doing his thing in the best way possible.
6. Delirious (Eddie Murphy)
When attempting to choose between Eddie Murphy’s two classic stand-up specials, Eddie Murphy: Delirious (1983) and Eddie Murphy: Raw (1987), it’s important to remember which came first. Seriously, that’s the only way we were able to choose between these two incredibly influential comedy specials, both of which are still consistently cited as among the most hilarious and most important of all time. While Delirious does have sections that haven’t aged particularly well (there’s some incredibly derogatory stuff in there that simply wouldn’t fly on stage today, no matter who you were), overall it remains a wildly enjoyable romp that sees Murphy unleashing his trademark brand of comedy on America, complete with impersonations of Michael Jackson and Al Green.
5. Revelations (Bill Hicks)
Bill Hicks is one of the lesser known comedians on this list, but why he remains so underground years after his death is a mystery no one can rightly solve. A brilliant man who was as dedicated to enlightening the American public as he was to making them laugh, Hicks was a visionary who saw the true power of comedy as a medium for poking holes in the lies told to us each and every day. Concerned with the banal direction of American culture, Hicks used his comedy to critique consumerism, mediocrity and stupidity that he deemed consistent with American ideology; in many ways, Revelations can be seen as a testament to Hicks’ attempts to awaken the American public from the “tools of oppression” he saw working in everyday life. Deep, funny and incredibly poignant, it’s something that has to be watched for the experience alone.
4. Bring the Pain (Chris Rock)
Deemed one of the most important and groundbreaking comedy specials of all time, Chris Rock: Bring the Pain was released via HBO and was recorded at the Takoma Theater in Washington, D.C. Containing hilarious bits on everything from race relations to marriage to O.J. Simpson, Bring the Pain revitalized Rock’s career and brought stand-up comedy back to the forefront of popular culture after a lull in popularity in the early 1990s. Rock, who grew up idolizing comedians like Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor, was commended by all for the performance, with Variety calling it “one of the truly remarkable hours of comedy ever to air on television.” Critical acclaim aside, Bring the Pain is the kind of special that will have you doubled over from the first line to the last; it’s a perfect pick-me-up after a tough day or a long week.
3. Comedy Central Presents: Mitch Hedberg (Mitch Hedberg)
A cult classic whose following has exploded in the years since his extremely untimely death, Mitch Hedberg was an entity in and of himself. Characterized by a distinctive speech pattern, an off-kilter delivery and the employment of puns, wordplay and non sequiturs in his work, Hedberg’s comedic oeuvre is extremely brief but astoundingly unique and funny. His most iconic performance runs all of 37 minutes and was broadcast on Comedy Central, where Hedberg was a regular contributor until his death in 2005 at age 37. The king of one-liners (“I used to do drugs…. I still do, but I used to too”), Hedberg was extremely popular with a specific sect of comedy fans and his approach, while not universally accessible, is both poignant and hilarious to those to “get it.” A man whose career was never given its full due, Hedberg remains an influential comic despite this limited profile.
2. A Wild and Crazy Guy (Steve Martin)
One of the truly great comedy albums ever released, Steve Martin’s A Wild and Crazy Guy is available in its entirety on YouTube and is well worth the 40 minutes you’ll spend watching it. Recorded at the height of Martin’s stand-up career (he retired from the medium in 1981 and has never gone back, choosing to limit his comedic contributions to feature films and the occasional television guest spot), A Wild and Crazy Guy doesn’t traffic in the profanity of many contemporary comics, but rather relies on Martin’s cookyness and overall likeability to garner a laugh. And it works, oh does it work. Martin is one of the most accomplished entertainers on the planet and he combines his flair for the stage with his comedic timing to produce some of the most uproarious stand up comedy ever put to record.
1. An Evening With Robin Williams (Robin Williams)
It seems a shame that every time Robin Williams has been mentioned in the past year, it’s been with a sad aside reserved to speak about his untimely suicide. While we are Goliath are as sad as anyone about the passing of this comedic titan, we’re going to try and think positively by looking back at all the glorious hilarity Williams left us with, the least of which is not An Evening With Robin Williams. Recorded in 1982, it stands as one of the finest stand up comedy specials of all time (Although Williams himself has a few that rival it, including Robin Williams: Live at the Met and Live on Broadway) and highlights Williams’ signature brand of insanity, which includes impressions and musings on substance abuse, society and the shortcomings of political America (popular comedy fodder, but gold in Williams’ hands). Sheer hilarity, An Evening With Robin Williams should be enjoyed (and not lamented), and we’re hoping our readers focus on the funny when watching this iconic performance from one of comedy’s truly titanic individuals.