Stand up comedy specials have had a small revolution thanks to the era of streaming. No longer are they consigned to those monochrome DVDs with quirky covers at the edge of an HMV that you get for your uncle at Christmas: Netflix takes its stand up library seriously, coughing up huge budgets to get high production values and big names.
There’s a lot going on in the world at the moment, so sitting back for an hour or so with a great comedian to let you forget about the news is more appealing than ever. We’ve put together a list of the best comedy specials available on the streaming service to laugh along to. Most of them are available in 4K quality too, so you can see all the wrinkles on your favourite comic’s face.
One of the biggest names in the history of comedy, Chris Rock has had plenty of comedy shows in his career. His most recent special, Tambourine, was released on Netflix in 2018, his first in a decade, and sees him take on politics, race issues, infidelity and more, in a more introspective way than his older material. There’s plenty of laughs in the hour long show, but plenty of points that will get you thinking about the world and our own lives. Not many comedians can convey the grievances we all have with the world in as funny and illuminating a way as Rock, which is why his specials are always worth it. Tambourine is directed by fellow comedian Bo Burnham, and there’s also a re-edited extended version available, if you’re a Chris Rock superfan, or just want more.
American comedian Ali Wong has released three Netflix stand up specials so far, and Hard Knock Wife is her second. It was filmed while she was seven months pregnant with her second child, which is something that forms an important part of the show: the special mostly focusses on parenthood and its ups and downs, and Wong explores every topic that comes with it: maternity leave, balancing work and family, breastfeeding, and children themselves. It’s raunchy, energetic, in your face and doesn’t hold back, but it’s a lot of fun. You can also see her acclaimed romcom Always Be My Maybe on Netflix, which she stars in alongside Randall Park.
One of the most successful- and controversial- comedians in the world, Ricky Gervais is legendary for his work with Stephen Merchant on The Office and Extras, along with his penchant for mocking Hollywood at the Golden Globes. His first stand up special for Netflix, Humanity, has become one of the most viewed on the platform. In his trademark casual black shirt and jeans, Gervais covers topics like animal welfare, social media, not having kids, taking offence and comedy itself. No less controversial than in his other work, Gervais’ show might not be for everyone, but if you’re a fan of his other specials or just want to give it a whirl, Humanity is one of his best. His sitcom After Life, which recently released its final series, is also available on the platform.
Mo Gilligan is fast becoming one of Britain’s most popular comedians: from co-hosting The Big Narstie Show and setting up his own podcast, to being one of the judges on the UK edition of The Masked Singer, Gilligan’s career has been wide and varied. There’s Mo To Life is his second comedy special for Netflix, released earlier on this year, and is a testament to his rising fame: he keeps getting better and better. Hugely relatable, and a ton of fun, the show sees him recount stories of when he was younger and worked in retail, when he was broke, and discusses being in relationships, along with some tidbits of what life is like when you’re famous. Gilligan began to make a name for himself with his viral online skits, and that fast energy is present in his stand up shows, too.
Glitter Room is the second Netflix special from Katherine Ryan, the Canadian comic based in Britain. This show sees her tackle the issue of being a single mother, and society’s expectations of what that entails. If you’re a fan of Ryan’s other work, you won’t be surprised about what she thinks of those expectations: she doesn’t care. There’s plenty of observations about the differences between how society treats men and women when they’re single parents, as well as jokes about middle class mums and their marriages. She also dissects petty things like “revenge bodies” after break ups, and people asking her personal questions like “when she’ll settle down with a new man.” There’s a lot of quick fire comedy about hypocrisies and annoyances and the hour long show is still very funny.
It’s pretty rare that a comedy special comes along that is as critically lauded and talked about as Bo Burnham’s Inside. The show isn’t exactly your traditional stand up comedy performance: it’s filmed in Burnham’s house in Los Angeles, in the midst of the pandemic, and it’s pretty much all about the pandemic. Confined, claustrophobic and cathartic, the show is a sort of 90 minute long piece of theatre, with more traditional comedy bits weaved between songs and videos and meta bits and pieces. It jumps around in tone and format, and delves into Burnham’s mind and spiralling mental health, in a way that feels very relatable to how we all felt during the Covid-19 years. The world is opening up again, and the news is moving on to other things, but Inside is a way to revisit that very odd period in our lives.
One of the best names in the comedy business, Greg Davies is known for shows like The Inbetweeners, Man Down, Cuckoo, and being the titular Taskmaster in Taskmaster. His latest Netflix special You Magnificent Beast features him joking about traumatic dates, pranks by his Dad, inspirational quotes and manscaping disasters. The humour is often blue and sweary, but there’s also moments of self reflection and candour, which, combined with him laughing along with the audience at some of the absurd anecdotes and stories, makes the whole thing a lot of fun. If you only know Davies from his TV appearances, you’ll find a different side to him in his standup.
Wanda Sykes has had a long and prolific career, from her stand up specials, writing work with Chris Rock, appearances in acclaimed TV shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm and Black-ish, and voice-over roles. Her 2019 Netflix special Not Normal sees her on top form, diving headfirst into topics like race, reality TV and the state of world politics, including the effects and problems caused by then US President Donald Trump. As the title implies, she explores and questions why the world suddenly seems far from normal, and invites you to question the absurdity of modern life. There’s also observations about getting older as a woman, and Western culture’s norms and oddities. Sharp, funny, and unafraid of taboo, Not Normal is a riot from start to finish.