13. “Gad Elmaleh: American Dream”
For his first special in English, it makes sense that Elmaleh would take on the curiosities of the language. Some of his observations may not exactly be groundbreaking, but viewed through the perspective of somebody still trying to suss out American culture as much as the language it’s built around, Elmaleh brings a breezy style without many of the frills that often come along with some of the whimsy underneath. He still has some tics — capping off the punchline with that goofy stare gets a little grating after the 10th or 11th time — but he’s wise to build his appeal around his charm. The balance between trying to tap into the universal problems of dating or being an outsider don’t quite land as well when he’s talking about flying first class, but when following that up with a spirited invocation of the words “Cheesecake Factory,” it has a certain way of smoothing things over.
One Joke Worth Watching For: His frustration with how “fish” is pluralized is English-specific, but Elmaleh’s impression of an Instagram Boomerang GIF translates into any language.
12. “Tom Segura: Disgraceful”
Troy Conrad / Netflix
Off-kilter at parts, confidently delivered, and with some tried and true subject matter (don’t want to shock you, but it appears that some comedians enjoy smoking pot), “Disgraceful” never strays too far from the standup comedy centerline. It makes sense that it was one of the first specials released at the beginning of January — it’s a competent baseline. Segura leans into schlubbiness, but his biggest asset is in telling stories, rather than veering into some reductive observational stuff. He’s just one of many comics on this list who tackle the question of who standups can and can’t make fun of, a subject that seems cheap and obligatory if the focus isn’t that it’s happening, but why. Still, emotional removal can be an effective comedic tool, one that Segura has well established that he knows how to work in his favor.
One Joke Worth Watching For: Segura has (correctly) pinpointed the height of sloth of gluttony that is going through the In-n-Out drive-thru line.
11. “Kavin Jay: Everybody Calm Down!”
Kavin Jay is a comedian who seems to fully knows his strengths. Whether it’s jokes about his appearance, the shirts he likes, food, or seats on an airline, this is an hour from somebody comfortable with who he is on stage and what he wants to say. Even if Jay never veers too far from that, there’s something comforting about watching “Everybody Calm Down” that goes beyond just recognizing somebody has confidence in front of an audience. The stuff about local cuisine or messing with people who confused him when they gave him the time feels big, but never in a forced way. It’s proof that broader standup doesn’t have to be boring.
Joke Worth Watching For: The closing story about having to watch an uncomfortable VHS tape is a nice bit of built-up misunderstandings, all leading to a natural finish.
10. “The Standups: Rachel Feinstein”
Well-intentioned parents who still manage to overdo it are a long-established treasure trove for comedy. But Feinstein puts her own spin on dealing with her mom and dad’s specific technological challenges. This “Standups” set finds its groove whenever she brings in “characters” from her own life to make some contrast with the rest of the everyday material. When it’s mostly grounded in experiences like mistakenly talking to someone who can’t actually hear you, it sometimes feels like it’s also doubling as a pilot script at the same time. Still, taking the super awkward and making it a new normal is an admirable goal, even if it’s not quite as memorable to latch onto.
One Joke Worth Watching For: Feinstein turns a couple of stories from a spin class into something universally relatable. How many times have we all taken one sentence out of context and tried to build a whole backstory behind it?
9. “The Standups: Brent Morin”
Even though the collection has had some established favorites, Morin’s set seems right in line with what “The Standups” can be: a place for comedians on the verge of something great, before they were famous. All of the pieces of something special are here. There’s a risky extended riff on people in the backseat of an Uber, a rapid-fire delivery of a hypothetical drug-fueled adventure, and some carefully placed callbacks. It’s a cohesive half hour, even if some elements overstay their welcome and are more about the journey than the final payoff. Morin does a better job of finding the crazy in a story than that final element to tie it all together, but this is a ride worth taking.
Joke Worth Watching For: It’s a gutsy move to turn a big chunk of his set over to a sketch-like premise of an Uber passenger as a southern belle, but Morin really sells it. The moment when he uses a glass of water as a prop is what puts this whole thing over the top.
8. “The Standups: Joe List”
Joe List gets far more mileage out of his material than someone who would only trade on not fitting into expectations. It takes a special kind of delivery to make the small insignificant things of life seem important and relevant while never losing sight that they’re still small and insignificant. Weightlifting, forehead size, and unexpected extra cookies from a coffee shop all work themselves into the tapestry of someone just trying his best to live simply in the face of absurdity. Sometimes life is just someone smearing lotion on your face and you deciding not to fight it. So List offers a nice half-hour dose for anybody who is perfectly fine with letting life happen to them, knowing just how they can work that into a strength at some point down the line.
Joke Worth Watching For: Aside from his reaction to that free Starbucks cookie, List’s closing story about self-diagnosing appendicitis and going in for surgery is a wonderful, slow build.