From Richard Pryor and Robin Williams to Mitch Hedberg and Hannah Gadsby, we’re putting a spotlight on some of the best stand-ups ever
Stand-up comedy is so much more than telling jokes with a microphone in hand. For seasoned masters of the art, it’s an exploration of everything right and wrong with humanity, all at once, from the way we have sex to the way we buy groceries to the ways we hurt each other and even, for certain brilliant comic minds, the ways we die. A lot of people can do it well, but only a handful of stand-ups are able to trace the full range of human experience in their performances, and even fewer are able to do all of that in the course of a single night of performance. Those are the comedians we’re honoring right now. From foundational legends to modern masters, here are the 30 best stand-up comedy specials of all time, in chronological order.
Note: For the purposes of this list, a “special” is a filmed performance, so comedy albums that don’t feature visual components are out. We’re also excluding character comedians who spend their entire sets playing other people real or imagined, so greats like Gilda Radner didn’t quite make this specific list.
Before stand-up specials were the norm for marquee comedians, Robert Klein put in the work and got to film it, and the result is a comedy landmark. Klein is one of the quintessential stand-ups of all time, and while not every joke in An Evening With Robert Klein has aged perfectly, it’s still a hilarious time capsule of a comic at the top of his game. Whether he’s singing songs about Dear Abby or riffing on anthropomorphized animals, it’s not that the comedy is timeless, but that Klein himself is timeless, as polished and on-point now as he was decades ago.