Divine Comedy: 25 Best Stand-Up Specials and Movies - Rolling Stone
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Divine Comedy: 25 Best Stand-Up Specials and Movies

From classic HBO specials to arena-comic concert flicks, these bits continue to crack us up


For every person who's attended Kevin Hart's shows on any of his tours, there are dozens of fans who know his work and have cracked up at his 120 m.p.h. riffs simply by seeing his appearances on TV comedy specials and crazy-successful concert movies. Those who drove down to their local arena and saw the current contender for the world's most successful stand-up comic in person might check out 2011's Laugh at My Pain or 2013's Let Me Explain and think of them as souvenirs: "Hey, remember when he told that joke on stage?" But for the rest of us, this is the primary way we see Hart's act — a second-hand high that's often just as potent as sitting in the good seats.

Still, comedy specials and concert movies aren't just the next best thing to being there; nine times out of 10, they are the primary way we experience stand-up comedy overall. Those favorite bits of yours from George Carlin, Robin Williams, Louis C.K., Sarah Silverman, et al? You almost assuredly know them from seeing their HBO specials and Comedy Central half-hour showcases. There's an entire generation of comedians who weren't even born when Richard Pryor released Live in Concert who can recite his best lines and mimic every one of his gestures, just from watching that movie a gajillion times.

So we're counting down the 25 best stand-up comedy specials and concert films of all time, from the first HBO special (big up Robert Klein!) to the classic alt-comedy time capsules and today's live-from-Madison-Square-Garden multiplex hits. Get ready to laugh til it hurts.

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‘Mitch Hedberg: Comedy Central Presents’ (1998)

It can be hard to tell sometimes if you're watching a full Mitch Hedberg special or a YouTube best-of compilation — because his act was such a blissful cut-up of tangents and non-sequiturs that would spill out of his head and float playfully over the heads of the crowd. Example: "Whenever I hang out with a group of friends, I try to make sure we hang out clockwise. That way, if we're photographed, we are easy to identify." His stoner persona made it okay for him to laugh at his own jokes and laugh at the fact that the audience didn’t get the joke. "He wasn't going to go any other way," fellow comedian and fan Marc Maron told Vice. "If the audience didn't get on board, it would be a long half-hour to an hour for them. But if they did, if they got him — he would destroy." SC

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‘Denis Leary: No Cure for Cancer’ (1992)

Long before he was the resident middle-aged-crank everyman of the FX network, Denis Leary was working his aggressive, alpha-dude act on stages across the nation. Puff-puff-puffing away at cigarettes pinched between his thumb and forefinger, Leary embraces his self-proclaimed "asshole" mantle and attacks cultural sensitivities with the unapologetic, regular-guy belligerence of Morton Downey Jr. The Bostonian stand-up has no patience for the gripes of non-smokers and vegetarians ("eggplant tastes like eggplant, but meat tastes like murder and murder tastes pretty damn good"), and rails against the cosmic injustice of the good dying young and the bad living forever. "Stevie Ray Vaughn is dead," he laments, "but we can't get Jon Bon Jovi on a helicopter?" ST

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‘Dennis Miller: Black and White’ (1990)

After he made his name as the snarky, hair-flipping newscaster on SNL's "Weekend Update" — and before he became a polarizing post-9/11 pundit — Dennis Miller had one of the sharpest stand-up acts on the block. You can blame this iconic special, shot in black and white for extra pretense, for inspiring a generation of comics after him to tag their jokes with pointless literary or historical references (Miller namedrops Koyaanisqatsi, Boo Radley, and Queequeg with ease), but his act truly holds up thanks to a surgical syntactic precision to which current satirists like Bill Maher and John Oliver aspire. SC

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‘Patrice O’Neal: Elephant in the Room’ (2011)

While it's always tempting to venerate public personalities who die young, the underappreciated raconteur Patrice O'Neal could never be mistaken for a saint; the proof is in the comic's only special, recorded shortly before he died in 2011. "I'm here to tell you what we are, not who we are," O'Neal tells his crowd, and his unflinching, intuitive dissections of the ugly male psyche, libidos and relationships do that and then some. He tests his audience's limits, but his rhetorical skill and disarming shrug keep them under his spell whether he expounds on a holiday called Harrassment Day or daydreams about spousal murder. Friend and fellow comedian Keith Robinson summed up O'Neal's paradoxical appeal for New York Magazine in 2012: "When you question a lot, you are wrong a lot, but he'd present the case like a champion. I'm arguing, and at the same time thinking, How this dude is working this!" ML

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‘Janeane Garofalo: HBO Comedy Half-Hour’ (1995)

Despite the fact that most people knew her at the time as the hipster best friend from Reality Bites, Garofalo had made her bones doing skewed observational stand-up at L.A.'s Un-cabaret and New York's Luna Lounge. And her crowd-working chops are in full effect in this 1995 half-hour special, in which the comedienne waxes sarcastic on Mentos, sexism, and her own fear of intimacy. It's the perfect distillation of her confessional, caustic alt-comic sensibility, whether she's tearing into Hollywood vapidity or exorcising the demons of her tenure on SNL. "For someone who's so anti-the System, she's successful in spite of herself," Stiller has said of his friend, co-writer and sketch show co-star. "She is who she is…and it's intimidating [to some] that she's a smart, funny woman who's not a pinup girl." DF


‘Kevin Hart: Let Me Explain’ (2013)

It's tempting to write off the high-energy comedian as someone who'll outlast everyone simply by working harder than anyone else. But that's forgetting one crucial thing: When he's on, the man is genuinely fall-on-the-floor funny. If 2011's Laugh at My Pain proved Hart could go personal, this document of a two-night stand at Madison Square Garden finds him refining his manic, motormouthed therapy-session act down to a science. Yes, it could do without the tour-stop montage, but once he's on stage and digging into his family, his divorce and his pathological lying, he has the place in the palm of his hand. "He’s not afraid to be 'father knows less," Chris Rock said about him in Time. "That makes him a new kind of cool. Not a keep-a-distance-from-the-audience kind of cool, but a lovable, show-your-warts kind of cool." DF


‘David Cross: The Pride Is Back’ (1999)

A year after the sketch comedy Mr. Show ended its run on HBO, the network gave an hour to Dave Cross to carry its mix of absurdity and social commentary to the stage. Always the more misanthropic of the two, Cross hammers away at Bible-thumping fundamentalists, pot subculture, James Lipton, and conservatives inclined to blame mass shootings like Columbine on violent media. ("What are the video games that Hitler used to play?") His disrespect for religious institutions is a dominant theme throughout The Pride Is Back, with bits about getting raped by the Virgin Mary, about Jesus getting too much credit for the crucifixion, and about respecting his future wife's "superstitions." Even the conventions of stand-up itself get no respect from Cross, who mock-apologizes to the audience for not telling any jokes, then makes it up to them by doing “impressions” of a crack baby and Stephen Hawking with a prostitute. You could not ask for a better time capsule of late-Nineties alt-comedy. ST


‘Sam Kinison: Breaking All the Rules’ (1987)

Between 1985 and 1987, an angry ex-preacher in Houston was the hottest comic on television, screaming his way through memorably ferocious sets on Letterman, SNL, and Rodney Dangerfield's Ninth Annual Young Comedians Special. Kinison's first solo HBO showcase was his victory lap, collecting the best of his early routines, from rants about his troubles with women to some boldly blasphemous thoughts about the grossness of Christ's crucifixion. ("I like being the only savior who can use his hand as a fucking whistle!") It was wildly inappropriate, shockingly hilarious material from a comedian who turned a banshee scream — "Oh oh OHHHHHH!" — into both a post-punchline punctuation and a signature move. Even Robin Williams, no shrinking blossom, was awed by the man's fearless fire-and-brimstone approach, and dubbed Kinison "a comedy combination of Chuck Yeager and Evel Knievel." NM


‘A Steven Wright Special’ (1985)

A master of deadpan delivery and elliptical one-liners, Wright's minimalist-Henny-Youngman act made him a late-night TV favorite in the early Eighties. Then his 1985 album I Have a Pony and its companion cable special bumped him up from cult act to star, netting him a Grammy nomination and some of HBO's best-ever stand-up comedy ratings. A true original, the near-comatose Bostonian spends the 50 minutes of A Steven Wright Special mumbling jokes like, "It's a small world, but I wouldn't want to paint it" — always pausing long enough for the audience to catch up. But the set was almost too popular. When Wright realized he couldn’t do that material on-stage anymore, he waited over 20 years before he recorded again. Still he left us with this: a masterpiece of monotone, Mensa-level humor. NM


‘Sarah Silverman: Jesus Is Magic’ (2005)

Roger Ebert said of this concert film, which captures Silverman's breakthrough 2005 stand-up set: "I liked everything about it except…the lack of a parent or adult guardian." When you basically start your set with "I was raped by a doctor… which is bittersweet for a Jewish girl," you're bound to make an audience squirm; at that point, why not get into slavery, 9/11, the Holocaust, and every other dinner table taboo topic, right? Any hack can spew vulgarities for a gasp then smile, but Silverman's faux-clueless and inappropriateness is genuinely innovative, especially when she turns it on herself. You're witnessing the exact moment of a comedian finding their voice, and watching as they use it to shock and awe. SC


‘The Roseanne Barr Show’ (1987)

Just before Roseanne brought the lives of a rude blue-collar family into the affluent, freshly scrubbed world of Eighties sitcoms, Roseanne Barr offered a stand-up special that doubled as a test-run of the show. She holds court in her "domestic goddess" role, smacking her gum and telling dirty jokes with a matter-of-fact abrasiveness that deliberately flies in the face of "lady-like" behavior; when told she's not very feminine, her reply is, "Well, suck my dick." With this special, Barr not only set the table for her own show, but for future comedy with a working-class bent and for a younger generation of stand-ups like Sarah Silverman and Amy Schumer, whose material has a rude feminist kick. ("Rage is Roseanne's ozone," New Yorker critic John Lahr said. "She creates it, she exudes it.") Barr may be playing several parts at once here, , but they all coalesce into a defiant, come-as-you-are rebuke to the Reagan era. ST


‘Eddie Izzard: Dress to Kill’ (1999)

If History of the World: Part 1 wasn't already taken as a title for a comedy, British raconteur and "executive transvestite" Eddie Izzard could have easily used it for this polyglot parade through human civilization. "I grew up in Europe," he says "where the history comes from." His stream-of-conscious style is both literate and loose, and his astute retelling of cultural milestones — from the Druids to the Church of England to the Nazis — is as silly and as biting as a Monty Python sketch. (No less than John Cleese referred to Izzard as "a lost Python.") Oh, and he does it all in lipstick and heels — and then does the whole act in French on the DVD. Impressive. SC


‘Bill Hicks: Relentless’ (1992)

It's a special that's true to its name: The bespectacled, black-clad comic scrutinizes our hawkish government, right-wing religious institutions and prudish pop culture from a stage in Montreal — calm until something unbelievable prompts an outburst of righteous rage. His painfully clever excoriations of social shortsightedness and evaluations of missile-happy American soldiers in Gulf War I show off not only Hicks' skill and patience in executing jokes, but also his foresightedness: Swap in Dubya or Barack Obama's name for George H.W. Bush, and it would still stand. Another comic who died too young — at age 32, while fighting pancreatic cancer — Marc Maron remembered Hicks for Esquire when Relentless received a theatrical release earlier this year: "He was a misanthropic moralist, who did his best to get to the bottom of religious hypocrisy, moral hypocrisy, and societal hypocrisy. But he also made you laugh when he did it." ML


‘Whoopi Goldberg: Direct From Broadway’ (1985)

Long before she was hosting Oscar broadcasts or holding court on The View, Whoopi Goldberg was wowing audiences on the Great White Way with a one-woman show (directed by none other than Mike Nichols). Unlike her earlier theatrical tribute to Moms Mabley, she played a quintet of characters, from a Valley Girl-ish teen to a streetwise hustler and thief named Fontaine; each gets their share of pathos-driven plot turns, but they also get punch lines, which had crowd members cracking up when they weren't choking up. Shown on HBO six months before The Color Purple premiered, this special was her first major introduction to wider audience; seen now, it's a great reminder of what an energetic stage performer and comedienne she was before she started adding actress, awards-show emcee and talk-show dynamo to her resumé. DF


‘The Original Kings of Comedy’ (2000)

It's no wonder this Spike Lee-directed stand-up special launched relatively unknown comics' careers and spawned countless copycats: The film, which features Steve Harvey, Cedric the Entertainer, Bernie Mac and a fresh-faced D.L. Hughley, is nothing less than an party. Music, dancing, impeccable outfits, lighthearted audience interactions, and talking about the good old days all play a significant part of the evening; the rest is catchphrases about life, family etc. that are impossible not to repeat. (Just mentioning Mac’s "milk and cookies" or Cedric's "run coordinator" to a casual fan is likely to get a call-and-response in return.) As far as his part in the project, Spike Lee told the Guardian, "I wanted to see this [tour] on film because it had to be documented. This was a cultural event. It was the most successful comedy tour ever — and mainstream America didn't even really know about it." ML


‘An Evening With Robert Klein’ (1975)

In the Seventies, most Americans experienced stand up only on vinyl or in six-minute sprints on the Tonight Show. But in 1975, Robert Klein broke ground in this first ever hour-long HBO special where he could present an entire act and not have to be "funny in a hurry," as Klein called it. "They never asked me to change a word or remove something or looked over my shoulder," he told the Washington Post. It's easy to underestimate the skill and stature of this comic’s comic when compared to contemporaries like Carlin or Pryor, but this special still feels hip and funny. ("He was just hot," Steve Martin would later recount for author Richard Zoglin, after catching him at a club right after Evening was taped. "I was nowhere near that level of intelligence [or] tightness.") In fact, his observations on life in the Eisenhower era are still so universal and slyly hilarious that they would probably still kill if played for the current class at Haverford College, where the original special was filmed. SC


‘Wanda Sykes, I’ma Be Me’ (2009)

Best known as Larry David's foil on Curb Your Enthusiasm, Sykes is a take-no-prisoners satirist and a social-issues activist — both of which are on display in this blistering 2009 set in which she takes on prejudice ("Reverse racism — isn't that when a racist is nice to somebody else?"), her Washington Correspondents Dinner appearance and Michelle Obama putting floozy interns in a headlock. But Sykes hits her stride in a bit about coming out to her parents as a gay woman: "It's harder being gay than it is being black. I didn't have to come out to my parents as black." The two minutes that follow, in which she pretends to admit that she's African-American to her folks and her mom goes nuts ("I knew I shouldn't have let you watch Soul Train!"), is a career-defining mix of absurdism and sharp double-standards skewering. DF


‘Robin Williams: An Evening at the Met’ (1986)

It starts with a posh, night-at-the-opera crowd filing into Lincoln Center — then the curtains open and Robin Williams literally leaps out of the wings of the historical venue, bounding around the stage like a ballet dancer wired to a car battery. "I wonder if Pavarotti is at the Improv right now going, 'Two Jews walk into a bar…", he cracks, and we're off on a wild ride though the comedian's subconscious. "As an artist, Robin Williams represented the dizzy heights of brilliance we could aspire to," Margaret Cho once said about the late, great comic. "He was absolutely free and absolutely stunning – he could do anything and often did." In the case of this legendary gig, that meant riffing on everything from Jesus Christ returning as Charles Bronson to the South's sodomy laws at light speed. The room looked huge — and by the end, with dozens of voices and characters spilling out of him, he's effortlessly filled it. DF


‘Bill Cosby, Himself’ (1983)

Yes, it's damned near impossible to watch anything the tainted comedian has done and not think of the headlines, the heckling, the revelations and what is, by any definition, monstrous behavior. But for many years, Bill Cosby's attempt to one-up Richard Pryor in the stand-up concert movie arena was considered nearly as influential as the latter's filmed Sunset Strip gig. "It's stuff that hold up," Hannibal Buress (of all people) told GQ back in 2013. "All of it is evergreen." From brilliantly re-enacting a dentist's visit to a blow-by-blow account of getting his kids to bed, Cosby's casual charm, humor and peerless grasp of the universal condition feels so potent; he made stand-up comedy (actually, sit-down comedy) seem damned near effortless. "I've been doing stand-up for 25 years," comic Ray Romano said in reference to the film. "I know all the tricks. And yet [when I watch this] I swear I feel like Bill is just telling this story for the first time, like he’s just having a conversation with you." TG

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‘Dave Chappelle: Killin’ Them Softly’ (2000)

Chappelle's special, taped in the comic’s hometown of Washington, D.C. four years before Chappelle's Show broke big, delivers everything we know now as the comedian's trademarks: shaggy-dog tales with increasingly absurd details and quick reversals; loose-limbed and playful bits that even inspired the comedian to giggle fits; blistering commentary on race couched in seemingly offhanded storytelling. Weed-dealing three-year-olds and Sesame Street pimps aside, the comic's routines about police brutality are even more painfully prescient today than they were in 2000. Whatever the matter at hand, like the man who inspired the Roberta Flack tune, Chappelle forces nothing. "Me and Chris [Rock] were joking about how Dave was just so much better than us — the thought process behind his jokes," our cover star Kevin Hart told GQ. "How he makes it look effortless… He's in a different realm. He's out of this world, man. Ridiculous." ML


‘Eddie Murphy: Delirious’ (1983)

"Pryor's special is the best," says Chris Rock "but Eddie was the most entertaining comedian who ever lived." Released while Murphy was finishing out his run on SNL (and a year before Beverly Hills Cop made him an A-lister), this HBO special was hugely influential on a generation of stand-ups. Yes, the material occasionally devolves into crude provocation — Ed Norton fucking Ralph Cramden, for starters — and the Stone-Age homophobia is cringeworthy. But no human being has ever been as confident as the 22-year-old rising star, surely the only person who could look that comfortable prowling the stage in skintight red leather while impersonating a kid excited over an ice-cream truck or a shoe-throwing mother. Murphy settles into an act that has him singing, doing impressions (his James Brown is particularly devastating), and getting maximum value from every joke. It's all in the delivery. ST


‘George Carlin at USC’ (1978)

"Language is one of my loves," George Carlin once said, "and I love bothering people when I am able to." He provoked in two ways on his first HBO special, first by playfully bending our perception of nonsense phrases like "hot-water heater" and "feminine-hygiene spray" with such preciseness that aspiring observers of minutiae like Jerry Seinfeld took notice. But USC's legacy is its "seven dirty words" centerpiece, a finely sculpted dissection of corporate censorship that's far less about spewing obscenities than it is about examining the ways that we as a culture police our own thoughts. Carlin's tone was impish, but underneath he's mad as hell. "He was always a beacon to me," Louis C.K. said about the late comedian at a tribute in 2010. "Onstage, I feel the courage to say what I want to say because of him." TG


‘Louis CK: Shameless’ (2007)

During his 2007 special, Louis CK informs the crowd that married people would rather tell everyone else they're great rather than tell the truth: "My wife assassinated my sexual identity and my children are eating my dreams." It's precisely these bits of painful self-examination (and recrimination) at the heart of of CK's act that's helped turn this sad sack into an extraordinary — and extraordinarily prolific — from workaday stand-up into comedy's equivalent of a special-ops sniper. After surviving the death of the Eighties comedy boom, he found ways to connect his penchant for absurdity and a talent for poetic scatology to his life as a father and husband, and a legend was born. In confessing that his daughter is an "asshole," and his wife gives him a handjob that is "the saddest thing that’s ever happened in America," the man they call Louis let audiences see for the first time the messed up guy lurking just behind the jokes. ML


‘Chris Rock: Bring the Pain’ (1996)

Anyone who'd seen him his early stand-up or more memorable SNL sketches knew Rock had comic chops; what most folks didn't know was that greatest stand-up of our generation has been honing an act for two years that would turn out to be a genuine gamechanger. Cracking the mic cable like a whip, the comedian prowls the stage, repeating his premises and grinning like he can't wait to land his next punch. He takes on everything from why you don't cheat on your spouse to O.J. Simpson, though the most notorious, and most deservedly revered, bit is Rock's deliberation of what he calls a civil war going on in the African-American community — "n—-s vs. black people," a piece that's still debated today. "[Rock] makes us laugh not only because of perfect writing, skewed associations and rock-steady timing but also because of pain," playwright and performer Eric Bogosian wrote in the New York Times in 1997, the year after Bring the Pain first aired. "This is the flip side of the deep anger curdling the American dream; it is anger transformed into entertainment." ML


‘Richard Pryor: Live in Concert’ (1979)

"This is what every comic is striving for and we all fall very short," Chris Rock wrote on his website of this landmark movie. "It's the perfect concert." When comedian Patton Oswalt first saw it, he claimed it "woke up more shit in my head than most other movies I'd seen…the idea that you could see a [film]  that was just someone talking — that was new." Ecstatic, wild, profane and full of life, the hour and a half of Live in Concert is an eruption of astute observation, biting social critique, explosive physical bits and Pryor personifying everything from car tires to his heart attack. The comic dominates the stage and his audience throughout, whether confessing his drug habits and marital issues, drawing out long, gentle moments — like the one that showcases his impression of a suddenly frightened deer — or hammering home one-liners. (Such as the one regarding his dad, who died while having sex: "My father came and went at the same time.") As the first, full-length stand-up concert film, it's a milestone. As a document of Pryor firing on all pistons, it's both peerless and invaluable. ML

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