Stand-up albums should be a dead concept in 2013. With all the free comedy available via podcasts, the explosion of late night talk shows, and the ever-expanding embrace of singular voices on cable (most notably on Comedy Central and IFC), it seems like there would be way too much material out there for anybody to care about the execution of a well-made album.
Yet plenty of comedians put together records this year, and many of them were excellent. Louis C.K. has a lot to do with this—though he puts more emphasis on video than audio for his specials, he has made the idea of putting together a really killer hour cool again, and lots of comics followed suit.
The albums that make up the list below are all excellent, and they all deliver on presenting each comic’s worldview using wildly different approaches to the work. All but one have podcasts and all are TV regulars, but these albums represent their most surgically sharp work and honed jokes. They’re all worth checking out (as are albums by Moshe Kasher, Mike Lawrence, and Bill Cosby, all of whom just missed the cut), no matter what style of comedy you’re most into.
1. Kumail Nanjiani, Beta Male
Nanjiani is a fantastic regular on Portlandia and co-hosts a video game-based podcast called The Indoor Kids that kills. Both of those outlets have hinted at what Nanjiani was capable of, but Beta Male is his career peak so far. A transcendent raconteur, Nanjiani manages to spin strange, surreal tales from his childhood in Pakistan into charged blasts of whimsy (the long tale about a terrifying birthday party is excellent, and his deep dive into a harrowing experience with a VCR is even better). There’s also stuff that hits closer to home, like a segment centered around Call of Duty and a priceless bit about a cat who tries to deliver him pizza. Nanjiani signed a Comedy Central deal for a show that will debut next year, and if Beta Male is any indication, he’s the network’s next big thing.
2. Jimmy Pardo, Sprezzatura
Pardo is the uncrowned King of Podcasting. The former game show host’s Never Not Funny is currently in its 13th season, and Pardo is one of the few podcasters who charge a subscription fee for his stuff. It’s well worth it, as is the investment in his stand-up album Sprezzatura. That title is Italian for “a studied carelessness” according to the OED, and that tone permeates Pardo’s set, which seems ambling but is surgically precise. For example, Pardo (who is also the warm-up comic on Conan and appears regularly on their web stuff) spends roughly 17 minutes laying out a story that, at its core, is just about going to the movies with a friend. Within the zigs and zags in that tale, which includes knocks on Thai food and Pardo’s inability to sit anywhere with people on his left, lies Pardo’s genius: The end joke is almost beside the point (though funny), and the journey is deeply human and satisfying. His riff on taking his kid to see Brave, which he also did on Conan, has the same amount of heart.
3. Kurt Braunohler, How Do I Land?
Did you watch Bunk on IFC? It was a game show for comics that ran after Portlandia for a brief time. It didn’t quite work, but it was a tremendous outlet for host Kurt Braunohler. His post-irony positivity was contagious, and his perpetual shoelessness lent the whole thing a surreal air. That’s the combination that he delivers on How Do I Land?, a remarkably tight hour of comedy that manages to find joy even in the most profound idiocy. The title comes from a gag he thought up about skywriting, and both his takedown of the question game Chat Pack and his harrowing tale of doing improv with Sacha Baron Cohen find the sweet spot between squirmy and wonderful. His general life philosophy seems to be “push every button all the time,” and the result is an elevation of the mundane into the fantastically bizarre.
4. Pete Holmes, Nice Try, The Devil
As an agent of pure chaos, Pete Holmes isn’t the most likely guy to have his own talk show, which now airs after Conan on TBS. His style, which is somehow both loud and broad while remaining deeply interior and layered, hops all over the place, but like many of the stand-ups on this list, his storytelling acumen carries him through the twists and turns. The same charisma carries The Pete Holmes Show, but Nice Try, The Devil is a rapturous sprawl, and a deep exploration of neurosis and joy.
5. Maria Bamford, Ask Me About My New God!
The joke about stand-up comics is that they’re all mentally ill, though Bamford has taken it a step further by fully disclosing the various prescription drugs she has consumed in order to overcome various hang-ups right there in the liner notes for her most recent album. She addresses those Target commercials, her ever evolving relationship with members of her family, the horrors of dating over the age of 40, and of course Paula Deen. Bamford would have made it on this list just for the cavalcade of food-related psychosis that is the track “Paula Deen’s Suicide Note,” but the rest of Ask Me About My New God! is just as satisfying.
What was your favorite stand-up album of 2013? Let us know in the comments!