As we all know, comedy’s about one thing: getting that number one slot on Paste’s annual ranking of the best comedians of the year. Thanks for all the effort, everybody, but sadly only 15 lucky names can make the board, and this year’s list is officially full. If you don’t see your name below, we apologize, but hopefully you can learn from this experience and rededicate yourself to impressing us here at Paste over the next year.
Remember that we’re not just looking for quality but also quantity—if you’re really good in a lot of things, we’ll probably rank you higher than somebody who maybe was great in one thing. Also remember that, as insightful and influential as our opinions might be*, in the end they matter less than your own sense of self-worth. Don’t let our judgments ever take away from the love you feel for yourself.
*: Okay, they’re actually worth almost nothing. We’re sorry for getting a big head about it. In the current media landscape, with outlets shutting down left and right and writers constantly being laid off, it seems like it might help to inflate your own knowledge and expertise. We know we got a little carried away with it, though. Hopefully you’ll still read through our modest little list below, and if you see your name on it, or the name of somebody you know or like or are related to, hopefully it’ll bring you a small bit of joy during these unusually tough times.
Here are the good people who made the stuff that we liked this year. Go seek ‘em out, if you want.
15. Jo Firestone
Firestone’s a highlight whenever she appears on The Tonight Show, but that’s not why she’s on this list. She’s here for two reasons. First is Joe Pera Talks with You, where she played the most convincing middle school band teacher / Doomsday prepper ever seen on TV. By the end of the first season her character is much more than just a love interest, but a fully realized human being with her own interior life, deep inside a bunker. As a writer on the show, Firestone was responsible for one of its most memorable episodes, the school musical about Alberta, Canada’s Rat Wars. She also put out a great stand-up album called The Hits, which nicely captures her one-of-a-kind stand-up (and also features music from the Arcade Fire’s Will Butler). And if you’re lucky, you were able to catch her live comedy almost any night of the week in New York.
14. Maya Rudolph
There tends to be a common progression for SNL cast members. They don’t get to do much at all for their first season or two, which makes them feel wasted and underutilized. Then the show starts to feature them more, and they inject a spark of life into what is often a rigid and repetitive program. If they win the audience over enough to truly break out, the show will then quickly wear out their welcome, relying on them so much that their once-fresh quirks and sensibilities become annoyingly tired and overdone. That’s what happened with Maya Rudolph, at least for me—by the end of her eight seasons she had gone from an exciting new talent to somebody whose recurring sketches I would typically fast forward through. She’s been reliably great in the random roles she’s popped up in over the decade since, but hit a critical mass in 2018 with a variety of projects. She flashes her acting chops in the Hulu sitcom Forever, a downcast romcom version of The Good Place propelled by Rudolph’s poignant portrayal of a bored wife reconsidering her marriage. She’s a stand-out on The Good Place itself, too, as the immortal judge with a love for pop culture. And she pulls double-duty as part of the top-notch voice cast on Netflix’s Big Mouth, stealing scenes as both the mom of the Birch kids and as Connie the Hormone Monstress.
13. James Acaster
British comic Acaster started the year off by absurdly releasing four hour-long specials at once on Netflix. We’re not prioritizing quantity over quality, though: Acaster’s four specials are all hilarious, but also serve as a kind of time-lapse photograph of his development as a comedian. It was asking a lot of the audience, especially in countries where he was basically unknown, but it also immediately established Acaster as an unusually clever and charming comic.
12. Adam Cayton-Holland
Cayton-Holland’s sitcom, Those Who Can’t, skipped 2018. He kept busy, though, by releasing a fine new stand-up album on Comedy Central Records, Adam Cayton-Holland Performs His Signature Bits, and by publishing one of the best books written by a comedian in recent memory. Tragedy Plus Time is a brave, sad, and, yes, funny look at loss and mental illness, focused on Cayton-Holland’s younger sister and her suicide. He turns heartbreaking tragedy into a hopeful tribute to life.
11. Aparna Nancherla
Nancherla channeled her distinctive awkwardness as the beleaguered human resources rep in Comedy Central’s Corporate, establishing herself as the most reliable part of that hit-and-miss show. More significantly, she released another great half-hour of stand-up as part of The Standups anthology on Netflix. She continues to deepen and refine her voice as a comedian, and has about as bright of a future as anybody else right now.
Take a look at our interview with Nancherla, why don’t you?
10. Chris Rock
When he’s not directing movies or just hanging out on film sets with his old SNL buddies, Chris Rock’s also one of the best stand-up comedians of all time. It’s been a while since he’s really proven that to the world, though, so he went ahead and reminded all of us with Tamborine, his first hour of new material in a decade. Yes, Rock’s last special came out before Obama became president. Tamborine is a smart, powerful hour that’s risky in the right ways. As I wrote in our original review, “Rock hits on one hot button issue after another, regularly flirting with jokes that some might be offended by, but with a perspective that’s so thoughtful, original, and, in its own wicked way, respectful that it would be hard to argue that he ever crosses a line, even if you believe there are lines that shouldn’t be crossed.” And hey, it’s been 10 months, but that all still holds up.
9. Cameron Esposito
Esposito put out one of the best and most important hours of comedy this year with Rape Jokes, a darkly hilarious special about sexual harassment, abuse and rape that’s deeply personal but also universally relevant in these days of the #MeToo movement. Building up to a frank discussion of Esposito’s own history with abuse, Rape Jokes aims to both reclaim the conversation surrounding rape for the victims, while also pushing it beyond what she calls the media’s SVU-style depiction of rape as violence committed by strangers on darkened streets. Esposito remains masterfully confident throughout, broaching difficult subjects with a tone that veers from the performative to the conversational. It’s one of the most crucial hours of comedy you’ll see this year.
8./7. Sam Richardson and Tim Robinson
What kind of world would let a show like Detroiters die? Comedy Central’s cancellation of Richardson and Robinson’s sitcom shook a certain corner of the comedy world to its core last week—specifically the corner that likes things that are good and sweet and silly and funny. Detroiters was almost always focused on making us laugh above all else, but it still had time to develop one of the most charming and heartwarming friendships on TV between Richardson and Robinson. If this year’s second season is to be its last (hopefully somebody—anybody—will pick it up), it ended as strongly as it began, with its deep love for its characters, city and viewers shining through in every episode.
6. Tom Scharpling
After 18 years The Best Show still lives up to its name for three hours almost every single Tuesday night. I don’t even know what else needs to be said about the sprawling universe of The Best Show—go read our previous stories on it here and here and here. Scharpling and his partner Jon Wurster have created a one-of-a-kind radio variety show that’s constantly building and improving on what came before it. The reason Scharpling’s on this list again, though, is because he launched a second great show this year, Meet My Friends the Friends, which is both a brilliant parody of TV recap podcasts and another show built around Scharpling’s exaggerated contempt for (among other things) other people, the sitcom Friends, those annoying commercials hosts read on most podcasts, and, really, the concept of podcasts itself. Episodes are microscopically short compared to The Best Show—they’re usually done in under 15 minutes—and should be listened to in order for the full effect. Scharpling basically hosts the two funniest radio shows on the internet, and other than his signature grouchiness, they couldn’t be any more different.
5. Hasan Minhaj
From its very first episode Minhaj’s Netflix show, Patriot Act, staked out its own unique plot of land within the larger world of the post-Daily Show diaspora. So many shows over the last few years have focused on comedians talking about current events (with or without desks), but Patriot Act stands out due to the issues that Minhaj discusses at length and the unique perspective he brings to them as an American of South Asian descent. Patriot Act has only been on for two months, but its impact was so immediate that it feels like it’s been around much longer. Minhaj and his friends in the long-running sketch troupe Goatface also released a great special on Comedy Central in November.
4. John Mulaney
Between his excellent Netflix special, his set on Seth Rogen’s Hilarity for Charity special, hosting the best SNL of 2018, and his year-ending turn as Peter Porker, the Spectacular Spider-Ham, in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Mulaney was pretty much a constant presence in 2018. And a welcome one, too, as his very detailed and specific style of storytelling remains some of the most reliably hilarious stand-up around.
3. Michelle Wolf
Netflix cancelled Michelle Wolf’s show far too soon, before it even really had a chance to find its voice, but it was a creative success, no matter what its streaming numbers were. Her most notable work was at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, of course, where her blistering mockery of Trump and his administration was so savage that she single-handedly killed the tradition of comedians hosting the event. Hopefully that will lead to the inevitable death of that entire disgraceful sham, where journalists cozy up to the politicians they’re supposed to be covering and yuk it up over their crimes and scandals. Wolf would probably deserve the Medal of Honor if she wound up killing that farce completely.
2. Joe Pera
Joe Pera Talks with You was the funniest TV show of 2018. It was also just the best one, too. Pera’s work has the bittersweet feel of classic Peanuts, with Pera as a Charlie Brown who thinks he’s a Linus, muddling through life in a world that doesn’t know what to do with him, but with an optimism that almost never cracks. It’s comedy with gravitas, no matter how ridiculous it gets, that mines serious laughs from Pera’s naive character and the show’s small town setting without ever looking down at or belittling them. If the episode where Joe discovers the Who’s “Baba O’Riley” doesn’t win you over, we probably won’t agree on much.
1. Hannah Gadsby
When we put this list together we tend to reward people who’ve done various projects in a year. It’s rare for us to give the nod to somebody whose only major work was a single stand-up special, but then it’s rare for a single stand-up special to make the impact that Gadsby’s hour Nanette did. It’s hilarious in its own right, but also a starkly angry and passionate condemnation of how society has long treated women. For months the entire comedy conversation orbited around Nanette and whether it should even qualify as stand-up, and even though that question is absurd on the face of it (yes, this is definitely stand-up, and fantastic stand-up, at that), it’s still rippling out throughout the industry. Gadsby might have quit comedy, as she states at the start of Nanette, but comedy is still just starting to grapple with the questions and issues she brought to the forefront this year.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s comedy and games sections. He’s on Twitter at @grmartin.