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The Best Comedy Specials of 2021

Client: Aida Rodriguez – Talent, Executive Producer

There have been some remarkably hilarious comedy specials in 2021, but there have not been many of them. There is no mystery about why that is, and there’s no reason to be worried about a long-term shift in great comedy specials of the future. Still, 2021 has proven to be a strange moment of inbetween, with much of comedy still oriented around or reflecting the enormous void of the last year and a half. In the past, this has been a list strictly of hour-long stand-up specials, and that limitation has been deliberate. It’s already hard to claim some kind of apples-to-apples comparison of work in such a malleable, often personal, always subjectively appealing form. Paring down the list, limiting it to one particular version of the art form, had the benefit of at least streamlining the process.

This year that would’ve been absurd. It still only considers what would be roughly an hour or more of material — I had to draw some arbitrary line! But a list that only considered traditional stand-up performed on a stage would’ve left out several of the best, funniest works of the year. More telling, perhaps, is that many of the specials that broke the mold are also those that felt most effective and striking, most able to comment on and joke about the world today. Will the list revert to the norm next year? Will this be an ongoing, permanent shift? Who knows! But even without the strange circumstances of this year, there’s something very exciting about this list’s formal experimentation and playfulness. It’s a pleasure to laugh at.

Fighting Words, Aida Rodriguez

Aida Rodriguez’s Fighting Words earns this spot for its first 45 minutes — a delightful, sometimes personal, always carefully constructed set of jokes about politics, culture, and, in particular, Rodriguez’s observations about colorism and Latinx communities. There’s a purposeful deliberateness to her material, which she often foregrounds in the joke itself: Here’s why I’m presenting this material this way; here’s why I need to make sure to put this idea in specific language. It would seem counter to some of the supposed rules of comedy (the “break shit and don’t apologize as long as it’s funny” school of thinking). But Fighting Words is a lovely demonstration of exactly how little those rules actually matter for a comedian like Rodriguez, who can tell her audience exactly what kind of joke she’s about to do and why she’s going to do it and still get a huge laugh. The unnecessary documentary at the end of the special is only a further demonstration of her skill; it makes you long to spend that time with her onstage again.

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