For decades, the comedy special proved strangely impervious to change. The formula was simple because, for the most part, it worked: Take a beloved comedian (e.g., Richard Pryor, Bill Cosby or George Carlin), give him three bare necessities (an empty stage, microphone and spotlight) and let him do his thing (i.e., make everyone in the audience laugh). To Randy Sklar, whose first hour-long comedy special with identical twin brother Jason, What Are We Talking About, premieres on Netflix today and will be available on iTunes on Tuesday, the ideal of the form is Bill Cosby: Himself. "It's perfect in every way," Sklar enthuses. "One chair, a simple brown suit and fantastic, richly layered stories with great jokes. Cosby took his time and ran that special with a confidence that was—and still is—impressive to watch."
But in recent years, the comedy special has dramatically evolved—both in the way it's made and in how it's distributed. These changes reflect the increasing democratization of pop culture as well as the decreasing power of executives who have historically acted as intermediaries between fans and comedians.
For instance, in December 2011, Louis C.K. released his latest special, Live At the Beacon Theater directly to his fans via his website. Within two weeks, it had made C.K. more than a million dollars. Live At the Beacon Theater was a landmark moment in the evolution of stand-up comedy attributable partially to the trust and respect C.K. had earned from his fans, who have elevated him into something approaching a folk hero because of his eagerness to deviate from the conventional way of doing things.
A slew of comedians have followed in C.K.'s footsteps, including Aziz Ansari and Jim Gaffigan, both of who released specials on their own websites. C.K. also found himself in the curious but blessed position of releasing other comedians' specials via his site—such as Todd Barry's recent special Crowd Work—along with four of his own specials and his directorial debut Tomorrow Night.
With these new avenues comes a greater freedom to experiment. In 2012 critic's darling and comic genius Maria Bamford released The Special Special Special!, which she filmed with only her parents as the audience. It wasn't just an unusually bold and intimate exploration of Bamford's psyche and her harrowing stint in a psychiatric institution: It was exhilarating, live-wire family psychodrama that was so brutally intense that it became hard to watch at times. Bamford wasn't just doing something different; she was trying to remove the artifice and make-pretend of stand-up to reveal something painfully real about herself and how she sees the world. Remarkably, The Special Special Special! follows a lesser-known but equally experimental special Bamford created in 2009. Maria Bamford's One-Hour Homemade Christmas Stand-Up Special! finds the comedienne performing 52 minutes of comedy while seated on her couch next to her two pugs. In a flagrant violation of capitalist ethics, Bamford released the special for free on Vimeo (you can also find it on YouTube).
It's hard to imagine anyone other than Bamford, a fearless tight-rope-walker of a comic, pulling off something as daring as One-Hour Homemade Christmas Special! or The Special Special Special!, but they perfectly fit her sensibility. She has never done anything the easy or conventional way. Why should something as important as a comedy special be any different?
The same goes for Kristen Schaal. Her special, Live At the Fillmore, premiered on Comedy Central on April Fool's Day 2013—a release date that betrays the Andy Kaufman-esque "Is-it-real-or-is-it-an-act?" nature of its content. Less a conventional stand-up comedian than a multi-faceted comic performer, Schaal appears (and the key word is "appears," as her screw-ups are deliberate and intentional) to lose (and never regain) her composure.
The result is a tour de force in the comedy of discomfort that delights and luxuriates in the kind of awkwardness and bombing that most comedians spend their careers trying to avoid. Then again, Schaal is primarily an actress so she doesn't have to worry about losing dates in Middle America because some irony-impaired booker thought she screwed up on national television and is consequently not qualified to entertain drunks at his fine establishment.
Clearly, the one-size-fits-all model of comedy specials a la Bill Cosby: Himself is, if not broken, then flawed. As such, comedians are increasingly free to create specials that reflect their sensibilities. For pop-culture obsessed comedian Brock Wilbur that meant taping the visuals for his special Crime Travel on video inside a video store, an effect that makes it look as if the special was filmed deep inside the dystopian universe of Videodrome. For Todd Barry that meant making a special with no fixed or written material, only the unpredictable electricity of a comedian fucking with his audience for his own delight as much as theirs. (Watching Barry work, it's easy to get the impression that he's primarily interested in amusing himself and is indifferent about his audience.)
For the Sklars, whose podcast Sklarbro Country explores the intersection of sports, comedy and indie rock, that meant framing their first special as if it were an NFL playoff game, complete with appearances from the NFL Network's Rich Eisen and ex-Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney.
An intense personal connection is a big part of this new paradigm of comedy specials. Podcasts like Sklarbro Country provide comedians with a forum to regularly talk to their fans in an intimate, confessional voice, like a one-sided but rewarding friendship. So while Pryor fans could only guess what was going on inside the man's brilliant, mercurial mind between specials, fans of the Sklars have heard them talking about their special for months—where it would be taped, where they'd be refining material for it and where it would be released. In doing so, they got their loyal fan base emotionally invested in the special well before it was even taped, let alone aired.
When thinking about how to release the special, the brothers contemplated everything from the usual route—airing it on Showtime or Comedy Central—to streaming it themselves via their website to their ultimate choice—handing it over to Netflix, which is quickly emerging as a key player in the comedy specials game.
Like a lot of people, Randy Sklar and his wife binge-watched all of Breaking Bad in a month, a process he credits with permanently altering the way he consumed entertainment. "In that moment, TV watching changed for us," he explains. "I know that's the way it is for a lot of people."
"At this point," he continues, "a place like Netflix has such an incredible library of stand-up specials on demand that a comedy junkie can watch several in a sitting, which is ideal for us. When we were kids, we taped specials off of HBO so we could re-watch them whenever we wanted. We must have watched Seinfeld's set on Rodney Dangerfield's Young Comedian's Special 300 times. But recently, it's been harder to know when specials from friends are going to be on TV, and once they are on, if you miss them, that's basically it."
It's worth noting that while specials like Bamford's radically reinvent the form in brilliant and innovative ways, the traditional comedy special hasn't disappeared completely. C.K. might have revolutionized the way they are distributed and sold. He might also have the most daring, adventurous comedy on television (a comedy so daring and adventurous it frequently deviates entirely from comedy). But the comedy specials he puts out every year are generally conventional in form; they're more about capturing a brilliant hour for posterity than experimenting with a tradition a lot of comedians have a ton of respect for—and for good reason.
After all, in the right hands, the old set-up can still work. Veterans like C.K. and Patton Oswalt are masters of the form, while relative newcomer John Mulaney needed only the three essentials, a quietly masterful delivery and a batch of genius jokes to make his debut special, New in Town, an instant classic about which Randy Sklar raves, "John Mulaney's one-hour special is so polished and funny. The dude is amazingly wise beyond his years, just a phenomenal joke writer and story teller."
In the end, the long tradition of stand-up specials gives innovators and traditionalists alike a lot to work with. Just as jazz musicians benefit from having strong melodies to play off of, the deeply ingrained conventions of the stand-up special give rebels and iconoclasts (e.g., Bamford and Schaal) something rich and compelling to subvert while also giving the more traditionally minded (e.g., the Sklars) something to honor.
Photo by The Everett Collection