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Top 10 Stand-Up Comedy Specials of All Time

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Written by George Pacheco These were the gigs that have been making audiences laugh for generations. Welcome to WatchMojo.com, and today we’re counting down our picks for the Top 10 Stand Up Comedy Specials of All Time! For this list, we’re ranking the most popular, influential, and, of course, funniest specials from the world of stand-up comedy. Comedians from all decades will be considered, as long as they filmed a comedy special in front of a live audience. We’re excluding comedy specials and audio-only specials at this time. Have an idea you want to see made into a WatchMojo video? Check out our suggest page at http://WatchMojo.comsuggest and submit your idea.
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These were the gigs that have been making audiences laugh for generations. Welcome to WatchMojo.com, and today we’re counting down our picks for the Top 10 Stand Up Comedy Specials of All Time!

For this list, we’re ranking the most popular, influential, and, of course, funniest specials from the world of stand-up comedy. Comedians from all decades will be considered, as long as they filmed a comedy special in front of a live audience. We’re excluding comedy specials and audio-only specials at this time.

#10: “Bill Hicks: Relentless” (1992)

Bill Hicks’ abrasive, no filter style has been often imitated, but never duplicated. The Georgia native was a comedian’s comedian, one whose satirical and transgressive approach served as a huge influence for future stars like Denis Leary. While a CD with the same name captured his last show before his 1994 death, the “Relentless” show released for home video was filmed at a different time, during Montreal’s Just for Laughs festival. And it showcased the comic at the peak of his powers: smart, sharp and confident. Hicks never shied away from being brash and satirical with his work, caring less about laughs and more about challenging audiences every step of the way, and “Relentless” perfectly documents that.

#9: “Comedy Central Presents: Mitch Hedberg” (1999)

Mitch Hedberg had a unique perspective on comedy, and a delivery that had fans dying of laughter in the aisles...or scratching their heads in confusion. “Comedy Central Presents: Mitch Hedberg” may have started out as simply another half hour of comedy from the channel’s long running series, but it ended up as an early showcase for one of stand up’s most promising stars. The special was simple and to the point: broadcasting Hedberg’s shy, stoner stage presence with a barrage of word play one liners that were instantly quote-able. Hedberg’s 2005 death may have robbed the comedy world of his great potential, but at least we have these laughs to remember him by.

#8: “Sam Kinison: Breaking the Rules” (1987)

“Breaking the Rules” was released right at the cusp of Sam Kinison’s major mainstream success as the louder-than-hell voice of heavy metal comedy. The 1987 HBO special brought together all of the comedian’s fantastic early material with a delivery which, by this point, was honed to perfection. “Breaking the Rules” touched upon such taboo subjects as religion and necrophilia, while at the same time making the most of Kinison’s early life as a Pentecostal preacher. Sam was all fire, brimstone and hilarious anger, possessing an almost effortless connection with his audience that, even today, is absolutely remarkable.

#7: “Robin Williams: Live on Broadway” (2002)

Robin Williams had nothing to prove when he released his fourth HBO special. The actor and comedian was already a certified star at this point, and long removed from his “Mork and Mindy” days. As such, “Live on Broadway” showcases a supremely confident Williams on stage in front of a ready and willing New York crowd. Robin touches upon then-topical subjects like Michael Jackson and Anne Heche, but it’s Williams’ observational humor and natural delivery that are the real gold. “Live on Broadway” is all manic and relentless energy; a portrait of a comedic artist that makes his absence all the more poignant today.

#6: “Louis C.K.: Shameless” (2007)

Okay, we’ll address the elephant in the room: in 2017, Louis CK confirmed multiple reports of sexual misconduct, tarnishing his reputation as one of the great comedians of his generation. However, taken on its own merits, his 2007 stand-up special “Shameless” still resonates as a prime example of C.K.’s power as a comedic auteur. Many comics have reflected upon the minutiae of everyday life, but none has done so with quite the same skill. Louis is a master of redirection, starting down such normal paths as marriage and parenthood, but ending up with punchlines that are revealing and dark, yet simultaneously side-splitting. It’s a wonder to behold, and essential viewing for anyone interested in the art and pathos of comedy – who can get past the general ickiness, that is.

#5: “Richard Pryor: Live in Concert” (1979)

Choosing the best of Richard Pryor’s work is a difficult task, but “Live in Concert” ranks up there not only in Pryor’s enviable career, but also among the finest stand-up performances of all time by anyone. Pryor’s influence as a comedian cannot be understated, and “Live in Concert” showcases Richard at the height of his prowess as a cultural commentator and storyteller. Sure, it’s profane as hell and not the least bit politically correct, but it’s also a hilarious and vital moment of the man’s career, and is an essential part of any proper comedy education.

#4: “Chris Rock: Bring the Pain” (1996)

He may be a household name in comedy today, but it was a slightly different story when Rock shot his second HBO special, “Bring the Pain.” The performance solidified the inimitable Rock delivery we know and love, and also shot the comedian into the public eye, completely rebounding his career. Chris didn’t shy away from anything in “Bring the Pain,” commenting on touchy subjects like race with a voice that was both humorous and furious. Rock would double down only two years later with “Bigger and Blacker,” a performance that only echoed the comic’s status as one of the premier stand-up voices of his generation.

#3: “On Location: George Carlin at USC” (1977)

George Carlin was a true wordsmith; a man whose usage of the English language was honed to a razor’s edge and a hunter’s accuracy. “Live at USC” was Carlin’s first HBO special, and as such, he was basically exploring what could be considered new territory in 1977. In fact, network execs were so worried about Carlin’s famous “Seven Dirty Words” bit, that they actually froze the feed and included a message informing audiences about the language used before continuing with the special. It may seem quaint today, but this is just a small example of how much impact Carlin had as one of comedy’s finest voices.

#2: “Dave Chappelle: Killin’ Them Softly” (2000)

Before “Chappelle’s Show” turned him into a household name, Dave Chappelle was slaying audiences with this inaugural HBO special, “Killin’ Them Softly.” Comedy ages and some specials don’t hold up, but “Killin’ Them Softly” is just as funny today as it was back in 2000; a real and honest collection of material from one of modern comedy’s defining voices. The voices of Richard Pryor and Redd Foxx echo loudly in Chappelle’s work, while his delivery is smooth and conversational, like a close friend. “Killin’ Them Softly” is low key and unassuming, but, like all great comedy, it’s also personal, real and honest.

Before we name our number one pick, here are a few honorable mentions!

- “Joan Rivers: Don’t Start with Me” (2012)
- “Steve Martin: A Wild and Crazy Guy” (1978)
- “Zach Galifianakis: Live at the Purple Onion” (2006)

#1: “Eddie Murphy: Delirious” (1983)

Is there any stand-up special as popular or influential as Eddie Murphy’s “Delirious?” This 1983 performance turned Murphy into a legitimate comedy badass; a rock star decked out in iconic red leather. Eddie already made serious waves during his tenure on “Saturday Night Live,” but “Delirious” was when the stars aligned just right, and Murphy truly broke out into the mainstream. Although the A.I.D.S. and homosexuality material hasn’t exactly aged well, “Delirious” on the whole is something combustible and cosmic; a perfect storm of look, talent and delivery that has rarely been equaled by any comic past or present. Goonie goo goo, to you sir.

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