The 25 Most Influential Comedy Specials of All Time

From Robert Klein to John Mulaney, here are the comedy specials that changed everything
The 25 Most Influential Comedy Specials of All Time

Compiling a list of the most influential comedy specials? Well, that’s got to be an easy Cracked assignment. Several sites have already constructed lists of the best comedy specials of all time, so the work’s already been done, right? Nope. 

While those “Best Ever” lists often overlap with this one, we were looking for something different. The most influential specials are the ones that broke new ground, like making TV safe for stand-up swearing, or the ones that inspired a generation of young funny people to find a microphone and start telling jokes in an entirely new way, either by savagely honest storytelling or by deconstructing the concept of stand-up itself. 

A few specials that didn’t make the list? Well, there’s the first television stand-up special ever, a 70-minute set featuring Bob Newhart that aired live in 1961. Why doesn’t Newhart’s history-making show appear here? No one can find the darn thing — and if nobody has seen it since the early 1960s, how influential can it be? I also excluded some all-time great specials by Steve Martin, Whoopi Goldberg and Robin Williams. They might belong on “Best” lists, but many of these classics neither broke new ground nor served as the obvious inspiration for later comics.

Before you head to the comments section to complain, note that I’m including a few stand-up comedy concert features originally released in theaters. Their ubiquitous presence on television over the years makes them indistinguishable from the stand-up specials that followed. To anyone watching today, the line gets pretty blurry between specials originating on film, broadcast, cable, streaming (free and subscription), direct-to-consumer VHS tapes, DVDs or digital downloads — all of which are represented here. In other words, point of origin wasnt a disqualifier. 

Two stand-up comedy experts weighed in to help develop this list: Wayne Federman, comedian and author of The History of Stand-Up: From Mark Twain to Dave Chappelle, and Jeff Abraham, publicist for George Carlin, Andrew Dice Clay, David Brenner and others, comedy historian and author of The Show Won't Go On: The Most Shocking, Bizarre and Historic Deaths of Performers Onstage. As you’ll see, they don’t always agree with my final choices.

Here then, in chronological order, are Cracked’s 25 most influential comedy specials of all time. 

An Evening with Robert Klein (1975)

Why was 33-year-old Klein’s special for HBO such a groundbreaker? Well, it was the first-ever comedy special on fledgling pay-cable channel HBO, for starters. That’s a big enough deal unto itself, as HBO comedy specials later became a badge of “making it” for a generation of stand-ups. But it’s what HBO represented that made this special extra-special. Just a few short years after George Carlin was arrested in Milwaukee for spouting profanity on stage, HBO was allowing comics to say whatever they wanted, swear words included. The New York Times noticed with its nose stuck high in the air: “Mr. Klein throws in several four‐letter words to demonstrate the point.” The Times review was positive, but wondered, “Will audiences be willing to pay for this type of programming?” The answer was yes.  

You want more influence? In Tinderbox: HBO’s Ruthless Pursuit of New Frontiers, Klein boldly proclaims, “There would be no HBO without me.”

On Location: Freddie Prinze and Friends (1976)

HBO initially intended this special as a standalone concert for the red-hot Freddie Prinze. Instead, Abraham points out, Prinze decided to use the hour as a showcase for unknowns Jay Leno, Elayne Boosler, Tim Thomerson, Bob Shaw and Gary Mule Deer. Freddie Prinze and Friends pioneered the idea of a multiple-comic showcase that would become a Young Comedians Special staple, as well as the blueprint for dozens of cable stand-up shows like Def Comedy Jam, An Evening At The Improv and Caroline’s Comedy Hour. It also introduced America to Leno and Boosler, paving the way to multiple Tonight Show appearances and eventual late-night dominance. 

Richard Pryor: Live in Concert (1979)

While Live on the Sunset Strip might have been filmed under more dramatic circumstances (it was Pryor’s comeback after burning himself in a freebasing accident), more comics point to Live In Concert as an inspiration. “I’m chasing Richard Pryor, man,” says Chris Rock in Judd Apatow’s Sick in the Head: Conversations About Life and Comedy. “I still haven’t done my version of his Long Beach concert. I’ve done some good stuff, but Richard Pryor in Long Beach? It’s the greatest piece of stand-up ever done. It just is. I haven’t got there, in my act. … Pryor’s special was kind of late in his career. He’s not a kid doing it. That’s what I’m going for.”

“It was something that woke up more shit in my head than most other movies Id seen,” comic Patton Oswalt told Rolling Stone. “It was the way hed give the wind a personality, or a dog a personality, or a car he was shooting with a gun a personality! … I hadnt decided I wanted to try my hand at stand-up yet. That was still a few years away. But this was certainly one of the things that set me on that path.”

Eddie Murphy called Live in Concert “the single greatest stand-up performance ever captured on film” on a DVD extra for his own Delirious, which brings us to…

Eddie Murphy: Delirious (1983)

He opens with the dirtiest material you’ve ever heard: the thing with Ralph Kramden f-cking Ed Norton in the ass,” Rock told Entertainment Weekly of an off-color bit that’s aged slightly better than some of the special’s other homophobic content. “Before you’ve even sat down, it’s just the dirtiest stuff ever. Delirious is a great showcase too. It’s like, ‘Okay, am I a handsome guy? Check. I do great impressions, check. Great jokes, check. Characters, check.’”

The impact of Delirious and Murphy’s Raw extends beyond the laughs. It was Murphy’s leather-clad look — a comedy Elvis in vibrant red or Prince purple — that inspired what comedians like Rock and Kevin Hart wore themselves in their concert films. Murphy “proved that doing stand-up comedy can be cool, you know, and sexy, and almost rock ‘n’ roll-ish,” Hart gushed on SiriusXM’s Town Hall Radio.

Bill Cosby: Himself (1983)

Before he took on either of his identities as America’s Dad or Serial Rapist, Cosby established himself as an unparalleled comic storyteller. Himself, says Federman, was Cosby’s reaction to Pryor’s success with concert films. And “as good as Richard Pryor: Live in Concert is, the Cosby thing, as a piece of stand-up, I think, is even better,” Larry Wilmore told GQ. “I don’t think there was a better one before it, and I don’t think there’s been a better one since.”

“I couldn’t stop admiring his mic technique,” Eric Andre said in the GQ look-back on Himself. “That’s a thing that comics zero in on but civilians don’t — the way he sat in the chair and held his microphone at his knee, like so far away from his mouth: I was like, ‘Dude, that is the shit.’”

In Himself, Cosby “opened a door for all of us, for all of the networks to even consider that this was a way to create a character, was to take someone who can hold an audience just by being up there and telling their story,” Ray Romano explained to GQ. “He created that.”

Dirty Dirty Jokes (1984)

On the surface, Dirty Dirty Jokes seems like naughty 1980s fun, with Redd Foxx, Andrew Dice Clay, Robert Schimmel and Jackie “The Jokeman” Martling sharing winky-winky, off-color gags that might once have appeared in Playboy’s Party Jokes. By many standards, the jokes about body parts and sex acts aren’t even that vulgar. Foxx was telling a lot of similar punch lines in his racy party albums of the 1950s. But the subject matter isn’t what makes Dirty Dirty Jokes influential. 

You see, rather than appearing on HBO or Showtime, Dirty Dirty Jokes was sold directly to consumers via a new format called VHS videotape. Like Foxx’s party albums, the video sold a lot of copies, says Federman, proving that there was real money to be made in bypassing the networks and cable channels and going straight to the comedy consumer. (Especially the ones who might be too embarrassed to take the Dirty Dirty Jokes cassette to the counter of their local mom-and-pop video store.)

Rodney Dangerfields 9th Annual Young Comedians Special (1985)

From the beginning, HBO’s Young Comedians Specials shot young stand-ups into stardom. Richard Lewis showed up in an early edition, and “I killed on it,” he says in Tinderbox. “HBO was the rocket booster for my career.”

The series hit its apex with its ninth edition, hosted by Rodney Dangerfield and introducing comics like Bob Saget, Rita Rudner, Louie Anderson, Yakov Smirnoff, and most crucially, the raging Sam Kinison. HBO was wary of the volatile Kinison, but Dangerfield insisted on including him. “That’s the one,” says Federman. “Kinison is really the first comedian of that generation to break huge without The Tonight Show.” 

In years prior, killing it with Johnny Carson wasn’t only a golden ticket to stand-up stardom — it was pretty much the only way to get there. But by the mid-1980s, HBO was in enough households that it could make a star all on its own. Kinison later did amazing sets on Carson and Letterman, but this appearance was the one that launched the rocket.

Dice Rules (1991)

You don’t have to be a fan of the Diceman to understand that he was the first comic to regularly sell out not just clubs, not just theaters, but entire sports arenas for multiple nights in a row. Dice Rules captures Clay at the height of his powers, mixing sketch interstitials with stand-up comedy filmed in front of screaming fans at Madison Square Garden. Audacious.

A couple of decades later, comics like Dane Cook would tiptoe into this arena territory but “anything you want to say about Dane Cook, Dice was doing it before social media,” says Abraham. Dice Rules is a portrait of a comedian at an insanely high pinnacle. These days, it’s not uncommon for comics like Gabriel Iglesias, Iliza Shlesinger or Sebastian Maniscalco to play arenas, but someone had to blaze the trail. Who knew that dirty nursery rhymes could get him there?

George Carlin: Jammin’ in New York (1992)

The obvious choice for George Carlin would appear to be HBO’s George Carlin at USC (1977), where he became the first comic to utter the seven words you can’t say on television — on television. But Carlin himself didn’t count his early HBO specials as having the most impact, says Abraham, mainly because HBO had so few subscribers at the time. 

Instead, Abraham points to Jammin’ in New York as the special where Carlin (or at least this third-act version of Carlin) really found his voice. This was vitriolic Carlin channeling his inner Kinison, the comic who’d recently passed away and to whom Carlin dedicated the special. The show was filmed live in front of one of the largest audiences he’d ever performed before.

For other comics, Jammin’ in New York was a master class in mid-career reinvention. “It was the first time I had done truly extended pieces consisting of separate sections all flowing together,” Carlin said. “It was a big leap for me."

Chris Rock: Bring the Pain (1996)

Comic Nimesh Patel told me that “the most influential for me was without a doubt was (Rock’s) Bigger and Blacker. That was the one we were quoting in high school. And my friends, you know, we could quote that shit backwards if we wanted to.”

But Federman and Abraham agree that the Rock special with the most influence was 1996’s Bring the Pain, “the one that put Chris Rock on the map after being in the wilderness for a couple of years,” says Federman. As he notes in History of Stand-Up, the special “was so incendiary that, even years later, it was still shocking to hear.” And it was such a success that HBO gave Rock his own talk and sketch shows.

The comedy resonated so hard that Barack Obama was paraphrasing Bring the Pain bits on the 2008 campaign trail, more than 10 years after the special hit. “Eddie Murphy made me want to be funny. But the Chris Rock and George Carlin specials, when they were saying controversial things and had points — I was like, Man, I want to have points, too,” says Michael Che in Sick in the Head. “That was the important thing to me. That was my direction.”

Margaret Cho: I’m the One That I Want (2000)

“I wasn't like any Korean role model that they had ever seen,” says Cho in I’m The One That I Want. “I didn't play violin. I didn't fuck Woody Allen.” But Cho was a role model nonetheless.

“I didn't know stand-up comedy was an art form. I didn't know it was a job,” Atsuko Okatuska told Washington Post Live. “For a whole hour, (Cho) is holding court and the audience is just watching and really into her stories and laughing while she's just being an open book and unapologetically herself. I had never seen any other art form like this. And on top of that, she looked like me.”

“My greatest accomplishment is just inspiring comedians like Joel Kim Booster and Bowen Yang to further greatness,” Cho told PBS NewsHour. “That they were able to see me and recognize that this is what they wanted to do.”

The Original Kings of Comedy (2000)

There’s no doubt about the impact of The Original Kings of Comedy, directed by Spike Lee and starring Cedric the Entertainer, Steve Harvey, D.L. Hughley and Bernie Mac. If nothing else, look at the imitators it spawned — The Queens of Comedy (2001), The Original Latin Kings of Comedy (2002), the Blue Collar Comedy Tour (2003) and The Comedians of Comedy (2005) to name a few. It’s the special that virtually created a cottage industry of comedy showcases, as well as a financial phenomenon that made $100 million on home video sales alone. 

Like the Young Comedians Specials that came before it, The Original Kings of Comedy proved there’s strength in numbers — and breakout potential for featured performers. Mac complained that he didn’t have his own TV show in Kings; by the following year, The Bernie Mac Show was on Fox. 

Jerry Seinfeld: Comedian (2002)

Part stand-up special, part behind-the-scenes documentary, Comedian served as a virtual how-to manual for a new generation of comics. “(Seinfeld) is the man who changed my life,” Pete Holmes said recently on an Inside Conan podcast. “I saw his movie (Comedian) and I moved to New York and everything changed.”

The same thing happened for John Mulaney, who told Judd Apatow in Sicker in the Head that Comedian showed a comic’s life as “a thing that was no longer impenetrable.” Mulaney compares Seinfeld’s influence to that of the Beatles, so obvious that you don’t even bother mentioning it. “But his voice was in my consciousness so early.” 

Comedian doesn’t make a career in stand-up look easy, mind you. But a generation of comics learned that it was indeed possible.

Sarah Silverman: Jesus is Magic (2005)

 “I dont care if you think Im racist,” says Silverman in Jesus is Magic. “I just want you to think Im thin."

“What Silverman shows us, over and over, is that people are usually much less tolerant than the rules they live within. And that admitting this is funny,” The Guardian claimed. “Exhibit A is always Silverman herself: a lifelong depressive, adolescent bedwetter and, you suspect, a complicated person to be around.”

Silverman isn’t the first comic to tell jokes that rely on shock value, but she snuck up on it in a way we hadn’t seen before, a baby-voiced persona distracting from the horrible words that were about to come out of her mouth. Like Joan Rivers before her, Silverman gave permission to a new generation of female comics like Amy Schumer to say the unsayable. “A lot of my friends started out just basically doing Sarah Silverman impressions,” confessed Natasha Leggero to

The Comedians of Comedy (2005)

Here’s an influential special influenced by another influential special (the aforementioned Original Kings of Comedy), if only in name and format. At the same time, the comics — Patton Oswalt, Brian Posehn, Maria Bamford and Zach Galifianakis — were thumbing their nose at the original with a title that said, “The only thing we have in common is our desire to make people laugh.”

Comedians of Comedy makes the list for two reasons. One, it was a showcase for the alt-comedy movement, bringing names like Oswalt and Bamford into the mainstream and eventually launching a Comedians of Comedy series on Comedy Central. But from a historical standpoint, says Federman, the documentary was noteworthy for being the first original content financed by a company known primarily for the red envelopes it used to send DVDs in the mail. While Netflix was years away from streaming hundreds of comedy specials, it got into the comedy business early by putting up the cash for The Comedians of Comedy.

Dane Cook: Vicious Circle (2006)

Vicious Circle is mainly influential for the way in which Dane Cook got here. He was the first comic who broke huge via social media, creating a Myspace page hoping to get fans to sign up for his email list and maybe sell some online merch. By being one of the first comics to actively engage with online fans (more than a million at a time when that kind of number was unimaginable), Cook created a monster.

The guy belongs on the comedy stage, said the Chicago Tribune. “He's really made for that environment; his dude persona, his spontaneous digressions and his ability to casually work the crowd all lull the viewer into thinking they’re not seeing a ’comic’ but hanging with the funniest guy at the kegger.” Vicious Circle was Cook’s first HBO special, but more importantly, it marked the arrival of the comedy social-media superstar.

Louis C.K.: Live at the Beacon Theater (2011)

Several years before his name was generally preceded by the words “disgraced comic,” Louis C.K. was arguably the biggest name in stand-up, known both for his comedy specials and his successful series Louie. Like Cook, he’d built a huge following online — so huge that he figured he no longer needed the help of FX, HBO or anyone else. In the days when streaming video was still hit or miss, C.K. put an hour-long special on his website for $5 a download. Eleven days and 200,000 purchases later, he had more than a million bucks in his PayPal account, free and clear. 

Based on Live at the Beacon Theater’s success, other comics including Bill Burr, Jim Gaffigan and Aziz Ansari created their own direct-to-consumer specials.

Maria Bamford: The Special Special Special (2012)

If Andrew Dice Clay and Dane Cook are on this list in part because of the massive audiences they performed for, Bamford showed comics a different way. The Special Special Special was performed for an audience of two — Bamford’s parents. She’s accompanied by a keyboardist (coincidentally Wayne Federman, but not the reason Bamford’s special made the list), who provides the living-room musical transitions. The lo-fi, anti-showbiz vibe “makes for a weirder and funnier show,” wrote The New York Times, “and also, as her comedy often does, makes a subtler point about the burden families bear.”

Following C.K.’s example, Bamford made the special available for download first, later licensing it to streaming services. And along the way, she showed Bo Burnham and others that you don’t need a stage or even an audience to produce a killer special.

Aziz Ansari: Buried Alive (2012)

Buried Alive was a big step forward for Ansari the comic. “As I hit 30, my material got very personal as I grappled with the gravity of the adult world,” he told Broadway World. “After I type this sentence, I’m gonna drink an apple juice and watch Jurassic Park — if that’s a guy that’s supposed to be ready to be a father, I’m very concerned. That’s what Buried Alive is about.”

But that’s not the reason Buried Alive is on this list. It’s because this is the first original stand-up comedy special produced exclusively for Netflix, beating Iliza Shlesinger to the punch by more than a year. Ansari was on the crest of a torrent of comedy content as Netflix began its global push into original programming. It’s Netflix that would prove to have the influence, says Abraham, with Ansari, along with Shlesinger and Ali Wong, riding that wave to comedy stardom. Just a couple of years after the Netflix exposure, Ansari went from supporting player on Parks and Rec to playing Madison Square Garden. 

Hannah Gadsby: Nanette (2018)

Maybe you’ve heard of it? Nanette is undeniably great, winner of pretty much all the awards including an Emmy, a GLAAD media award and a Peabody. But even more importantly, it made people rethink the entire concept of stand-up itself. Heck, Hannah Gadsby practically quit the business halfway through the special. Several critics and comics labeled it “post-comedy,” not always as a compliment.

The brilliance of Nanette is in Gadsby relieving comedians of the pressure to make fun of themselves without mercy. Modesty is one thing, but Gadsby asked, “Do you understand what self-deprecation means when it comes from someone who is already in the margins? Its not humility. Its humiliation.” It was a distinction worth nothing, and one that no doubt had several comedians reevaluating their tight five. 

Gary Gulman: The Great Depresh (2019)

The New York Times tells us that heartbreaking loss is the current trend in comedy. If that’s true, the current wave of comics grappling with mental health on stage might have been kicked off by Gary Gulman’s The Great Depresh

One surprising thing for Gulman was the reception from other comics, letting him know the message resonated with other funny people. “David Letterman said really great things,” Gulman told Judd Apatow. “And Amy Schumer wrote something nice … in a thoughtful manner that wasnt the typical ‘We loved it!’” But his influence was mainly with others struggling with their own mental health. According to WBUR, Gulman heard from a lot of strangers grateful for articulating what its like to have depression. Others listened to his jokes before bed because it made them less anxious. “The more I heard from people saying that I had relieved their anxiety and depression,” Gulman explained, “the more I realized that I had made the right choice."

Dave Chappelle: 8:46 (2019)

When Chappelle isn’t churning up controversy bait as a substitute for comedy, he is still capable of thoughtful, powerful social commentary. 8:46 was certainly not a polished piece of material, a real-time reaction to the George Floyd tragedy (8 minutes and 46 seconds was the amount of time a police officer had his knee on Floyd’s neck while he pleaded for his life). “Normally I wouldn't show you something so unrefined,” was Chappelle’s message on YouTube. “I hope you understand."

Netflix produced the special but also made it freely available on YouTube because it considered the message so important. The impact was real, drawing 3.4 million views in 24 hours, earning coverage from major news organizations and finishing as YouTube’s top trending video of 2020. Musicians and comics alike urged viewers to watch.

Sam Morril: I Got This (2020)

A spiritual ancestor to Dirty, Dirty Jokes and Live at the Beacon Theater, I Got This was Morril’s successful attempt to take comedy directly to the people. After opening for the Joker in Joker, Morill still couldn’t land himself a new streaming deal. So instead, says Federman, Morill put up his own cash, hired a camera crew and an editor, and convinced Comedy Central to upload the special on its YouTube channel.

Today, it sits at 12 million views and counting, paving the way for several other comics to debut their own specials on YouTube where they’re available to the world.   

Bo Burnham: Inside (2021)

As post-pandemic stand-up specials trickle out from fave comedians — for example, Jimmy O. Yang and Wanda Sykes — a high percentage of them contain COVID jokes. Makes sense. We haven’t seen these comics since before we were all isolated, and there’s pent-up material about the experience we all shared. But only Bo Burnham’s Inside talked about what it all felt like in real time, not with jokes about viruses but with melancholy wit about a pandemic as a metaphor for isolation. 

A number of online think pieces marvel at how Inside continues to resonate long after viewing. Inside is the work of a comic with artistic tools most of his peers ignore or overlook,” wrote The New York Times, reminding future comedians that expressive visuals and evocative music can deliver a message as well as a well-crafted punchline. 

John Mulaney: Baby J (2023)

How can we consider a comedy special that’s been out for about six weeks to be influential? That’s a fair point. But Mulaney’s Baby J just feels that way, not only a funny special but one of consequence. It’s not the easy comparison to Richard Pryor’s Live on the Sunset Strip, with both specials dealing with the comedians’ struggles with addiction and near brushes with death. What makes Baby J feel like it could resonate down the line is Mulaney’s throwing off his cloak of likability. 

Just as Gadsby’s Nanette gave comedians permission to stop destroying themselves in the name of self-deprecating humor, Mulaney tells comedians that not only is it okay to have unpopular opinions, it’s straight-up okay to be unpopular. Free of the need to be liked, Mulaney deals out hard truths that may reduce his Instagram follows but increase his comedy cred. 

So go ahead and weigh in on Mulaney’s relationship choices in the comments section — Baby J tells comics (and all of us) there’s no need to read the comments at all. 

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