This was a banner year for comedy and an even bigger year for getting outraged about comedy. There’s never been more comedy available, whether it’s movies, sitcoms, podcasts, streaming stand-up specials or animation. Even the most award-winning comedy of the year, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” is a comedy about comedy.
And it’s also never been easier to be a comedy critic, whether you’re sifting through old tweets to vet a potential Oscar host or you’re the commander in chief weighing in on the quality of “Saturday Night Live.” We’re also seeing more and more diversity in performers and material, and at the same time, seeing more remakes, reboots and attempted comebacks than ever before. If you’re a late-night talk show host, the presidency is a gold mine and also an unavoidable pit of quicksand. And you’re probably a straight white man.
Michelle Wolf’s performance at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner was labeled controversial because she made fun of Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ eye makeup. Really, people freaked out about that! Wolf compared Sanders to a character from “The Handmaid’s Tale,” speculated about the anatomical correctness of the hats from the Women’s March, and most harshly of all, said that the president wasn’t as rich as he claimed to be. Three months later, Wolf’s Netflix show was canceled, and the White House Correspondents’ Association announced that next year it will avoid scandal by having a presidential biographer host the event. That is, unless Ron Chernow has some scorching hot material about Alexander Hamilton.
But that’s not the only comedian to get derailed by the outrage machine. Kevin Hart was hired to host the Oscars but lost the job after a day when someone dug up a homophobic tweet from 2011. James Gunn got fired off “Guardians of the Galaxy 3” for offensive old tweets. “Late Night With Stephen Colbert” writer Ariel Dumas was forced to apologize after a fairly innocuous joke about Brett Kavanaugh. But the biggest loser on Twitter was Roseanne Barr.
The sitcom “Roseanne” came back and was an incredibly high-rated show with an all-star team of writers behind the scenes (Whitney Cummings, Wanda Sykes, Morgan Murphy, etc.). And then Roseanne — who is pretty wild on social media — finally went too far with a racist tweet “Muslim brotherhood & planet of the apes had a baby=vj,” about Valerie Jarrett. Her show continued without her as “The Conners,” and the fictional Roseanne was killed off by an opioid overdose. Roseanne contends she was actually fired for supporting Donald Trump, as the fictional Roseanne also did. Tim Allen claims that’s why ABC canceled “Last Man Standing,” which found a new home (where else?) on Fox. The lesson to anyone famous? Delete your old tweets, whatever they are! You don’t need likes and retweets when you have millions of dollars!
In other reboot news, “Murphy Brown” returned, 30 years after it premiered. There was a secret guest star for the first episode — Hillary Clinton — just in case you were worried if the show would be relevant. “Will & Grace” got a second season as well. But the biggest reboot of all was the return of ‘90s -style Adam Sandler with his Netflix special “100% Fresh.” The Sandman resurrected the musical comedy that was such a big part of his old albums — “Phone Wallet Keys” was a standout, along with “Uber Driver” and his Hanukkah song follow-up, “Bar Mitzvah Boy” — along with some surprisingly heartfelt jokes about Chris Farley and a platonic love connection with a stranger at an amusement park.
Speaking of Netflix, it released roughly 6,000 stand-up specials in 2018. The rule seems to be that if you’re famous, like Chris Rock or Ricky Gervais, Netflix will pay tens of millions for your special. And if you’re not, you receive a subscription to Netflix as compensation. Rock had “Tamborine,” his first special in a decade, and other standouts included husband and wife Moshe Kasher and Natasha Leggero’s “Honeymoon Special,” John Mulaney’s “Kid Gorgeous,” Aparna Nancherla’s episode of “The Standups” and of course, Hannah Gadsby’s “Nanette,” which got so much press about being groundbreaking and uncomfortable that people may have forgotten how hilarious it is. And in the year of reboots, Ali Wong revisited her pregnancy for her follow-up to “Baby Cobra” with “Hard Knock Wife,” again taping the special while two months away from giving birth.
Wong wasn’t the only Asian-American comedian getting shine in 2018. “Crazy Rich Asians” was the first Hollywood film with an all-Asian cast in 25 years, and it was a monster hit. It made over $200 million worldwide and proved that audiences will respond to a funny romantic comedy regardless of race.
In TV comedies, HBO had two of the best new ones. “Barry” proved Bill Hader was a triple threat as he wrote, directed and starred in the show about a hit man who decides to become an actor, which blended dark comedy and ultra-violence as well as introduced us to NoHo Hank. It also won Henry Winkler an Emmy, which was shockingly his first one ever. There also was “Succession,” a hilariously dark comedy about a Murdoch-like, ultra-rich family and all their dysfunctional scheming, which gave us the greatest comedy duo of 2018, Greg and Tom (Nicholas Braun and Matthew Macfadyen). The show also featured the most elegant profanity since “In The Loop” — the show’s second episode is even titled “S--- Show At The F--- Factory.”
As for ongoing comedies, “Atlanta” and “Insecure” continued to create interesting shows with a healthy dose of drama built in, with “Atlanta” in particular leaning into disquieting horror with “Teddy Perkins,” where Donald Glover wears whiteface and prosthetics for the only sitcom episode in memory that feels like “Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?” Meanwhile “Insecure” closed with a beautiful Season 3 finale called “Ghost-Like,” which revisited the main characters’ old boyfriends, only to reveal that the most important relationship on the show is the friendship between the leads.
Not all returns were welcomed in 2018. Ten months after admitting the allegations against him, Louis C.K. himself made a quiet comeback to stand-up comedy — controversially dropping in on shows unannounced at the Comedy Cellar in New York. He also claimed the sexual misconduct scandal “cost him $35 million in an hour,” though it’s not clear how much money he cost the accusers whom his managers blackballed. In other misconduct news, Amazon shelved projects by Woody Allen, and Bill Cosby went to prison.
“Saturday Night Live” had an up-and-down year with steady ratings, but Trump fatigue set in. Does every cold open have to involve Alec Baldwin? The show really depended on the hosts — when dynamic performers like Hader, Glover and Tiffany Haddish were on board, audiences got glimpses of how good the show could be. Just don’t let Weekend Update anchors Colin Jost and Michael Che host the Emmys again, as it seemed they barely wanted to be there this time.
In general, the scandal-a-day Trump presidency created a lot of opportunities for comedy shows, but at the same time, it’s difficult. There’s enough weirdness in the actual news — secret payments to adult film stars, staff infighting and POTUS’ inability to flip a coin — that it’s difficult to heighten events enough to satirize them. But that also means it can be hard to discuss other things that aren’t in the orbit of Planet Trump. So you get a lookalike landscape of shows with different hosts taking turns doing their Trump impressions and shooting proverbial fish in the West Wing barrel.
On the recorded side, though CDs are becoming more antiquated, the comedy album is still going strong. (Just make sure you also get a download code.) Standouts in 2018 include Sam Jay's gay divorce album, “Donna's Daughter,” Chris Garcia's heartfelt and silly “Laughing and Crying at the Same Time,” Debra DiGiovanni's frenetic and side-splitting “Lady Jazz,” Louis Katz's filthy and hilarious “Katz Kills” and Emily Heller's “Pasta,” which features a track called "The Air Bud of American Politics."
For the people out there who still read, 2018 was a great year for books like “Calypso,” David Sedaris’ saddest and most heartfelt piece of personal writing. Sad-but-funny also describes Lane Moore’s “How To Be Alone,” a memoir about disappointment and loneliness that still manages to bring the laughs. Chris Gethard’s “Lose Well” is a memoir about failure that somehow ends up inspirational. Ling Ma’s “Severance” is a corporate satire and a touching family story that is also about an apocalyptic plague, which feels extremely relevant to the experience of living through 2018. Simon Rich proves he’s still the funniest writer alive with his essay collection “Hits and Misses,” and Michael Arceneaux’s “I Can’t Date Jesus” is a collection of essays about being a gay young black man that vacillate between deeply personal and deeply hilarious — and sometimes both.
There’s never been more opportunities and platforms for comedians than there was in 2018. Performers and writers can get discovered in a comedy club, on Twitter or on YouTube. It’s a veritable boom, but the problem with a boom is that it’s often followed by a bust. While the quality and range of comedy coming from streaming services like Netflix and Amazon are impressive, it’s not clear that entertainment can be funded by customers who want free shipping indefinitely. But until then, we should enjoy the variety and quality of comedic entertainment available. And maybe get your own Netflix password.