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Margaret Cho on stage in 2007. (Photo: Getty Images)

New series I’m Dying Up Here dramatizes the 1970s L.A. stand-up scene from Sunday (June 4) on Showtime, adding stand-up comedy to the list of cool industries to get the retro treatment, after 1960s advertising in Mad Men and the 1970s music industry in Vinyl.

Stand-up comedy has been hailed “the new rock and roll” since alternative comics started going mainstream. And as well as selling out theaters and stadiums, one-hour stand-up specials have been the mainstay of many new broadcast companies, from HBO in the 1980s to Netflix now.

Not all of the classic shows have made it past VHS, but we’ve managed to track down 11 that you can watch RIGHT NOW. Well, most of them you can…

1. Margaret Cho — I’m the One That I Want (1999)

Margaret Cho on stage in 2007. (Photo: Getty Images)
Margaret Cho on stage in 2007. (Photo: Getty Images)

Okay, so we have to ‘fess up with this one — you can absolutely watch this without leaving your living room, but you’ll have to order it on DVD first. As with many of the great stand-up specials (we’re looking at you, Eddie Murphy, Robin Williams, and Chris Rock), it’s only available in hard copy, or illegal download, and we know you’d never — ever — do that. It’s worth it, though. No-one could ever accuse Margaret of being retiring, but in this 1999 special (billed as a “comeback” following the failure of her sitcom All-American Girl) she’s on blistering form, with nothing to lose.

2. Eddie Izzard — Dress to Kill (1999)

Comedy shows like Live at The Ambassadors (1993) and Definite Article (1996) made Eddie a household name in the U.K., leading none other than John Cleese to hail him the “lost Python.” It was this show recorded in San Francisco that propelled him to international fame, however. In it Eddie provides a potted history of the world, with an original and distinctive stream-of-consciousness style that’s influenced comedians ever since, even if some of it, from today’s vantage point, seems unbearably nostalgic.

Where to watch: Netflix | Amazon

3. Maria Bamford — Old Baby (2017)

The word “unconventional” doesn’t really do Maria Bamford justice. Her 2012 special (characteristically entitled Special Special Special!) involved her performing her entire set in front of just two people: her parents. Five years on, one mental breakdown and a hit show later, this follow-up sees her perform her material in front of increasingly large crowds, from herself in the mirror to her husband and friends, right up to an entire theater audience. Maria’s brittle, nervy delivery and frighteningly frank material may be an acquired taste, but behind it is an extremely polished performer, with some of the best lines in the business. Here she is last year, explaining sex and raccoon behavior in a relatable way, on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.

Where to watch: Netflix

4. Louis CK — Shameless (2006)

Louis’s first stand-up special is still the best, though it was a close call there with 2011’s Live at the Beacon Theater. The material is cringeworthy and outrageous, the misanthropy rampant, and his delivery is utterly, well, shameless. In other words, everything we’ve come to expect (and love) from this stand-up master, right down to his black t-shirt, which he doesn’t seem to have changed since the 1990s. Seemingly, the one time he swapped outfits was for this interview with Jimmy Fallon:


Where to watch: Netflix | Amazon

5. Janeane Garofalo — HBO Comedy Half Hour (1995)

Another special impossible to track down is this mid-1990s set by The Truth about Cats and Dogs star Janeane Garofalo. As well as being hella funny, its unmistakeable 90s vibe captures a moment in time with references to Hootie & The Blowfish, Mentos ads, The Perez Family, and Weezer.

(Image: YouTube)
(Image: YouTube)

Where to watch: Alas, there’s no legitimate way to watch it (memo to HBO — please! take our money!), but some kind fellow has put the whole thing up on YouTube.

6. Billy Connolly — An Audience with Billy Connolly (1985)

Billy Connolly may now be best known in the U.S. for his film roles, such as a retired opera singer in 2012’s Quartet or Queen Victoria‘s chum in Mrs Brown, but he started out as a mesmeric performer of stand-up comedy. Not only that, but the audience for this 1985 special was populated with stars from the British stage and screen: keep your eyes peeled for 1980s versions of Bob Hoskins, Joanna Lumley, Robbie Coltrane, Ringo Starr, and Julie Walters.

Where to watch: Amazon

7. Whoopi Goldberg — Direct from Broadway (1985)

Long before she was hosting Oscar broadcasts or holding court on The View, Whoopi Goldberg was wowing audiences on Broadway with a one-woman show directed by none other than Mike Nichols, the legendary director of The Graduate. Somehow Steven Spielberg saw it, and cast her in The Color Purple. The rest, as they say, is history.

Where to watch: Netflix

8. Robin Williams — Live at the Met (1986)

This has got to be the classiest venue on the list, a fact Robin immediately seizes on in his opening gambit. Literally leaping from the wings of the historic venue, he bounds across the stage and cracks: “I wonder if Pavarotti is at the Improv right now going, ‘Two Jews walk into a bar…’?,” and boom! Cue a frenzied, hour-long ride though the subconsciousness of this deeply beloved comedian in his prime. Here he is taking — at around the two minute mark — to David Letterman about that very performance.

Where to watch: Amazon (audio) | VHS only (video)

9. Sarah Silverman — Jesus is Magic (2005)

Sarah Silverman‘s breakthrough 2005 set covers just about every taboo topic going, from slavery and 9/11 to racism and the Holocaust. She’s not spewing vulgarities for effect, however. Any hack can do that. Instead, Sarah delivers shocking and inappropriate lines with a faux cluelessness, turning the joke on us, and, just as frequently, herself.

Where to watch: Amazon

10. Zach Galifianakis — Live at the Purple Onion (2007)

Better known for his roles in The Hangover trilogy and Birdman, Zach Galifianakis‘ stand-up comedy is hard to describe, as anyone who’s seen Between Two Ferns, his hilarious series of uncomfortable interviews with famous actors, will attest. This special isn’t entirely live either, as it jumps from the stage to filmed clips and sketches, but it showcases his inimitable onstage persona, where a series of one-liners get waylaid by improvisations so revealing they become self-lacerating drama.

Zach Galifianakis as his brother Seth.
Zach Galifianakis as his brother Seth.

Where to watch: Netflix

11. Richard Pryor — Live in Concert (1979)

Childhood beatings, heart attacks and drug addiction are difficult topics to make funny, but to make them this funny requires an utter genius. Step forward Richard Pryor, considered by many, including comedians as diverse as Chris RockPatton Oswalt and Daniel Kitson, to be the greatest stand-up ever. This one-hour special is the proof.


Where to watch: Netflix

Which stand-up special is your all-time favorite? 

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By Kat Sommers
Kat is a freelance writer for Anglophenia.