Comedy is one of the oldest forms of entertainment, much older than the cinematic medium of feature films. This is likely due to the freedom to express ideas that (hopefully) bypass mental defenses. Just you, the microphone in your hand, and an audience to openly express yourself. A disgruntled fan once told Hannah Gadsby that her stand-up set, Nanette, is a “glorified TED talk”, a criticism I find baseless and confusing, but the phrasing I believe makes a point about why stand-up is so effective when done right. Even if it’s through humour, the medium can often be confrontational and earnest, providing a space to openly speak about difficult or controversial topics.
Like most entertainment media, stand-up comedy is also still largely male-dominated and white. In 2022 though, a large number of stand-up specials by women made it to OTT platforms, and this article briefly discusses eighteen of those specials I highly recommend (this list names nine of them, check out the next one for the other nine). From famous veterans to newcomers, this list is as diverse as the scene is right now (not diverse enough, however). On days when life or the World seemed too overwhelming, they helped me by making me laugh until my stomach hurt. Each and every one of them. From jokes and observational humour based on storytelling to biting comedy about the predicament of the world and direct attacks at patriarchy, these women are out there fighting for progress and for our laughs.
Atsuko Okatsuka: “The Intruder“
Atsuko has been on the comedy scene for over a decade now. She co-founded the first-ever Asian-American stand-up tour, Dis/orient/ed Comedy, back in 2012. Her debut special began streaming on HBO and HBO Max in December 2022. She is lively and performative, and her crowd work is brilliant! Atsuko’s first stand-up special is mainly about how she and her husband dealt with an intrusion into their home during the pandemic and the truths she realized because of that particular experience. She makes observational jokes about the lives of teenagers now and how she finds them intimidating in a good way, and about her complicated relationship with her mother and grandmother. She dances around the stage, acting out the scenes from that day of intrusion, presenting a performance that’s bound to make you laugh until there are tears in your eyes. If you’re looking for comedic mischievousness and light-hearted comedy, she’s the person to go with. Her quick wit and turn of phrase make The Intruder an extremely entertaining affair!
‘Yvonne Orji: “A Whole Me“
If you’ve seen Insecure, you should already be a fan. If not, what are you doing with yourself? Yvonne is one of the funniest women working in comedy right now! And if Insecure left you wanting more of her humour, she has two stand-up specials on HBO just for you! Her first special, Momma, I Made It!, came out on HBO in 2020 and features contemplative material exploring Yvonne’s journey from Nigeria to America. It is an exploration of how her roots and upbringing played a role in making her the woman she is today. It even features video footage of Yvonne exploring her hometown and interviewing people. A Whole Me isn’t as emotional as Momma, I Made It! maybe, but it’s even more cathartic! Yvonne’s material is focused on her journey in therapy. Through jokes which get progressively funnier and crowd interaction focused on being empathetic towards people, Yvonne addresses her generational trauma and the confrontations with herself she had while locked in due to COVID-19. There are also comical skits featuring Yvonne’s family. One sees her in a Shark Tank parody, trying to convince her parents to let her move out and another features her father interrogating her about her dating life. A Whole Me feels like Yvonne giving therapy to the crowd and the viewers at home while talking about therapy. She explores the differences between her 15, 22, and 31-year-old versions as well and performs a critical monologue about personal growth in this stand-up special.
“Nikki Glaser: Good Clean Filth“
You can’t speak of sex jokes by female comedians without mentioning Nikki Glaser. Her first special Perfect came out on Comedy Central in 2016. She followed that up three years later with, Bangin’, on Netflix in 2019. Her material has gotten progressively risque, especially in the confessions she makes about her sex life, but Good Clean Filth sees her earnestly addressing her choice to speak about sex so openly. She also uses the platform to call out what I’ve come to refer to as the “Leonardo DiCaprio dating syndrome”, clinically attacking men who pursue much younger women with “old souls”. Nikki is not for everyone, but if you enjoy the occasional sex joke from a hard-hitting comedian who is delivering scathing commentary on our patriarchal society, she’s got you.
“Ali Wong: Don Wong“
If you dabble in stand-up specials, Ali Wong shouldn’t be a new name. Calling out patriarchy for its double standards on relationships, parenthood, and sex, she quickly garnered a huge fan following for her two stand-up specials on Netflix, Baby Cobra, and Hard Knock Wife. Wong discusses in explicit detail, the more gross elements of being pregnant and raising a child. Just like Nikki Glaser, she gets filthy with her material and is unashamed about it. Few female comics have gone the distance like Wong has but Don Wong seems a little less polished with respect to her previous two works. They were clinical with their commentary on the male-dominated world, while Don Wong seems to meander often, taking time to make a point. Wong is doing comedy about women in general, instead of relating her horrifying experiences. I’ll be the last person to complain about someone switching up their style though, so I will say that Ali Wong is still as funny and aggressive as always. Maybe her attempt to speak for all womankind instead of just sticking to her personal experiences for inspiration is her way of using her voice to provide one for those who aren’t afforded one. And if you’re part of the problem, don’t worry, Don Wong will make you uncomfortable too. She’s still a force of nature to be reckoned with.
“Taylor Tomlinson: Look At You“
You know you’re doing something right when your first Netflix stand-up special becomes almost entirely available through TikToks, Instagram reels, and YouTube shorts. When Taylor’s Quarter-Life Crisis came out on Netflix in 2020, the Internet erupted with love for her. With performative comedy about her questionable upbringing and her disastrous dating life riddled with dreams of being cheated on, her material is stinging. If you’re neurodivergent or grew up with parents who “do what they can”, Taylor’s work is tailor-made for you. But Look At You is more than relatable and dark. It’s earnest. She’s still making morbid jokes, now even about her mother’s death, but she’s also presenting her inner monologue about being diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Look At You is an incredibly powerful stand-up special. Taylor doesn’t just confront the consequences of a Catholic upbringing that didn’t have space for mental illness, she confronts herself on stage about her own apparent toxic behavioural patterns. It feels like she’s holding a mirror in front of you that reflects your own troubled soul hiding inside you. As confrontational as it is, it’s empowering because she’s using her voice to spread awareness. So while it can feel like a therapy session at points, just know that she jokes enough to get you through it.
“Catherine Cohen: The Twist…? She’s Gorgeous“
Cohen doesn’t just perform comedy, she performs comedy cabaret! If you’re a fan of musicals and jokes like I am, Catherine Cohen is finally on Netflix with her debut stand-up special to quench our thirst for that style of comedy. Bo Burnham is one of my favourite comedians because of his musical approach and Catherine provides a female and Gen-Z/Millennial lens to the partnership. With observations about how social media is a basic necessity in our lives at this point, to the casual and blatant sexism one can expect from the staff at a local chipotle, she turns experiences into comedy and presents a self-reflective special about lifestyle choices, body positivity, and sexual misadventures. I can’t wait to see where she goes from here because her observational humour, presented in boisterous song, makes for a cathartic experience that’s riddled with laughter.
“Cristela Alonzo: Middle Classy“
Cristela is a trailblazing woman in comedy. She starred in her own sitcom Cristela in 2014. Her 2017 debut stand-up special on Netflix, Lower Classy, revolves around the struggles she faced growing up as a first-generation immigrant. She even tears up while talking about her mother in a tender moment in Lower Classy. She is vulnerable and raw, an approach necessary for the subject matter. Middle Classy is more focused on change. In the gap between specials, a life-changing pandemic happened, and Cristela hilariously compares it to the Star Wars franchise. She also talks about how she’s become aware of her privilege and how a visit to a gynecologist made her realize how different life is when you have money. Immigrant jokes are a common part of most immigrant comedians’ material, but Cristela often takes a very honest approach and watching her stand-up just makes me feel sad that her show got dropped after one season. We deserve more Cristela Alonzo!
“Kim McVicar: Tap Dancing on My Mother’s Grave“
Kim McVicar brings something unique to stand-up comedy: dance breaks! She brings her experience as a backup dancer and flair for provocative choreography to spice up the viewing experience in between commentary on death and morbid jokes about her sex life with her husband. She isn’t a gentle comedian, but once you start warming up to her material, the sometimes scandalous jokes will make you laugh out loud. She speaks about her mother’s funeral while her mother sits in the audience and then goes on to perform tap dancing. Tap Dancing on My Mother’s Grave is a weird and eclectic mix of jokes, dance moves, and moments of grave honesty, but it’s a good kind of weird.
‘Fortune Feimster: “Good Fortune“
After her set, Sweet & Salty, in 2020, Fortune came back to Netflix with another stand-up special, Good Fortune. Like a lot of stand-up comedians post-lockdown, she talks about coping with COVID-19. Fortune humorously tackles the stereotype of a “butch lesbian” by saying she looks like one but doesn’t have the traits of one. She continues that riff by relating anecdotes of how differently she and her wife react in crises. The set is primarily about how she proposed to her wife though. And it’s one of the funniest stories you’ll ever hear. Especially because she’s saying it. Fortune is an incredible storyteller! She can tell the most regular story and have you in stitches from laughter. Be it the inflections in her voice or the deadpan delivery at times, she’s one of the best narrative-driven comedians out there right now.
This is just part one of our celebration of Women in Comedy! Stay tuned for part two where we add another nine comedians to your watchlist.
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