June is International Pride Month, and in 2020 we’re being starkly reminded that the movement for LGBTQ+ equal rights was started with an uprising incited by black and brown trans women. During which, marginalized people physically fought back against oppressive laws and targeted violence by police. Queer liberation and black civil rights have always been intertwined, and we certainly can’t forget that, especially during this unique moment in time prompted by the murder of George Floyd.
While everyone should be educating (and reeducating) themselves on how to be actively anti-racist through the endless books, documentaries, and lectures laying out the plight of black people in America spanning hundreds of years; we can also support black folks by supporting their work. With such a disproportionate amount of content from straight, cisgender men in stand-up, it can be difficult to find full-length standup specials from queer black comics. Luckily, change seems to be coming. However, for now, here are some of the best stand-up specials to check out to get a much-needed laugh while listening and learning from black voices.
It’s worth noting that there are numerous comedians worth watching. However, many either don’t have full-length specials yet or have only a handful due to working mostly live in local clubs and festivals. These are some of my favorites that really bear mentioning. I hope you will be inspired to look into these brilliant comics.
Number 11: Yamaneika Saunders (2017) – Comedy Central
Sanders has two sets on YouTube that absolutely kill me. It’s refreshing as hell to see a plus-sized comedian who is not self-deprecating, extremely confident, and who truthfully talks about her sexual experiences. Something many people don’t realize is that while male comedians are allowed to joke about their own weight, a woman even mentioning their size is all but taboo because people find it depressing or something shameful. Some may call her abrasive or intense, but she’s angry, tired, and hilarious
But that’s far from all she jokes about, also addressing the horrors of white people on airplanes, taking grandpa to the Golden Corral, and breaking down just how ridiculous Lifetime movies really are.
Number 10: Jaboukie Young-White (2019) – Comedy Central
Already making waves, Jaboukie Young-White is a comedy writer on some favorites such as Big Mouth, a correspondent on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, and that guy that keeps getting banned from Twitter and lost his verification for impersonating the FBI, CNN, and the official CATS 2019 account.
He also now has a 30 minute special on Comedy Central with select segments on YouTube. Young-White shares the experience of sex education in Catholic School, coming out to his Jamaican parents, and the true magic of bootleg DVDs. Most importantly, he presents his in-depth research seeking to determine which insects are gay; complete with educational slideshow.
As Twitter says almost daily to him: ‘We Stan.’
Number 9: Wanda Sykes: Not Normal (2019) – Netflix
Definitely the biggest name on the list, Emmy and GLAAD Award winner Wanda Sykes is an icon in comedy as well as a trailblazer of equal rights, having come out as a lesbian in 2008 amidst the national fight against Proposition 8.
Older, wiser, and certainly more tired, Sykes talks about relevant topics, such as the Trump presidency, pointing out how not even Air Force One likes him, aa well as feminism (Although I have to say, there is a small bit about The Bachelor that is backhandedly misogynistic, blaming individual women for larger societal problems). She also opens up about her family life and the hilarious, unexpected conflicts she has with her white, French wife and their white children, particularly when it comes to home remedies and grooming. It is also quite refreshing to hear Sykes talk unapologetically about her experience with menopause, which is rarely ever discussed or joked about by the people actually going through it.
Number 8: Roy Wood Jr.: Father Figure (2017) – Comedy Central
A throwback to what seems like ages ago, Daily Show correspondent Roy Wood Jr. presents this special as a recording for his infant son to watch when he’s older. Along with explaining why the Confederate flag is sometimes helpful and why black people need to take notes from LGBTQ+ communities, he gives nuanced insight into why there are no patriotic songs by black musicians, the brilliance of Ava Duvernay, and the injustice of charging extra for two sauces at McDonald’s.
It is truly delightful and has stuck with me since even after one watch three years ago. This memorability is truly a testament to how fresh Wood made his take on important topics, and aspects of “The Struggle” we’re seeing come to a head today.
For those without cable that can’t get access to Father Figure through the Comedy Central Website, Wood’s more recent special, No One Loves You (2019) is free to watch, no login required.
Number 7: Bob the Drag Queen: Suspiciously Large Woman (2017) – Amazon Prime Video
The only true royalty on this list, Suspiciously Large Woman is the debut stand-up special of “comedy queen” Bob the Drag Queen; who recently took the world by storm by winning the title of America’s Drag Superstar in 2017 on Season 8 of RuPaul’s Drag Race. After a career of doing sets in drag at local clubs, she made it onto television and got to bring her killer live performances to the masses. Freshly crowned, Bob the Drag Queen brings her humor back to her hometown of Atlanta, Georgia with an intimate performance to a crowd of all shades and sizes.
Bob doesn’t mince words, and engages with the audience directly, roasting and complementing eager fans. Although there are some Drag Race references, including name-drops of alumni queens, and frequent tangents, they are always enjoyable and sure to bring a smile to your face largely thanks to her charm and the audience having the time of their lives. There are also quite a few sweet moments with Bob’s family, including her father after a decade-long separation.
In 2020, Bob has released another full-length special, Bob The Drag Queen: Live at Caroline’s, with better audio and production value, which is available to rent for a few bucks on iTunes or Amazon.
She’s also recently appeared on Comedy Central’s YouTube channel with a hilarious set, which hopefully means there may soon be even more recorded releases of her crowd work in the future.
Number 6: Reggie Watts: Spacial (2016) — Netflix
You may be familiar with Reggie Watts from his time on Comedy Bang! Bang!, his current gig as the music man on The Late Late Show with James Corden, as the penguin in Tuca & Birdie, or even the voice behind the Key & Peele opening theme music. If none of that rings a bell, don’t worry, because his solo specials are nothing like any of those things in and of themselves.
Watts blurs the lines between performance art and comedy, blending genius and incoherence. His most recent full-length special, Spacial, is typical of his body of work thus far, though this is hardly a criticism because each and every moment of the special has you wondering what Reggie will do next.
A talented musician, beatboxer, and improviser, Watts uses only a loop-pedal and a simple soundboard to deliver incredibly catchy songs that may or may not be composed entirely of random words and sounds. He’s like the human embodiment of a noise band, code-switching into different dialects and languages throughout the same run-on sentence, playing with your expectations, and leaving you on your mental toes. Like his debut specials, there are a few improvised sketch sequences in Spacial, in this case, performed in front of a live audience seated in beanbag chairs. This one rules like no other, with its sci-fi opening and aesthetic morphing into a retro 70s vibe by the sick disco rave finale.
It’s simply something you have to consume to believe, and, even then, you might come out wondering if you had a stroke. But that’s okay because this type of thing isn’t for everyone. Fortunately, for people like me who are obsessed with him and haven’t tired of his work, he has an incredible amount of content from the past ten years available to watch, including a TEDTalk, a presentation at Google, and a “lecture” at PopTech which will all make you question the very conventions of the lecture.
Number 5: Sasheer Zamata: Pizza Mind (2017) – Amazon Prime Video
Saturday Night Live alum and activist Sasheer Zamata makes a hell of an impression with her special’s opening skit, immediately snagging me as a fan despite being previously unfamiliar with her work. Working a sleek cobalt jumpsuit at the New Orleans venue, Zamata talks about her evolving relationship with her mother, who seems to be becoming a teenager as the young comedian gets older, and the process of finding out she’s named after an obscure moment from a single episode of Star Trek: The Original Series.
As many can relate to, she laments how working at Disney World as a costumed character made the magic die, why pizza is the actual accurate metaphor for America, how she just can’t watch children’s movies without ruining it for herself by noticing the problematic stereotypes and creative choices.
What makes this special unique is the incorporation of animation and sketches into her live performance, allowing anecdotes to be recreated right before your eyes. She’s great and had me from the pun in her special’s title.
Number 4: Lucas Bros: On Drugs (2017) – Netflix
Comedy writing and acting duo Keith and Kenny Lucas are identical twins that have appeared and written for television and several big films over the years. On Drugs was their first and only recorded special for now, but they certainly made the most of it.
Firstly, they want you to know that they hate Richard Nixon for the War on Drugs, and they love to smoke weed. And whether it’s because of the weed or not, the two are almost completely deadpan, but far from “dead” on the Nixon-covered stage. It really is amazing to watch, not only if the idea of identical twins doing stand-up together is new to you, but because it really makes for a seamless comedy experience.
They’re each other’s hype-men when one joke doesn’t land as hard as they wanted, the other tries again with a different punchline, and in hypothetical scenarios, they can both play separate parts of the conversation. They even sweat-check each other, which is very sweet.
The topics they discuss include the NBA, their time in law school, trying to reconnect with their dad after his release from prison, and joining the Black Panther Party on movie nights.
They should inevitably make a comeback special soon once they need a break from the television game, with which they seem to be happy with at the moment.
Number 3: W. Kamau Bell: Private School Negro (2018) – Netflix
This underrated gem comes from the NAACP Award Nominated journalist W. Kamau Bell, who is known outside the world of stand-up for his work in podcasting and television such as CNN’s documentary series, The United Shades of America.
Like many of his other works, Bell delves into the state of our country and the things we can’t believe actually happened, but are now buried under two more years’ worth of disaster. It’s kind of nostalgic to hear why we all need to have a friend like Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the wild hoops white people go through to deny racism, and why every single president actually sucks.
In addition to these, Bell shares his experiences as a parent in a biracial household with a white wife and mixed children, shenanigans in the airport toy store, and why Doc McStuffins is one of the greatest shows ever to air on television.
Bell’s intelligence and humor make this Netflix original worth a watch and definitely leaves you wanting to see more of him.
Number 2: Shalewa Sharpe’s “Stay Eating Cookies” (2015) – YouTube
In perfect timing, comedian Shalewa Sharpe just posted the full video recording of her performance at a local bar in Atlanta, GA to YouTube. Previously available only in small clips or in audio form on Spotify, this “album” is perfect if you love an understated presentation.
Sharpe’s voice is (ironically) soft, and her presence is, for a lack of another word, chill. If you need something that’s not super high-energy but still hilarious, she is perfect to listen to. She talks about familiar subjects, such as the perks of being single, as well as some amazingly specific ones– weird encounters in the elevator, Looney Tunes vs Sesame Street, and how Michael Jackson’s Smooth Criminal got her through a tough situation.
My favorite portion of the special is the segment that gives it its title, so I won’t spoil that. If you want more Sharpe afterward, like I did, there are plenty of videos from over the years you can find on YouTube. Meanwhile, I’ll keep my fingers crossed that she releases another album soon.
This handsome and fashionable young artist dives right into his identity as a poor, gay, black man, breaking down the prioritization of each aspect of himself. In just nine minutes he shares the untold truth about mass shootings that we don’t think about, being straight for the right rate, his coming out experience, and what happens when conversion therapy backfires. He’s soft-spoken yet confident, chuckling at his own jokes, and to top it all off, he’s incredibly charming. Definitely someone to watch out for in the future, bringing the hot takes we will undoubtedly need.
I’ve only been able to find two videos of her performing, but I’m eagerly awaiting more. Edebiri is only a year older than me at 24, which inevitably makes me anxious about what I’m doing with my life. This feeling is oddly appropriate because she frequently discusses her own anxiety within her material, perfectly illustrating the kind of low-key panic that goes on in our heads daily, even though she tries (and kind of fails) to medicate with weed.
She also explores such topics as white male allies, riding the subway, her desire to be like the women rappers rap about, and Mark Ruffalo.
Gina has several specials and many shorter appearances all around YouTube and comedy shows, having been in the game for a long time. She has amazing sets about her travels all around the globe, being born to African immigrants to the UK, as well as her lesbianism.
Number 1: Ali Siddiq: It’s Bigger Than These Bars (2018) – Comedy Central
It’s Bigger Than These Bars is not just a stand-up special, but a message of hope and encouragement to those currently incarcerated or struggling to stay out of the prison system. Comedian Ali Siddiq was arrested at the age of 19 for drug trafficking and spent six of his most formative years in prison. After 20 years of freedom and performing, he returns to the Texas Jail that was once his home to perform for the inmates, providing insight and encouragement. We also see Siddiq having discussions and joking with the Jail Administrators, Sergeants, and inmates one-on-one from within their cells.
It’s a staggering look into the effects of incarceration on the human psyche, as well as the humanity of the people that reside within penitentiary walls, often for simple mistakes that cost them their lives. Even 20 years later, the comedian still maintains habits from his years behind bars.
Siddiq not only makes inmates crack up by recounting his own clashes with guards and deception of traffic officers, but throwing his back out at the local gym, why Hennessy gets you into trouble, and how we should dress like little white boys every once in a while to put our best foot forward.
Ali Siddiq has content all over YouTube as well, including several appearances on the Comedy Central series This Is Not Happening where he shares more fascinating stories from his life to a live audience, and shows that sometimes listening to others’ stories can be the best way to learn.
Visit this collaborative Google Doc with extensive education resources, places to donate, and more to support black communities.