At the height of Stalin’s powers in the 1950s, Russian citizens would circulate joke books making fun of the great dictator. These folks would surely be killed if found in possession of such items, but they did it anyway–probably because they needed a laugh more then than ever.
“It’s almost like humor is one of the last things people surrender,” Veep creator Armando Iannucci told me earlier this year when I interviewed him about his latest film, The Death of Stalin. “You’re still telling yourself you have a bit of freedom left because you’re making jokes about the person pointing a gun at you.”
America in 2018 was not nearly as grim as 1950s Russia. (Well, not for most people, anyway.) It was still a time, though, in which laughter was a rare reprieve from the toxic sludge of mass shootings, emboldened white nationalism, political turbulence, and nonstop news of the bleak variety. In a moment like this, comedy plays an important role. It’s not merely the art and business of giving college students something to get high to, but a necessary release of tension. It’s a reminder that light can still exist within the dark, a defiant shrug in the face of seemingly impossible odds.
The only problem with comedy during the Trump era is that some audiences seem to expect more of it than it could ever deliver. Comedy isn’t going to save us. Trump will never feel so deeply owned by a Saturday Night Live sketch that he decides to call it quits. (Although he did recently ponder whether there was perhaps a way to legally force the show to be nicer to him.) SNL was at its worst this year when it seemed to buy into the#Resistance fantasia idea of its importance, presenting a stone-faced Robert DeNiro as Mueller the Superhero.
The show was its best when it diverged from Trump completely and found other paths to the laughs viewers so desperately needed. As I’ve argued before, political comedy now seems oxymoronic and mostly obsolete. Late night comedy shows can still be funny in 2018, but rarely do they give rise to the kind of unselfconscious belly laughs you get from the stuff that simply takes your mind off of experiencing 2018. Here are the moments from movies, shows, the internet, and beyond that succeeded in that task.
- Blockers was possibly the funniest studio comedy of the year, one whose message proved to be the exact opposite of its premise: three parents frantically trying to stop their daughters from losing their virginity on prom night. Director Kay Cannon crafted memorable set-pieces that play out like symphonies. It’s hard to pick a favorite–the sign of a high-quality comedy, indeed–but the scene in which costars John Cena and Ike Barinholtz sneak into a house to retrieve something and find themselves caught up in a blindfolded sex game is a marvel of comedic suspense.
- I dare not spoil Sorry to Bother You by mentioning the scene that steals a shocked laugh from every audience that sees it. If you’ve seen the movie, you know the scene. Everyone else, get to it.
- Unintentional comedy still counts as comedy, which is why a scene from the universally reviled Gotti ended up on this list. Gotti is a film in which every single choice everybody makes at all times is exactly the wrong choice–casting, song cues, accents, constant usage of actual news footage to tell the story instead of, you know, telling the story. But one scene takes the cake. John Travolta’s cartoonish Gotti consults another mafioso about pulling off a major hit and the guy advises him, “You will need the approval of all five boroughs,” and then he starts to name each borough, as though lifelong New Yorker Gotti needed any elaborating. By the time he names the third borough, you think “No way is he going to do all of them!” But then he does, and it’s pure bad movie magic. (Bonus: once you’ve seen this film, consider seeking out the Chapo Trap House episode about Gotti.)
- The Favourite is an unexpectedly funny delight set in 1800s Great Britain during the reign of Queen Anne. Although obviously a period piece, the one moment director Yorgos Lanthimos chooses to go anachronistic involves showboaty breakdancing, and it is absolutely hilarious.
- Netflix rolled out its cooking fail show Nailed It earlier this year, and has since returned with seconds and thirds. In the final batch of episodes, which are holiday-themed, the show truly comes together in a perfectly seasoned comedic soufflé. In the episode where guest host Ron Funches joins Nicole Byer and chef Jacques Torres to judge a round of cookies, the promise of a baking show about people who can’t bake rises like dough to its delicious full potential.
this two-minute clip alone proves Nicole Byer deserves the Best Reality Host Emmy next year and I *will* handcuff myself to the Television Academy if they don't make it so pic.twitter.com/KCBuhDcPXo
— Kevin O'Wreath ???? (@kevinpokeeffe) December 8, 2018
- Killing Eve is a thriller that finds Sandra Oh’s fledgling spy in a flirtatious game of cat-and-mouse with a prolific hit-woman. However, no show created by Fleabag’s Phoebe Waller-Bridge would be complete without some laughs. The scene from episode 4, in which the killer, Villanelle (Jodie Comer), surprises her handler with an elaborate birthday, manages to both provide one of those laughs and also be creepy.
- Cringe comedy is a staple of Issa Rae’s Insecure, but the show brought it to new heights in the seventh episode of season 3 this year. In a key scene, when Issa is worried that she’s been ghosted by Nathan, she forces her best friend Molly to meet her at Nathan’s house, since Molly had (until recently) been hitting it off with Nathan’s roommate Andrew. (Got all that?) What follows is a scary-funny, unsparing look at our desperation to solve romantic mysteries.
- Adam McKay’s HBO show, Succession, could easily have gone by the name of a fake series from Kroll Show: Rich Dicks. In the eighth episode, though, the Roy family tops itself in the field of rich-dick excess by leaving New York for a bachelor party in Prague’s pansexual drug dungeon, The Rhomboid. The one-two punch of Greg’s (Nicholas Braun) martyr-like cocaine moment followed by the immortal Tom (Matthew Macfadyen) line “Buckle up, fuckle head” provides a high you won’t regret later.
- RuPaul’s Drag Race contestant Miss Vanjie’s baffling exit from the series back in March created an instantly iconic moment of television, the kind of thing that will be imitated for years to come. Vanjie is funny enough on her own, but it’s RuPaul’s reaction that elevates her grand exit even further.
- I badmouth SNL a lot for its Baldwin Trump sketches and that time it sided with Amazon over actual New Yorkers, but the show obviously employs some very funny writers and performers who knock it out of the park sometimes. Case in point: the absolutely bonkers Girlfriend’s Game Night sketch, in which guest host Bill Hader cracks up every one around him and eventually himself.
Comedians doing comedy
- John Mulaney’s bit on a detective named JJ Bittenbinder teaching him about street smarts as a child, from the Netflix special Kid Gorgeous, just might be the funniest sustained eight minutes of stand-up comedy this year.
- Tiffany Haddish and Maya Rudolph reassured the audience at the Oscars that there were plenty more white people backstage, and a good time was had by all.
- Remember when Michelle Wolf crushed the White House Correspondent’s Dinner so hard they decided never to have a comedian back again?
- Tig Notaro has been doing her “Ladies and gentleman: The Indigo Girls” fake-out as a closer for years, but with her new Netflix special, Happy to Be Here, we now have the definitive version of the bit.
Comedians doing comedy with songs
- Cat Cohen’s “Origin Story” is not only a great intro to her cabaret take on comedy, but it also “explains” why she got into comedy in the first place.
MY ORIGIN STORY pic.twitter.com/gt4MAiMnzZ
— Catherine Cohen (@catccohen) March 10, 2018
- Gabriel Gundacker’s song about the nonsense names of characters in the film Smallfoot is an absurdist earworm that went viral for a good reason.
zendaya is meechee pic.twitter.com/zE6rXniAnQ
— Gabriel Gundacker (@gabegundacker) September 23, 2018
- Demi Adejuyigbe does a video on September 21 every year, praising the song “September” by Earth Wind & Fire, but this year he really amped up the production values, to joyful effect.
- Adam Sandler has made enough mediocre movies over the years that his Netflix return to standup, 100% Fresh, had the benefit of low expectations. The Paul Thomas Anderson-directed set of jokes and songs easily clears that bar. In between songs are quieter bits like his standout impression of a dad who has just shaved off his mustache for the first time in years.
- This excerpt about Sloane Crosley’s porn star uncle from her latest essay collection, Look Alive Out There, was a funny highlight from one of the funniest books of the year.
- The only thing better than this plea from comedians Patti Harrison and Mitra Jouhari to land parts in the upcoming Cats movie musical would be if it actually succeeded.
- Clickhole, The Onion’s clickbait-mocking sister site, is a reliable source of mirth, and this year’s piece, “Heartbreaking: The Worst Person You Know Just Made a Great Point” stands among the site’s best.
- The Washington Post’s Alexandra Petri is one of our best living satirists, and her coverage of this fall’s Kavanaugh hearings veered from poignant to hilarious to heartbreaking, sometimes in one exhilarating sentence.
Tweets and Twitter threads
I’m 100% convinced my grandma was the reason Mexico won pic.twitter.com/9jBRF5wFPE
— paola (@paola__janet) June 17, 2018
me talking to a friend: like yes, intimacy is great, but am i really ready for a full relationship right now?
instagram ad: Do you feel like yes, intimacy is great, but am i really ready for a full relationship right now? If so, you should shop at this online thrift store
— jaboukie (@jaboukie) March 5, 2018
When you’re having a good time and realize you forgot to thaw the chicken for your mama pic.twitter.com/M2SStgA2VP
— Jemele Hill (@jemelehill) March 5, 2018
One Weird Trick To Getting Universal Healthcare That American Insurance Companies Don't Want You To Know pic.twitter.com/IvSwy0Efgo
— LadyBusiness' haunted Valentine's poinsettia (@LadyBusiness_) May 19, 2018
- Spend some time perusing the below threads for amazing crowdsourced stories.
what’s your fave “that’s so new york” moment?
— Jenna Wortham (@jennydeluxe) December 1, 2018
Okay, the discussion about roommates and overnight guests has obviously raised my desire to hear your worst roommate stories. Let’s have ‘em. Settle in.
— Nicole Cliffe (@Nicole_Cliffe) November 30, 2018
Each of the memes below marked a moment in time. You are still free to use them now, of course, but the meme economy is a real strike-while-the-iron-is-hot kind of thing.
- Mocking Spongebob instantly became the perfect way to throw somebody’s terrible argument right back in their face without changing any words whatsoever.
- The American Chopper argument was useful for presenting both sides of an issue in a way that simultaneously made serious matters seem frivolous and frivolous ideas serious.
- The spate of Elon Musk parody accounts that broke out as Elon Musk began his descent into loopy behavior (and legal trouble) on Twitter earlier this year were each funny in their own way.
Here are some comedy items I couldn’t choose one glaring moment from: