Before we turn our calendars to 2019 and start making jokes about writing 2018 on all of our checks that we no longer write because we live in a digital age, it’s time once again for our annual tribute to the year’s most valuable players in comedy. This is the fourth time that New York Times comedy critic Jason Zinoman has joined me for this annual debate, and Zinoman got me thinking about whether we should expand our honors to include not only the comedy MVP candidates, but also Rookies of the Year, Comeback Comedian of the Year, and more. Do we talk about Hannah Gadsby? Of course we do. We also get into Tiffany Haddish, Michelle Wolf, Hasan Minhaj, Donald Glover, Kate McKinnon, John Mulaney, Adam Sandler, Chris Rock, Ellen DeGeneres and more. So let’s get to it!
Brian Regan is most comedians’ favorite comedian. Even if you might not recognize him or place his name, Regan has stood out among stand-ups for the past two decades, with multiple comedy specials to his credit – including Comedy Central’s first and still only live special, recorded at Radio City Music Hall. Regan performed 28 times on David Letterman, and since added a few Fallons. As part of his deal with Netflix, Regan is releasing a four-episode series that’s part classic stand-up routines, part new sketches based on those premises. He produced it with Jerry Seinfeld. Stand Up and Away! comes out this Christmas Eve. So let’s get to it!
Adam McKay won the Academy Award for best screenplay for his adaptation of The Big Short. His newest film at the end of 2018 is VICE, McKay’s darkly satiric yet mostly true retelling of the life and career of Dick Cheney. He has come a long way since his Second City days as an improviser and founding member of the Upright Citizens Brigade. McKay is a former head writer for Saturday Night Live, where he first teamed up with Will Ferrell on sketches and digital shorts. Their first feature film together was 2004’s Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. McKay also wrote and directed Ferrell in Talladega Nights: The Legend of Ricky Bobby, Step Brothers The Other Guys, Anchorman 2, and on Broadway and HBO in a send-up of George W. Bush called “You’re Welcome America.” Together, McKay and Ferrell formed Gary Sanchez Productions in 2006, and a year later, helped launch Funny or Die. In 2018, McKay had one of his busiest years yet, bringing the series Succession to HBO, executive producing several other TV series, and finishing work on VICE. All while surviving a heart attack. There’s a lot to get to, so let’s get to it!
Sarah Cooper could have enjoyed a lucrative career in tech, only she didn’t enjoy Google as much as she did making jokes about it. She began performing stand-up in 2010, and in 2013, saw a blog post she wrote about how to look smart in meetings go viral and land her a three-book deal. She has moved from New York City to Silicon Valley and back again, and her third book, How To Be Successful Without Hurting Men’s Feelings, is out now. So let’s get to it!
Rosebud Baker has two famous names if you know where to look. Her family business isn’t exactly Citizen Kane, although if you were paying any attention to politics, then you know a life of stand-up comedy and podcasting about Justin Bieber is a far cry from her grandfather’s past as Secretary of State for President George H.W. Bush. Rosebud started out as an actress — she co-starred in the 2010 Sundance reality series, Girls Who Like Boys Who Like Boys, and now co-hosts a podcast about Justin Bieber called Two Less Lonely Girls. In between, Rosebud has written for Someecards, Elite Daily, The Frisky and more, and she’s starring in a brand-new Amazon Prime series, Inside Jokes, which followed her journey as a New Face at the Just For Laughs comedy festival in Montreal. So let’s get to it!
Comedy fans have known and loved Jason Mantzoukas for years. Even if you don’t know the name, you’ve probably known and loved Mantzoukas and recognized him from his scene-stealing roles FX’s The League, or Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Drunk History, Transparent, I’m Sorry, No Activity, The Good Place, Big Mouth, or in movies such as The Dictator or The House. And you’ve certainly heard him as one-third of the hit podcast How Did This Get Made? Mantzoukas now has his first starring role in a movie, alongside Tony Revolori in The Long Dumb Road. Mantzoukas sat down with me to talk about his own long and not so dumb road from Boston to Morocco to New York City to Hollywood. So let’s get to it!
Anthony Cumia was installing heaters and air conditioners at 33 when a song parody he wrote about OJ Simpson caught the attention of a Long Island radio DJ named Gregg Hughes. Hughes invited Cumia to sit in with him, and from there, The Opie and Anthony Show was born. That was 1994. Twenty years later, SiriusXM fired Cumia after one ill-advised stunt and Tweetstorm too many, and ended the jock duo’s reign of shock and comedy. But Cumia rebounded by starting a livestream from his home. Now he’s built a thriving network of 10 shows out of a Manhattan studio called Compound Media, and he just published his memoir, Permanently Suspended. There’s a lot to get to, so let’s get to it!
Orlando Leyba was born in Puerto Rico but deported to the Dominican Republic with his mother when he was just a small child. Leyba and his mom eventually made it back to the United States, and he got his start in comedy in Miami. Through hard work and timing, he’s risen up the ranks, and in the past year, recorded stand-up for LaffMobb’s Lafftracks on truTV, The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, and HBO Latino’s Entre Nos. Leyba was a Comic to Watch at the 2018 New York Comedy Festival, and is the first HBO Latino comedian to have his own half-hour special. It’s called Adorable and is out now. So let’s get to it!
Carolyn Taylor, Jennifer Whalen and Aurora Browne met while performing with Second City Toronto. Later, Meredith MacNeill befriended Carolyn on the set of This Hour Has 22 Minutes. These four Canadian women joined forces to create, write, executive produce and Star in their own hilarious sketch comedy series, Baroness Von Sketch Show. They’re in production on season four for the CBC, while season three premieres this November on IFC. So let’s get to it!
When real life becomes even more ridiculous than satire, then what role is there for comedians to play? And how should comedians talk about serious issues while still keeping their senses of humor? Those are two of the questions I posed to comedians on the front lines of the discussion, and on the red carpet of the Golden Probes, a satirical award ceremony mocking misogyny. Among the comedians I chatted with: Comedy Central’s Jordan Klepper and Dulce Sloan, Lizz Winstead and Franchesca Ramsey, Brian Unger, and Margaret Cho. So let’s get to it!
You may or may not remember seeing J. Keith van Straaten in roles on "Curb Your Enthusiasm," “Gilmore Girls,” “Beverly Hills, 90210,” and ads for McDonald’s, Nike, Pizza Hut, Cheez-It, and many more. But if you did, then you’re just the sort of trivia expert who would have loved watching van Straaten host Comedy Central’s TV game show “Beat The Geeks.” He currently contributes to an NPR game show, Ask Me Another, while hosting his own comedy game show podcast, Go Fact Yourself. We got just the facts from van Straaten this summer, so let’s get to it!
Ted Alexandro has made multiple appearances on David Letterman, Conan O’Brien, Jimmy Kimmel, Craig Ferguson and The View, had two half-hour specials on Comedy Central, and spent the past couple of years touring theaters and arenas around the world with Jim Gaffigan. He also is one of the co-founders of the New York Comedians Coalition, which successfully organized hundreds of comedians to negotiate the first pay raise in decades in New York City’s comedy clubs. When he’s at home in his native New York City, you can often see Alexandro perform at The Comedy Cellar. He just released his third self-produced stand-up comedy special, “Senior Class of Earth,” out now via All Things Comedy. Alexandro sat down with me at our neighborhood comedy hangout, QED, in Astoria, so let’s get to it!
Darrell Hammond started carving out a career for himself with voiceover work in central Florida after graduating from the University of Florida. More than a decade later, a chance Clinton impersonation during a performance at Carolines scored him his fateful third-times-the-charm audition for SNL in 1995. And more than two decades after that, he’s still hanging around 30 Rock, now providing the lead-in voiceover intros for SNL. And he’s just put out the audio narration of his 2011 memoir, God, If You're Not up There, I'm F*cked. Hammond also has narrated an Audible Original called That’s Clinton recorded live at The Comedy Cellar, and is performing in a special all-star cast reading of the script, Have a Nice Day, recorded live in NYC for Audible with Billy Crystal, Kevin Kline, Annette Bening, Robin Thede and more in a dark comedy about a President trying to save his marriage and his country at the same time. So let's get to it!
Most people still think of Mary Lynn Rajskub as the counterterrorism techie Chloe from FOX’s hit series 24. But Rajskub has a long and storied comedy resume, from Mr. Show and Larry Sanders in the 1990s, to a prime time sketch TV effort with Kelsey Grammer in the 2000s, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Californication, to the movie Night School which opens this fall with Kevin Hart, Tiffany Haddish and many other comedians. I sat down with Rasjkub to talk about her own post-grad journey. So let’s get to it!
Maria Bamford is one of the most exciting stand-up comedians working today. You may have seen her starring in her own Netflix series, Lady Dynamite, based on her own life, or Target’s holiday season TV commercials, based on your own. Bamford has been on the front lines of revolutionizing stand-up comedy, from The Comedians of Comedy Tour with Patton Oswalt, to performing for her parents in The Special Special Special, and making web series such as The Maria Bamford Show for Super Deluxe. Maria has been open about her mental health as well as her financial health, and we talked about as much as we could between her shows at The Bell House in Brooklyn. So let’s get to it!
Mo Mandel is a stand-up comedian who created and executive produces Comedy Knockout for truTV, where comics zing each other and try to win over the studio audience. Before that, he hosted truTV’s BARmageddon and appeared more than 40 times on the panel of Chelsea Lately. You’ve seen him as a co-star on such TV series as Modern Family, Castle and Happy Endings, on his own in a half-hour Comedy Central special and an hour special that debuted on Seeso but is now on Amazon, Negative Reinforcement. And you can hear him in a podcast he co-hosts with his girlfriend, Dr. Ashley, called The Full Release. Mo has been a veteran of Comedy Central contests, but we’re all winners at Montreal’s Just For Laughs festival, where Mo and I met up in July 2018. In fact, Mandel just inked a new deal with Amazon to develop an animated comedy series called 2051.
So let’s get to it!
Sam Morril is one of the fastest rising-rising stand-up comics in NYC, having just come off hosting two seasons of People Talking Sports on the MSG network. Morril also has performed on America's Got Talent, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Conan, and Last Comic Standing. He's risen from Comedy Central's Comics to Watch to his own hour special on the network, premiering September 14, 2018. It's called Amy Schumer Presents: SamMorril: Positive Influence. So let's get to it!
Jonathan Katz won Comedy Central’s first-ever Emmy Award for his critically-acclaimed animated series, Dr. Katz, in the mid-1990s. He followed that up with a Peabody Award in 1998. Twenty years later, he’s entertaining us anew with therapy sessions with his famous funny friends in a brand-new Dr. Katz: The Audiobook, for Amazon’s Audible. But before he ever began his comedy career, he led a wonderfully weird life that included becoming best friends with playwright David Mamet in college, writing songs and the story for one movie (House of Games) with him, and touring as the musical director with the one and only Robin Williams. I paid Dr. Katz a house call to sit down and hear all about it, as well as how he lives with MS, in this very special episode of Last Things First. So let’s get to it!
Elayne Boosler’s comedy career began by working the door as the hostess at the original Improvisation club in New York City in the 1970s. For over forty years, she has appeared on seemingly every talk show ever on TV, has written and starred in five of her own one-hour Showtime standup comedy specials, written and directed two movies for Cinemax. She self-financed that first special, 1985’s “Party of One,” because TV networks would not let a female standup have a special. In 1993, Boosler was only the second woman to perform at the White House Correspondents Dinner, and the first comedian to be televised live on C-SPAN. She’s now putting out a boxed set “Elayne Boosler – Timeless”, which includes four of her iconic specials plus a brand-new CD of stand-up. A portion of the proceeds will benefit Tails of Joy – the animal rescue non-profit she founded in 2001. There’s a lot to get to, so let’s get to it!
Maeve Higgins was a bestselling memoirist and comedian in her native Ireland when, at the age of 31, she decided to move to America. So immigration isn’t just the subject of her hit podcast, Maeve In America: Immigration IRL, but also a first-hand experience. She co-hosts Neil deGrasse Tyson's StarTalk on National Geographic, as well as the weekly comedy showcase Butterboy in Brooklyn with Aparna Nancherla and Jo Firestone. She has written for The New York Times and The Irish Times, and her new book – MAEVE IN AMERICA: Essays by a Girl from Somewhere Else – is out now. We talk about our respective Irish heritages, what it’s like teaching comedy in the Middle East while ISIS is around the corner, and much more. So let’s get to it!
Judd Apatow and Pete Holmes first met on a podcast, and ever since, have developed a wonderful working relationship. Holmes first pitched the idea for Crashing to Apatow on his late great TBS late-night show, and I caught up with both the stand-up comedian and the writer/director/producer on the set of HBO’s Crashing at The Comedy Cellar, where they were filming an upcoming episode for the comedy’s third season. Apatow and Holmes told me why Pete makes Crashing different from all of the other TV series about comedians, how they keep it real onscreen and onstage, and much more. So let’s get to it!
Zainab Johnson had other plans for her life, perhaps professional basketball or teaching, before a tragic accident changed her life and her worldview. Johnson tells me how she absorbed the lessons of the comedians she hung out with before jumping into comedy herself. So far, so good. After being named a New Face at Montreal’s Just For Laughs Festival in 2014, she has appeared on HBO’s All Def Comedy, NBC’s Last Comic Standing, Arsenio, BET’s Comic View, MTV’s Acting Out, and AXS-TV’s Gotham Comedy Live! She’s also developing a TV series with the help of Wanda Sykes. So let’s get to it!
In 2011, Rafinha Bastos was named the most influential person on Twitter. Not then-President Barack Obama. Not the Pope. Brazilian comedian and TV personality Rafinha Bastos. Bastos has upward of 12 million Twitter followers now. He sat down with me during Montreal’s Just For Laughs festival to talk about how his dreams shifted from journalism to basketball to comedy, how free speech isn’t so free in Brazil, and how he’s following in the footsteps of Gad Elmaleh and Bassem Youssef in making a name for himself as an English-speaking comedian, too. Bastos will have a new Netflix comedy special out in September 2018, while he also hosts Ultimate Beastmaster alongside UFC star Anderson Silva. So let’s get to it!
Paul Mecurio is seen every night by audiences of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, as he warms them up before the CBS cameras turn on for taping. Mecurio graduated from law school and started out on Wall Street, though, before ever discovering his passions for comedy and getting a big break by selling a joke to Jay Leno. Mecurio has known Colbert for more than two decades, as he was one of the original writers hired for The Daily Show with Craig Kilborn back in 1996. Along the way, he has won an Emmy and a Peabody. He also played a role in a notorious live radio stunt by Opie and Anthony. He's now got a new Off-Broadway show a couple of blocks away from his day job on Broadway called Permission to Speak with Paul Mecurio, where he interacts with the audience to engage in their stories. The show opens today and runs through August 15, 2018. But first he gave permission to speak to me and tell some of his own stories. So let's get to it!
Allan Havey is a comedian and actor who hosted a late-night talk show for the Comedy Channel (before it was Comedy Central) called Night After Night with Allan Havey. You might not have heard much from him in the 1990s and much of the 2000s. But he’s certainly enjoying a renaissance in the past decade, since acting in the 2009 Steven Soderbergh film, The Informant! then continuing with appearances in Louie on FX, followed by The Office, Mad Men, W/Bob & David, The Man in the High Castle, Bosch, GLOW and Billions. Havey has continued to perform stand-up comedy all these years, from the Comedy and Magic Club in Hermosa Beach to The Comedy Cellar in New York City’s Greenwich Village. In the summer of 2018, he’s taking his act across the pond to the UK and a monthlong stint at the 2018 Edinburgh Fringe Festival. But first he’s talking to me. So let’s get to it!