One of the more recognizable names on this list, Ansari made his name as Parks and Recreation‘s Tom Haverford, the Ginuwine-loving serial entrepreneur with a penchant for treating himself. But Ansari’s stand-up career, with bits on everything from hanging out with Kanye to dick pics to the internet’s effect on dating, has also been steadily gaining steam. Just compare the audience sizes for Intimate Moments for a Sensual Evening and Buried Alive as evidence. Also, one time a fictionalized version of him got pushed into a yawning chasm by Craig Robinson. (Remember This Is the End? That was a great movie.)
A perennial favorite of “Comics to Watch” short lists, the San Francisco native/LA transplant has been a cast member on both VH1’s Best Week Ever and NBC’s Are You There, Chelsea? in addition to her standup (sample her bits on S&M and getting married here). She also had a less comedic role in Oliver Stone’s Savages, that 2012 movie involving drug cartels and Blake Lively. More relevant to her comedy career, her Twitter is also a goldmine… and verified!
First, watch Buress’ minute-and-a-half-long anecdote about the racism-erasing power of apple juice. Then, watch the episode of High Maintenance starring him, the sad-but-sweet high point of the internet’s best series. Finally, mainline all of Broad City, but especially the scenes with Buress as Ilana’s dentist fuck buddy Lincoln. That will make for a decent primer on one of the best stand-ups working today, who New Yorkers can see every week at his 100-percent free showcase at Williamsburg’s Knitting Factory. Everyone else can sample his handiwork on Netflix in the form of 30 Rock‘s fifth season and 2009-era SNL, where Buress worked in the writers’ room.
Ansari’s Parks and Recreation cast-mate Retta’s Donna Meagle currently reigns as Pawnee’s most eligible bachelorette — not that she had much competition even when Ann Perkins was around. Off the small screen, Retta (short for Marietta) has a penchant for opera, which made for one of the better talk-show anecdotes in recent memory. The Duke alumna regularly performs stand-up, and her weekly live-tweeting of Scandal is as essential reading as the show is viewing. As of this writing, she’s also providing some choice commentary on Sherlock.
Nanjiani’s come pretty far for a guy who’d never even seen stand-up comedy before he came across Jerry Seinfeld in college. That anecdote comes from a 2009 New York Times profile of the Pakistani-American comic (which also quotes then-total unknown Pete Holmes); since then, he’s become a much more familiar face thanks to bit parts on Portlandia and Veep. Most significantly, Nanjiani’s hour-long special, Beta Male, premiered on Comedy Central this past year. We’ll likely never see Nanjiani’s long-dead NBC pilot, but Beta Male almost makes up for it.
After narrowly missing out on a spot on the SNL cast impersonating then-candidate Barack Obama, Cenac settled for the next-best thing: a four-year stint on The Daily Show as a senior correspondent and sometime voice of a Michael Steele puppet. Before TDS, Cenac worked as a writer on King of the Hill, and since he left, he’s been focusing on stand-up, recording a comedy album at Brooklyn’s Union Hall in late January. For a preview of what’s in store, check out Cenac’s 2011 Comedy Central special, Comedy Person.
A cast member on Comedy Central’s short-lived Awkward Comedy Show with Buress and Eric André (we’ll get to him in a second), Franklin’s earned accolades from John Oliver, appearing on his showcase, and no less than Wanda Sykes herself. Her routine on Oliver’s show demonstrates her appeal, frankly discussing her interracial relationship with a younger man while also admitting the artifice of narrative comedy (“I met [her boyfriend’s mom] and it was fine, but that’s the way I wrote the joke and I don’t want to change it”).
André was one of the many people who made Don’t Trust the B— in Apt. 23 such a gem, albeit an under-appreciated one. As Mark, the thoroughly whipped coffee shop manager, André lent a sunny, slightly offbeat disposition to the short-lived sitcom. Luckily for all of us, André now has his very own show over at Adult Swim, a network that allows much freer rein than ABC. The Eric André Show is an anti-talk show similar to Comedy Bang! Bang!; unlike CBB, though, André’s show is live and features none other than Hannibal Buress as his sidekick. It’s yet another reason why Adult Swim is the place to go these days for weird, boundary-pushing humor.
Sometimes, Hari Kondabolu’s comedy feels less like a series of jokes and more like a super-informed rant from a friend who Gets It. And that’s not a bad thing. Kondabolu — we can’t write this blurb without mentioning he’s also the brother of Das Racist’s Dapwell, so we’ll just do that here — worked as a writer on Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell, which makes perfect sense given his preoccupation with social justice in his routines. (That focus may also explain why he’s Tumblr’s favorite comedian.) He’s putting out his debut comedy album, Waiting for 2042, this March.
Che is legendary for his work ethic; the opening anecdote of his 2012 New York Times profile has the stand-up performing five shows in a single night. That dedication explains why a man who’d never so much as taken a comedy class before diving into the scene managed to land a staff writing job at SNL after just three years. Before SNL, the New York City native created “The Realest Candidate,” a web series following the adventures of “a hip hop mogul/vodka entrepreneur/Republican strategist trying to put the bling back in the conservative party’s platform.”
Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele
Key & Peele are known as a pair thanks to their eponymous Comedy Central show, so we included them as one. The two met as MADtv cast members in 2003, when they landed their roles after auditioning for the same spot. They’re currently working on a feature-length film with none other than Judd Apatow; in the meantime, they’re busy with their sketch program, now with three full seasons under its belt. Home to some of the shrewdest racial satire on television, from showing slaves on the auction block to creating Luther, President Obama’s “anger translator,” Key & Peele stands out even among network peers like Kroll Show and Broad City.
Zamata rocketed into the national spotlight recently as SNL‘s first black female cast member since Maya Rudolph. Even before the late-night institution came under fire for its lack of diversity, though, Zamata had made her mark on the New York comedy scene. Check out our roundup of her earlier work from January; also be sure to watch Pursuit of Sexiness, the web series she co-created with frequent collaborator Nicole Byer, of MTV’s Girl Code. And then there’s her character reel, including an impression of Nicki Minaj we sincerely hope SNL will put to good use.
Though he’s currently focusing on music as rapper Childish Gambino (and quit Community in a rather dramatic fashion to do so), Glover’s also an accomplished comic. He landed a writing job for 30 Rock straight out of NYU in 2006, earning credit for nearly two dozen episodes and making a memorable cameo as a younger version of Tracy Jordan. Glover also has a couple Comedy Central specials under his belt, with riffs on everything from being nerdy while black to the difference between AIDS and kids (spoiler: there isn’t much of one). There’s no indication Glover intends to return to stand-up anytime soon, though his upcoming FX musical series is a comedy.
A DC-based stand-up, Smith is set to get a lot more media attention come fall 2014: he’s on the cast of Mulaney, the Fox comedy that has the Brooklyn Nine-Nine demo frothing at the mouth. Along with SNL alumna Nasim Pedrad, Smith plays one of the eponymous creator’s roommates. To prepare, load up on Smith’s riffs on spelling bees, Chris Brown, and condoms.
A major presence in New York’s comedy club scene, Agarwal’s had relatively little national exposure thus far. Last fall, she was the subject of an episode of PBS’s Modern Comedian web series focusing on open mics. By the end of the clip, she’s shared the stage with Wyatt Cenac and Marc Maron; she’s also appeared at Hannibal Buress’ Knitting Factory show. Agarwal’s routines frequently riff on her immigrant upbringing, plus material on Eastern medicine, dieting, and dating.
Though Ayoade’s only just starting to gain some cross-Atlantic appeal, his UK comedy pedigree is impeccable: the Nigerian-Norwegian-British comic once served as president of the Cambridge Footlights, the prestigious troupe that’s included everyone from Stephen Fry to David Mitchell (and once rejected Zadie Smith). His vice president? The Daily Show‘s John Oliver. One of the series leads for The IT Crowd, available in full on Netflix, Ayoade’s appeared on British shows from The Mighty Boosh to Big Fat Quiz of the Year.
W. Kamau Bell
Bell’s done plenty of solo work, including two comedy albums and a one-man show called Ending Racism in About an Hour. But most likely know him from his all-too-short-lived show Totally Biased, featuring Bell himself commenting on current events and an all-star roster of guests and writers. One of the few shows out there with a political sensibility to the left of The Daily Show‘s, Totally Biased gave steady employment to comics like Aparna Nancherla and Hari Kondabolu. Unfortunately, it didn’t survive the transition from FX to FXX, meaning Bell’s now a free agent.
Zamata wasn’t SNL‘s only notable midseason hire: Lorne Michaels also brought on Jones as a staff writer, along with LaKendra Tookes (we’ll get to Tookes in a minute, bear with us). Jones has been doing stand-up since college at Colorado State, where she landed on a basketball scholarship. Since then, she’s worked her way up the ladder from bombing in Los Angeles clubs to taping a special for Showtime, Problem Child, in 2011.
What The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl lacked in budget, it made up for in shrewd humor. Rae’s brainchild is a spin on the office comedy; the creator stars as J, the namesake awkward black girl who navigates awful coworkers and dating mishaps with the help of her best friend, Nina. Created in part to address Hollywood’s chronic shortage of three-dimensional black female characters, Awkward Black Girl rightfully put Rae on the radar of the powers that be. She’s currently developing her own series for HBO, Non-Prophet, with former Daily Show “Senior Black Correspondent” Larry Wilmore.
Why Shit So Crazy?, Watts’ hour-long special available on Netflix, isn’t quite stand-up comedy. But whatever you call the musician/comedian’s combination of offbeat humor and improvised vocal loops, it’s genius — and totally unique. (Watts followed it up with Comedy Central’s A “Live” in Central Park in 2012.) It makes perfect sense, then, that he’s Scott Aukerman’s sidekick on Comedy Bang! Bang!, considering Watts is to the conventional talk show band leader as Aukerman is to the conventional talk show host.
Lil Rel Howery’s first half-hour special on Comedy Central aired this past June. The Chicago-based stand-up — who’s adamant about staying put rather than moving to New York or LA — grounded his routine in anecdotes about local Windy City types, from his girlfriend to his grandfather. He also recently shot the pilot for Legions of Goons, yet another Comedy Central sketch series co-starring Kevin Barnett, Josh Rabinowitz, and Jen Bartels, among others.
The former digital director for The Onion (which is now all-digital), Thurston’s best known as the author of 2012’s satirical self-help manual/memoir How to Be Black, based on his “30-plus years of expertise.” (Chapter titles include “How to Be the Black Friend” and How to Speak for All Black People.”) The Harvard alum and DC native’s since taken a turn towards the entrepreneurial, co-founding multimedia comedy company Cultivated Wit with two other departed Onion staffers.
Law currently works in the writers’ room of Seth Meyers’ brand-new iteration of Late Night, which Jezebel lauded this week as a proactive force for diversity in talk show hires (Meyers also snagged Amber Ruffin, who gets her own writeup in just a second). In 2011, Law won NBC and UCB’s inaugural Diversity Showcase; after that, he worked as a writer for Comedy Central’s The Jeselnik Offensive. And like any good millennial, he’s got his very own novelty Tumblr: Halloween or Williamsburg?
Is it pretty depressing that not a single late-night talk show hired a woman of color as a staff writer until 2014? Yup. Is it a good thing that Late Night with Seth Meyers got its act together and hired Ruffin back in January? Definitely. One of the comics who auditioned for the SNL spot that eventually went to Zamata, Ruffin hails from Chicago, where she’s done work with Second City and iO. Not that you need any more bona fides than this clip of Ruffin impersonating Angela Bassett impersonating… Dora the Explorer.
Discovered along with Zamata and Jones at SNL‘s December auditions, Tookes is a former broadcast reporter who honed her talents at LA’s iO West Theater, an improv and sketch company. Judging by her character reel, she’s excellent at impressions, including but not limited to NeNe Leakes, Oprah, and Chris Rock.