Top 10 comedy shows of 2019

A double dose of Stewart Lee, Hannah Gadsby’s follow-up to Nanette and London Hughes’ uproarious blue humour tickled the comedy circuit this year


Wanda Sykes

It’s often said that Donald Trump is a gift to comedy. But few comics bother with him – what’s to add? – and fewer still do so successfully. Among the best is Curb Your Enthusiasm star Wanda Sykes, the first half hour of whose London date was a concentrated howl of dismay at POTUS 45. It was salutary, it was cathartic – and it couldn’t sustain, as Sykes’ set devolved into good but less great material on LA life. But that opening sequence lingers in the mind: as fierce a blast as standup has yet administered to the Maga man. Read the full review.


James McNicholas: The Boxer

The Boxer was an absolute gem of a show from one third of the sketch team Beasts, in which McNicholas tells the story of his grandad Terry Downes, a 1960s boxing champ. Cue faux-cockney accent, loving boxing-movie cliches and much self-mockery as McNicholas’s feeble life is contrasted with grandpa’s glory. But that’s rope-a-dope stuff: there’s nothing feeble about The Boxer’s closing rounds, which come out swinging with big laughs and lumps in the throat, too. Read the full review.


London Hughes: To Catch a D*ck

Raise the roof ... London Hughes.
Raise the roof ... London Hughes. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

It hosted Michael McIntyre back in the day. But I doubt the mismatch between the size of the Pleasance Courtyard’s Attic and its performer’s potential was ever greater than when London Hughes performed To Catch a D*ck there this summer. This uproarious blue-humour hour advertised a personality that demanded attention – and delivered it, with gloriously shameless tales of sex, dating and the lower rungs of celebrity. The roof was raised; the profile too. McIntyre-level stardom probably beckons. Read the full review.


Jordan Brookes: I’ve Got Nothing

Brookes lowered his sights this year, after experiencing burnout with 2018’s hi-tech fringe show Bleed. I’ve Got Nothing could not have been more low-fi: it featured Brookes on stage with no mic, no props and scarcely any prepared material. But his keen eye remained intact for the faultlines in standup convention and those unsettling areas where joking meets antisocial behaviour – and he used it to ruthless effect in this part-improvised hour, which bagged him a well-deserved Edinburgh comedy award. Read the full review.


Count Arthur Strong: Is There Anybody Out There?

Steve Delaney’s confused alter ego Count Arthur Strong might easily coast through this stage in his career: the popular sitcom is behind him; national treasure status is secured. But his senile, malapropping comedy gets more sublime in this touring show, in which the count bids to supplant Brian Cox as the nation’s astronomer-in-chief. He teaches us precisely nothing about the cosmos, of course – but plenty about bats, “Dustbin Hoffman” and the Renaissance stargazer Gary Barlow. A tragicomic tour de force. Read the full review.


Hannah Gadsby: Douglas

How do you follow the standup sensation of the decade? Aussie comic Hannah Gadsby would have been forgiven for not trying – particularly given that the global Netflix hit Nanette was meant to be her comedy swansong. Instead, she returned with Douglas, cheerfully baiting her trolls, reflecting on a recent autism diagnosis and sending up her newfound prophet status with an audaciously cocky intro. She is, it turns out, in the big league for keeps. Read the full review.


Max and Ivan: Commitment

Laugh ater unexpected laugh ... Max Olesker and Ivan Gonzalez.
Laugh after unexpected laugh ... Max Olesker and Ivan Gonzalez. Photograph: Matt Crockett

Memories were stirred of the legendary Pappy’s: Last Show Ever by this big-hitting turn, in the same venue, from double act Max Olesker and Ivan Gonzalez. It likewise conjures big questions of friendship, young dreams and what they amount to – as the duo tell the tale (in sketch, PowerPoint and multi-character fun) of Max’s efforts to reunite Ivan’s teenage band for the latter’s wedding. Under Kieran Hodgson’s direction, Commitment delivers laugh after unexpected laugh – and warms the heart, too. Read the full review.


Kate Berlant

There’s a particular – and intense – pleasure that comes from comedians who make you laugh in ways you barely understand. Step forward US standup Kate Berlant, who returned to the UK with another thrilling part-improvised hour. The joke is on Berlant’s preciousness and narcissism, as she congratulates herself on her brilliance, shows off her (questionable) ESP, and narrates, instant by instant, her experience of existing on stage. It’s so in the moment, and constantly, surprisingly hilarious. Read the full review.


Stewart Lee: Tornado/Snowflake

Éminence grise ... Stewart Lee.
Éminence grise ... Stewart Lee. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

We waited almost three years for new material from the éminence increasingly grise of alt comedy, and – with two new shows, Tornado and Snowflake, either side of an interval – Lee delivered handsomely. Exploring the twilight of political correctness and his own place in the entertainment firmament – and biting chunks out of fellow standups, Bond movies and the cult of Phoebe Waller-Bridge – the beady, ultra-ironic Lee was as funny (looser and more fun, even) than we’d ever seen him before. Read the full review.


Catherine Cohen: The Twist… ? She’s Gorgeous

The Edinburgh fringe has introduced us to many a blazing comic talent from overseas in the past – Bo Burnham, Hans Teeuwen and Tim Minchin among them. None made a more vivid first impression than this year’s dazzling import, Catherine Cohen. A 27-year-old native of Texas, Cohen is a comic cabaret artiste resident at Alan Cumming’s nightspot in downtown Manhattan. With her UK debut The Twist … ? She’s Gorgeous this summer, she hit Scotland’s capital like a hurricane, whipped up laughs and plaudits in abundance – and left with a best newcomer award in her slipstream.

As with all great musical comedy, her two-for-the-price-of-one offer delivers great tunes and big laughs in equal measure. And these laughs knock the wind out of you. Cohen’s act is – as a fellow comic described it – “pure id”, the kind of Niagara of self-love, self-loathing and snark you get when a brittle, brilliant millennial turns herself inside out for you on stage. Sequins-and-smile fabulous, as sidekick Henry Koperski tinkles the piano stage right, Cohen trills about her ego, her weight, her dating life. “Boys never wanted to kiss me,” runs the signature lyric, “so now I do comedy.”

And she does it wonderfully. Every gesture, moue or flash of eye is engineered for humour. Her voice – abstracted from words – can be as funny as her choicest lyrics. So too her ad libs (after a burp: “I’m sorry. I literally can’t stop creating content”) and the detours her songs take into anecdote and confession. Each lead us deeper into the fragile ego of the modern twentysomething, where the strain of presenting a perfect face (or, at least, photogenic vulnerability) to the world threatens to bring the whole structure crashing down. It’s monstrous, it’s ridiculous and, in Cohen’s hands, it’s showbiz. She’s a star in the making – and the find of the year. Read the full review.


Brian Logan

The GuardianTramp

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