This year offered much vital humor from comedians we can be thankful for—and hopeful about—in 2019. Despite different ideas of what a comedian should do, or be, right now, no one on this year’s list played it safe.
In 2018, comics popped open the release valve viewers needed. In Rape Jokes, Cameron Esposito brilliantly mined rape culture and her personal experience with it. This year’s top pick, Hannah Gadsby’s monumental Nanette, is a boundary-breaking performance from a survivor of sexual violence that fueled a global dialogue about gender and violence.
With his special, W. Kamau Bell found optimism in the political climate, and he did it bracingly, theater-in-the-round style. Elsewhere, 2018’s most purely enjoyable sets addressed politics without making it the centerpiece. Two were career-defining: Ali Wong’s Hard Knock Wife is a cathartic bile-fest that makes it clear she’s not going anywhere anytime soon. And with John Mulaney’s observational Kid Gorgeous at Radio City, the storyteller came into his own with his most immaculate show to date.
Here, TIME recommends the 10 best stand up comedy specials of 2018 to see.
10. John Mulaney, “Kid Gorgeous”
For proof of just how far former Saturday Night Live writer Mulaney will go to master comic timing, look no further than his feet. Filmed at Radio City Music Hall, his best work to date isn’t only extremely funny—it’s expertly choreographed, down to his fancy footwork. He goes long on well-paced yarns, like the silliness of proving you’re human to a computer—and wherever he takes you, the payoff is satisfying.
9. Hari Kondabolu, “Warn Your Relatives”
Plenty of comedy sets have wrestled with living in the era of Donald Trump, but few are this vivid. After elevating a dialogue about how the culture portrays South Asian communities in his documentary The Problem with Apu, Kondabolu goes all-in with a sharp commentary on injustice. Yet where a lesser voice might have gone polemical, Kondabolu kept it all sublimely playful.
8. W. Kamau Bell, “Private School Negro”
In a year filled with topical comedy, the host of Emmy Award–winning CNN series United Shades of America delivers a standout monologue about raising children in a tumultuous political climate. The TV host and podcaster has always been skilled at finding the comic absurdity in darkness, but it’s the moving way he talks about searching for hope that really makes this hour resonate.
7. Jani Dueñas, “Grandes Fracasos De Ayer Y Hoy”
This Chilean comedian might be under the radar for many viewers. She shouldn’t be. The Spanish title of her breakout special translates to “Great Failures of Yesterday and Today,” and it’s a winning study on our darkest and most human insecurities. Using her recent 40th birthday as the turning point, she muses on sex and beauty standards: “I have two options,” Dueñas jokes. “Be a mother or be a drunk aunt. I still don’t know which.” The result is a set that’s as perceptive as it is fearless.
6. Chris Rock, “Tambourine”
Chris Rock could have done the same thing forever and people would have continued to tune in. But a decade after his last special Kill the Messenger, the comedy titan evolves by getting confessional about starting over after divorce. His willingness to derail the laughs shows a newfound vulnerability—all before he brings the act safely back to a funny zone.
5. Tig Notaro, “Happy to Be Here”
Notaro rose to fame when she shared her breast cancer diagnosis during what is now regarded as a landmark set back in 2012. Her deadpan style has already earned her legions of fans, but here, she increases her ambitions and gets mischievous. That’s never more evident than when she stretches out her final prank to brilliant effect. It’s a clever play on audience expectations—just like the entire special.
4. Cameron Esposito, “Rape Jokes”
Esposito channels the kind of righteous fury that can only come from someone who’s been through hell and clawed her way back. Her worthy mission—to ensure victims of sexual assault are the storytellers—never gets in the way of her ability to deliver one of the year’s most hilarious specials.
3. Ali Wong, “Hard Knock Wife”
Wong, who earned acclaim for her fabulously raw 2016 special Baby Cobra, picks up right where she left off—and she’s just as pregnant as she was last time. Her new set is filled with searing takes on the limits of maternity leave and the disappointments of early motherhood. Dad jokes, step aside.
2. Aparna Nancherla, “The Standups”
Nancherla makes petty gripes about modern life feel worth talking about, using a PowerPoint presentation to execute jokes about Yelp reviewers, emojis and dating app dynamics. Backed by these clever visuals, she comes across as one of comedy’s most irreverent and approachable voices.
1. Hannah Gadsby, “Nanette”
Gadsby, who grew up gay in Tasmania, Australia—where homosexuality was only legalized in 1997—was sick of being self-deprecating for a laugh. So she created a tour de force performance that deconstructs all the familiar tropes of stand-up comedy. In the ashes, the comic bridges her history of trauma to contemporary culture’s failure to address systemic abuse. Nanette kickstarted a global conversation, ensuring that her underrepresented perspective was finally seen and heard—and when Gadsby wrenches out her pain on stage, she reveals her strength, rage, and yes, winning humor.