Jimmy Kimmel’s heartfelt monologue about health care; Louis C.K.’s apology for sexual misconduct; Kathy Griffin’s faint at the end of a two-hour-plus set after describing how a Trump joke gone awry put her on the no-fly list.
The most memorable moments of the year in comedy were not funny, which is only one of the seeming paradoxes of 2017. Comedians loomed large in popular culture, the tip of the spear in the daily response to the first year of a new presidency, and yet there were strong signs that the boom is on the verge of busting. Netflix reinvigorated the stand-up special, but I’m skeptical that the streaming service’s output produced more classics than in previous years. It’s been a contradictory and uneasy 12 months, and this pointedly idiosyncratic list covers a few of the highlights.
BEST COMEBACK SPECIAL This is the year Netflix threw so much money around that star comedians who hadn’t released a special in ages returned. Jerry Seinfeld released his first in 19 years. Dave Chappelle put out two new hours after a 13 year-hiatus, and he unveils two more on New Year’s Eve — that’s four specials in a single year. But no one was funnier than Norm Macdonald, whose verbally dexterous “Hitler’s Dog, Gossip & Trickery,” his first special in six years, cemented his reputation as one of the best stand-ups alive.
BEST LIVE SET As soon as Leslie Jones stormed onstage at the Comedy Cellar in July, the room shrunk, her raucous energy and ferocious crowd work making you aware of the low ceilings and echoing acoustics. She ranted about sex, dished about her “Saturday Night Live” co-stars and insulted the patrons in the front row, staring them down during long dramatic pauses, ramping up the tension only to explode it with punch lines. She told some good jokes, but the best parts of this roughly 10-minute set were the riffing and the swagger that make live stand-up the most exciting art in the city.
MOST HEARTBREAKING COMEDY For the last four seasons, “Nathan for You” has essentially been an inspired prank show with a mild-mannered consultant giving terrible advice to small businesses. Its star, Nathan Fielder, displayed hints of melancholy, but nothing prepared fans for his wrenching season finale, “Finding Frances.” It centered on a character from an earlier season, a Bill Gates impersonator named Bill Heath, whose lost love from childhood provides the central mystery. What went wrong? Could he get a second chance? Mr. Fielder traveled with Mr. Heath to Arkansas to track her down, while a parallel story involving Mr. Fielder and an escort he falls for, becomes an unlikely romance. The documentarian Errol Morris called it “my new favorite love story.”
What made this episode so affecting for me, however, was its portrait of Mr. Heath, who moved to Hollywood with dreams of show business that never panned out. His Bill Gates impression is terrible, and the comedy of his ineptness carries a hint of cruelty. There’s a long history of comedians using eccentric real people for morally questionable laughs, from Larry (Bud) Melman to the many characters in “Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!” “Nathan for You” is part of this tradition but transcends it, digging deeper, exploring Mr. Heath’s past, his family and politics with a sympathetic, sensitive and even humane eye, proving that anything in the world can be fascinating and complex if you look closely enough.