Comedy: The best (and worst) of 2008

A VINTAGE YEAR The Kids in the Hall performed new sketches for the first time in more than a decade.

A VINTAGE YEAR The Kids in the Hall performed new sketches for the first time in more than a decade.

Most exciting surprise guest:
When Robin Williams showed up at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in November asking if he could perform, Harold team Bangs was about to take the stage. Not only was the audience treated, but eight comics got to play with a legend.

Most fulfilling blast from the past:
Emo Philips no longer has a pageboy haircut, but his New York return this winter at Comix proved he’s still as wicked.

Most audacious excuse for being late:
Katt Williams arrived—from jail—two minutes before Carnegie Hall was set to cancel his New York Comedy Festival gig. At least copping to gun-possession charges was the first thing out of his mouth.

Best new stand-ups:
In showcases, Joe Mande and Sean Patton consistently outshine the more seasoned stand-ups who follow.Best new variety show: Big Terrific is gaining a following of fans and comics. Gabe Liedman, Jenny Slate and Max Silvestri might make Sound Fix the new Rififi.

Best new venue:
Between its opening in October and the end of January, 92YTribeca will have hosted Zach Galifianakis, Will Arnett, Rhys Darby, Janeane Garofalo and Paul F. Tompkins—always for about $15.

Most deserved “finally” moments:
Success has been a long-time coming for Jamie Denbo and Jessica Chafin (Ronna & Beverly’s All Jew Revue); Kimmy Gatewood, Rebekka Johnson and Sarah Lowe (The Apple Sisters Variety Show); and Charlie Sanders (Minnesota Muslim). We think they’ve finally found the right vehicles.

Biggest breakout:
Last year Aubrey Plaza was in an indie improv troupe and had a supporting role in a Web series. Now she plays Seth Rogen’s love interest in Judd Apatow’s forthcoming Funny People, just scored a still-secret part in a much-buzzed TV pilot and landed yet another on-the-DL role in a predicted box-office hit. FYI: She’s 24.

Most banging out:
Mother’s finale was also one of the best shows of the improv group’s nine-year run. It got a ludicrously long standing O as proof.

Album of the year:
Do You Believe in Gosh? delivered Mitch Hedberg’s final thoughts. And they are good.

Book of the year(s):
Jack Handey’s What I’d Say to the Martians: and Other Veiled Threats is smart and silly, and packs an astonishingly high gag rate. Best improv show: Gravid Water, the comedy-meets-plays experiment, is not just humorous; it’s fascinating.

Best sketch show:
The Kids in the Hall reunion in April featured all-new material. We won’t lie; we were nervous. What a joy to discover that your heroes haven’t faded, but grown stronger.

Best stand-up show:
It is, without contest, Doug Stanhope’s Carolines set in March. For the second time in three years (see the 2006 list) he’s received this title. And it’s not like we aren’t seeing other shows.

Best fodder:
We all owe Sarah Palin a debt of gratitude. Never before has someone given herself over so wholly to the comedy gods. Thank you for your children’s names, your future son-in-law’s MySpace page, your incoherent blathering and all of the other low-hanging fruit you provided comedy writers in New York and around the world. As 23/6 president Sarah Bernard put it, “She is the gift that keeps on giving.”

Hackiest joke:
The annual award goes to any and all material devoted to the argument that it’s OK to use the words gay or faggot to mean lame or idiot. First of all, it’s not. But even the funny comics who disagree (there are a few) must at least be wary of the company they keep: the scores of talentless hacks who’ve cracked stale on the topic of late.

Report card

This year’s most exciting trend is the one bending away from ironic observational humor toward a more candid, confessional style. I’ve sat in rooms and felt the energy disappear when a stand-up starts mocking from afar, only to watch audience members reengage when the next comic makes himself vulnerable. For whatever reason, New Yorkers are craving connection right now, the most obvious culmination of which is the growing interest in storytelling shows. The Moth routinely turns away dozens at the door, Nights of Our Lives has become one of the UCBT’s hottest shows and Mike Birbiglia’s Sleepwalk with Me is exceeding expectations off Broadway. This curve will only accelerate as the economy worsens: Detachment is a luxury of the elite.