The 20 Funniest Performances of 2018: Awkwafina, ‘Killing Eve,’ Sacha Baron Cohen and More
These were the performances that made us laugh the hardest during a less than hilarious year.
Overall, 2018 was not the funniest year. Fortunately, comedy was everywhere.
The Netflix stand-up comedy boom only grew stronger, with the absence of Louis C.K. making room for dozens of up-and-coming comics. As half-hour TV comedies were becoming more serious, hour-long “dramas” picked up the slack, with Killing Eve and Succession producing some of the funniest moments of the year.
Meanwhile, as the Trump presidency spun further out of control, political comedians were forced to push the boundaries and find new ways to hold public officials to account, from Michelle Wolf’s uncompromising set at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner to Sacha Baron Cohen’s gonzo trickery in Who Is America?
Below, in chronological order, are the comedy performances that made us laugh the hardest across TV, film and stand-up in 2018.
Catherine O’Hara in Schitt’s Creek
Catherine O’Hara is at the top of her game in this criminally underrated show full of hilarious performances. She deserves to win all the awards her character Moira Rose never could.
John Early on 2 Dope Queens
John Early, best known for playing Elliott on TBS’ Search Party, is not exactly known as a political comedian. But during 2 Dope Queens’ HBO show earlier this year, he managed to perfectly capture the mood of the country after the first year of Trump from the very first line of his stand-up set: “What a chill time to be an American.” It only got better from there.
The cast of The Death of Stalin
There wasn’t a weak link in this perfectly executed satire film from Veep creator Armando Iannucci. Steve Buscemi, Jeffrey Tambor, Simon Russell Beale and the rest of this impressive ensemble produced some of the funniest physical comedy of the year, including the scene where they find the dictator dead on the floor of his office and must figure out what the hell they’re supposed to do with him.
Henry Winkler in Barry
Winkler won his first-ever Emmy Award this year for playing Bill Hader’s acting teacher Gene Cousineau in HBO’s Barry. It is a part so perfectly suited to his skills at this point in his career that it seems possible people might finally stop calling him “The Fonz” everywhere he goes.
John Mulaney in Kid Gorgeous at Radio City
I’m not sure I laughed harder or more consistently this year at anything besides Mulaney’s big Netflix special filmed in front of an especially hot crowd at Radio City Music Hall. Beyond everything else he did on stage, the comedian also managed to come up with the perfect analogy for the Trump White House: "This guy being the president, it's like there's a horse loose in a hospital. I think eventually everything's going to be OK, but I have no idea what's going to happen next. And neither do any of you, and neither do your parents, because there's a horse loose in the hospital. That's never happened before! No one knows what the horse is going to do next, least of all the horse. He's never been in the hospital before, he's just as confused as you are."
Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer in Killing Eve
Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Killing Eve is way more than just a cat-and-mouse spy thriller starring two brilliantly talented women. Through their unique choices on screen, Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer managed to make Eve Polastri and her aptly named nemesis Villanelle two of the most surprisingly hilarious characters on television. Special shout-out as well to the great Fiona Shaw, who delivered the best non sequitur of 2018: “I once saw a rat drink from a can of Coke there. Two hands. Extraordinary.”
Michelle Wolf at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner
Say what you will about Michelle Wolf, but her White House Correspondents’ Dinner speech hit the Trump administration so hard that the press organization behind the event decided no comedian could follow her in 2019. Virtually unknown outside of comedy circles before the dinner, Wolf shot to instant infamy in its aftermath for her jokes comparing Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ personality to that of The Handmaid’s Tale’s Aunt Lydia. She may have ultimately flown too close to the sun as her provocative Netflix talk show The Break was canceled just three months after it premiered. But she’ll be back.
Matthew Macfadyen and Nicholas Braun in Succession
As Tom and Cousin Greg on HBO’s laugh-out-loud drama Succession, these two actors outdid themselves week after week, ultimately becoming the funniest double act on television by the end of the first season’s 10-episode run. Their relationship really kicks into high gear in episode four when Tom lets Greg in on his “death pit” secret. “I mean, I feel like I might not like it in the death pit,” Greg stammers. But it’s too late. He’s already there.
Hannah Gadsby in Nanette
No stand-up special spurred more debate in 2018 than Netflix’s surprise hit Nanette—mostly because people couldn’t decide whether Australian comic Hannah Gadsby’s bravura performance could even be called “stand-up.” In the end, it didn’t really matter. Nanette was at times scathing and heartbreaking, but it was also hilarious. Gadsby had planned to quit comedy altogether after the release of her live show, but admitted this summer that her plan had “backfired.” As she told Jimmy Fallon, “If I quit, I'm an idiot now. Like, if the show had gone as badly as I'd planned, it would have worked. But now I'm left with a choice: I'll either be an idiot or a hypocrite. I'll be a hypocrite.” Lucky us.
Lakeith Stanfield in Sorry to Bother You
Boots Riley’s surreal satire on race and capitalism wouldn’t work without the right actor at its center. And he hit the jackpot with Atlanta’s Lakeith Stanfield, who imbues Cassius “Cash” Green with a wide-eyed ambition that helps guide viewers through the increasingly absurd plot. The scene in which Armie Hammer’s Elon Musk-esque CEO forces Cassius to rap is an all-timer.
Jake Ryan as Gabe in Eighth Grade
15-year-old Elsie Fisher is getting deserved plaudits and awards recognition for her leading role in Bo Burnham’s 2018 masterpiece Eighth Grade. But the funniest performance in the film belongs to the unforgettable Jake Ryan as her awkward male counterpart Gabe. We first meet Gabe during the deeply traumatic pool party scene and by the time he’s sharing his rainbow display of chicken nugget sauces with Kayla at the end of the film, he has somehow made everything better for her. If only there was another, parallel movie telling what must be the similarly horrifying and heartwarming story of Gabe’s eighth grade school year.
Sacha Baron Cohen in Who Is America?
There’s an argument to be made that the funniest performance in Sacha Baron Cohen’s surprise Showtime series came from Georgia Republican Jason Spencer. But since that bit of comedy was both unintentional and a bit too real, the award goes to the British comedian behind Who Is America? Baron Cohen’s seven-episode series didn’t always work, but when it did, watch out. What he achieved in the “Kinderguardians” segment exposed more about America’s gun culture than anything else this year. And don’t sleep on the final episode’s elaborate Women’s March piece, for which Baron Cohen had to keep his elaborate ruse going for two full days.
Natasha Rothwell in Insecure
Recently named 2018’s funniest character by The Guardian, Natasha Rothwell was on fire in season three of Insecure, especially during the show’s epic Coachella episode that ended with Kelli getting tased and peeing her pants after trying to run past the security guard who kicked her out before Beyoncé’s set. And if you’ve never seen her episode of Netflix’s The Characters, do yourself a favor and strap in to experience her full range as a comedy performer.
Awkwafina in Crazy Rich Asians
No one was funnier in Crazy Rich Asians than Awkwafina as “Asian Ellen.” Every line of dialogue the 29-year-old rapper-turned-actress uttered in 2018’s game-changer of a romantic comedy proved that she deserves her breakout star status.
Travis Tope in American Vandal
The newsboy cap. The fake British accent. The tea. Was there any TV character more fully realized this year than American Vandal season two’s Kevin “Shitstain” McClain? Travis Tope came seemingly out of nowhere to deliver an instantly iconic performance as that kid we all went to high school with. Creators Dan Perrault and Tony Yacenda should never have been able to top their fantastic first season but somehow they did.
Justin Theroux in Maniac
The first time we meet Justin Theroux’s Dr. James Mantleray in Netflix’s Maniac he’s having virtual reality sex with a homemade machine. His odd love affairs with computers don’t stop there. On a show that is tonally all over the place and often hard to make sense of, Theroux is consistently hilarious as a scientist deeply out of his depth. After watching his almost entirely humorless performance as Kevin on The Leftovers for years, it is refreshing to see Theroux throw himself in the opposite direction here.
Ted Alexandro on Louis C.K. at the Comedy Cellar
When Louis C.K. made his controversial “comeback” at the Comedy Cellar in New York this year, he declined to even acknowledge, let alone joke about, his admitted sexual misconduct. That same week, comedian Ted Alexandro did it for him. “What does a guy have to get, convicted of sexual assault, to get an extended ovation?” he asked when he took the stage at the Cellar. He continued, “What's with this P.C. culture? Do you want to live in a world where a man can't politely ask a colleague if he can take off all his clothes and masturbate to completion? Is that where we are as a culture?”
Nick Kroll in Big Mouth
As Nick Birch, Maury, Coach Steve and Lola on his animated series Big Mouth, Nick Kroll is currently producing some of the best voiceover work in the business. But the character that consistently kills me is the barely comprehensible Rick, Coach Steve’s decrepit, one-eyed hormone monster who’s always there with a “You’re the man, baby” when you need him.
Triumph the Insult Comic Dog on the Midterms
If there was one thing that made Beto O’Rourke’s midterm election loss to Ted Cruz sting a little bit less, it was Triumph the Insult Comic Dog’s election eve visit to Texas on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Only Robert Smigel’s decades-old puppet creation has the balls to say to Cruz’s face, “I support spaying and neutering, just like Trump did to you!”
Olivia Colman in The Favourite
As the pathetic, needy, gout-ridden Queen Anne in Yorgos Lanthimos’ near-parody of a costume drama, Olivia Colman is finally a movie star. Whether she’s screaming at a small child for daring to look in her general direction or shoving cake in her mouth seconds after vomiting, Colman’s lack of vanity as an actress is inspiring. If her performance as Queen Elizabeth in the upcoming third season of The Crown contains half as much wit as this, it will be a pleasure to behold.