The 20 Funniest Performances of 2019: Brad Pitt, ‘PEN15,’ Keanu Reeves and More
Fleabag’s sister! SNL’s breakout star! An epic Keanu Reeves cameo! These were the performances that made us laugh the hardest this year.
When we put out this list last year, it helped inspire The Last Laugh podcast, our weekly interview show where I talk to comedians about their work. Two comedians from 2018’s list—Sacha Baron Cohen and Nick Kroll—ended up appearing on the podcast this past year.
There was such an abundance of incredible comedy this year that in order to spread the wealth, I’ve decided to exclude any of our other podcast guests to date. They all deserve special recognition, but I want to give specific shout-outs to a few who delivered performances that would have otherwise made the cut.
Those include stand-up comic Ramy Youssef, who not only starred in his own excellent Hulu series but also put out a brilliant debut hour on HBO; former Daily Show producer Jena Friedman, whose Adult Swim series Soft Focus contains the sharpest satire on toxic masculinity released this year; and the singular Mike Birbiglia, who managed to inject so much heart into his latest joke-filled stage show The New One that you might just find yourself tearing up by the end.
But there was so much more to celebrate this year. Below, in chronological order, are the comedy performances that made us laugh the hardest across TV, film and stand-up in 2019.
Ncuti Gatwa on ‘Sex Education’
2019 began with an out-of-nowhere hit on Netflix about a group of teenagers coming of age in the British countryside. And its undeniable breakout star was the Scottish-Rwandan actor Ncuti Gatwa as Eric, a young gay man who can be both hilarious and heartbreaking within the span of a single scene.
Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle on ‘PEN15’
It’s a premise that never should have worked. In Hulu’s PEN15, thirtysomething comedians Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle play seventh-grade versions of themselves alongside actual 13-year-olds. Their sheer commitment to the bit elevates this show above mere gimmick to a fully realized saga about what it was actually like to be in middle school in the early aughts.
Cate Blanchett on ‘Documentary Now!’
Cate Blanchett earned a Golden Globe nomination this year for her performance in Richard Linklater’s barely-seen literary adaptation Where’d You Go, Bernadette? She deserves more recognition for her enthusiastic portrayal of creatively blocked performance artist Izabella Barta in Documentary Now!’s Marina Abramović parody “Waiting for the Artist.” Along with Fred Armisen, who plays her estranged, less talented lover, Blanchett expertly sends up the pretentious world of performance art in what has to be the funniest performance of her mostly dramatic career.
Patti Harrison on ‘Shrill’
There was a lot to love about Shrill, SNL cast member Aidy Bryant’s six-episode series for Hulu, which will return for a second season next month. But the performer who stole pretty much every scene she was in was comedian Patti Harrison. As Ruthie, Bryant’s lead character’s hypercritical co-worker, Harrison was able to get laughs with one cutting remark or even just a withering glance. Look out for her next year in her first leading role opposite Ed Helms in the indie film Togetherish.
Tim Robinson on ‘I Think You Should Leave’
Tim Robinson was always too good for Saturday Night Live. The Detroit native was hired as a featured player on that show in 2012 before they moved him to the writing staff the following year. Along with SNL alum Zach Kanin, Robinson ended up taking some of their rejected sketches and turning them into one of the funniest and most inventive sketch comedy series ever. With just six episodes on Netflix, I Think You Should Leave delivered more laughs than pretty much anything else released this year and somehow only gets funnier with repeat viewings. Robinson is undoubtedly the star, but special shout-outs are also due to Late Night with Seth Meyers writer Conner O’Malley as a man driven mad by a “Honk if You’re Horny” bumper sticker and 81-year-old Cuban actor Ruben Rabasa, who became an unlikely internet sensation for his performance as a disruptive focus group participant. My favorite sketch of the first season, however, is probably this one guest-starring Will Forte as an elderly man on a plane with a dark secret.
Sian Clifford on ‘Fleabag’
Of course, Phoebe Waller-Bridge is brilliant. Yes, Andrew Scott’s hot priest was criminally robbed of an Emmy nomination. And as Martin, Brett Gelman sneakily delivered one of the funniest and most emotional monologues of the year. But ultimately it was Sian Clifford as Claire who walked away with Fleabag season two when it came to pure comedy. When she turns to her sister after getting one of the worst haircuts ever and exclaims, “I look like a pencil!” it was game over.
Wanda Sykes in ‘Not Normal’ and ‘The Other Two’
Not only did Wanda Sykes put out one of her funniest stand-up specials to date this year with Netflix’s Not Normal—the title refers to President Donald Trump’s behavior—she also popped up in one of the most underrated comedy shows of the year. As a PR flack working to shape the Justin Bieber-inspired pop star ChaseDreams on Comedy Central’s The Other Two, Sykes stole scene after scene alongside Molly Shannon, Ken Marino and the rest of the stellar cast. Let’s hope people will pay more attention to this show when it returns for season two in 2020.
Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever in ‘Booksmart’
The hands-down funniest movie of the year should have been a much bigger hit than it was. Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut from a quartet of female screenwriters is the best last-day-of-high-school movie since Superbad. And it’s mostly thanks to a pair of breakthrough lead performances from Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever as two nerdy best friends who are trying to make up for four years of playing by the rules. Special shout-outs are also due to Skyler Gisondo as Jared and Billie Lourd as Gigi, who help/prevent them from getting to the biggest party of the year.
Keanu Reeves in ‘Always Be My Maybe’
Always Be My Maybe is a decent rom-com written by and starring Ali Wong and Randall Park. Then Keanu Reeves shows up in the year’s most deliriously fun cameo and the Netflix film comes alive. Reeves, who will be returning to comedy in next year’s long-awaited Bill & Ted sequel, instantly proves he still has his comic chops, sending up his own quirky heartthrob persona and delivering more laughs in his two scenes than anyone else manages in the rest of the movie.
Kate Berlant in ‘Rachel’
Comedian Kate Berlant is an expert at making the uncomfortable hilarious. And she has never displayed that talent more effectively than in this short film directed by Andrew DeYoung and co-starring her frequent comedy partner John Early. Based on “true events” from Early’s life, Berlant plays Rachel, an odd woman who actually did show up at a small going-away party at his Silver Lake apartment and refused to leave after they slowly realized nobody knew who she was. Really, the less said about it the better. Just watch.
Zendaya on ‘Euphoria’
HBO’s Euphoria is definitely a drama. A lot of fucked-up stuff happens and Hunter Schafer portrays the most complete trans character ever to grace TV screens. But still, there is something fundamentally hilarious happening with Zendaya’s performance as Rue, a drug-addicted teenager struggling just to get through high school alive. Maybe fans of her Disney Channel career knew Zendaya was an agile physical comedian who could make walking down a hallway while high seem like the most difficult feat imaginable, but I had no idea.
Jacqueline Novak in ‘Get on Your Knees’
Like Hannah Gadsby and Mike Birbiglia, who serves as a producer on her new Off-Broadway show, Jacqueline Novak has discovered a sweet spot for herself somewhere between the realms of stand-up comedy and one-person theater. Get on Your Knees, which I saw in a tiny L.A. venue before it headed to New York, is ostensibly about blow jobs. But it is so much more than that. With any luck, it’ll end up on Netflix or some other streaming platform in 2020 so the rest of the world can see how incredible this comedian is.
Brad Pitt in ‘Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood’
When Brad Pitt gets to be funny, he’s really funny. His sense of humor was present in the Ocean’s movies, came through in a big way in the Coen Brothers’ Burn After Reading and then exploded in Quentin Tarantino’s masterpiece Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood. Pitt has a lot of exceptional moments as stuntman Cliff Booth but watching him fight off a band of Manson family hippies while tripping balls is truly something to behold.
Edi Patterson on ‘The Righteous Gemstones’
It’s not easy to be the funniest part of a TV show that also stars Danny McBride, Adam Devine, John Goodman and Walton Goggins. But that is exactly what Edi Patterson manages to do in HBO’s The Righteous Gemstones. Patterson was so good in McBride’s previous series Vice Principals that he made her a central part of his latest project, in which she plays the absurdly immature Judy Gemstone. Nearly every line she utters is gold, but the monologue she delivers to fiancé BJ (the perfectly cast Tim Baltz) about the “affair” she had with her professor in episode nine demonstrates just how talented she really is.
Bowen Yang on ‘Saturday Night Live’
When comedian Bowen Yang was named as the first Asian cast member on Saturday Night Live this past fall, his achievement was immediately overshadowed by the controversy surrounding the hiring of Shane Gillis, who had, among other things, used anti-Asian slurs on his podcast. Within days, Gillis had been let go and in his wake, Yang has managed to thrive. He not only appeared as Andrew Yang during the cold open of his very first episode, but the following week debuted a “Weekend Update” character—catty Chinese trade representative Chen Biao—that has been among the most successful this season. And he’s just getting started.
Gary Gulman in ‘The Great Depresh’
My favorite stand-up special, without question, this year was The Great Depresh from comedian Gary Gulman. Director Michael Bonfiglio weaves documentary footage from Gulman’s life into his intensely honest and personal material about suffering from clinical depression, entering a mental institution and ultimately coming out the other side if not cured, then at least OK. In October, Gulman appeared alongside producer Judd Apatow, Patton Oswalt and Maria Bamford at the Largo theater in Los Angeles to celebrate the HBO special’s premiere. During his set there, he performed a new bit about ordering at Chipotle that made me laugh harder than anything else this year and should show up on his next special if we’re lucky.
Archie Yates in ‘Jojo Rabbit’
"It's definitely not a good time to be a Nazi,” Archie Yates’ Yorki says near the end of Taika Waititi’s ambitious World War II satire Jojo Rabbit. That’s just one of many moments when the adorable British kid elicits louder laughs than the more seasoned comedic actors like Sam Rockwell, Rebel Wilson and Stephen Merchant around him. Look out for Yates in an upcoming Home Alone reboot coming soon.
Billy Crudup on ‘The Morning Show’
Sometimes it seems like every actor in Apple TV+’s signature series is performing in a different show. I always want to be watching the show Billy Crudup is on.
Merritt Wever in ‘Marriage Story’
Merritt Wever is so freaking talented that she not only managed to deliver one of the most emotionally affecting performances of the year in Netflix’s gut-wrenching limited series Unbelievable, but then she turned around the end of the year and pulled out a hilarious ballet of physical comedy in Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story. In just one scene as the flustered sister of Scarlett Johansson’s Nicole, Wever’s complete inability to serve her brother-in-law divorce papers is just as convincing as her brilliant detective work in Unbelievable.
Ronny Chieng in ‘Asian Comedian Destroys America!’
It was a great year for Daily Show correspondents, with Roy Wood Jr., Dulcé Sloan and Jaboukie Young-White each putting out stand-up specials on Comedy Central. But as impressive as all of those comics are, Ronny Chieng’s December Netflix special Asian Comedian Destroys America! is the one that truly felt like an arrival to the comedy mainstream. With his outsider perspective as a Chinese Malaysian-born comic who studied in Australia, Chieng diagnoses this country’s biggest problems, from our obsession with Amazon Prime (“Now!”) to why he believes everything would be fixed if we finally elected an Asian president. At the very least, this should be Andrew Yang’s favorite stand-up special of the year.
For more, listen to the most recent episodes of The Last Laugh podcast.