The 20 Funniest Performances of 2020: ‘Borat,’ ‘Schitt’s Creek,’ SNL and More
At the end of this very unfunny year, The Daily Beast’s Matt Wilstein and Laura Bradley each share the 10 performances that made them laugh the hardest.
On paper, 2020 was not a particularly funny year. In addition to the whole global pandemic thing, there were devastating wildfires, horrific police brutality and what for what a minute there seemed like it might be the end of democracy.
Frankly, we could have just called Rudy Giuliani’s hair dye-dripping My Cousin Vinny reenactment the one and only funniest performance of the year, but that would have felt like cheating. Because somehow, despite it all, the comedians and actors on this list kept us laughing.
For this year’s list of the funniest performances, which span TV, film, stand-up and the new frontier of TikTok, we decided to count down our top fives on a special episode of The Last Laugh podcast and then share our full top 10 lists below. Here’s to a much funnier 2021!
10. Nikki Glaser’s Zoom bit on ‘Conan’
One of the biggest challenges stand-up comics faced this year was how to be funny on Zoom, where so much of “live” comedy moved during the pandemic. But it was comedian Nikki Glaser who delivered the first great bit about this new platform where she joined Conan O’Brien’s remote late-night show in May and did her spot-on impression of a person exiting a Zoom meeting.
9. John Wilson and Nathan Fielder in ‘The Bread Scene’
Anyone who listens to The Last Laugh knows that I became seriously obsessed with HBO’s How To With John Wilson, the weirdest, funniest and most surprisingly moving comedy series to premiere in 2020. It wasn’t until after I interviewed Wilson, however, that he and his executive producer Nathan Fielder released a bonus episode of sorts online. Like each of the six episodes that aired on HBO, this “anatomy of a scene” video began as something fairly straightforward for veering off into unexpectedly hilarious directions.
8. Candice Bergen in ‘Let Them All Talk’
As the unabashedly gold-digging Texas lingerie saleswoman Roberta in Steven Soderbergh’s mostly improvised new film Let Them All Talk, comedy legend Candice Bergen gets the chance to shine in a way she hasn’t been able to in decades. There is a generalized melancholy in the movie, which was filmed on an actual crossing of the Queen Mary 2 from New York to London. But at every turn, Bergen manages to lighten things up with her unique ability to land devastatingly funny jokes that couldn’t have been as effortless as they seem.
7. Marc Maron in ‘End Times Fun’
Comedian Marc Maron has said in recent weeks on his WTF podcast that he does not miss performing stand-up during quarantine and would be perfectly satisfied if End Times Fun was the last special he ever releases. It’s easy to see why after watching the hour, which premiered on Netflix in early March and inadvertently became one of the most prophetic pieces of comedy about the state of the world this year. The fact that it was beautifully directed by his girlfriend Lynn Shelton, who died tragically a couple of months later, makes it all the more special.
6. Cooper Raiff in ‘Shithouse’
Despite winning the top film prize this year’s entirely virtual SXSW festival, Cooper Raiff’s debut feature Shithouse has flown mostly under the radar. The 22-year-old wrote, directed and starred in the loosely autobiographical movie about one fateful weekend during his freshman year of college. As Alex, a homesick kid with literally zero friends, Raiff perfectly captures the awkwardness of navigating a strange new world where everyone seems to be having more fun than he is.
5. Sarah Cooper on TikTok, Twitter, Instagram and Netflix
If there was one breakout comedy star of 2020, it has to be Sarah Cooper. Completely unknown before the pandemic, Cooper delighted the internet with her undeniable Trump lip syncs that went viral on TikTok and every other social media platform. Plenty has been written about why her video caught on in such a big way, but for me it was the unique pleasure of hearing Trump’s voice without having to see his face. From now until the end of time, whenever I hear audio of America’s least qualified president, I will imagine his meaningless words coming out of Cooper’s mouth and smile. Her hastily assembled Netflix special Everything’s Fine was very hit or miss. But when it did hit, like this reenactment of the Access Hollywood tape featuring Helen Mirren as Billy Bush, it was spectacular.
4. Maria Bakalova in ‘Borat Subsequent Moviefilm’
She came out of nowhere to deliver the most consequential comedy performance of the year. The mysterious Bulgarian actress stole scene after scene from Sacha Baron Cohen—not an easy feat—in Borat Subsequent Moviefilm as Tutar, the tragically misguided daughter of Kazakhstan's most famous journalist. The climactic scene in which she ensnared Rudy Giuliani has received the most attention, but Bakalova is a revelation throughout the film, culminating in that final moment when her father—and by extension Baron Cohen—finally recognizes her as his equal.
3. Sam Jay in ‘3 in the Morning’
No stand-up special made me laugh harder this year than SNL writer Sam Jay’s debut hour on Netflix. Her utter fearlessness to share her perspective on everything from Elon Musk’s space program to “trans bitches” might rub some viewers the wrong way. But Jay is an undeniable comedy talent who commands the stage like few others and just keeps getting funnier.
2. Jordan Klepper on ‘The Daily Show’
What a year it’s been for Jordan Klepper. As a special correspondent for The Daily Show, he started 2020 by trolling Trump supporters in Iowa. And when the pandemic hit, he didn’t skip a beat. Klepper found innovative ways to keep delivering field pieces from Trump’s boat parades to his mostly maskless “superspreader” events, literally risking his life for comedy. His report from one of the president’s final, “eerily quiet” pre-election rallies did more than most polls to predict his defeat. And he kept going into mid-November at the “Million MAGA March” in Washington, D.C. where he confronted Trump supporters who were “celebrating” his win.
1. Chloe Fineman on ‘Saturday Night Live’
In a very tough year for Saturday Night Live, Chloe Fineman proved herself to be the show’s MVP at every turn. She not only single-handedly delivered my favorite sketch of the experimental “SNL at Home” shows during the first months of the pandemic (see the Airbnb clip below) but also put out a parade of uncanny impressions from Nicole Kidman and Timothée Chalamet to Tiffany Trump and that lady who complimented the president’s smile at NBC’s town hall. More than anything, Fineman is a great example of how much better SNL can be when it focuses less on celebrity cameos and more on its own talented cast.
10. John McEnroe in ‘Never Have I Ever’
What can I say? I’m a sucker for a bit of inspired stunt casting—and Never Have I Ever, Netflix’s salty-sweet teen comedy, hit the motherlode with tennis player John McEnroe, who narrates the series as the inner voice of the show’s tempestuous central teen, Devi. The comedic juxtaposition of a sexagenarian man voicing a young woman’s anger pretty much speaks for itself—but McEnroe’s legacy of explosive mid-game tantrums also makes him an unexpectedly perfect voice for short-fused teens. Stunt casting can easily become obnoxious if done incorrectly, but here the device is used with enough care to impart an extra layer of humor without ever becoming distracting. And McEnroe’s commitment doesn’t hurt either. Really, it’s the gusto with which McEnroe embraces his role—and a well deployed cameo at the very end of the season— that makes the whole thing work so well.
9. Anne Hathaway in ‘The Witches’
Given the mixed reviews Robert Zemeckis’ adaptation of the Roald Dahl classic The Witches received upon its release, it seems fair to say that the film overall was not the most remarkable achievement—but as disappointing as the film might have been to some, its lead performance was a pure delight. As the Grand High Witch, Anne Hathaway devoured every scene she appeared in—chewing on a thick, inscrutable accent while gesticulating and throwing her temper up and down in violent crescendos one moment to the next. Some aspects of the film were miscalculated; Hathaway has apologized, for instance, for the film’s portrayal of limb differences as a signifier of evil. But given the doubt some expressed that Hathaway could tackle camp with the same vigor as Anjelica Huston in Nicolas Roeg’s 1990 adaptation, it’s worth recognizing that Hathaway more than met that challenge.
8. BD Wong on ‘Nora from Queens’
Awkwafina’s Comedy Central show, Nora from Queens, was a little tough to follow as it found its footing in its debut earlier this year. The series comes together over time as the aimless Nora figures out what the hell she wants to do with her life—or, at least, how she plans to move out of her father’s house. But what’s there from the beginning is the chemistry shared by the charming show’s impressive cast, which includes the comedian-rapper, Orange Is the New Black alum Lori Tan Chinn as Nora’s endlessly lovable grandmother, and BD Wong as her dorky dad. Wong, in particular, is a delight to watch in this series, as he plays a gym rat who’s also finally exploring dating again after years as a single dad. He loves gym shorts and flip flops, is terrified of pigeon germs, and relishes in making quiet but cutting digs at the family table. In a series full of loud, boisterous performances, Wong provides a more laid back stability—one that anchors both the show and its central family, even when he’s making his own goofier mistakes, like uploading an accidental dick pic to Instagram.
7. Harvey Guillén and Natasia Demetriou on ‘What We Do in the Shadows’
Long live Guillermo de la Cruz! For two seasons now, Harvey Guillén has played the Staten Island vampires’ familiar-slash-wannabe-contemporary—an overworked servant who wants nothing more than to one day join the ranks of the undead himself. This season, however, we’ve been dealt a bit of a twist: It turns out Guillermo is the descendant of a long line of vampire hunters, including Van Helsing. And as seen in the finale, which finds Guillermo on a Blade-like killing spree to save his “friends,” he’s certainly got a knack for the family business. Guillén has always shone in this series, but this season has given him even meatier material to work with, as Guillermo explores the contradictions between his family legacy and his vampiric aspirations. Additionally, however, Natasia Demetriou, who plays the equally stubborn and stupid Nadja, deserves a special shout-out this season for playing not only her blood-sucking character, but also her ghost—who now possesses a doll.
6. Andy Samberg in ‘Palm Springs’
Few comedians have perfected the “obnoxious, lovable bro” archetype like Andy Samberg. Maybe it’s his Lonely Island roots, or maybe it’s his broad, guileless grin—but whatever it is, Samberg has managed to carve out something as a niche for himself as the guy who knows how to subvert the typical “douchebag” character, highlighting his inner innocence and humanity. All of this is to say that Palm Springs, which debuted earlier this year with Samberg playing the hopeless victim of a Groundhog Day-like time warp, was an absolute homerun—thanks, in large part, to that specific ethos Samberg excels at creating. Samberg produced the film alongside his Lonely Island partners Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer—and his co-star, the equally acerbic and vulnerable Cristin Milioti, also plays a significant role in making this familiar yet unorthodox rom-com shine. Samberg and Milioti’s chemistry crackles through Palm Springs as their characters reveal the roots of their Peter Pan complexes—getting drunk and tatting each other up while discussing how they wound up trapped in the wedding retreat from hell. Ultimately, though, it’s the fascinating juxtapositions—sci-fi with rom-com, stereotypical bro with a heart of gold, pizza pool floats and deep, philosophical conversations—that make this film such a delight to watch.
5. James Adomian on ‘Harley Quinn’
Nothing has made me laugh harder this year than one episode of DC’s Harley Quinn animated series. The installment, titled “There’s No Place to Go But Down,” finds Harley and Poison Ivy staring down another prison stay—but this time, they do not find themselves at Arkham. Instead they’ve been sentenced to time in Bane’s pit—a giant hole in the ground where he’s begun rehabilitative exercises for inmates that involve a lot of painting and vision boards. (“I have inspo!” the beefed-up luchador offers; a poster of him dangling from a branch, emblazoned with the words “Hang in there,” decorates a cell wall.) Throughout the series, Adomian plays Bane as the Legion of Doom’s doofiest outcast. He calls explosives “’splosions,” and one of his biggest schemes in Season 1 involves blowing up an eatery because of a dastardly cashier named Todd who frequently got his name wrong. The “Bane voice” can be comedic on its own, as proven by countless amateur impersonators in the wake of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises. Adomian mines the character’s warbly tones for all they’re worth, but even funnier than the voice is the idiosyncratic earnestness the comedian finds beneath it. We must protect this poor, misguided oaf at all costs!
4. Ayo Edebiri on ‘Big Mouth’
It's no easy task to take over a character that another performer originated—but in Big Mouth Season 4, Ayo Edebiri makes it sound seamless. Jenny Slate, who voiced the biracial character until this year, announced over the summer that she would no longer voice the Netflix show's sweetest, nerdiest character, opening the role up to a performer whose background more closely matched the character's. Edebiri, who had already come aboard as a writer for Season 5, joined the show's cast this season in a Halloween episode that finds Missy struggling with her identity. Edebiri, a comedian with somewhat offbeat sensibilities herself, brings all the wonderful weirdness fans have grown to love about Missy, and more crucially, her presence has already allowed the show to explore more fertile comedic ground. One of the season’s best storylines digs into what it's like to come of age as a Black teen—an angle that the writers only felt comfortable exploring once a Black woman occupied the role. Edebiri never had anything to prove when she took on this role, but nonetheless her performance has already demonstrated why casting changes like these are more than empty gestures; they’re necessary steps that, on top of making the entertainment industry more equitable, also make the art we consume more thoughtful, more creative, and, most crucial in this case, even funnier than before.
3. Billie Piper on ‘I Hate Suzie’
There's plenty to love about Billie Piper's gripping performance in HBO Max's dark comedy I Hate Suzie, but it's the range of talents on display that make the Doctor Who alum so stunning here. As pop singer turned actress Suzie Pickles, Piper plays the ultimate woman on the edge. We meet her during a photo shoot at her idyllic country home—just as she's collecting all the WiFi routers to prevent anyone from seeing the illicit photos that just leaked of her affair with a man who is definitely not her husband. As Suzie's personal nightmare unfolds over eight episodes, each installment explores a stage of grief—and as Suzie's predicament becomes more morally complicated, she becomes more legible, even relatable. Piper cracks the character open with delirious moments that basically scream "Jesus, take the wheel." One minute, she's bursting into song in the street; the next, she's rolling around on the floor as her character goes on a bender; later, she's ranting in the street in a pair of fuzzy slippers. As insane as it all is to watch, it's clear from the results that Piper—who both co-created the show with Succession writer Lucy Prebble—knows exactly what she's doing.
2. Dan Levy on ‘Schitt’s Creek’
Choosing Dan Levy for a list like this almost feels perfunctory for how obvious it is—but throughout Schitt's Creek’s run on Pop TV, Levy has walked a comedic tightrope and made it look easy. With David, he's imbued a naturally repellant character—someone who, on the surface, seems short-tempered, entitled, and snobby—with complexity and (reluctant) warmth, transforming what might have been a caricature into a compelling, stunningly human character. For six seasons, Levy and the show’s writers have explored why each member of the Rose family behaves the way they do—and the very relatable insecurities underpinning their extravagant eccentricities. David's journey has been consistently one of the funniest—whether he's learning to "fold in" cheese, explaining to his dad why his skincare products are a "write-off," or getting very drunk with his mother at a fruit winery. Each Rose embarked on a new path by the time Schitt's Creek ended this year, and for this viewer, David's journey has felt the most satisfying. He's finally gotten everything he wanted—read: a Nancy Meyers-grade cottage and a loving, utterly lovable man to share it with—and grown up a little in the process. But he's still the same finicky and, as Jocelyn would put it, "precious" boy we've all come to know and love.
1. Nicholas Hoult on ‘The Great’
Nicholas Hoult has specialized in playing assholes and weirdos for years—and in Hulu’s courtly comedy about Catherine the Great's journey toward ruling Russia, he's perfected the craft so well it'll leave you shouting a hearty "Huzzah!" We've already seen Hoult play manipulative teens (Skins), crazed underlings (Mad Max Fury Road), and courtly menaces (The Favourite). As the remarkably unremarkable Russian monarch Peter—who does not even merit a superlative like "The Great" or "The Terrible"—Hoult balances pathetic naïveté with unrepentant cruelty. His take on Peter is reprehensible but also somehow almost—almost!—pitiable. But most importantly, whether he's taking a nap in the arms of a statue or mispronouncing the word "touché," Hoult’s performance is consistently side-splitting, and a joyful entry into the annals of characters we love to hate.
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