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Variety's 10 Comics to Watch for 2023 Include Hannah Berner, Kurtis Conner

Zarna Garg, Leanne Morgan, Brian Simpson Among Variety’s 10 Comics to Watch for 2023
Zarna Garg, Leanne Morgan, Brian Simpson Among Variety’s 10 Comics to Watch for 2023

Since 2000, Variety has been honoring 10 Comics to Watch at Just for Laughs Montréal. This year’s choices will be feted at a cocktail reception and a panel discussion July 29 before performing at a showcase on July 30. Tickets and more information can be found at www.hahaha.com

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Over the years, the list has included such luminaries as Tiffany Haddish, Kumail Nanjiani, Patton Oswalt, Taylor Tomlinson and Quinta Brunson. The list is comprised of stand-up comedians, writers and content creators selected by a panel that includes Variety editors and those in the comedy community that scout, book, cast and represent comics.

This year’s list includes breakouts in film, television, online and in clubs. Sabrina Wu can now be seen on movie screens in “Joyride,” while “Saturday Night Live” player Sarah Sherman will soon appear opposite Adam Sandler in the upcoming comedy “You Are So Not Invited to My Bat Mitzvah” and Leanne Morgan will appear alongside Reese Witherspoon and Will Ferrell in “You’re Cordially Invited.” Comics like Hannah Berner and Kurtis Conner have large followings for their work online, including Berner’s over 900 million views on TikTok and Conner’s 4 million YouTube subscribers. Many of this year’s honorees are known for their recent specials, including Zarna Garg’s “One in a Billion,” Ian Lara’s “Romantic Comedy” and Nimesh Patel’s “Lucky Lefty.” Other up-and-comers include podcast hosts JoAnne McNally, whose one-woman shows include “The Prosecco Express” and Brian Simpson, who has an upcoming special on Netflix.

Here’s a look at this year’s mirth makers.

Hannah Berner, “Han on the Street”

Hannah Berner, “Han on the Street”
Hannah Berner, “Han on the Street”


A nationally ranked junior tennis player, Berner switched her attention to entertainment, appearing on Bravo shows such as the reality series “Summer House.” Her intimate exploration of past relationships and keen pop culture remarks have made her a name in the comedy world, with viral “Han on the Street” segments and steady flow of crowd work clips finding popularity online.

Berner exudes an affable, yet direct, style and the comedian thrives on stage discussing her womanhood. “It’s almost therapeutic for me to let girls know I’m not perfect,” she says, noting that the things she mentions are totally normal to go through.

“I love the tension of having men in the room,” she adds, maintaining that they “need to hear some of these things to normalize and  actually become educated.” While she’s trying to offer commentary, she’s determined that each punchline lands for the whole crowd. “I’m speaking for the girls, but also I want everyone to be in on the joke.”

With her work, Berner “creates a female locker room where people can hear things and feel less alone — anyone’s welcome in the locker room,” she says.

In addition to touring, the comic hosts the podcasts “Berning in Hell” and “Giggly Squad.” “I really love interviewing people. ‘I hate small talk. I just want to know the real shit.”   

—  Charna Flam

Reps: Agency: WME; Management: Gallant Creative

Influences: Katt Williams, Chelsea Handler, her grandpa Jerry

Kurtis Conner, “Very Really Good”

Kurtis Conner, “Very Really Good”
Kurtis Conner, “Very Really Good”


A Toronto-based performer, podcaster and YouTube sensation, Conner quickly found an audience on Vine, and later migrated to YouTube, becoming an established force on that platform. He’s amassed over 4.3 million subscribers, more than 700  million total views, and regularly lands videos on the trending list. “I have this platform where I can put out exactly what I want, which is a dream come true,” he says. “But when you put a ton of effort into a video you think is great and it doesn’t do well, it can be upsetting. It’s taken me 10 years to figure it out, but I think I’m getting there.”

In 2022, Kurtis toured North America, selling more than 125,000 tickets at theaters across the country. In 2023, he embarked on his first international tour across Australia and New Zealand, selling out shows across both nations. As a rule, he looks for comedy in life’s everyday situations.

“Humor is born out of people, and in the ways we interact with each other and process the minute details in our relationships,” he says. “That’s the stuff that has always made me laugh. The human experience is hilarious.”

Conner currently hosts the podcast “Very Really Good” and recently filmed a comedy special. “Stand-up is what got me into comedy, and I want to take what I’ve learned and apply it to film and television,” he says.

— Nick Clement

Reps: Agency: IAG; Management: Direct Artists Management; Legal: The Altschul Firm

Influences: Bo Burnham, John Mulaney, Steven Wright, Mitch Hedberg, his stepfather

Zarna Garg, “One in a Billion”

When Garg’s children encouraged her to pursue comedy, the India-born former lawyer had spent 16 years as a stay-at-home mom and had never considered that her “funny speeches” for family and friends could be a career path all its own.

“I remember being told my whole life that I was really funny, and I used to dread it because I was thinking, [my parents] didn’t get the scientist, they didn’t get the mathematician, they didn’t get the doctor,” she recalls. “What are you supposed to do with that?”

Quite a lot, actually. Garg has taken her refreshingly observational, family-friendly style and spun it into a popular TikTok account and tour dates across the country. Her “One in a Billion” special arrived on Amazon Prime Video in May, packed with jokes stemming from her experiences as an immigrant and mom — perspectives that are front and center in her comedy, she says, “because it’s who I am, and I want to own it unapologetically.”

She’s already working on her next set, wrote a screenplay based on her life, and has ideas for a talk show with a global view. And she wants to forge a path for others to join her. “Brown women are not really represented in comedy — brown women from the brown nations, from back home,” Garg says. “This type of joy has escaped my community for forever, and I want to bring them into the fold.”

— Jessica Derschowitz

Reps: Agency: WME; Legal: Hansen, Jacobson, Teller, Hoberman, Newman, Warren, Richman, Rush, Kaller, Gellman, Meigs & Fox

Influences: Vir Das, Aditi Mittal, Russell Peters, Hasan Minhaj

Ian Lara, “Romantic Comedy”

Ian Lara, “Romantic Comedy”
Ian Lara, “Romantic Comedy”


Lara, a first-generation Dominican American, is emerging as one of New York City’s hottest stand-up comedians, with material touching on themes of growing up with immigrant parents, being unsure about his race, and his relationship with his born-again Christian father. “I’ve been doing stand-up for 12 years. You have to do the work to become good at it, but you also need to draw from your life experiences,” he says, “because that’s what audiences relate to the most.”

He’s appeared on Comedy Central’s “Stand-Up Featuring,” where his set garnered more than 10 million views, and was a regular player on the network’s “This Week at the Comedy Cellar.” Stand-up comedy remains his passion, but Lara is eager to explore new creative avenues. “I really want to get into television, and use acting as a way to grow into producing. I really admire what Kevin Hart has accomplished. I want to get in front of the camera more and keep learning the craft.”

Lara was featured on NBC’s “Bring the Funny,” and made his late-night television debut on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.” His Comedy Central special “Growing Shame” debuted on YouTube in February 2022, followed by his HBO Special “Ian Lara: Romantic Comedy,” which is streaming on Max. He’s currently developing a half-hour single-cam project with Chelsea Handler’s company.

Says Lara: “I’m looking to take any opportunity that comes my way in order to grow to the next level as an entertainer.”

— Nick Clement

Reps: Agency: IAG; Management: The Stand Group; Legal: Cohen Gardner

Influences: Kevin Hart, Richard Pryor, Dave Chappelle, Chris Rock

Joanne McNally, “Prosecco Express”

Joanne McNally, “Prosecco Express”
Joanne McNally, “Prosecco Express”


McNally has taken the stage more than 200 times around the globe, performing her stand-up shows “Prosecco Express” and “Wine Tamer” for responsive crowds. The Dublin native notes she feels at home on the stage. “I want to be buried in a theater. I love the feel of them. I love the box office. I love everything,” McNally says, adding that touring and performing became a vital source of motivation as she pivoted to comedy and sought recovery for her eating disorder.

“For a while it was bulimia, and now it’s stand-up,” McNally quips about her adulthood motivations. “It was something that basically gave me a reason to recover. Before I got into stand-up, I knew I had to recover because it’s not conducive to a happy life. I did see recovery as failure really. I didn’t see the point of getting better. I thought I would just hate my body and always be really sad. Then comedy gave me a really healthy,  productive sense of purpose.”

McNally also credits her success to the podcast, “My Therapist Ghosted Me,” that she and childhood friend Vogue Williams collaborated on two years ago.

While her outpatient experience caused the departure from her public relations career and a stint in her mother’s home, the comic has always wanted to embrace her creativity as a career. The comedian didn’t see this career as her ultimate goal; she dreamed of writing. Her new venture has allowed her to revisit writing; she is writing a book of essays, which is set to publish in 2024.                   
   — Charna Flam

Reps: Agency/Management: Lisa Richards (Ireland);  Off the Kerb (U.K.)

Influences: Bill Burr, Ali Wong, Michelle Wolf, Tommy Tiernan

Leanne Morgan, “Big Panty Tour”

Leanne Morgan, “Big Panty Tour”
Leanne Morgan, “Big Panty Tour”


Morgan knew she was funny from a young age, but hadn’t envisioned a life in standup comedy, initially wanting to become an actor. She reformulated her goals in her 30s as a married mother of three selling jewelry door-to-door in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains. “It was my own little comedy club, two or three nights a week. It would be a bunch of women sitting on a couch in somebody’s living room. That influenced how I approached people and did comedy.”

Industry folk told Morgan she couldn’t both raise children and have a comedy career. Yet she did, nurturing her kids while she played business gigs and comedy clubs on the weekends. “That’s the best advice I ever got, even though it made me mad. It gave me the determination. If I can’t do the traditional way, I’ll just find another way.”

With a national tour (“Big Panty Tour”) and hit specials on YouTube (“So Yummy”) and Netflix (“Leanne Morgan: I’m Every Woman”), plus a new tour under way (“Just Getting Started”), Morgan feels her unconventional path allowed her to have it all. “I’m realizing it now, at 57 years old, with all this happening to me, a lot of people haven’t gotten to do that. They’ve had to do one or the other. It’s really hard for
women especially.”

Morgan will fulfill her acting aspirations in “You’re Cordially Invited” alongside Will Ferrell and Reese Witherspoon. And she  hopes to launch her own sitcom. “It would be a dream.”

— Courtney Howard

Reps: Agency: UTA; Management: Levity Talent; Legal: Yorn Levine Barnes Krintzman Rubenstein Kohner Endlich & Gellman

Influences: Jay Leno, David Letterman, Johnny Carson, Dave Chappelle, Joan Rivers

Nimesh Patel, “Lucky Lefty”

Nimesh Patel, “Lucky Lefty”
Nimesh Patel, “Lucky Lefty”


At the age of 5, Patel learned that telling jokes could get him out of trouble. In 14 years of performing standup comedy, his fearless approach has paid off. “If there is something I feel is taboo, I’m always tempted by that third rail,” he says. “I’m usually on the right side of history — or at least on the right side of the joke.”

Patel’s career sprang from the Great Recession. “I became a comedian more from circumstance than chasing dreams. I graduated from NYU in 2008 with a degree in finance, which is about the funniest thing you could do at the time. When I was unemployed, I was seeking an outlet for some subconscious existential dread I was experiencing.”

It forced him to re-evaluate: “What do I like doing? I like making people laugh, and I’m good at writing and making people laugh.”

Later, Patel’s incisive wit turned his trauma of being diagnosed with testicular cancer into his comedy special, “Lucky Lefty.” “Once my balls were to the point of taking a trip to the hospital, I was like, ‘Oh, here we go! I’m gonna have at least 5 minutes that comes out of whatever this situation is.’ It was like God giving me material.”

Next up is “The Fast and Loose Tour,” including a stop at Madison Square Garden. But the goal remains the same: “To create the best art piece you can create. I’m very much enjoying right now, which is staring at a piece of paper and thinking, ‘How do I fix
this joke?’”

— Courtney Howard

Reps: Agency: Gersh; Management: Tigerman Management; Legal: Felker Toczek Suddleson Abramson LLP

Influences: His cousins and sister, Russell Peters, Chris Rock, Patrice O’Neal, Mitch Hedberg

Sarah Sherman, “Saturday Night Live”

Sarah Sherman, “Saturday Night Live”
Sarah Sherman, “Saturday Night Live”


Sherman, a.k.a. Sarah Squirm, is happy to put the emphasis on the “ugh” in laughter. “I like eliciting both laughter and groans,” says Sherman, whose style has been described as “body horror comedy.” By her own admission, her stand-up act can be “very vulgar and descriptive”: take her 2021 set at Just for Laugh’s New Faces of Comedy, in which she graphically compared her genitalia to sandwich meats. Or her videos, which utilize Ray Harryhausen-like practical effects and often feature every bodily fluid possible.

It might not seem like a natural fit for “Saturday Night Live,” but that’s precisely where Sherman ended up after execs caught her New Faces set, and she’s excelled as a featured player for two seasons thanks to her combination of absurdity and bravado.

Growing up a “loud, Jewish kid on Long Island,” Sherman  idolized “people who weren’t afraid to be irritating and brash” like “The Nanny” or “Ren & Stimpy.”

She first tried standup at the age of 16 in a BBQ restaurant in Manhattan but really cut her teeth while in college. Though she admits she bombed a lot, she also loved the immediacy of it. “You don’t have to pay for classes to be involved in a community — you can see a sign at an open mic and go walk in.”

Sherman is currently on her “Live! + In the Flesh” tour through August and will also be seen in the upcoming Adam Sandler comedy “You Are So Not Invited to My Bat Mitzvah.” And providing the WGA strike is resolved, she should be back for a third season at “SNL.”

— Jenelle Riley

Reps: Agency: UTA; Management: Rise Management

Influences: “The Nanny,” Larry David, “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse,” “Ren & Stimpy”

Brian Simpson, “BS with Brian Simpson”

Brian Simpson, “BS with Brian Simpson”
Brian Simpson, “BS with Brian Simpson”


Call it a tale of two comedy shows: Simpson was inspired to go into comedy after seeing a great stand-up set, but sitting through a bad one gave him the confidence to really go for it.

That was more than a decade ago. “Over time I’ve been able to be more concise, with less fear of silence,” he says. “And I’ve probably gotten better at getting deeper into things. There are things that I couldn’t make work 10 years ago, but I kept them in my notebook and now they’re some of my best jokes.”

These days, Simpson is taking stages in Austin, where he lives, and touring the country along with hosting his podcast “BS With Brian Simpson.” Prior to heading south, he was a regular at L.A.’s famed Comedy Store and made appearances on “Lights Out With David Spade,” Netflix’s “The Standups,” and “That’s My Time With David Letterman.” Preparing for big moments like those requires obsessing over the smallest details. “I have a whole whiteboard and mind mapping and timing the silences,” he says. “But when it’s time to go, I don’t feel any of that. I’m locked in.”

Simpson grew up in foster care and served in the Marine Corps, both of which inform his comedic perspective and, he muses, made him “good at reading people and situations.” He also talks frankly about both experiences in his material, which he’ll showcase in an upcoming Netflix special.

— Jessica Derschowitz

Reps: Agency: CAA; Management: Levity Talent; Legal: Schreck Rose Dapello Adams Berlin & Dunham

Influences: George Carlin, Redd Foxx, Eddie Murphy, Tom Segura, Whoopi Goldberg

Sabrina Wu, “Joyride”

Sabrina Wu, “Joyride”
Sabrina Wu, “Joyride”


Playing the awkwardly endearing Deadeye in “Joy Ride” taught Wu about finding the balance between performing live in front of an audience and in front of a camera on a closed set.

“Stop trying to make the camera crew break!” says the stand-up and writer Wu, who identifies as nonbinary. “It doesn’t mean you’re bombing if they don’t want to waste footage.”

The Michigan native honed their beat-boxing and stand-up skills in high school and while at Harvard, before writing for the Disney+ show “Doogie Kamealoha, M.D.”

During the pandemic, with live performing on hold, they auditioned for “Joy Ride” over Zoom and returned to stand-up after filming the movie, named a Just for Laughs New Face for the 2022 festival.

“I think something that makes a good stand-up and a good actor is updating your performance,” they say. “Really living in the moment of it, never reading the same lines the same way, feel the crowd, feel the space.”

Looking ahead, Wu has several projects in the works, including one with 20th Century Television featuring some autobiographical elements and is working on an hour of stand-up to take on the road. In their spare time, Wu also draws with an eye towards comics and illustrating on a larger scale, also playing with the Pride Basketball League in NYC.

“Yes, I’m non-binary and my life is absolutely perfect,” they say with a grin. “I’m a hero to all and I live comfortably in that truth.”

— Paul Plunkett

Reps: Agency: WME; Legal: Ginsburg Daniels Kallis

Influences: Tig Notaro, Ali Wong, Mike Birbiglia, Nick Nemiroff

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