There’s no way around it: this year absolutely sucks. And we’re still only halfway through, which means that 2020 is going to last for another 45-50 months. But even as life moves ahead grudgingly and in slow-motion, we at least have a whole bunch of jokes to laugh at. With June morphing into July, into August and so forth, we take a look at some stand-up comedy specials to have come out in the first half of 2020 that come with the DeadAnt stamp of approval. If you happen to disagree with any of the entries here, as is understandable given the very subjective nature of comedy, then we’re sorry to inform you that you’re wrong.
This article was first published in DeadAnt, an online publication and new-media venture focused on stand-up comedy in India.
Jerry Seinfeld: ’23 Hours To Kill’
Jerry Seinfeld can’t change, won’t change. And why would he? His much-copied brand of what’s-the-deal comedy has made him pretty much the single biggest name in comedy. And he is more than likely a bajillionaire. So here he is again, on 23 Hours To Kill, talking about the banalities and absurdities of modern day existence, wondering why the hell anyone does anything at all. And it’s just as delightful to watch as ever—from pinpointing the emptiness of words to (still) banging on about mobile phones, Seinfeld commits fully to his metropolitan nihilism.
That exact same thing has also been a legitimate criticism directed at Seinfeld, that he’s too predictable and settled in his comedy. That it’s all much of a muchness. It’s tricky: fans can feel a certain familiar comfort in his material, especially when it remains as smart and relevant as ever. But there’s also the fact that his ‘relatable’ shtick no longer applies—when you have as many super-cars as he does, when you’re schmoozing with the Illuminati every weekend, you can no longer rely on the everyman trope without causing some serious cognitive dissonance. But the joie de vivre with which he still performs, 40-something years into the game—periodically breaking into his trademark high-pitched squeals of outrage—makes the experience of watching him loads of fun. He’s not quite in touch, but he’s not out of touch either.
Hannah Gadsby: ‘Douglas’
On Douglas, Hannah Gadsby (pictured above) spends the first 15 minutes painstakingly outlining her set—what jokes she’s going to crack, what unexpected punchlines the audience should expect, the sections they shouldn’t get invested in. She puts down the entire elevator pitch — if the building had 1000 floors — right up top, rubber-stamping her comedic intent with a deliberately stinky pun about being “meta”. It’s fascinating to watch, as Gadsby reflects on her belated diagnosis of autism, mining it for many laughs, hopping along disconnected subjects for a loose narrative.
It’s a smart way of sidestepping the absurdly high expectations that Douglas came with following the success of her last special, the emotionally devastating Nanette. That worked as a powerful performance piece; here, she confronts the structural limitations of stand-up comedy, working both within and outside that framework. The sense of justice and righteousness remains and, while a lot of comics fall into the trap of making meaningful points at the cost of the humour, Gadsby has a precious gift of balancing the virtue with the jokes.
Patton Oswalt: ‘I Love Everything’
Patton Oswalt is a cute little guy with a round face and a nerdy energy, which immediately makes him endearing. You’re automatically rooting for him. And he doubles down on that with a special that’s soaked in positivity, only rarely straying into saccharine territory. From finding love again after the tragic death of his first wife, writer and journalist Michelle McNamara, to the affection he feels for his daughter, to saying all the right things about empowerment of women, I Love Everything has a running strain of wholesomeness to it, with a special mention for the absurd aside on the subhuman nature of subcontractors.
Eric Andre: ‘Legalize Everything’
And then there’s Eric Andre. If you like your comedy unhinged — to the point where it’s arguably not even comedy anymore — just a guy being weird and doing ridiculous things on stage, he is your man. To be clear, Eric Andre’s firebrand absurdism, vulgar and depraved, regularly drifting into anarchy, is not for everyone — it’s definitely not for me — but there’s a manic energy to this loud and proud degenerate on Legalize Everything that’s worth watching. He’s pushing buttons, asking questions, playing the fool, where the whole thing threatens to devolve into farce. And often does.
Taylor Tomlinson: ‘Quarter-life Crisis’
Quarter-Life Crisis is, on the surface, about a millennial who doesn’t really belong. Taylor Tomlinson touches on themes of growing up, dating in today’s age, not fitting in, not belonging, and delivers a confident and self-assured performance. She adopts a confessional tone that underpins the whole set, expanding on those ideas and seeking broader meaning through her experiences.
Dave Chappelle: ‘8:46’
It would be a disservice to declare 8:46 a return to form, since that’s not its purpose. Chappelle’s last couple of specials have drawn much flak for a host of reasons, not least for pushing misogyny and trans-phobia. Here, though, he ditches the latter, and keeps the former to a still unnecessary minimum, for a surprise performance to a socially-distanced crowd of similarly disillusioned fans. Chappelle lets his anger take the wheel, not bothering with setups and punchlines as he articulates the emotions he’s feeling in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd, weaving a story of historical injustices and the resilience and spirit that define Black America.
Mark Normand: ‘Out To Lunch’
At his best, Mark Normand finds a way to approach uncomfortable subjects — paedophilia, for instance — with a kind of cavalier, common-sense, cut-through-the-bullshit zip, his restless, hesitant, awkward delivery accentuating the quickfire punchlines. But then he does that thing that comedians so often do: he pushes it too much, he keeps picking at the scab, never knowing when to stop digging. He wants to talk about race, gender, weight—every hot-button topic he can think of—and do the having and eating of the cake together. The attempts to both-sides ideas that require no such generosity don’t work, though Normand at least tries to stay on the right side of things and presents his thoughts about ‘offence’ not with smug self-righteousness but with an ‘aw shucks’ uncertainty.
Kanan Gill: ‘Yours Sincerely’
Gill makes the cut for his brilliant dissection of the Indian concept of “timepass” alone, but even beyond that, his second special — first on Netflix — Yours Sincerely, reaches many highs. While there’s an underlying motif at play, a structural looseness allows Gill to wander off into observational diversions at whim, highlighting his ability to discover unpredictable punchlines. He also spends considerable time on mental health and depression, a subject that Indian comedy has steadily embraced over the past year or so, helping to normalise it further. Ultimately, there’s a certain indulgence on Yours Sincerely which means it ends up overstaying its welcome, but it remains one of the standout Indian releases of the year.
Rohan Joshi: ‘Wake N Bake’
On Wake N Bake, Joshi uses his smart writing skills to deliver a series of “Oh nice” moments as he walks the audience through an existential crisis spurred on by the process of aging. Joshi mentions several times how he’s now 36, and wanders off into stories that display his newfound wisdom, as well as those that flaunt the lack of it. It’s an engaging set, ticking off many of the items on the Indian comedy checklist — education, porn, scatological humour, Indian witches, marijuana, generation gaps, and so forth — and makes for an entertaining watch.
Sam Morril: ‘I Got This’
Sam Morril’s I Got This is just so much fun. It’s the kind of hangout comedy special that, at only 47 minutes, goes by in a breeze. Morril juggles between thoughtful and brazen, covering familiar ground — travelling as a comedian, meeting nutjobs on the road, borderline alcoholism, dating and apps, discrimination and bigotry and feminism — with casual brevity and a perceptive eye. In forgoing physical comedy and theatrics for the most part, Morril relies on the strength of his writing and an effortlessness in switching gears.
Russell Peters: ‘Deported’
The transformation is complete. When I was 15 (and by extension, every Indian was 15), Peters was an exciting young comic attacking the cultural vacuum that exists between immigrants, the Indian diaspora, and the swiveling-head Indians here. “Fuck you, Dad!” is one of those timeless punchlines that still makes everyone chuckle. He was sharp, rude, profane, insightful. Over 15 years later, he’s unfortunately still all of those things. Except that now, touching 50, he looks like that divorced geriatric uncle in a blue suit and white sneakers at a nightclub, sporting a fade haircut, offering to buy drinks to 20-somethings just so they’ll hang out with him.
But Indians will always love him, as is evident in the reception he gets on Deported, which was shot here — if only for nostalgia. And his new set has plenty of it, as he talks about growing up with immigrant parents whose outlook to life never quite aligned with his. About the generous paunch that the Indian metabolism bestows upon its men once they reach middle-age. About going to the doctor. There’s a recurring joke in there about how he’s not OK with taking anything up his butt, a joke best consigned to the recesses of history, aka 2005 if at all. But his crowd-work is still thrilling — his ability to throw an instantly traumatising zinger at people in the audience remains as sharp as ever, to the point where I’m still left wondering if they’ve actually been planted by him.