For your essential viewing.
In this politically cluttered era, artists and creatives alike are scrambling to find platforms for their voices. Comedy — particularly stand up, has always been a reflective barometer of where we’re at culturally, as humor is telling of what we are and are not talking about. 2018 in particular is proving to be a mixed bag of brave storytelling and political criticism.
2018 is also giving us comebacks from established comics, from Chris Rock to Ali Wong. Here’s a list to help you get started.
This brilliant stand-up special by Hannah Gadsby has been making the rounds in media, and all for the right reasons. It’s a carefully orchestrated experience that will leave you laughing, crying, angry, and at times, terrified. Gadsby warms up the audience by addressing familiar topics such as sexuality, but later on dabbles with criticism and excruciating honesty that breaks the fourth wall — it’s no longer a stand-up, so much as a comic sharing her pain, relaying brutal behind the scenes of her jokes, narrating events of her assault, and the difficulties she’s had coming from a place that did not accept her gender. It was a much needed release that feels necessary in the #MeToo era. “There is nothing stronger than a broken woman who has rebuilt herself,” Hannah Gadsby claims to the audience, as she announces her truth to the world.
John Mulaney’s awkward but relentless energy always fills a room with delight. His Catholic upbringing has been his touchstone on his materials and you often forget that he’s not that old. He speaks eloquently, as he should — he’s an English Major after all, a major he refers to as “a degree from a language that I already spoke”. His material has always been light, but you can feel the looming seriousness of each joke. At one perfectly executed bit, he compares Trump’s presidency to “a horse loose in a hospital”. It’s a clever bit, and lighthearted without lessening the serious implications of Trump’s term.
Tig Notaro’s deadpan humor is so convincing, that the title Happy to Be Here seems sarcastic and wry. Upon watching her set, however, you get a sense that she’s actually “happy to be here.” After a tough couple of years, Notaro, now a breast cancer survivor, rides a wave of joy, generated by her confessionals on having found a partner, and being a mother. Instead of dwelling on hardships and complicated affiliations, (Louis CK was a producer of her show) she slyly moves forward, with a lightness that is refreshing to witness.
There’s an uneasiness that comes with older comics going back on stage, as they often bring materials short of relevance, making the jokes feel culturally dissonant. For his first stand-up special in almost a decade, Chris Rock is still dynamic, but opts for a small, intimate venue for his admissions: his porn addiction, his cheating, and his divorce. As much as it is confessional, the special does not lack the political and social commentary as one expects from Chris, with the first few minutes punching in with him saying, “You would think that the cops would occasionally shoot a white kid, just to make it look good.” His material ranges from racism, police brutality, to even hitting on Rihanna at a party. All of these are packed in an hour, with a delivery that is confident and riveting, as he still manages to surprise the audience with his punchlines, proving his place as one of comedy’s giants.
Before Ali Wong’s first Netflix special, Baby Cobra, she was struggling to even sell tickets to her hometown shows. She speaks of how it feels like to see her face on Groupon, beside whale watching tours, among other things. In Hard Knocked Wife, she revels on the difficulties of motherhood, emphasizing concerns that are often swept under the rug — pushing the conversation around a mother’s paid leave, the ever-changing power dynamics of a husband and wife relationship, and the explicit stories of what may become of a woman’s body after pregnancy. Wong inspires and challenges simply by telling it as it is, and her presence on stage is enough to make a statement.