So many stand-up specials are released these days that it is easy to miss how radically the art form has evolved.
Part of the reason Ali Wong’s “Hard Knock Wife” and Hannah Gadsby’s “Nanette” have made such an impact is that they were thematically and structurally coherent, their jokes integrated into the special the way scenes fit into the plot of a play. The status and ambition of the specials’ directors have also grown, shifting from craftsmen for hire to stylists to the auteur Bo Burnham, whose distinctive work with Jerrod Carmichael and Chris Rock reveals editing and camerawork in dialogue with setups and punch lines.
And this week represents another shift as Netflix releases the first half of “The Comedy Lineup,” eight bite-sized specials that run for 15 minutes each (the second batch arrives in early fall), a common allotment of time for a club set but not for televised stand-up. Most specials have traditionally been about an hour or a half-hour, with late-night TV sets running around five minutes, but the flexibility of the internet has destroyed the idea of a standard.
Yet what makes “The Comedy Lineup” an exciting addition is not the length of the specials, but Netflix’s attempt to give a platform to comics who are not household names. One of the open secrets of live stand-up is that the most famous names are rarely the funniest ones on the bill. They do not have the time or often the hustle to really hone sets. Of course, novices are too green to be the funniest either. “The Comedy Lineup” provides a delightful sampler of the performers in between.
If you like bruising New York club comedy with contempt for conventional wisdom, definitely try Tim Dillon, a raspy-voiced stand-up who does pugnacious bits on the class structure of Instagram and the ethics of punching Richard Spencer. (“Let me tell you this: I have been punched at a Pizza Hut lunch buffet and that was justified.”) He gets more laughs in 15 minutes than Ricky Gervais does in an hour, even though some of the confrontational tension of Dillon’s live performance is lost in translation. I once saw him ask a woman in Brooklyn what she did for a living, and when she answered, “botanic design,” he retorted: “Burn this borough to the ground.”
Michelle Buteau is another explosive New York comic who has been the highlight of many local shows without ever getting a big break. While she is enough of a regular on the podcast and HBO show “2 Dope Queens” that she has been anointed the unofficial third queen, this set might be the best introduction to her work yet. “It’s been a really interesting year for me because a lot of my guy friends came out as predators,” she deadpans. “I always knew, but it was really their journey.”
These eight specials are more topical than most of the recent Netflix hours, with three other comics (Jak Knight, Sam Jay and Sabrina Jalees) mixing in #MeToo material with solid sets. Seeing the same subject matter covered makes you realize how common parallel thinking is in stand-up. Both Buteau and Knight use the phrase “read the room” (although she adds a curse to it).
Jay, a sly writer for “Saturday Night Live” with a propulsive delivery, ties the sexual harassment stories and the rise of Donald Trump to a larger trend: the decline of white men. “We don’t know how to handle white guys needing something,” she says, pointing to the stunts of “Jackass” as an early sign: “That wasn’t a show. That was white dudes crying for help.”
Unlike late-night television sets, 15 minutes is long enough to get into an involved argument or complex bit but short enough that every joke counts. This puts a premium on the start and end of the set, and two of the highlights are satires of a certain hackneyed genre of opening and closing jokes that poke fun at convention while also subverting it.
Young comedians’ most common opening move is to poke fun at the way they look. You can find a classic example in “The Comedy Lineup” by Taylor Tomlinson when she acknowledges how wholesome she appears, describing herself as cute but in an accessible way, “like a shower curtain in Target.” Before you pigeonhole her, she does it for you: “Men don’t even picture me naked,” she says. “They picture me helping their mom on Easter.”
This is a funny but not a terribly original introduction. (The first joke I ever heard Amy Schumer tell was at the Gotham Comedy Club in 2011: “I know how I look. You’d bang me, but you wouldn’t blog about it.”)
In bolder set, the British-Malaysian comic Phil Wang draws attention to this cliché style of joke, before adding a sideways twist that hints at how this entire genre caters to stereotypes. “If you look at me, right, and squint really hard,” he says, swiveling his head and shifting his tone: “That’s racist.”
This joke provides a nice bookend to an inventively funny closer by Ian Karmel, a commanding comic who came out of the Portland, Oregon, scene. Toward the end of his accomplished set, he says that the “social contract” of stand-up requires that you end with a big joke, preferably one that calls back to an earlier bit. “That’s what’s supposed to happen, right?” he says. “Not tonight.”
After adding that doing something weird can be more memorable, he proves it. I will not give it away, even though what makes this joke work is less the concept than the execution. It is a deft performance that is a reminder that comedy, like all art, cannot be boiled down to a formula.
Many in comedy today think that too many specials are being released, that comics are not spending enough time developing their art and that a deluge of mediocre stand-up will water down quality. While these are real concerns, I am not convinced.
For some of the stars of “The Comedy Line-Up,” I would like to see longer performances, but not necessarily right now. It takes time to develop an hour of excellent material that fits together, and amid the glut of specials now, too many feel padded. The solution may not be decreasing the number of specials, but rather how long each one is. For many, 15 minutes is a good alternative. It is enough time to peak your interest in a performer, but not enough for them to really wear out their welcome.