Netflix comics ‘stand up’ strong

Posted April 28, 2016


Stand-up comedy is experiencing a new rise. That may sound naïve, since it is a classic form of comedy crafted many decades ago in this country. But with a recent focus on sitcoms and film comedies, along with the meteoric growth in online television streaming services, the increasing popularity of stand up comedy is something to marvel at and delve into.

The gold standard of live comedy is the renowned HBO special. The HBO “hour,” as it is referred to, has produced the greatest routines in American comedy history, from George Carlin’s ‘Seven Deadly Words’ to Richard Pryor’s racial-line-crossing material. To this day, it is a widely held belief that an HBO special is the crown jewel in American stand up.

On the other hand, Netflix has more than 80 million subscribers in dozens of countries around the world. While it’s most popular streams are movies and TV shows, the service now also offers more than 125 full stand-up specials. This is incredibly significant because while stand up has always been admired in the United States, it is far from mainstream.

To this day, many are still surprised that such entertainment exists, let alone have a massive live scene across the nation. And while very few of the Netflix specials are even comparable to HBO’s when it comes to quality, the sheer volume, diversity, and accessibility of Netflix’s specials is simply getting more people’s attention. This, in effect, is setting off a very competitive race for creating good new material.

For this reason, the three, one-hour long specials to be reviewed here are all Netflix-produced content released in early 2016.

Louisiana-born comedian Theo Von made his Netflix debut in February with his first special, titled “No Offense.” Like many other comedians, he picked a venue somewhere close to his hometown, so he went with New Orleans. This young southerner shows pride in his heritage, which he prefaced by sarcastically trying to put his hometown of Covington on the map in his opener.

“Lee Harvey Oswald went to our middle school and basketball legend ‘Pistol’ Pete Maravich lived and died in our town, too. So, yeah, two good shooters!”

While much of stand-up comedy tends to be incredibly clever, witty or skeptical, Von’s routine consisted of a high school class clown’s highlight reel. He shied away from puns and jokes in the traditional sense (meaning he did not emphasize clear and obvious punch lines), but rather came off as a young guy that was just really good at making his buddies laugh when they’d all hang out together.

No matter what style of comedy a comic offers, what all of them have in common one way or another is that they make people laugh based on some aspect of the truth. In Von’s case they were simple truths younger generations often ignore. In one of his less absurd bits, he mentions how the Internet is one of the only things that can make you hate a complete stranger, an observation based on his misadventures with online dating.

While being a locker room joker isn’t a particularly bad vibe for a comic to to give off, especially when they’re adept at it, that style may indicate why the special had the rating it did (two stars, unfairly). Von might not be a gut-busting comedian with easily quotable jokes, but he is a joy to watch. Three stars would have been more appropriate.

Another hour-long special that was released soon after Von’s starred a much more familiar face, for both stand up fans and TV sitcom lovers. Veteran Patton Oswalt’s sixth special, “Talking for Clapping” reminded viewers how grounded and professionally hilarious this man is.

Not for the first time, Oswalt recorded his show in San Francisco, which he described as “an amazing city and the capital of the ‘snappy answer for the completely reasonable question’.”

He continued, “I’d go somewhere to get coffee and I’d ask ‘Hey can I get a cup of coffee?’ And the guy would be, like, ‘Well, it is a coffee place…’”

After pausing in disbelief for a moment, he blurts out “Hey, f*** you!”

Even besides that simple, open-mic style opener, Oswalt has always been notoriously unfiltered. His way with words is so crafty and innocent-sounding that it lets him get quite dark or obscene. Much of that is his intelligence as comedy writer and performer, along with his years of experience on stage.

While everyone knows him an intelligent comedian and writer, he also has a goofy persona he jumps into and out of whenever he deems necessary, and it works. This also helps him get away with own style of comedy, which can be best described as a sort of mainstream dark humor. His take on personalized ringtones is one of his best examples.

“I know everyone wants to modify and personalize their phones, but can’t you assume that you will eventually get horrifying news on your cell phone? Just make sure all of your family members are healthy before making your ringtone a… fart or whatever. Because one day (fart sounds) ‘Hello, yes doctor? Oh my god, it spread to her lungs? How long do you give her? Yes, I was at work, but I heard my phone fart so I picked up right away!”

Oswalt talks extensively about himself as a comedian. Most of his observational comedy revolves around his experiences as a comic, both amateur and professional. Unfortunately, this tends to make him a sort of niche act. That’s because people that watch stand up for the first time, or even just watch him for the first time, expect to simply laugh at jokes. They don’t care about inside jokes between comics, just like they wouldn’t care about a humorous story about getting in trouble with the FCC or Comedy Central.

Oswalt is respected and enjoyed by people in the business, but he is not a blockbuster. He is a comic’s comic, and with a Netflix special like this, he seems to remain one. “Talking for Clapping” is not as plainly hilarious as his previous specials, but remains one of the best specials on Netflix because of how Oswalt consistently conducts himself and produces slightly rueful comedy. He deserves just over three stars for his special.

More than anyone else in 2016, Jimmy Carr takes the cake with his American Netflix special (shot in London) is entitled “Funny Business,” which might seem like a bland, age-old joke, but in fact represents him very accurately.

British funnyman and TV host Jimmy Carr is a joke writer. He is not a clown, he is not a comedian the way we usually view them, and he sure as hell does not do impressions. He simply writes short jokes and reads them flawlessly to his thick-skinned audience members.

Carr brought back the one-liner. Comedians, particularly in the United States, haven’t used that style since Rodney Dangerfield patented it in the 1970s. Carr on the other hand, spends the majority of his time on stage just cracking one joke after another. There are almost no stories, observations or anecdotes in his act, nor does he talk about himself or his personal life at all.

This might seem unconventional and could possibly mean that many viewers would not be able to get into him, but the fact of the matter is that he is a writer. His jokes are of a certain quality standard that only someone who calculates his words can hold.

His delivery is by far the best. Even if he’s just setting up a joke, he has the verbal speed and articulation of a professional news anchor. Even after watching the show again, it seemed like he was reading impeccably off a huge teleprompter. He did not use one filler word (like umm, or uhh) nor did he even stutter on one letter, which is beyond impressive given how fast he talks.

But all this is just a preface to why people truly enjoy Carr’s persona. The man’s jokes are absolutely obscene. His dark humor is almost unprecedented and he uses his wit and writing capability to make offensive jokes that are funnier than they are mean. This again, can be attributed to his method of delivery: written jokes.

It seems as though saying something offensive and funny as part of a personal story can still come across as ill-spirited. But if the offense is a hypothetical one put into one funny sentence, it distances his persona from the controversial punch line.

Carr has notoriously been working his way up in terms of provocative humor, particularly while being a host on different British comedy talk shows. At this point, his style is established, placing him on short list of comedians that are able to get away with saying things even other professional comedians can’t (the top spot on that list perpetually belonging to Louis C.K.), so Carr doesn’t come off as offensive to a true comedy fan.

“My girlfriend was in the park doing one of those ‘race for life’ things. When I say ‘race for life,’ I mean fleeing a rapist. Hey, don’t laugh; it’s how we met! She’s smart too, she’s brainier than Kurt Cobain’s garage ceiling.”

Between offensive sexual, racial and political jokes, he does have tiny breaks where he shows his simpler, more classic writer’s style:

“A friend once told me that nothing rhymes with orange. I said ‘no, it doesn’t.’”

Carr’s first American stand-up special was a huge success. Unless someone takes serious offense to profanity, every comedy fan should watch it. It deserves Netflix’s five star rating.

What should be noted is that all three specials are rated TV-MA, which means it is intended for mature audiences only. Children should never watch any of those specials (particularly Carr’s).

Stand up comedy as an art form is quite revealing. It does make a viewer think about the performer, the jokes, the truth and even fellow audience members. One lesson that has remained consistent about stand up comedy is that it really is about ‘being yourself’. A performer cannot emulate another comic’s routine successfully. Whatever they have to do, it must come from the heart, which is what these three artists have done in a world where TV series and movies are king.

Available only on Netflix ($7.99 per month)
Run Times: Approximately one hour

1. Theo Von: “No Offense”
Release Date: Feb. 26, 2016

2. Patton Oswalt: “Talking for Clapping”
Release Date: April 22, 2016

3. Jimmy Carr: “Funny Business”
Release Date: March18, 2016