In Taylor Mac’s “Gary,” the most ambitious comedy to open on Broadway in years, the title character is a clown who badly wants to upgrade to a fool. What’s the difference? A clown seeks laughs, but a fool also aims to save the world.
Gary fails in his quest, leaving us with a skeptical view of the power of comedy to make political change, one that marks much of the scene today. In a flurry of funny new specials that supply escapist laughs and downplay their own significance, some stand-ups even embrace what Gary ran away from.
In her dynamite new Comedy Central special, “Talking to Myself,” the standup veteran Jessica Kirson says, “I went from a masters in social work and now I’m a traveling clown.” In his amiably charming HBO hour “Son of a Gary,” (no relation to the play), Dan Soder calls himself a “mall clown” and mocks the pretentiousness of comics who call themselves artists. “You think I compete with art?” he asks. “There’s no drink minimum at the ballet.”
Soder and Kirson are very different types. Soder projects the laid-back vibe of a guy having a few joints at the back of a frat party, while Kirson leans into the microphone spitting out punch lines with the neurotic intensity of Mel Brooks on a riff. Even though their routes are different, they both end up with a lovable loser act from Palookaville.
“My dad picked the bottle over me, so … comedian!” Soder says, explaining his origin story, before underlining the point with another quick hit: “That’s the recipe. Just add water. Or in my dad’s case, Bacardi.”
Soder, who is part of the cast of the Showtime drama “Billions,” explains that his father was an alcoholic who died early, but instead of exploiting this for sympathy, he goes in the opposite direction, playing the bully for comic effect, insulting everyone else’s dads for not living as fun a life.
While he also jokes about standbys like porn and pot, the bit about dead dads is the one he pauses to defend, arguing that laughing at the tragic things in one’s own life is the best use of humor. It doesn’t solve anything, he explains, but it will ease the pain.
Kirson’s comedy also suggests misery is the best company. After two decades of so reliably killing in New York clubs that Robert De Niro spent time with her when he needed to prepare to play a comic for a movie, she finally has a debut special and begins, hilariously, with this line: “I’m so not in the mood for this.”
Her signature move, echoed in the title “Talking to Myself,” is turning away from the audience and expressing her inner voice out loud, usually revealing doubt, then giving herself a pep talk, then undermining it. These interludes dramatize ambivalence and they stand out, and so do her hard punch lines about sex, family and food.
But my favorite part of her act might be the most universal. Making funny faces is not exactly the most prestigious kind of comedy, but anyone who recalls their childhood knows it’s a classic. And no one does it better than Kirson. Imitating old Jewish people, a ravenous appetite or cosmetic surgery gone wrong, her contortions put cartoons to shame.
A similarly goofy physicality imbues the comedy of Tiffany Haddish, who not only gets carried onstage in her new Netflix special, “Black Mitzvah,” but then dances and also raps, before coming out as Jewish. She calls her new special “a celebration,” and a big part of her appeal is her relentlessly upbeat energy, a cackling in the face of hardship. Early on, she preaches the virtue of skipping. It isn’t just good exercise, it’s also the best protection since, she says no one messes with a skipping woman. “Either she’s happy or crazy,” she says.
Despite the common belief that comedy is overrun with Trump jokes, most new specials today avoid the daily tumult of politics. While late-night talk shows have cornered the market on bits about impeachment and the latest development in the presidential campaign, standup specials this year have moved in the opposite direction. Just look at “Lobby Baby” by Seth Meyers, whose talk show produces the sharpest political material on late night. His Netflix debut displays another side of him, talking about subject matter that’s far more personal than political.
Meyers acknowledges this right away, comparing the incongruity to a kid seeing a “mall Santa getting into his Ford Festiva.” Meyers doesn’t veer too far from his controlled, smooth persona, but he does appear liberated in this new format, and not just because he does a lot of material about pedophiles that probably wouldn’t work on his talk show. His intricate jokes reveal a comedy nerd’s brain allowed time to hone bits into their best form, a luxury not always available on nightly television or his former home, “Saturday Night Live,” where he was once head writer.
He’s delighted by comedy rooted in language, and like a magician distracting you with banter, he favors complex premises that are actually elaborate contraptions meant to trigger the punch line. But mostly, what makes his special different is that it doesn’t get into President Trump until around two-thirds of the way through. The focus is mainly on family, parenthood and the unusual circumstances in which his wife gave birth (the first was almost in an Uber, the second in a lobby). And even when he gets to politics, he gives viewers an opt-out.
In an experiment that you couldn’t pull off on conventional television, one that got some early attention for the special, he says he realizes some think there are too many jokes about Trump, so if you want to avoid that, you only need to click on a box at the bottom of the screen. It’s a nice technological gimmick, one that speaks to our current moment, when the internet makes artists exceedingly aware of what audiences want. And that’s not just something funny to distract them from the real world, but also, just as important, the control to do it on their own schedule.