Five smart comedy specials from veteran standups
By Jason Zinoman
Why isn’t there a standup-special equivalent of a beach read? I wouldn’t recommend sunbathing with a smartphone in your hand, but it’s certainly possible. As more comics release their first specials developed in the pandemic, a new crop of hours from seasoned acts is ready to complement your summer vacation.
Nikki Glaser, ‘Good Clean Filth’ (HBO Max)
Wearing thigh-high white boots and a short yellow dress, Nikki Glaser looks as much like a Bond girl as a standup. She’s not selling sex so much as teaching it, explicitly making the case for her own bawdy jokes filling the niche left by the pitiful job done by sex education and porn. Long adopting the persona of an older sister leveling with you, she moves closer to a modern comedy update on Dr. Ruth or even old-school women’s magazines, speaking prescriptively about everything from anal sex to how to get a man.
A sly and skilled joke writer, she knows sex jokes get easy laughs, so she makes transgressive ones that look difficult to pull off. She scatters punch lines in a nimble voice that moves from gravelly deep to squeaky sweet. She delights in wordplay. Joking about her vagina, she says, “I talk about it so much that I don’t call it my privates. I call it my public.”
And then there’s this gem on male rationalization for dating younger women. “There’s an epidemic of young people with old souls according to all my 40-year-old-friends.” Her hour can feel a little familiar, going over territory she has already mastered. On the other hand, there’s her closer, a silent act-out that works as a callback, an innovation and a big laugh.
Bill Burr, ‘Live at Red Rocks’ (Netflix)
Early in the pandemic, Bill Burr went on Joe Rogan’s podcast and got into it about masks. Rogan made fun of them as feminine and weak. “You’re so tough with your open nose and throat,” Burr snapped back, with an additional curse, pushing Rogan about turning a medical issue into something about manhood. “Why does it always become like that?”
This viral moment revealed a divide between the two popular comics. On his podcast, Rogan sells a certain aspirational view of masculinity, while in his standup, Burr presents a more tortured portrait, giving anguished voice to male resentments and phobias as well as expression to their destructiveness. Along with one of the great deliveries in standup comedy, this complexity is what makes Burr a riveting performer.
His messy, rambling, often hilarious new special baits the audience at every turn. Like Bruce Banner, Burr is worried about his temper, but it’s what we’ve come to see. And it can be the engine to some daring riffs that dig at both sides of the culture war, even though he’s more animated and funnier going after liberals. None of his many peers do this as well. No cliches about lattes and kale here. Describing a privileged white tweeter who’s virtue signaling, he imitates, typing out, “My heart breaks on my L-shaped couch.”
Burr does repeat himself, and for the second special in a row, he speculates that they are running out of men to cancel. His bits are more intricately organized than his act. He closes on one that’s not as strong as the bit that came before. The emotional highlight sits awkwardly in the middle when he gets choked up describing the self-loathing of losing his temper in front of his daughter and finding that he is falling into the same mistakes that his father made. Bent down in a hunch, Burr is unexpectedly emotional, the bluster vanished and the rage transformed into tenderness. It’s a range that makes you think there’s a leading role in a great movie in his future.
Fahim Anwar, ‘Hat Trick’ (YouTube)
The pun in the brisk, low-concept “Hat Trick,” in which the flamboyantly silly comic wears a backward cap while performing in three different rooms of the Comedy Store in Hollywood, is its only effortful part. Otherwise, the vibe is laid-back, offhanded, just another night at the club. You see introductions, shoptalk with comics and some of the drive home. In between are jokes on the most meat-and-potato standup subjects: dating, the pandemic, weed, porn.
There’s something pleasingly comfortable about the style here, one that Anwar can pull off because he is one of the finest physical comedians working in clubs today. His act-outs rival Sebastian Maniscalco’s in grace and exceed them in goofiness, whether they are of a deer, a dancing emoji or a member of the Taliban using hand sanitizer. Each of these works nicely with the joke. The only risk is in seeming a little strained, which is why the underplayed style works so well. If you want a few laughs but don’t have time to get to the club, this will do.
Cristela Alonzo, ‘Middle Classy’ (Netflix)
When Cristela Alonzo is telling a story, she has a specific if ambiguous look on her face that somehow generates suspense: a smiling kind of wonder that doubles as exasperation. It’s somewhere between “Can you believe this nonsense?” and “What a world.” You want to find out where she lands.
It’s part of the fun of her first special in five years, whose highlights are sensitively observed jokes explaining the transition from growing up poor to finding some success. Keep an eye out for a virtuoso story about her first trip to the gynecologist. Her joyful comedy has a dark side, which shows around the edges of jokes, in the subtext. “I’ve been smiling so much and I’m not even happy,” she says about midway through. “I just got my teeth fixed.” Flashing radiant dental work, she says it was expensive in a pointed way that makes that joyful look on her face seem like a setup to this payoff.
Joel Kim Booster, ‘Psychosexual’ (Netflix)
After saying he never hears queer women complaining about their inability to achieve orgasm, Joel Kim Booster abruptly silences a round of applause with a glare and a raise of a hand. “I will not let this descend into clapter,” he adds pointedly. For years, Booster — who between this special and his new Hulu movie, “Fire Island,” is having a moment — has brought a commanding club-comic energy to alt rooms: prickly, aggressive but clear premises that set up hard punch lines.
His stylish and funny debut is broken into three acts, one that leans on his identity as a gay Korean American comic, the second that doesn’t and the third that focuses on sex. Throughout, he uses a straight white man in the crowd as a foil to examine questions of relatability and universality. He periodically talks directly into the camera to address the director about where to focus the camera, a fun tactic that evokes shows like “Fleabag.”
His formal devices are clever and nicely integrated into the set — even if it builds to an argument that is ultimately pretty traditional. The strength here is his forcefully seductive presence, one that grasps that politics or sex are, among other things, powerful instruments to set up a punchline. After discussing the racism of Asian fetishes, he deadpans: “I think it’s doubly racist if you have an Asian fetish and are not attracted to me specifically.”