Four stand-up specials that showcase hard-working comics
By Jason Zinoman
The stand-up specials that get the most attention tend to be made by celebrities, but as dedicated comedy fans know, the funniest ones are much more likely to emerge from midcareer workhorses, like the artists who recently put out these new hours.
“Regular People” (Netflix)
A couple times a year, some city slicker with impeccable elite-media credentials whispers to me: What do you think of Theo Von? What this translates to is: I didn’t think I was going to like this guy, but he’s hilarious. And it’s true. One of the most magnetic storytellers in comedy today, he plays with hot-button cultural issues, but not for cheap shock. The title refers to the people from his Louisiana hometown. He’s less charitable about those in Los Angeles, where he currently lives. About them, he quips: “I don’t blame the, um, fires.”
There’s not only sincerity to his act, but an eccentricity that takes you by surprise. He opens by mocking his appearance — “I look like somebody who might have matches on them” — before a series of yarns about kids he grew up with, like one with no arms named Gert or a boy named Tot, who had “a lick of autism, a pretty good lick of it.” There’s affection and even innocence in these tales, which sound like a white-guy/red-state version of the “Fat Albert” gang.
His sentences often begin and end with “bro,” but in between are musical bursts of slang that, like the jokes of Norm Macdonald, find elaborate ways to say simple things. “A chair” becomes “seatery,” and “You feel the squirrels run, baby” is his way of describing getting horny. Von first burst on the scene via the MTV reality show “Road Rules,” so it’s tempting to make him out to be a creature of showbiz — a Larry the Cable Guy for a new generation. But spend enough time with him, particularly on his podcast, whose clips often go viral, and you see an earned vulnerability. He frequently goes over some of the same territory (family, his roots) there as in his special, but with melancholy and soulful gratitude. Seeing this new hour gives you more respect for how he turns this into silly jokes. At one point, Von says you can’t find jewelry in his hometown, before dramatically sticking his hand up to count the things you can. No. 1: turpentine. He pauses, before naming the second: “Some ideas.” You can go a long way with that.
Roy Wood Jr.
“Imperfect Messenger” (Comedy Central)
Roy Wood Jr. hopes you are OK but won’t ask. “You ask somebody how they’re doing now, you better be careful, because they might tell you,” he says, enunciating consonants like a boxer following through on uppercuts. A correspondent for “The Daily Show,” Wood is one of the best political comics today, and this special, a tight hour of provocative jokes told with a deep well of empathy, feels perfectly pitched to the moment when the pandemic is not over so much as it’s gone on long enough that we want to change the subject. He pulls off the feat of finding fresh takes on well-worn subjects like the relationship between Black people and the police, but his overarching theme here is the hard work needed to find any scrap of happiness in a cruel world. He is clear about outrages but also admirably willing to explore nuance, even if it makes him look bad. This is the rare comedy that preaches forgiveness but understands revenge has its benefits. His great metaphor, which he keeps returning to, is that finding contentment is like digging for food in a crab leg: You take whatever you can claw out.
“Here’s Everything” (HBO Max)
One of the funniest sets I ever saw was by the Queens-born comic Ricky Velez — and the strangest part was that he was an opening act. It was many years ago and I recall little outside of a strong belief that this live-wire joke slinger would one day produce a dynamite comedy special. I wish I could say this debut was it, but instead it’s just a solid introduction to his spiky, propulsive comedy. It starts with a close-up of him looking intense, teary-eyed perhaps, the sound of the subway rumbling in the distance. “I’m coming to terms with the idea that my brain does not work good,” is his first line. This sets expectations of another brooding special about mental health. That fits the fashion in comedy today better than the comic.
At his best, Velez has the swagger of a con man on a hot streak. He’s nervy, side-eyeing everyone. Velez talks about anxiety and insecurities rooted in a hardscrabble childhood, but he doesn’t wallow in this. If anything, unlike so many of the wealthy boldface-name stand-ups, he speaks of being poor with a refreshing urgency and irreverence. There’s not enough of this in prominent stand-up specials. His bits on the difference between rich and poor are some of his smartest, but the mockery of the old and very young is his funniest. He’s sick of people lying about babies on social media. They’re not all cute. A new dad, he establishes his cred: “I’m in the parks. Kids are ugly out there.” Then he draws a line with defiance: He won’t like a baby photo on Instagram. Sure, he might leave a comment: “Better luck next time.”
“Good Timing With Jo Firestone” (Peacock)
My favorite moment in this comic documentary about a group of senior citizens taking a comedy class is when we are dropped in the middle of a rambling digression from an older lady in a scarf saying she wished religion and gender were banned, then segues into the horror of the Holocaust and a story about coal mines before the camera shifts to comic Jo Firestone sitting across from her. Gently interrupting, Firestone asks: “I think the question is: Is comedy a gift?”
A beloved staple of New York comedy, Firestone has always exuded warmth and good cheer in a scene awash in bitterness and cynicism. As anyone who has seen her co-host the weekly Brooklyn show “Butter Boy” can tell you, she’s also an excellent foil. Teaching the workshop in the special, she gooses jokes out of her students by digging into their lives. The most surprising moments, which also happen to be the funniest, are not the jokes, but hearing her students talk about them — how punch lines helped them fall in love, cheer up, make sense of things. Firestone is the professional here, but she is comfortable in the background, grasping that the best way to show the gift of comedy is to let amateurs talk about their hopes to get into it.