Remember March? It seems like a long time ago, but in this endless year, there was a disorienting two weeks right before the lockdown when we all knew about the virus, but we were still coming to grips with its urgency and with how radically life was about to change.
On the first day of that month, the comic Michelle Buteau filmed a stand-up special that showed no trace of anxiety. The next day, Joe List did, too (he centered a whole joke around a cough without drawing attention to it), and within a week, Beth Stelling shot her hour without mention of Covid either.
These were a few of the last specials recorded before comedy clubs went quiet. By March 13, when Lewis Black walked onstage in Michigan, the last time he performed in front of a live crowd, the landscape had dramatically changed. His dark opening joke: “Thanks for risking your life.”
These specials, only recently released, now are a portrait of a world in transition.
Michelle Buteau, ‘Welcome to Buteaupia’
Watch on Netflix
There’s something cathartic, exhilarating and nerve-racking about Michelle Buteau making her entrance. Wearing a gold-sequined suit that glitters beneath a disco ball, she dances through the audience, pre-social distancing, before climbing precariously over a stairwell, landing on a platform near the crowd and roaring in triumph. This sets the giddy tone for this Netflix show, a shot of joy from a comic whose jubilantly witty delivery features signature quirks that can make any joke funny. There’s the cartoonish way she bats her eyelashes, or her lingering stone-faced stare, or the way she softens the edges of a joke by muttering, “So silly.”
Buteau covers cultural differences with her Dutch husband, sex stuff, and shooting a movie with J. Lo. (“The hardest part of working with J. Lo is pretending that I didn’t know everything about her,” Buteau says of the forthcoming “Marry Me.”) But no particular bit stands out more than the warm, casually flamboyant mood. There’s a touch of Sandra Bernhard glamour to this comic, and in a time when the real world feels grim, a visit to Buteaupia can be a perfect vacation.
Joe List, ‘I Hate Myself’
Watch on YouTube.
Observational comedy gets a bad name. The term evokes hack jokes about airplane food and bad impressions of Jerry Seinfeld. But at its best, irritable analysis of the details of ordinary life can not only be hilarious, but also give you the revelatory pleasure of looking at things you see every day in a new way. There’s no comic today better at this than Joe List, an astute joke writer whose new special has already passed a million views on YouTube.
An unassuming, bespectacled New York comic, he has created a punchline-dense act that examines the most well-trod subjects (fast food, therapy and, yes, air travel) with predictable annoyance or sarcasm. This puts pressure on his premises to stand out, a standard he consistently lives up to with small, perceptive observations like how people say they “are O.C.D.” as opposed to “I have O.C.D.” This quirk of language provides the foundation for a joke that leads to him imagining what would happen if you did this with other conditions. “I’m genital herpes,” he offers up as an example, marveling at it before adding the tag: “Call me Gen for short.”
In a time of major crises, List focuses outrage on minor oddities, like the unnecessary noise you make when you yawn, casting the loud yawn as a desperate plea for attention. His gripes often resonate, too. His paranoia about the potential fraudulence of cavities (“It doesn’t hurt. You can’t see it. But you must fix it”) not only had me nodding, but also making the case to friends the next day. When a joke turns you into a crank, you know it has worked.
Beth Stelling, ‘Girl Daddy’
Watch on HBO Max.
Beth Stelling is so laid back she practically reclines. With one hand casually sunk in an overall pocket, she strikes a pose as relaxed as her delivery, an offhanded pace interrupted by wide grins and “Beavis and Butt-Head” chuckles. Don’t be fooled. Her laconic vibe masks some extremely polished joke writing and a ruthlessness about getting laughs. In her canny debut, part of the first batch of original specials from HBO Max, she ends a bit about dating with a hard pivot: “What I’m saying is men are garbage.” Then she laughs, extending her arms into a circle: “But women are the can.” With a smile, she adds: “We’re in it together.”
An hour with Stelling goes by fast, as she maintains a bemused look through light jokes about heavy topics (rape, divorce). She never gets too exercised but is expert at shifting gears. Adopting a shy feminine pose, she follows it with a gravelly bass. Among her act-out impressions, she does a nice job with that bored, wealthy lady that Maria Bamford has mined for so many laughs. Stelling generally lowers the register of her voice for punch lines to increase the impact, and flashes a crowd-pleasing Scottish accent to juice up another bit, mixes in crowd work and ends her special with a highly physical joke with her laying on the ground. By the end, her style starts to seem like savvy misdirection, a persona distracting from the polished instincts of a born entertainer.
The flailing response to the pandemic is one subject of Lewis Black’s famous rage, as he vibrates with fury over having to listen to politicians when all he wants to hear is a decisive plan from someone in a stethoscope. There are no cutaway shots to the crowd or even images of them in the front row. Perhaps putting the audience in the dark keeps the prospect of infections further from the mind. It also adds an eeriness and resignation. Black’s rants here are not as packed with punch lines as usual, nor are the jokes as intricate or explosive. And he comes off as more subdued, discussing the death of his father and the aging of his mother, currently 101. There’s also a melancholy that emerges in the deep-seated sarcasm. “It’s hard to be funny,” he says, telling audience members they know why. “It’s hard to be funny when everything is going so great.”