The wonderful thing about pessimism is that even if something bad happens, at least you can say, “I was right!”. In 2021, many foolish optimists thought the pandemic was nearly over. Consequently, our shared desperation as we celebrated the first pandemic-aversary, shaped much of the art that was created, leading to some of the most vulnerable, unique stand-up specials of all time.
“What? Stand-up comedy? That’s not art,” says a beret-clad man after buying a canvas some paint fell on for 72 million dollars. I hate to break it to you, buddy, but one of the fundamentals of art is that we don’t get to decide what it is or isn’t. Like all other art, stand-up communicates fresh perspectives through abstract presentation, finding entertainment value in its thoughtfulness. With streaming services such as Netflix on the rise, the medium is currently more accessible than ever. However, since it was not initially intended to be experienced digitally, artists have new constraints and creative opportunities.
While I didn’t love any of the new specials I saw in 2021, I believe many of them will impact our culture for years to come. Thus, I have selected what I consider the year’s most noteworthy specials, from Bo Burnham’s unexpectedly popular musical comedy Inside, to Dave Chappelle’s controversial The Closer.
Inside (Bo Burnham), Netflix
After five years away from the stage, Bo Burnham wrote, performed, and directed this special completely independently while in quarantine. Burnham mixes music videos based on topical humor with uncomfortably meta monologues about his mental health, bearing more resemblance to a demented episode of Saturday Night Live than your typical stand-up special.
From a filmmaking perspective, Burnham succeeds in portraying the narrative of a comedian trying to put together a special while battling a deteriorating mental state. While the absence of an audience results in lost energy and increased claustrophobia, I’d be interested in seeing how other cinematic stand-up specials can tell narratives that audiences can similarly connect with.
As a special, Inside is unfocused and the individual songs aren’t as sharp nor funny as most of Burnham’s old material, with the exception of the zany yet profound “Welcome to the Internet.” Unlike most of his old work, many of the songs prioritize poignancy over humor, such as “That Funny Feeling,” a collection of absurd observational setups without punchlines.
I believe this is why the special was so popular despite its lack of hilarity: in this era in which much of our communication is digital, everyone has become a critic. This pressure to have opinions forces people to pretend they care about everything. Thus, people reward achievement rather than things they truly enjoy, and Burnham achieved quite a lot in Inside: creating something despite the lockdown, using comedy to punch up, creating an entire special alone, and exploring the use of more dramatic material as well as a singular narrative. In spite of all of this, the purpose of comedy is to be funny, and in that regard, Inside rarely succeeds.
The Closer (Dave Chappelle), Netflix
In The Closer, Dave Chappelle exploits a transgender fan in order to skewer the LGBTQ+ community with pseudo-intellectual smugness despite his commentary’s utter lack of nuance. Although Chappelle criticizes members of the LGBTQ+ community for not working to dismantle oppression based on race, he quite clearly believes that racism is more worthy of attention than homophobia and transphobia, which contradicts his supposed support of unity.
Regardless of the subject matter, the special just isn’t funny: while I find parts of Ricky Gervais’ semi-controversial 2018 special Humanity hilarious, The Closer is barren of laughs. Despite this, there is something worth learning from Chappelle; the anti-cancel culture act is stale, and if comedians like him don’t find a new angle or subject, there isn’t much more they can contribute artistically.
It is worth noting that the special did provoke important discussion about what it means to punch down—was that perhaps what Chappelle intended to achieve all along? I wouldn’t give him that much credit.
Cold Lasagne Hate Myself 1999 (James Acaster), Vimeo
Oh, James Acaster—the silly little British boy has become a silly little British man. His maturation is apparent in many ways: for one, he swears now. More significantly, he no longer uses metaphors to discuss his mental state as he did in 2018’s Repertoire. This more direct approach isn’t as inventive, but comes off as more personal and thus hits harder. As in Repertoire, Acaster examines the mundane rather than going for cheap laughs, heightening the humor with his delightfully dorky stage presence.
He filmed the special in December 2019, screened it once on YouTube in December 2020, and finally released it for purchase in March 2021 on Vimeo. Although it wasn’t made in 2021 per say, the frank portrayal of mental health is reminiscent of many of the year’s other specials. Cold Lasagne Hate Myself 1999 isn’t groundbreaking, but Acaster’s fresh and vulnerable humor make it the second best special of the year.
Red Blue Green (Drew Michael), HBO Max
Here it is, the best special of the year that I hadn’t even seen when I wrote my first draft of this article. Although many recent specials address mental health, Michael’s fiendishly intelligent and introspective observations effectively balance tragedy and comedy. While Chappelle attempted to provoke audiences by being shamelessly hurtful in The Closer, Michael’s humor challenges audiences with its depth and intimacy, thus demanding attention (something he even comments on in the special). The special is admittedly not as structurally unique as Inside, but it succeeds on all accounts that I watch for: it’s intensely personal, consistently thoughtful, and very, very funny.