Four Specials Take Outdoor Comedy in Unexpected Directions
Laughter doesn’t echo from the clouds. That’s the first challenge in outdoor comedy. It is generally believed that the ideal conditions for getting up – small dark room, low ceiling – are pretty much the opposite of an outdoor comedy. There was actually a pre-pandemic history of such performances with their own street comedy legends. But last year a niche went mainstream, and now there’s a new genre that’s been tried by Chelsea Handler, Colin Quinn, and others. Four other hilarious comedians have gotten laughs lately bringing the special outside, and given the relaxation of the rules for indoor gigs, they might as well be the last of their kind.
Vir Das, “ten against ten”
Stream it on YouTube
No artist has embodied the globalization of stand-up over the past decade like Vir Das, the prolific Indian comic currently filming a new Judd Apatow comedy. That role could be a breakout if that wasn’t already broken. With six specials and almost 8 million Twitter followers, Das is a big star, just not in America yet. But his accomplished, charismatic comedic style seems perfectly suited for cross-cultural purposes. He posted jokes monthly this year in videos filmed in a forest in southwest India (he took a break to film in April). Each takes up a meaty topic big enough to be of worldwide interest (religion, free speech, the relationship between East and West).
He quickly connects different cultures and, for example, establishes connections between supporters of Trump, Brexit and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. But this sweeping ambition does not lead him to make the mistake of avoiding specificity. His comedy is full of references to Indian culture that I didn’t understand, but he manages to explain it quickly or provide enough context for me to appreciate the joke.
You don’t have to have seen any talk by Modi to find Das imitation of his speaking style funny. That’s especially keen on accents around the world and what they mean, perhaps second only to Trevor Noah, another digitally savvy comic who knows his way around jokes that span continents. This makes fun of the way Indians adopt American or British accents, pointing out that they never pick up German or Mexican accents, and joking that Indians are “aspiring” in their accents. But its local thrusts lead to greater criticism from the West. After a reference to Harry Potter, he points out that the books are popular in India. “We love British magic here,” he says. “Do you remember that trick where all of our resources went away?”
Brian Regan, “On the Rocks”
Stream it on Netflix
At the start of his latest special, the venerable stand-up Brian Regan draws attention to his suddenly gray hair. “Hit Covid,” he said. “I went into hibernation and came out as a senior.” And that is the final current note of this finely crafted hour of minor observation jokes. Regan has always been good at fleeting observation humor, and he doubles up on light fun, exploring standard subjects like animals, food, and language. (“Orchestra pit. These words don’t go together.”) There is an elaborate, standout piece on his obsessive compulsive disorder, but his work is anything but personal. It’s old-fashioned hoax telling with wide raids and useful transitions (“I like words”). And while he’s outside with a masked crowd, the sound design and camera work emphasize nothing more than a prepandemic show.
Many will find something refreshing in entertainment that feels from another, more carefree time. Regan (who signed Covid-19 in December) is the rare comic that regularly tells jokes that you won’t have any problem eavesdropping on your quarantined children. Its rhythm is most similar to that of Jay Leno’s 1980s, and while both are workaholics, Regan has proven to be more consistent. It is easy for the casual observer to overlook the considerable technical skills that Regan has improved over the decades (his patience with setups, the right choice of words). Even with his clown physicality, popping eyes, jumping eyebrows and raised eyebrows, he makes getting up look effortless.
A car honking is one of the ugliest noises in everyday life. We have been conditioned to associate it with fear, error, and even danger. Expecting laughter on a comedy show is like replacing kissing with coughing and hoping that the romance will go on well. So what a shame, comics like Erica Rhodes who made the most of drive-in theaters. “The good news is that the numbers are finally falling,” she says in her at times amusing hour, keeping the beat before the punchline. “From people who pursue their dreams.”
Rhodes turns discomfort into a comedy, smiling after jokes about depression, terrible dates, and the disappointment of having a towel in your thirties. There is a tension in this incongruence that leads to a promising stand-up person. But too many of their more ambitious things, like those about online dating, seem incomplete, start off strong, gain momentum, and then casually fade away. In some cases it is the other way around. She has a very keen idea of how ending digital conversations these days leads to an arms race of emojis that frustrates everyone. But it starts with a sentence about the end of the period that doesn’t fully land. It’s a good joke to look for a better setup.
Ester Steinberg, “Burning Bush”
Rent or buy it from Amazon
In her always funny new special, Ester Steinberg explains that she found the perfect guy before listing the three things he always wanted: He’s tall, he’s Jewish, and he has a dead mother. It’s one of many new twists to old Jewish jokes in one set that marks a breakthrough for this seasoned comic. It’s less notable for the freshness of the contents (weddings, maternity, strip clubs) than for the dizzying excitement of its delivery.
Steinberg, who gave birth only six weeks before this special started shooting, has been a charismatic spark plug of a comic for years, but there’s an agility here that is the work of someone who has made it their own. She layered jokes with jokes (on the same driveway where Rhodes performed) and laughs without wasting words. It changes from an extravagant whining to vowel roast to dryness. Her physicality somehow manages to evoke Bill Burr and Kate Berlant. She weaves references to the pandemic without derailing her mischievous spirit and defuses the ridiculousness of standing up for cars right away. “I’ve been doing comedy for many years,” she says, “and I finally realized that my fan base is Kias.” Then after some honking and laughing, she turns to the audience and says with a serious face: “This car knows what I’m talking about.”