Stand-up comedy is essentially the art of storytelling mixed with humor, both of which are as old as humanity itself. What we recognize as stand-up today has its roots in circus acts, minstrel entertainment, monologues, and other forms of the one-man-show. In the early and mid-2000s, stand-up comedy seemed to be losing a lot of the substance and culture that was so formative to it. As the legends like Pryor and Carlin died out, so too it seemed did the passion and authenticity. Major players like Dave Chappelle were disenfranchised by the media machine. The material drawn from raw human experience began taking a backseat to racist pandering and corporate shilling from comedians that will remain unnamed here. But, as with everything else, with time comes refinement.
Netflix has undeniably been instrumental in resurrecting stand-up comedy as an art form. As Netflix has grown in popularity over the last decade, so has stand-up comedy. Not only in terms of popularity, but also in scope. Stand-up doesn’t even have to always be funny anymore, as demonstrated by Hannah Gadsby in her not-so-comedy special “Nanette”. Of course there were moments of humor within it, she is still a comedian after all, but “Nanette” is much more about being honest than about being funny, which I had to respect. Another example of stand-up’s broadening scope was Neal Brennan’s “3 Mics” special, in which he had one mic dedicated to each of three categories: Stand-up, one-liners, and “emotional stuff”. This innovative and masterfully executed concept threw a wrench into what we perceive as stand-up. Daniel Sloss’ two-part special “Dark” and “Jigsaw” provided another incredible shift. In the first hour, the primary focal points of Sloss’ comedy are death and disability, neither of which are famously amusing subjects, and yet he manages to lay out his stories in such a way that is both poignant and hilarious. His second hour is almost entirely on the topic of relationships. More specifically, he focuses on how broken and toxic our obsession with romantic entanglement is. Parts of it seem almost more like a TEDtalk than a stand-up special, but I argue that this is a good thing. Speaking of TEDtalks, one of their most prolific speakers, Brené Brown, just debuted her first Netflix special, which is structured like a stand-up performance, and definitely has humor to it, but it’s not centered around comedy. Rather, she discusses the main topics of her research: shame and vulnerability. Both of these subjects are closely tied to the world of comedy, but usually they’re far from funny.
“Just be yourself” is such an overused mantra that it has no discernable meaning behind it anymore. Identity crises are becoming the norm, so encouraging people to “be themselves” is like telling a chameleon to stop blending in. For so long, we’ve discouraged genuine vulnerability and fostered a culture of hiding your true feelings in favor of saving face while simultaneously insisting that we “be ourselves”, there’s far more incentive for projecting a false image of oneself for the sake of acceptance. Now, stand-up comedians are the ones breaking ground in a revolution of vulnerability and sincerity, of which we are in desperate need.
I didn’t write this solely to plug comedians whom I personally enjoy. It’s my hope that we can encourage this trajectory of growth in stand-up comedy. We are sorely lacking in authenticity in an increasingly plastic society, and I believe that this new breed of comedy could be precisely the antidote we need. Laughter is a fantastic unifier. Verbal humor may not always translate across language barriers well, but laughter is a universal language, and it’s healing no matter where you are. There’s a tremendous demand for distractions in today’s bizarre world. It seems like every day unveils a new horror, and we reach new depths of depravity. Some choose to satirize the absurdity of the situation in which we find ourselves, while others choose to draw attention away from it. Either way, comedians still manage to find ways to connect people through laughter in these increasingly divisive times. There’s something profoundly human and empowering found in laughing at one’s own adversity.