Five Stand-Up Specials for the Long Holiday Weekend


Most comedy about the American immigrant family is related from the point of view of the assimilated son or daughter poking fun at the clueless, thick-accented parents. The beauty of our current moment is the many new perspectives on old jokes. In the fertile scene of South Asian comedians, Zarna Garg represents something fresh: the revenge of the Indian mom. She’s heard the jokes about the closed-minded Indian parents forcing their children to go to medical school. Now she fires back forcefully, with enough panache to subvert stereotypes even as she’s fully embracing them. Her ethnic and religious humor (she makes a convincing case for Hindu being the most chill religion) is unapologetically old-fashioned: quick setups, rapid-fire punchlines, her name in giant letters on the set behind her. There’s a genuine warmth behind the slickness. You believe her extreme pride in her daughter going to Stanford just as much as her operatic horror at the fact that she’s studying ceramics. Garg has the kind of presence that powers network sitcoms. Of the recent spate of specials produced by Amazon Prime, tentatively tiptoeing into competition with Netflix, hers is the best.


Have you ever wondered if porn ruined the Catholic schoolgirl uniform? Or about the relationship between Judaism and diarrhea? Or the many sexual sounds that go into the term “moral compass”? It will not surprise anyone that Sarah Silverman has. These are only some of the scatological and sexual premises she summons up in her new hour (debuting Saturday). Silverman is 52 but looks and sounds just like that virtuosic comic who rocketed to fame in the 1990s. She has evolved, of course, and the virtue of doing so is one of the themes of her characteristically funny special, but it plays a minor role next to bits about masturbation and Hitler. While she’s known for juvenile gags and political humor, what’s also essential to her comedy, and on full display here, is how distinctively loopy she can be. As influential as she has been, no other comic quite captures this aspect. She has one randomly charming bit about how when she comes home, she says hello in a booming voice over and over. “Sparkle peanut,” she tells herself before going onstage, right before an introduction by Mel Brooks, a spiritual forefather.

She’s shambling and casual. Sometimes too much so. Did she need to keep in the part where she singled out a guy for leaving his seat, disrupting the flow of a joke? But her special is bracketed by two fun sketches: a final song about bad breath performed with incongruous and committed elegance, and an opening scene with her (fictional) children backstage. She thanks the woman standing next to them, says she has been amazing and adds: “Everyone said, ‘Don’t get a hot nanny.’” Then she pauses for an uncomfortably long silence.


My favorite punchline in the latest special by Wanda Sykes is the title: “I’m an Entertainer.” It sounds banal or direct, but in the context of the joke, which involves her awakening sexuality (she came out as a lesbian after sleeping with men for years), it hits you with a jolt that is surprising and a little unsettling. That’s Sykes at her best. As it happens, Sykes is an old-school entertainer. She can act, improvise, do sketches, host awards shows and whatever else without losing her signature snap. In her stand-up specials, she tends to stick to a recipe consisting of a chunk of sharply topical liberal jokes (hit or miss), some personal bits about amusing tension with her cigarette-wielding French wife and white kids (solidly funny) and a few tense wild cards. Then for the crowd-pleaser, she brings on Esther, the roll of stomach fat she named after the “Good Times” star Esther Rolle. Mouthy, no-nonsense, up for some fun, Esther always gets laughs. But we learn in this new hour that Sykes is considering removing her breasts on the advice of her doctor, who suggested building new ones from tissue from her gut. (Sykes doesn’t explain why.) In other words, Esther is moving neighborhoods and will be close enough to her neck that Sykes worries about getting strangled.

With the kind of puffed-chest intensity you tend to see in high school football coaches and motivational speakers, Greg Warren brags that he was “a big deal in the peanut butter game.” He worked in sales for Jif and shot this hour in Lexington, Ky., because that’s where the company made its products. Maybe he really was a big deal moving jars. Who knows? But after this special, he owns this nutty spread, comedically. Directed by Nate Bargatze, a clean comic of a far mellower temperament, Warren trash-talks rival brands (look out, Peter Pan), does on-brand crowd work (“What kind of peanut butter do you eat?”) and gets political in discussing how Smucker’s bought his old employer. It now owns peanut butter and jelly, he tells us, before adding with a mix of gravity and anxiety, “If they ever get ahold of bread.” By the end, Warren has made another sale: He has done for peanut butter what Jerry Seinfeld did for Pop-Tarts and Jim Gaffigan did for Hot Pockets.


If a stand-up can tap into or channel the fury of an audience, he can light up a room. But maintaining that anger is tricky. It can curdle into shtick or just wear out its welcome. Lewis Black’s great gift is that behind that dyspeptic front, you could detect a thoughtful, introspective side, a little damaged perhaps. He shows us more of that vulnerable side here, in part because the isolation of the pandemic put him in a reflective mood. The title refers to the audience. Along with swinging sharp political elbows, in defense of Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, say, Black beats himself up over past relationships and sings the praises of companionship. He talks about his failed career as a playwright, bringing up theater because “I like to feel the interest of the audience leave the room.”

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2023-05-26 19:50:59


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