The streaming stand-up specials to watch right now (and one to skip)
Looking for laughs on Netflix and Amazon Prime? The best of the new shows come from Jim Gaffigan and Nikki Glaser.
Seems like nearly time you log in to a streaming service, there’s another stand-up special waiting for you in the “What’s New” or “Something You Might Like” or “Check THIS Out, Sport!” listings on your home page.
Netflix and other streaming services are paying big bucks to veteran icons such as Jerry Seinfeld and Dave Chappelle, as well as next-generation stars such as Sebastian Maniscalco and Whitney Cummings, resulting in a seemingly endless stream (#DadJoke, and yes, I realize writing “#DadJoke” is just doubling down on the corniness) of filmed stand-up specials.
These self-contained, one-off, hourlong (give or take) specials are the perfect, light-fare palate cleansers for viewers taking a break from binge-consuming entire seasons of intense, attention-demanding dramatic series in one or two sittings.
You can cue up a stand-up show and not feel guilty about keeping it running in the background as you tend to a few things around the house. You can watch the first 10 or 15 minutes, exit for whatever reason, come back a week later and pick up where you left off, no problem. (That type of intermittent approach to viewing doesn’t work so well when it comes to complex, layered and long-form dramas. Watch the first 15 minutes of an episode of “Mindhunter” and then return a week later, and it might take a while for you to settle back into the story and remember which city we’re in and which plot line we’re immersed in.)
Here’s my take on some high-profile stand-up specials released in the last weeks and months.
“Nikki Glaser: Bangin’ ”
We’re in the middle of a Nikki Glaser next-level stardom moment right now, and that’s a very good thing. Fresh off a blazingly hilarious appearance on “The Comedy Central Roast of Alec Baldwin” and a frank and funny extended interview on the Howard Stern show (where Amy Schumer and Whitney Cummings, among others, have showcased their pre-stardom brilliance), the veteran stand-up continues her hot streak with her first Netflix special, which premiered Tuesday.
Glaser has an instantly likable stage presence and a disarmingly sweet, conversational style — but from the moment she takes the stage in front of neon-pink, black and white “NIKKI NIKKI NIKKI” signage, she lets us know we’re in for a steady offering of deep-blue humor.
Her opening routine is about oral sex. A few moments later, she talks about the indignity of having unattractive genitalia. Soon thereafter, she goes into detailed stories about her experiences with masturbation and her taste in porn.
It’s wall-to-wall raunchy humor — but in addition to being sharp and funny, these routines include self-deprecating insights into Glaser’s insecurities and issues; her changing views about casual hookups now that she’s in her mid-30s; a sprinkling of sly social commentary, and some spot-on characterizations of men and some of the dopey things we say and do.
“Nikki Glaser: Bangin’ ” showcases a polished stand-up stylist at the top of her game. The hour flies by.
“Jim Gaffigan: Quality Time”
The prolific and immensely popular dad-bod comic Jim Gaffigan (who will be doing a total of five shows at the Chicago Theatre over the weekend of Oct. 18-20) parted ways with Netflix last year and stars in Amazon Prime’s first-ever comedy special.
Although Gaffigan’s material is sometimes uniquely personal, as when he draws on his experiences as a married father of five, and particularly when he has found comedy gold in talking about his wife (and longtime collaborator) Jeannie’s brain tumor scare, there’s something universally relatable about his comedy. His stuff would have been funny in the 1950s or the 1970s or the 1990s. He has played to sold-out shows in more than a dozen countries.
In “Quality Time” (taped earlier this year at the State Theatre in Minneapolis), Gaffigan talks about the untucked shirt as “the fat man’s last hurrah” and weaves fantastically entertaining stories based on his surgery for appendicitis, his family encountering a bear in Alaska and taking his children to the Anne Frank house — but confides he’s sometimes lying and exaggerating in the interest of getting laughs.
Gaffigan has been talking about his weight issues forever, but he always finds a new and different approach, e.g. when he observes, “What’s weird is [because you’re overweight], people assume you enjoy cooking. ‘You must know your way around the kitchen!’
“I like to sleep. It doesn’t mean I want to build a bed.”
This special further cements Gaffigan’s standing as one of the premiere stand-ups of the 21st century.
“Aziz Ansari: Right Now”
As much as I admire Aziz Ansari’s body of work, from his stand-up routines to “Parks and Recreation” to “Master of None,” and as much as I believe he’s a good guy deep down and he sincerely regrets certain past actions and has genuinely grown and become a better person, and as much as I loved Ansari’s heartfelt and funny as hell performance in “Right Now,” the gimmicky and attention-seeking directorial work from Spike Jonze nearly undercuts Ansari’s genuinely funny and sometimes truly heartfelt performance.
Sporting a Metallica T-shirt and with a handheld camera tracking his moves, Ansari enters the backstage door of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, with the Velvet Underground’s “Pale Blue Eyes” on the soundtrack.
Sometimes I feel so happy
But mostly you just make me mad
Baby, you just make me mad
Seems like a cynical and counterintuitive choice to set the mood for a Netflix special that kicks off with the star (admirably and honestly) addressing a #MeToo controversy that could have sunk his entire world and expressing seemingly heartfelt regrets about hurting someone.
The convenient front-row placement of audience members who just happen to be perfect foils for Ansari’s comedy, and the hacky cutaway shots to fans doubling over with laughter, only serve to undercut the impact of a gifted artist and storyteller coming clean about his past and inviting us to move forward with him.
Still, Ansari’s witty observations about race, self-deprecating stories about some of his past routines and TV shows and equal parts funny and heart-tugging anecdotes about his family make this well worth a spin.
“Bill Burr: Paper Tiger”
In a Netflix special taped at the Royal Albert Hall in London, the blunt and reliably funny Bill Burr stumbles out of the gate with an Angry Middle-Aged White Guy rant about political correctness, says there’s no such thing as a “male feminist” and mocks American white women: “Evidently it’s really difficult. … What happened to you today, sweetheart, did they not chill your rosé? Was the trolley not running down at the mall?”
What is that — a tribute to the Andrew Dice Clay of 1990?
A little later, sometime after Burr delivers an admittedly laugh-producing bit about the #MeToo movement (which mostly makes fun of some of the more bizarre stories we’ve heard), he says, “By the way, this is gonna be my last show ever.”
Burr hits a home run (or should we say scores a TD) when he makes fun of Colin Kaepernick’s detractors for completely missing the point of the protest and claiming Kaepernick taking a knee during the National Anthem is a personal insult to THEIR entire way of life, and makes fun of his own anger issues and his unreliable antenna for spotting some signs of racism in American culture, as when he watches a special about Elvis with his wife (who is black) and knows she’s getting more and more incensed, but isn’t exactly sure why.
Well before we reach the end of this increasingly effective hour, it’s clear the guy who came out swinging as if daring us to click away has proved you can be offensive AND enlightened.
“Dave Chappelle: Sticks & Stones”
Dave Chappelle is a groundbreaking comedic genius, but he has been widely criticized (and rightfully so) for his latest Netflix special (his fifth in the last three years), in which he bemoans “celebrity hunting season,” derisively dismisses Michael Jackson’s accusers from the recent HBO documentary, resorts to homophobic “humor” more than once, and continues to express his bewilderment about transgender people, gleefully acknowledging he can’t stop making jokes about them.
It’s not as if we’d ever expect Chappelle to consider any topic off-limits. (Nor should he.) What’s surprising and disappointing is the consistently uninspired and borderline hacky quality of the material.
From time to time we’re reminded of Chappelle’s arguably unparalleled ability to deliver piercing social commentary wrapped inside devastatingly funny bits, as when he compares the current opioid crisis to the crack epidemic of the 1980s, or when he shares his thoughts about active shooter drills at schools.
When Chappelle is on a roll, there’s no one better. Unfortunately, in “Sticks & Stones” he keeps losing momentum when he hits far too many speed bumps of his own making.
The next big thing: Eddie Murphy in 2020
The streaming service stand-up special has become a (most welcome) staple of the 2010s. A number of these programs have generated quite a bit of buzz and controversy.
But even with the already voluminous catalog of eyeball-drawing shows featuring all-time greats who made their debuts on the Johnny Carson “Tonight Show”; established stars who have been perfecting their routines for 10 or 15 or 20 years and have never been more popular, and fast-rising talents on the cusp of mainstream name recognition, the surest bet in showbiz is the 2020 Netflix special of Eddie Murphy’s return to stand-up will yield record-shattering viewership and will be one of the most intensely scrutinized entertainment events in recent memory.
The famously mercurial Murphy, now 58, who for decades has rejected countless overtures to return to “SNL,” to star in sequels to any number of his movie hits, and to revive his stand-up career, is suddenly all-in on all fronts.
Some 32 years after “Coming to America,” a sequel will be released next year.
Some 35 years after exiting “Saturday Night Live,” Murphy will finally return as a guest host for the first time, on Dec. 21.
And more than three decades after the young Eddie Murphy achieved rock star status with the concert films “Delirious” (1983) and “Eddie Murphy Raw” (1987), he will return to the stand-up stage.
In 1996, Murphy apologized for the young twentysomething version of himself making jokes about homosexuality and AIDS. In recent interviews, he has once again expressed remorse about those early routines.
It will be fascinating to see how Murphy makes comedic sense of our current world.
And it would only be fair to withhold judgment and keep an open mind.