Todd Barry, Tracy Morgan, Sasheer Zamata, Chris Fleming and Jason Fried riff on weird characters, middle age, lost histories and more.
Todd Barry, ‘Domestic Shorthair’
Stream it on YouTube
Todd Barry speaks fluent sarcasm. After decades of refinement, honing his low-key deadpan into something flexible and distinctive, he can turn a sentence inside-out with the mildest shift in intonation, instantly divorcing what he says from what he means. The pivots in his jokes are subtle but crisp. Ever since David Letterman retired from late night, sarcasm has no better champion. Barry starts waving its flag as soon as the applause settles down on his very funny new special. “That is the type of forced fraudulent crowd response that will propel this whole show,” he says, enough of a hint of a smile to soften the blow.
Barry is a taut joke teller more than a yarn-spinner. But his punchlines emerge from anecdotes filled with details about curious characters he’s met, tales that have the quirkiness and surprise of what you find in a sensitively observed short story. There’s the Uber drive who apologizes for not talking during the ride, the waiter who warns against the Italian dressing in a whisper and the cabinet salesman who says he loves his job because it allows him to eat with his customers. He filters the slightest interactions with them through his arch responses, mocking but not mean. His real adversaries are not people but hyperbole, nonsense or any pointless excess of emotion. And some of his most unexpected laughs are in his own mixing up of mountains and molehills. “My printer broke recently,” he said, gently shifting gears to a parody of concern. “Sorry to bum you out.”
Tracy Morgan, ‘Takin’ It Too Far’
Stream it on Max
It’s been a rough couple of years for Tracy Morgan, the veteran comic, “30 Rock” scene stealer and all-time great talk-show guest. He almost died after being hit by a Walmart truck, then during the pandemic, his marriage fell apart. In his baggy new special, he says his wife “took that social distancing too far.”
If you were looking for a bracing and introspective hour on his troubles, you came to the wrong place. Morgan just brings up his problems to crack wise about them. There is little attempt at timeliness (the expiration date on jokes about the slap at the Oscars has passed) or ambitious set pieces with tight jokes snapping into place. This is a comic coasting on charisma, which he can do as well as anyone. His main subject is middle age. He’s out to prove you don’t need to be mature in your 50s. Instead, he doubles down on sex and fart jokes, yanking his shirt up, rubbing his belly, finishing with a dozen or so minutes on what it’s like to sleep with older women. Ultimately, there’s no escaping the fact that aging changes you. Morgan confesses he pushed a lap dance away at a strip club, shouting: ‘You know my sciatica flared up!”
Sasheer Zamata, ‘The First Woman’
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Why does everyone know Amelia Earhart but not Jerrie Mock, the first woman to fly solo around the world? According to the comic Sasheer Zamata, whose second stand-up special is full of hidden histories, it boils down to marketing. Mock kept to herself, saying, “The kind of person who enjoys being alone in a plane is not the kind who enjoys being continuously around other people.” Zamata says she doesn’t “like going places or doing things,” so perhaps she can relate. Earhart married her publicist, and Zamata calls her the “original Kim Kardashian.”
Her digression, filled with punchlines, is just one example of how this special unpacks lost or taboo stories. The political centerpiece of the set is about how we should talk more about female sexuality, especially for girls. She relates a story about masturbating for the first time with a lint roller, then opens the topic to the audience, resulting in some colorful crowd work. Zamata, a former “Saturday Night Live” cast member, turns jokes into carefully crafted vignettes, often hinging on a twist that leads her to widen her eyes for a long pause. She’s a poised performer, effortlessly moving from crowd work to dating tales to political gibes. Her description of being hit by a car becomes a peg for how people (including doctors) ignore Black women when describing pain but pay attention to them on the question of what is cool. Her solution? Black women should champion illness (“Sickle cell is sick as hell!”), and disease will be “gentrified out of our bodies.”
Chris Fleming, ‘Hell’
Stream it on Peacock
Whenever a new Chris Fleming video appears on my feed, I stop and pay attention. In a scroll of sameness, he’s thrillingly unexpected, a shaggy-haired Los Angeles absurdist who often begins with an offhand and narrow idea (sitting in his car, considering the appeal of Adam Driver, say), then riffs on it with a gusto and flamboyance that accumulates its own comic momentum. His is a pointedly niche sensibility but responsible for some of the biggest laughs I have had on social media. His debut, a scattershot affair that mixes a performance at a theater with sketches, has some very funny oddball ideas, like his celebration of the Nissan Cube as the “one true asexual icon in American culture.”
His precise dissection of basic families who think they’re really eccentric is a characteristic hobby horse. But these bursts of lunacy don’t build on one another. In the translation to long form, the pacing gets a little slack. Part of the problem might be editing (you must kill your darlings, especially when they involve sketches that go on too long) and an undercooked overall conceit. Fleming can’t seem to entirely decide if his aesthetic is going to be polished or ragged, his material revealing or purely absurd. He’s smart enough to commit to the personal and the weird, but absurdity requires its own rigor.
Jared Fried, ‘37 & Single’
Stream it on Netflix
In the crowded field of dating jokes, Jared Fried, an amusingly hyperventilating self-deprecator exploring red flags, online profiles and tensions between millennials and Generation Z, distinguishes himself in a couple of ways. In his very strong act-outs, he does an inspired impression of fake laughing that projects real discomfort. It gooses a familiar bit about married people talking to singles about the perils of matrimony into something spiky and layered. Secondarily, not since Leslie Jones has a comic done more with bulging eyes. While dead eyes can kill an act, expressive ones can illuminate it.