The stand-up, who has a new Netflix special, delights in inappropriate laughs — none more so than in her bits about aging and childhood.
The stand-up Beth Stelling reminds me so much of my best friend from high school.
I relate this as full disclosure (comedy is subjective, especially when it intersects with your life) but also because it illustrates one of her considerable strengths. Some comics build a persona that is the best vehicle for their jokes. Stelling belongs to a different tradition: Her comedy emerges from an onstage character as rich and resonant as a great movie protagonist. Even if you don’t know someone like Stelling, her fully realized performance makes you feel as if you do.
In “If You Didn’t Want Me Then,” a superb hour on Netflix that reveals a nimble storyteller who has leaped to a new artistic level, she carries herself with the steely cynicism of someone who has seen some things. Dressed all in black, she describes herself as grizzled by the time she was in high school and displays a delight in inappropriate laughs. She tells two stories about relationships with large age gaps and says, “I feel like the only time men believe women is when we’re lying about being 18.”
After such lines, she tends to unleash a grunting chuckle that evokes Butt-Head more than Beavis along with a cool girl smirk. A laid-back dirtbag comic energy infuses her act. She never looks as if she were trying too hard. The feat of her standup is how it gradually makes her hard shell transparent, revealing vulnerability, compassion and feminist fire, through her revisiting of a childhood marked by divorce.
Her last special, “Girl Daddy” (on Max), introduced audiences to her father, a conservative with a showman streak. “He moved to Orlando, Florida, to become an actor, which is not where you go,” she says, in a sentence that moves quickly before stopping on a dime. While he didn’t get many roles in movies or television, he did create a business dressing up in costumes as advertisements, like playing a leprechaun in front of an Irish bar. She once again uses him as a comic target, telling scathingly deadpan stories about his eccentricities, centering one bit on his raccoon collection. But watching her roast him you can’t help but think that some of his performance chops rubbed off on her.
What stands out more in the new show is her sneakily loving portrait of her mother, who raised her in Dayton, Ohio, where the special was shot. The hour opens with a view of the city’s modest skyline alongside chunky red letters announcing the title with a heavy-metal guitar riff. When she says of Dayton that “not everyone showed us the respect we deserve,” Stelling could be talking about her mother, a teacher of more than three decades whom she has presented as a Marge Simpson type.
Stelling opens with a story about a boy in her second-grade class who cracked an obscene joke at her mom’s expense that she had found hilarious. What follows is something of a fakeout. While she pauses to celebrate this boy’s joke, she’s setting up a belated if cheerful revenge, delivering the brutal comeback that she didn’t serve up when she was young and that her mom, a proper professional, never would.
Her mother is unfailingly supportive of her career, always hyping her up, albeit clumsily, saying if she was in the Olympics, she would win the gold medal. Then Stelling, pausing and imitating her mother, finishes the compliment: “in women’s standup comedy.”
One of Stelling’s sneakiest assets is her voice, a Bamfordian instrument that moves effortlessly from grunts to accents to girlish squeaks to bourgeois entitlement. She has a joke about how you’re a gymnast when you’re young because “you’re unaware of the many ways your neck can break” that gets most of its laughs from the change in speeds and intonations of its delivery.
And yet, early in her set, she does a bit about how she plans to age and not get plastic surgery. “If I do get surgery,” she says, “it’s going to be a lobotomy.” Then comes her trademark chuckle before imagining telling her friend as if a whacked-out character: “Let’s get our heads done.” She then repeats the line but in a lower register closer to her own.
She says she ran this joke by her mother and, imitating a cheerful Midwestern woman, the response was, “Wouldn’t that be nice.” Stelling looked stunned. “Curveball, Diane!” she marvels about her mom. Stelling clearly always saw herself as the dark one, but this special is a portrait of her getting older, wiser, seeing things anew. With a mix of melancholy and admiration, she adds, “I used to be able to shock her.”
Shock is part of Stelling’s tool kit. She has two punchlines in this special that pull it off extremely well, both of which require too much context to ruin here. They produce the kind of belly laughs that can only come from surprising jokes not safe for work. But my favorite moments are the quieter ones, like the line about not being able to shock her mother, a soft laugh at best. It lingers because there’s subtext. She’s performing getting older and realizing her mother might be different than she thought.
It suggests that the easy categories one might assume from her stand-ups — fun, reckless dad and square mom — don’t capture them in full. And through that realization, Stelling reveals a deeper version of herself. You might even recognize yourself in this moment. We all get older and see our childhood from new perspectives. And in your darker moments, getting your head done might even seem, for a moment, like sweet relief.