What's The Point Of Comedy Right Now?

Hacks, Bo Burnham’s Inside, and Mae Martin’s Feel Good tackle the existential crisis of trying to be funny when the world is on fire.

By the end of the fifth episode of Hacks — considered by a number of critics to be one of this year’s best half hours of television — someone has jumped to his death from a Las Vegas hotel window.

It’s a shocking yet somehow inevitable conclusion to a night of buoyant, drug-fueled revelry in the City of Second Chances. Ava (Hannah Einbinder), a writer on the zoomer/millennial cusp banished from Los Angeles for a bad tweet, has been too busy feeling sorry for herself to properly explore her new home. She’s in Vegas to work for comedy legend Deborah Vance (Jean Smart), whom Ava derides for catering to Middle America’s “Panera people,” and it’s only a chance meeting with George (Jeff Ward), a twinkly-eyed big spender at the blackjack table, that can (temporarily) get Ava out of her funk.

In the episode, Ava tells George that she “hasn’t even partied” in Vegas yet, so they do cocaine in the bathroom of the hotel where Ava lives and drop George’s last hundred on an Ace Ventura slot machine. Since a run-in with some former colleagues from the TV world back in LA, Ava’s been spiraling: “My boss was right,” she says — one of the only times she admits to agreeing with Deborah — “I am a little shit. I’m obsessed with being cool and popular. It’s so basic.” On a hotel balcony overlooking the city, Ava insists she’s a total loser. “I think I might need to change my entire personality.” But George pushes back, tells her that he thinks she’s amazing, that the “real work” is learning to love yourself for exactly who you are.

Later that night, high on sex, cocaine, and a win from the Ace Ventura slots — perhaps Ava’s not such a big “lahooooser” after all! — she leaves Deborah a voicemail telling her she’s quitting. And the morning after, she returns to George’s hotel room with breakfast sandwiches to find the floor-to-ceiling windows shattered and hot desert winds gusting in.

It happens a lot, one of the hotel guards tells her: People come to Vegas to blow all their cash, take every drug, then leap into oblivion. (In George’s case, he was also escaping charges for elder fraud.)

Most urgently, Ava now has to deal with her impulsive late-night voicemail to Deborah, setting up the next episode, in which Ava successfully unlocks her boss’s iPhone by using facial recognition on Deborah’s wax figurine. But George’s suicide runs like a dark undercurrent throughout the rest of the season, in which Ava starts encouraging Deborah to mine some of her past traumas for a gutsier, more truthful approach to stand-up.

The HBO Max comedy-drama from a trio of Broad City alums, which has already been renewed for a second season, is one of multiple projects over the past few turbulent years to question the role of comedy on a dying planet filled with the mentally unwell. They include two recent Netflix releases: Bo Burnham’s special Inside, filmed over the course of the pandemic, and Mae Martin’s Feel Good, a semi-autobiographical series about a queer stand-up comic in recovery from addiction, now on its second and final season. Exploring what’s funny about the pain of human existence isn’t anything new in comedy, of course, but the genre has perhaps taken on a new tenor now that comedians, many of them millennials, are writing about the particularities of their self-loathing and suicidal ideation in the age of the algorithm.

Comedians, many of them millennials, are writing about the particularities of their self-loathing and suicidal ideation in the age of the algorithm.

We could potentially chart the shift to around the time of Hannah Gadsby’s explosively popular and (among my circle of pop culture–loving and –hating gays, at least) deeply controversial anti-comedy comedy special, Nanette, which was filmed in 2017 and aired on Netflix the following year. A lot of people I follow on Twitter like to clown on Nanette, in which Gadsby reflects on a lifetime of making herself, a butch lesbian from Tasmania, the butt of her jokes onstage, and what it means to package queer trauma in a light, comedic package for a primarily straight audience. I understand the typical criticisms — that Gadsby is sanctimoniously shitting on an entire genre of comedy with an emotionally complex history, and that ultimately Nanette just isn’t all that funny — but I actually found it quite moving at the time. And Gadsby wrestling with the role of self-deprecating humor in her work, wondering whether putting herself down for other people’s comfort is actually making her sick, feels quite prescient considering more recent experimental work from comedians dealing with addiction and mental illness.

Last month, fresh out of rehab and newly divorcing his wife of seven years, John Mulaney went onstage at City Winery in New York City to test out some profoundly raw material. “A lot of Mulaney’s classic jokes hinge on taking not very serious things very seriously — he is a master of faux exasperation — but it is a challenge when the subject matter is, in fact, quite serious,” Jesse David Fox wrote in his review of the show for Vulture. According to Fox, when Mulaney said his relationship with his audience has been one of the longest and most intimate of his life, the comedian was uncomfortable when people began to clap. Reading about his set, I found that bit the most devastating, perhaps because I’m also someone who shares personal stories for a living, and I too struggle with what that says about my priorities and values.

In the newly released second and final season of Feel Good, from nonbinary Canadian comedian Mae Martin, the fictionalized version of Martin is also working out fresh, raw, painful material onstage and not yielding many laughs as a result (“Do you wanna talk about my personal despair?”). Having broken out early from yet another stint in rehab to avoid the pain of fully processing some teenage trauma, Mae is spinning her wheels, back in a tumultuous relationship with her girlfriend George (Charlotte Ritchie), and annoying the hell out of her loved ones. Stuck in a sinkhole of self-pitying myopia, Mae’s mental health gets so bad that she stops leaving the house, instead performing stand-up, much to George’s annoyance, in the former privacy of their living room. It’s a smart way to physically demonstrate the comedian’s complete collapse of the public and personal; Mae-as-performer and Mae-as-human (with her attendant human relationships and responsibilities) are no longer even remotely distinguishable.

I felt about this season very similarly to the way I felt about the first: extremely uncomfortable. Martin is a charming performer, but it’s hard to watch someone continually refuse to get the help they need, for others in their life and even more so for their own sake. A friend told me she kept wanting to yell “JUST GO TO THERAPY!!!” while bingeing the whole season in one night.

The toxicity of Mae and George’s relationship is also tough to stomach, especially for those of us queers who’ve seen similar patterns in our own love lives. In Season 1, the pair move in together far too quickly, then promptly self-destruct; this season, Mae isn’t giving George any decent support or stability, then forces George to refuse a public marriage proposal at her place of work in front of all her colleagues. So cringey.

And yet that’s precisely the point. Daniel D’Addario at Variety recently wrote about his appreciation for Ava on Hacks, a character who, along with Hannah Einbinder’s performance of the whiny, self-centered 25-year-old, “feels relatively unheralded” when compared to all the effusive praise for Jean Smart as Deborah Vance. Anecdotally, I’d have to agree; many of my friends who’ve watched and loved the show think Ava’s the weak link. She’s selfish, self-absorbed, ungrateful, and seemingly not even good at comedy. (We don’t ever get to see her and Deborah’s long-awaited new material, even by the finale! Which feels kinda like a cop-out.)

“There is something about common human traits embodied by a young person that seems to rankle viewers,” D’Addario muses, citing the “intense pitch of conversation around ‘Girls’ and its protagonist, Hannah Horvath.” Lena Dunham’s infamously unlikable character, like Ava and Mae, is of course not only young but white (and therefore privileged) as well as, perhaps most significantly, assigned female. Disliking women and nonbinary characters isn’t inherently sexist or unfeminist, of course. Still, if you want to make semi-autobiographical work about your darkest and messiest self — and earn money, accolades, and near-universal public admiration in the process — we all know you’re better off doing it as a white dude. (Both Feel Good and Hacks devote quite a bit of material to exploring this very phenomenon.)

In his City Winery set, according to Fox, John Mulaney actually made fun of the public’s overwhelming support for him when it first was reported that he was dealing with drug addiction, in a fascinating recrimination of his previously beloved wife-guy schtick. While onstage Mulaney would talk about treating his friends horribly, then quickly remind the audience that addiction is a disease. “It is impossible to reconcile this material with Mulaney’s ‘aw shucks’ Jimmy Stewart persona,” Fox writes. What is the public supposed to make of a John Mulaney who might not actually be all that likable, especially when we’re all too eager to continually give baby-faced white guys the benefit of the doubt?

Bo Burnham, the YouTuber who showed the world he’s much more than your run-of-the-mill internet comedian with his delightful 2018 feature film, Eighth Grade, has long incorporated self-examination of his white guy privilege into his comedy. In his latest special on Netflix, Inside, shot over the course of the pandemic, Burnham is his most introspective yet. He wonders throughout if jokes are really what the world needs right now, and if he’s really the best person to tell them. Why can’t he — along with pretty much everybody else with a social media presence — “shut the fuck up about anything, any single thing”? He laments that the world is a dark, horrible, exploitative place, but that “there is only one thing I can do…while getting paid and being the center of attention,” which is, of course, the comedy we’re watching him perform right now. As my colleague Scaachi Koul recently wrote, “Burnham seems aware of the irony of him not shutting up about anything for an hour and a half, but maybe that’s the point: It’s an impossible request. It’s human nature to want to be heard, and the internet has amplified our voices, sometimes for the better, but often for the worse.”

Inside felt like a hilariously disturbing, and disturbingly hilarious, deep dive into my own internet-addled brain. Social media has gifted us the ability to watch the world fall apart in real time, and sitting in your apartment making goofy content all the while can give one an extraordinary sense of cognitive dissonance, not to mention feelings of worthlessness and self-loathing. Burnham frequently invokes suicide — he says that making the special was his way of distracting himself “from wanting to put a bullet into my head, with a gun” — and in one particularly genius bit, he films himself, dead-eyed and depressed, watching a different video of himself on his phone, begging the viewer not to kill themselves. (He does not do a particularly convincing job.)

Someone who has, or consistently mentions, suicidal ideation probably isn’t the best messenger when it comes to life-affirming missives, as was the case in Hacks’ excellent fifth episode. When Ava tells George, who’s on the verge of killing himself, that she doesn’t really have friends — “I think that’s a huge red flag about me, as a human being” — he assures her that we’re born alone and we die alone. Fuck everybody else! Ava enjoys being gassed up in the moment, but George sets her down a path of self-destruction that she only nearly scrapes herself out of.

Ava, annoying as she is, does grow throughout the course of the season: She becomes slightly less of a judgy asshole, and after a very funny stint of wondering whether she might be in love and/or lust with Deborah, realizes that she just has major intimacy issues. After consistently being on the verge of quitting not only her job with Deborah but also any attempt at having a real career, a real life, at all, George’s suicide is a harsh reminder to Ava and to us all that the most extreme form of tapping out — the end result of chronic, untreated self-loathing — is an early death. And that life is lived among other people, however infuriating they might be sometimes. So Ava faces Deborah’s prickliness and does the work. Bo Burnham fights his way outside. John Mulaney and Mae Martin get back onstage. The only way out is through.

The US National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. The Trevor Project, which provides help and suicide-prevention resources for LGBTQ youth, is 1-866-488-7386. Find other international suicide helplines at Befrienders Worldwide (befrienders.org).

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