Setups and punch lines get all the attention, but the stuff in between can be just as important, especially in short jokes where every word counts. Take this one by Jaye McBride: “I love old guys. The older the better.” Pause. “I don’t do online dating. I do carbon dating.” This could work without the second sentence — “The older the better” — but not as well. The reasons have as much to do with rhythm as meaning. It’s the kind of small touch that lets you know McBride, a bespectacled Comedy Cellar regular, has an ear for jokes.
Her debut special, an offhanded if very funny production shot at Union Hall in Brooklyn, has a quick and jaunty style, a rough production for a stand-up act without frills. She is the first to tell you that her brand of stand-up leans more on punch lines than stories, but this doesn’t mean the hour doesn’t vary, showing off different genres of jokes. There’s the windy kind that abruptly shifts because of a twist that upends everything that came before. There’s the observational material: A transgender comic, McBride has one bit about etiquette that, no matter how sure you are, you can never ask someone if they’re trans. There are self-deprecating asides, some spiky transgressive stuff and satirical jokes designed to make a point. After telling us she transitioned 15 years ago, McBride quiets the crowd: “Don’t clap. I only did it to compete in the Olympics.”
Mike Vecchione, ‘The Attractives’
Onstage, Mike Vecchione speaks in a hypnotically steady cadence, adopting an almost uncanny calm. Sometimes, this deadpan affect, slightly slower than normal speech, is used to play dumb. (He has a great bit about being praised for his emotional intelligence, which he claims is invented by smart people to make the dumb feel better.) At other times, the result is ludicrously arrogant, as when he confides that the pandemic was difficult for good-looking people like himself because of the masks. (“As attractives, we’re used to being treated a certain way.”)
His jokes can be deceptively intricate, and while many comics lean on callbacks as a cheap trick, he finds clever ways to incorporate them. As with other stand-ups, Dave Attell’s influential delivery haunts his set. You hear its notes especially in the wry way Vecchione introduces jokes. (“Fine, guys, what’s my immigration policy? Is that what you want to know?”) But at his best, he finds a space between sarcasm and sincerity. Take his explanation that one of his passions is going to other cities and insulting their pizza. What New Yorker can’t relate? Or the spin on a familiar line flattering the audience: “You’re a great crowd because you’re getting my jokes.”
Kyle Kinane, ‘Shocks and Struts’
When you first see Kyle Kinane, the gravel-voiced comic road warrior, he’s all by himself outside his van under a vast sky. This is not a flashy stand-up. He doesn’t play with form, have a message or belong to a specific school of comedy. His jokes don’t rely much on character work and they don’t tend to wade into big issues. But this solitary image fits him. Kinane finds humor in feeling out of place, reliably turning crusty irritation into eccentric flights of fancy. On his latest special, he grouses about nonchalant surgeons, circumcision and attractive people in playful language filled with turns of phrase that will make you smile or even cringe (he calls foreskin “the devil’s calamari”). But what encapsulates him at his best is a lament on jam bands. It’s a niche bit that leans on giddy contempt and detailed performance culminating in an act-out emphasizing the unlikely pathos of the guy in the band who desperately wants to end the song but can’t pull it off. It’s a hilarious tragedy.
In their new Netflix special, the nonbinary comic Mae Martin (star of the series “Feel Good”) patiently, and with considered cheerfulness, explains the difference between gender and sexuality while rebutting comics like Dave Chappelle and placing gender fluidity in historical context. But also, Martin says that if people are confused about the contemporary conversation about gender, that’s OK, too. “I do not understand Wi-Fi but I know that it’s real.” Martin says. “I don’t let it keep me up at night.”
Martin, 35, discusses gender grudgingly, and their bit imagining Chappelle and Ricky Gervais, who also have Netflix specials, seeing “SAP” and changing their mind about their trans material has received headlines. But there’s also something awkward about this more straightforwardly sincere section of the special, an abrupt shift from what precedes and follows it. A sweetly charismatic performer, their intimate comic voice is skewed and sunny, mystical but somehow grounded. Martin hails from Canada, where they shot this special, on a set dressed like a forest, and the sideways anecdotal humor (at the end of one story, Martin points out there are no punch lines, it’s just a vignette) belongs to a rich legacy of oddball Canadian comedy. (A moose plays a significant role in a joke.)
Pay close attention and you can see a sturdy introduction to an entire life here, from a cringe comedy story about conception to a horrified portrait of puberty to a romance-besotted 20s to the current jaded moment. Sighing over having to talk about potential baby names in yet another relationship, Martin says: “Let me wade through the graveyard of dead hypothetical kids.”
The first half of the special is strong, filled with surprising bursts of dark poetry and strange characters, like a postman in Europe who buries the mail of an entire town. Martin loves this man, whose explanation is as offhanded and blunt as the comedian is. There are ideas that emerge throughout the special about identities, the ways we intensely curate them as children and stop as adults. A better show would find more connective tissue and a funnier one would tighten up some stories, cut one or two and add a few punch lines. But doing that might also make Martin seem more like everyone else. It’s already an amusing, effortless vibe here, one whose pleasures derive in part from being comfortable to be what it is.