How in the world do you make it in stand-up comedy?
This question has long kept aspiring stars up at night, and we are living in a moment when the route to a successful career is more confusing than ever. Do you have to get on TikTok? Does Comedy Central still matter? The days of being told you just need a spot on “The Tonight Show” are gone, and with myriad platforms, there appear to be many roads, most leading nowhere.
And yet, the one that still has the biggest reputation for elevating comics is Netflix. But it’s unclear how much the streaming service, known for specials by boldfaced names like John Mulaney and Adam Sandler, cares about minting stars.
That’s why Netflix’s “Verified” is important. It’s two showcases, each about an hour, featuring emerging comics doing short sets. There is a promising precedent: The streamer aired “The Comedy Lineup,” originally in 2018, which starred relative unknowns doing 15 minutes of jokes. Three in the Class of ’18 have since gotten their own series (Taylor Tomlinson, Michelle Buteau, Sam Jay). One just played Carnegie Hall (Tim Dillon). Another has been a head writer and sidekick on late night (Ian Karmel, a James Corden stalwart).
“Comedy Lineup” didn’t vault these performers to fame, but it helped. And in retrospect, the selection of the entire group (including Jak Knight, Phil Wang and Sabrina Jalees) reflected foresight and taste.
The artists in the new showcases are not exactly newcomers. There’s a correspondent for “The Daily Show” (Dulcé Sloan) and a comic who recently played the theater at Madison Square Garden (Nimesh Patel). There are jokes about dating in your mid-30s (Leslie Liao) and a comic showing off her pregnant belly (Rosebud Baker, whose hard-boiled persona backs up a strong, spiky set).
“Verified” doesn’t amount to more than a perfectly fine tasting menu of comedy. Sometimes, though, that’s all you want.
There’s something pleasing about following the transgressive intensity of Robby Hoffman with the laid-back charm of Patel. In a recent column on Hoffman’s podcast, “Too Far,” I compared that bulldozing stand-up to Larry David because of her mountain-out-of-a-molehill kvetching, but her hilarious rage over people who complain about interruptions during a conversation makes her sound like a modern lesbian Andrew Dice Clay. I didn’t even think that was possible.
Patel takes a leisurely pace, mixing crowd work and topical jokes (some solid roasting of Vivek Ramaswamy) with dated bits (a Mike Pence joke). Patel makes this hour seem casual, offhand, just another night at the club.
Sloan may adjust to the form best because she starts quickly (“How y’all doing? Great”), ends abruptly and sticks to a couple of nontopical subjects, including a bit about the benefits of dating a poor man and a great observational joke that might have you looking differently at the way people buy weed. In less than 15 minutes, her set packs a wallop.
It’s interesting what seeing all these comics in one place reveals about what is missing from most Netflix specials. Isiah Kelly begins his set with a joke about being broke, and how you know you’re having a bad week when you have to check your bank account before finishing an order at McDonald’s. Financial hardship is one of the most common subjects in live comedy, inevitably relatable to audiences today, but you’re less likely to hear about it from Ricky Gervais or Kevin Hart.
One of the revelations for me was Sabrina Wu, who barrels into jokes with a nervous energy, then exploits it. “Oh my God,” Wu says to the roar of applause, sounding grateful, then offended: “That’s it?” This is a young comic who knows how to pivot. Wu’s standout bit involves talking trash about Amanda Gorman, the former National Youth Poet Laureate, at a contest early in her career, then describing the futility of a rivalry with her. It’s one of the better jokes from a comic on an eternally rich subject: jealousy.
Class does not come up as much as race and ethnicity. Comics tend to introduce themselves by playing with their own background. Along with jokes about her deep voice and impatience with first dates, Liao, a Chinese American comic, draws attention to how Asian people’s faces are “gender neutral.” Asif Ali does some shouty jokes connecting the large Indian population to the lack of sex education. “You know why we’re not talking about it,” he says, before pointing in the air with mock aggression: “We’re too busy being about it.”
Gianmarco Soresi, a Jewish comic who alternates between silkily feline physicality and frenetic gesticulation, digs into antisemitism, but only as it affects his act. His jokes parody his own solipsism. “I just feel if white people would stop complaining all the time about cancel culture and actually fought,” he says with passion, shaking his fist, “then all of us could do the Chinese accent again.”
He then turns his back to the crowd and the camera shifts, giving viewers a moody shot of him looking downcast from backstage, adding a visual joke that stands out because it’s such a dramatically different camera angle. I have no idea how he convinced the producers to do this, but the effort was worth it.
This shot is notable because there is something modest and safe about these sets. (Patel’s “Lucky Lefty” on YouTube is a better showcase of his work.) Partly, the length makes it feel low risk, but also maybe the stakes. If Netflix is where comics go to make it, then YouTube is where you go to complain about why you haven’t.
Louis Katz, a bald, filthy veteran comic with slingshot punchlines, opens his new self-released special, “Present/Tense,” with better-known comics explaining why he never became famous. Nate Bargatze says he’s too dirty. Marc Maron points to his hair line. Dave Attell blames personality.
It’s a funny way to begin a special, which goes on to offer its own theory. People today, Katz argues, don’t want jokes. They want comics to bare their soul. Perhaps. But in a way, his lament about the state of his career (“Stand-up comedy does not have a great retirement plan”) is his best attempt.
David Drake, a strong joke writer, begins his latest YouTube special, “That’s It!,” with a pointed joke that has the ring of truth. “Here’s how you make it in this business,” he says. “Have a famous dad.”