If a comic tells a joke in the forest, did it really kill?
There’s a school of thought, one I have long been sympathetic to, that believes that stand-up without a live audience isn’t stand-up at all. Just listen to the debrief among famous comedians that, oddly, follows right after Norm Macdonald’s “Nothing Special,” his posthumous set recorded in his home during lockdown in 2020 and released this week on Netflix.
Dave Chappelle compares comedy without an audience to a swim meet without water. David Letterman keeps returning to the point that without an audience, Macdonald didn’t have his “partner,” and something was missing. The closest to a dissent comes from Conan O’Brien, who makes the point that Macdonald always seemed like he could do comedy by himself, saying that when Macdonald appeared on his talk show, the host felt irrelevant.
Macdonald is perhaps uniquely positioned to serve as an example of the shortcomings of the audience. His standards could be higher than the crowd’s. There are stories of him deciding to do jokes on “Saturday Night Live” that he knew were funny even if they died in rehearsal.
This final special, a raw and moving production, is a gift to fans. It’s a pleasure to hear one last time his faux-folksy locutions (“It doesn’t make no sense”) and the way his jokes could twist (I have opinions that everyone holds, like, I don’t know, yellow is the best color ”) or move full steam ahead. After years of therapy, he says, he discovered why he has a fear of flying. “It’s the crashing and the dying,” he says, his wide eyes twinkling.
Judged by aesthetic slickness and tight jokes, this hour isn’t nearly as successful as his last one, from 2017, “Hitler’s Dog, Gossip & Trickery.” But it’s mesmerizing in different ways. There’s something uncanny about letting the jokes stand on their own, the quiet awkwardness and messy intrusions (a dog barks, a cellphone goes off) offering a reminder that something bigger than showbiz is happening here, a glimpse of a man facing the end, giving his last jokes everything he’s got.
Macdonald, who died of cancer last year and is quoted in a scroll at the start of the special saying he filmed it before a medical procedure because he “didn’t want to leave anything on the table in case things went south,” becomes unusually earnest about his mother, expressing what she means to him. In what seems like a tangent, he points out that she didn’t speak with irony and couldn’t tell a good story but she “knew how to love.” As he gazes off, his face inches away from the screen, you might wonder if this is heartfelt or part of a joke (hint: could be both) before the punchline lands. There’s a cleverness as well as a poignancy here that I don’t think could be replicated if an audience were there.
Live entertainment is of course singular, and the lockdown only emphasized my appreciation for it. But despite what you might have heard, audiences are often wrong. (Think of the famous comic you hate the most and I promise you they have delighted the crowd.) The audience has an underexamined impact on the aesthetic of specials. Comics spend so much time thanking and praising the people in the seats that it’s worth at least considering an opposing view.
Here goes: The audience in specials is fundamentally manipulative, a bullying intrusion on the relationship between artist and observer at home. It can operate like peer pressure. And just as it adds to the excitement of stand-up, the steady, familiar sound of laughter, the most beloved cliché in all of comedy, can also be limiting. When Macdonald talks about his fear of dying and finding a different God than he expected, no sound distracts from the poignancy, and you find yourself looking closer at his face, studying it for clues, hints that may or may not be there.
The pandemic forced so many comics to learn about performing to screens. Most didn’t like it, but some had considerable success. And a comic working by himself, Bo Burnham, made “Inside,” the most acclaimed special last year and one of the finest works of art about that period.
As it happens, Burnham, who has been relatively quiet for the past year, released over an hour of outtakes from “Inside” the same week that Macdonald’s special premiered.
Burnham and Macdonald are from different generations and have clashing styles, one theatrical and flamboyantly satirical, the other deadpan and folksy. But they share a love of language and a bone-deep ironic sensibility. And in these specials, both haunted by death, they show that removing the audience can access emotions a traditional special cannot.
Burnham tapped into the pandemic zeitgeist while mounting a musical comedy that portrayed his own unraveling mind. The lockdown became a metaphor for major trends of the internet age, and “Inside” became a hit not only on Netflix but also on social media, among young audiences who will delight in and study this fertile new release, free on YouTube.
Burnham includes many cut songs and satirical sketches as well as alternative versions of familiar bits. It doesn’t play like a director’s cut, but it’s also more than a series of odds and ends not ready for prime time. If anything, it’s instructive to see how some of the bits are funnier than what is in the original special.
Among the darlings that Burnham killed was a scathing, spot on parody of a Joe Rogan podcast, with Burnham on split screen playing two different guys. It captures an essential incoherence of so many thin-skinned comics when they complain about offended audiences: The podcasters insist they are just telling inconsequential jokes a second before describing comics as philosophers.
An even more hilarious spoof comes later when multiple versions of Burnham, one representing the writer of “Inside,” the other director and on and on, appear in a grid onscreen to be interviewed by a glib internet journalist. When they’re asked why there isn’t more diversity, they all freeze and then one Burnham pipes up to flamboyantly offer gratitude for the question. Burnham is gifted at mocking the performative liberal sanctimony of the moment as well as corporate attempts to exploit it, such as his very realistic YouTube ads that pop up below. One reads, “It’s mental health awareness decade at Kohl’s,” followed by the promise: “All laceless shoes 60 percent off.”
He has a song at the end of these outtakes that is a clever riff on the chicken crossing the road joke. It could have been a closer to the special, but he cut it. Instead, we see him panicking at the sight of an audience.
Performing to no one doesn’t fit most comedy, but it has its advantages. Burnham and Macdonald created a more direct relationship with the viewer, one with more intimacy than can be generated by a close-up.
Burnham wanted to capture the uneasy mood of the early pandemic as viscerally as possible. And he clearly succeeded. When my 13-year-old daughter saw “Inside,” her first reaction was, “Is he OK?”
It’s not something you would ask about a comedian who just received a round of applause.