Having successfully obtained the Holy Grail of stand-up with nothing less than Chris Rock’s first special in a decade, Netflix’s comedy offerings of late, like the service itself, largely have been focused on international expansion. In the past month alone, the entertainment omnibus has distributed hours performed in Spanish, Arabic, and Korean. With a formidable archive already in place, English-language material has hardly disappeared, but it hasn’t felt like Netflix’s top comedy priority. The less said about Ricky Gervais’s Humanity, the better.
Of course, where Netflix is concerned, drop-offs are relative. For stand-up comedy’s most prolific patron by a significant margin, a “slow month” also includes the release of a half-dozen specials under the banner of The Standups, Netflix’s label for shorter, 30-minute recordings compiled into short, bingeable “seasons.” (Netflix will soon experiment with even shorter, 15-minute specials, though the company has yet to announce a release date or format.) Currently in its second volume, The Standups is Netflix’s answer to Comedy Central’s The Half Hour or the ’90s-era HBO Comedy Half-Hour, a convenient intermediary between an album and a full-blown hour that also functions as a brand in its own right. In 2016, Netflix also tested out an innovative, sketch-specific version of the same premise called The Characters, but has yet to order a follow-up. Meanwhile, The Standups, with its ample precedent set by other networks and significantly cheaper production value compared to a scripted sketch anthology, shows every sign of becoming a sustainable mini-franchise.
As for the performers showcased by this latest round, Netflix has selected a stylistically diverse cross-section of mid-career comedians. Rachel Feinstein works squarely within the brassy, unapologetic vein of club-seasoned female stand-ups like Amy Schumer and Whitney Cummings. Nigerian British comic Gina Yashere offers an outsider’s take on America, plus stories sourced from a very different life experience than her stateside demo’s. Both Joe List and Brent Morin are representative of the paradoxically confident beta male who’s taken over comedy, sourced directly from feeder systems like UCB, in the wake of the alt revolution.
Two comics in particular stand out enough to become the clear highlights of this volume of The Standups. Kyle Kinane and Aparna Nancherla are radically different entertainers at very different points in their careers. Kinane is arguably the biggest name among this Standups crew, with four previous specials (working backward: Loose in Chicago, I Liked His Old Stuff Better, Whiskey Icarus, and an episode of Comedy Central Presents) plus an album-only hour (2010’s Death of the Party); eagle-eared viewers will also recognize him as the longtime voice of Comedy Central. Nancherla is well established in certain circles, having written for Late Night With Seth Meyers, voice-acted on the fourth season of BoJack Horseman, and joined the cast of Comedy Central’s capitalist satire Corporate. Still, The Standups is only Nancherla’s second full-length special, after an episode of The Half Hour in 2016. (That same year, Nancherla also released an album titled Just Putting It Out There.)
Unsurprisingly, then, Kinane has the far more traditional stage presence of the two, with a growling, straightforward delivery that suits his cut-to-the-chase opener: “We gotta kinda just jump into shit. Let’s go for it. Mass shootings, kaboom!” Though Yashere touches on the obvious as a gay black female immigrant—four out of the six Trump phobias, she jokes—Kinane’s special is the most overtly topical of the batch, which is somewhat surprising coming from a straight white guy. The joy of Kinane’s set is that he knows this and uses it to his advantage.
Kinane talks a big game about the coming fascist apocalypse, he admits, but he can’t be that pressed: he’s still washing out bottles of salad dressing and sorting out the recycling from the trash like any other oblivious liberal. By copping to his own detachment from the material consequences of whatever the country’s going through right now, Kinane both makes himself the butt of the joke and also clears the space to make light of, say, the quality of blood donations available to the victims of a tragedy in Las Vegas. (Kinane notes that there will almost certainly be an intervening event that makes Vegas feel distant enough to joke about, and in the wake of the Parkland shooting, he’s proved eerily right.)
A bearded, burly, tattooed guy certainly looks like he could hail from either side of the political spectrum, which creates the suspension of disbelief necessary for the centerpiece of Kinane’s episode: an extended hypothetical involving members of the Ku Klux Klan having their beliefs, or even just robe upkeep, challenged by Mexican takeout. It’s a deeply silly bit—maybe too silly, given the subject at hand, but Kinane’s already gotten the frivolity issue out of the way by acknowledging he’s not as invested as he probably should be. Being able to laugh about the KKK kind of makes him, and by extension us, an asshole, but maybe it takes an asshole to take some of the wind out of a much worse group of human beings.
Nancherla, conversely, sticks to the delightfully small, at least onstage. (You’ll find plenty of Trump/NRA/white supremacist zingers on her popular Twitter feed.) An entire observational riff can start with an offhand comment a woman makes to the pilot while disembarking an airplane, or an off-putting line from a women’s magazine. Nancherla’s demeanor is essentially the opposite of what we’ve been trained to expect from the archetypal stand-up comedian, who’s brash, assertive, and, let’s face it, masculine. She takes the stage in a sundress and flats; she mumbles a bit; she doesn’t raise or project her voice. Over 30 minutes, Nancherla handily proves that the stereotype of what an assertive, in-control comic looks like is entirely on us. In both style and substance, Nancherla is a kindred spirit to fellow New Yorker Jo Firestone, currently bringing the same offbeat sensibility that birthed a recurring comedy show called “Punderdome” to The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, where she’s a writer. There’s something heartening about watching this latest wave of playful, low-stakes realists share their perspectives via venues like NBC and Netflix, modernizing Seinfeld’s ethos for the 21st century in ways that the actual Seinfeld has not.
In Nancherla’s episode, that sensibility culminates with a set piece of her own. Her version of the Ku Klux Klan hypothetical is an honest-to-god PowerPoint about emoji and texting, complete with an actual television wheeled out onstage for the majority of the performance. Called “You Had Me at YOLO,” the TED Talk–style presentation conveniently illustrates classic millennial foibles like parental communication and online dating, providing a staging ground for Nancherla’s half-earnest, half-deadpan running comedy. The gimmick reminded me of a recent The Half Hour from SNL’s Julio Torres, another unconventional performer given the opportunity to realize visions like performing next to a giant crystal on a surprisingly mainstream platform. Prop comedy is hardly in vogue, but in the right, semi-ironic hands, it can still work wonders.
The Standups is still establishing itself as a broad and useful sampling of comedians across the industry and a building block of Netflix’s international, all-encompassing dominance. In the meantime, Kinane and Nancherla each seize the opportunity to hone their particular skill sets, one as a kind of benevolent bro at the top of his game, the other as a slyly commanding voice on the rise. If The Standups is technically an episodic anthology, à la fellow Netflix series Black Mirror, they’re the “USS Callister” that makes the binge worth it.