Four Comedy Specials to Watch: Seasoned Stand-Ups Making Debuts

Client: Judah Friedlander - Talent; Shane Torres - Talent Date: 12-05-2017

Comedy takes time — at least, good comedy does. That’s part of the reason comics often don’t release their first specials or albums until they’ve been telling jokes for many years, even decades. Which explains why some of the funniest new stand-up available is in debuts by seasoned performers with honed acts.

Here are four first efforts that will add to your holiday cheer.

Judah Friedlander

“America Is the Greatest Country in the United States” (Netflix)

Judah Friedlander, who has been performing regularly since 1989 without putting out an album or special, uses more than a dozen punch lines in the first two minutes of his new special, a pace he sustains for more than two hours. If comedy were measured by volume, an argument could be made that no one offers a better deal on Netflix.

Yet despite this density of jokes, Mr. Friedlander — whose stand-up persona is a know-it-all boaster nicknamed the World Champion — never seems like he’s in a rush. His relaxed slacker affect (a shaggy beard and trucker cap are constants) is such a strange fit for his egomania that it can’t help but make you laugh. He specializes in crowd work and self-evidently absurd arguments, like making the case that other countries hate Americans because we have the best cheese in the world.

In the age of Trump, Mr. Friedlander’s preposterous arrogance, which extends to believing he can solve every political problem in a quick sound bite, does not seem so silly, which he seems to understand. His jokes arrive refracted through a left-leaning lens, and while he doesn’t parody the president, he increasingly seems to pivot off him. “We don’t need to bring back coal,” he says dismissively. “But I am going to bring back all the VCR repairman jobs.”

Shane Torres

“Established 1981” (iTunes)

Shane Torres also recently released his first Comedy Central half-hour, which is funny but not as much as this longer audio-only album. Mr. Torres has a laconic drawling delivery with deliberate pacing, placing him firmly in the tradition of dry deadpan specialists like Todd Barry and Tig Notaro. But his style is warmer, relying on punch lines with corkscrew turns that have moments of vulnerability and even melancholy. “You guys ever buy a bottle of your ex-girlfriend’s shampoo — not like from her, but her brand — wash your hair with it and then sit around and smell yourself?” he asks, pausing, before telegraphing defensiveness. “Me neither. Be weird if one of you did that.”

While he’s best known for a bit ferociously defending Guy Fieri against his critics, his tone on this hot take is less polemical than wistful. “As far as I can tell,” he says with exasperation, “all he ever did was follow his dreams.” In the rest of his act, he brings up disappointing romances and the deaths of loved ones almost offhandedly, adding to the mood of his self-deprecating jokes — like one about his sexual moves, which number two: “I have the one where I do all of the work, and the one where I don’t do any of it.” Pause. “That one’s my favorite.”

Michelle Wolf

“Nice Lady” (HBO)

Silly fart jokes tied to meaty social commentaries that spin out into unexpected personal confessions interrupted by nicely crafted one-liners (“A soft penis looks like the sound of sad”): This comedic Rube Goldberg device is a quirky and delightful contraption, far sturdier than it appears. Michelle Wolf’s range is anchored by a distinctive persona: a goofy but slyly forceful mischief maker determined to get you to see her view of the world, one way or the other.

She starts by saying it’s an unpopular time to be a feminist, then goes into a bit about activist woman not being focused enough. It’s an off-key opening, considering that feminist arguments are currently upending the culture. But no comic can anticipate the news cycle, even one as savvy about gender and politics as Ms. Wolf, a workaholic who appears on “The Daily Show” and in seemingly every comedy room in New York.

Her act has always been smart, but over the years, she has developed a level of flashy showmanship that matches her shiny high-top sneakers. Her jokes crackle with character work and strategic shifts in her nasal voice to deeper registers.

She remains at her best in intricate bits like one sending up the impossibility of a woman “having it all”: She runs down a litany of unrealistic expectations for women before juxtaposing it with the simplicity of male ambition, which involves a sandwich and part of the garage. If there’s a thematic core to this hour, it’s a proud affirmation of single-minded professionalism. “I don’t want to be in a relationship for the same reason I don’t want a kid: I don’t want anything in my life to be more important than me,” she says, adding that that might be selfish, before deepening her voice and saying, with a chuckle, “The jig is up: I’m not a nice lady.”

Yamaneika Saunders

“Comedy Central Stand-Up Presents” (Amazon and Comedy Central)

After explaining that a bride for whom she was the maid of honor asked her to wear a pumpkin-spice-colored dress, Yamaneika Saunders freezes, silent onstage, waiting a beat. Then her face seems to retreat, flattening out, her pupils dancing from one side to the other and back again, veering farther from her nose than seems possible. This contortion transitions into a mask of confusion as her shoulders rise, the only help her body offers to the wonderful above-the-neck physical comedy that turns the punch line that follows into a mere coda. (“That’s not even a color. That’s a drink at Starbucks.”)

Ms. Saunders is a magnetic live performer who stood out on Oxygen’s short-lived reality show about female stand-ups, “Funny Girls,” and she can do a lot with a little. She finds all kinds of laughs milking a pause, running through expressions, steadily ramping up the emotion with gusto. She sets up her jokes crisply, pursues familiar juxtapositions (sex and religion always fit snugly) and then sells the hell out of the punch lines.

Is she better live? Of course. But this Comedy Central special is still really good. She doesn’t waste a second on anxious embarrassment after confessing that she lost her virginity at age 27, heading right to anger, explaining how her grandmother’s warning that “Jesus is watching” paralyzed her. “When I had sex for the first time and the guy called out, ‘Jesus!’ I was like, ‘Where?’ ” It’s not a bad line, but what makes you really laugh is the panic on her face.

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/04/arts/television/4-comedy-specials-to-watch-judah-friedlander-michelle-wolf.html