Seth Rogen‘s “Hilarity for Charity” annual fundraising event has been going on since 2012, but the most recent installment, recorded live in front of an audience last month in Los Angeles is its most high profile yet. Filmed over the course of one night and released this week on Netflix, it’s a variety show with some of the biggest names in the comedy world. With a deceptive amount of ambition and a strong, varied lineup, it’s a strange, sweet jumble of comedy that’s unabashedly a perfect fit for the algorithm.
The time may already have come when it’s impossible for anything comedy-related on Netflix to not take a swipe at someone in the Netflix family. After years of expansion and acquisition and with a renewed effort to draw new creators under his umbrella, it seems like at this point Netflix will always be in a position where at least a little bit of self-deprecation will seem necessary.
That the first gag in this installment of “Hilarity for Charity” features Netflix creator and head “Big Mouth” Nick Kroll is a natural fit, then. Rather than play it safe, the special starts out with a risky proposition, a live filmed sketch with way more moving parts than the typical “SNL” fare. It adds a bit of danger to the show, even if the jokes all don’t land. (But again, to have one of the first ones reference “Jared Leto’s Sex Dungeon” shows just how willing Netflix is to let Rogen poke at their own stars.)
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With its plentiful array of unscripted programs and carefully choreographed standup collections, this is the perfect kind of thing to exist in the gray zone between those two. “Hilarity for Charity” follows a script, but the sheer number of disparate pieces that go into making something like this work gives an air of looseness to the whole thing, even in an edited-down form. When no less than the Muppets come on stage to sing various songs from their own movies, there’s a bit of shagginess in the way that people like Rogen and Chelsea Peretti and Kumail Nanjiani sing along.
With Rogen at the helm, it was always going to be a safe bet that this program was not going to be suitable for all audiences. That “Hilarity for Charity” somehow manages to integrate beloved children’s entertainment icons like Kermit the Frog and Fozzie Bear in such proximity to a literal parade of dick jokes is the clearest expression of his comic sensibilities.
If there’s one reason to sample this special, though, it’s the standup sets. Now officially members of the Netflix family, John Mulaney and Michelle Wolf both deliver perfect five-minute sets to break up the time in between the bigger setpieces. Wolf comes right out of the gate with a string of jokes that somehow manage to find a new comedic spin on the current moment, while Mulaney closes with a riff on a beloved children’s movie that features a handful of one-liners that will have you giggling days after you hear them for the first time. Tiffany Haddish also swings by for a joyful recap of the last year of her life. Who couldn’t use five minutes of that every now and then?
(And then, there’s whatever that Justin Roiland animated short is. To get into what makes it inexplicable would ruin the surprise, but without spoiling anything, it’s pretty safe to guarantee you’re not expecting what it actually is.)
There’s a sincerity to the overall purpose of the evening that adds a shiny layer over even the crudest, darkest jokes of the evening. The bookending sketches about Rogen having to save the world seem more self-effacing when you consider that the intent of this project is to raise money for Alzheimer’s research, to combat a disease that both Rogen and his wife Lauren Miller Rogen have close personal connections to. (By the way, if you want to donate, the link is here.)
This greater sense also makes the self-aware jokes that both Rogen and Netflix have at their own expense seem like a more worthwhile endeavor. If you’re going to ask people for money, it helps to publicly castigate yourself over “The Guilt Trip” and amassing a standup library with every popular human comic in existence.
Given the seesaw approach of the night, not all of these bits measure up. Bringing out the host of one of Netflix’s reality series just as a joke for him to make an appearance feels a little flat, especially given what he could have added. There’s an ending gag that seems awfully similar to one that happens very often on a certain late-night show. And how can you have Craig Robinson involved in your production and only let him be the bandleader?
But as an unapologetically messy collection of creations from some of the funniest people in the business, you could do worse than spending an hour watching a handful of comic ids run wild. Given the sheer volume of offerings that Netflix has, it may not be your ideal first destination. But if you do end up here, you won’t go home emptyhanded.
“Seth Rogen’s Hilarity for Charity” is now available to stream on Netflix.