[This post originally appeared as part of Recommendation Machine, IndieWire’s daily TV picks feature.]
Somehow, Netflix has found a way to keep adding to its comedy section over the past two years. With starts and stops to in-person events, there have still been semi-regular new sets from comedians all over the world. Still, the weekly avalanche of specials that began roughly in late 2016 and continued all the way through most of 2020 has understandably thinned out somewhat.
With that back catalogue still growing, Netflix has been missing its collections, the seasons’ worth of sets gathered together with no other thematic tie than “these people are funny.” In 2021, those comedy collections came via a competition (“Comedy Premium League”), a mixed-documentary format (“Your Life is a Joke”), and a preexisting group (“Plastic Cup Boyz: Laughing My Mask Off!”). The four-episode “Locombianos,” featuring a quartet of comedians from Colombia, was the closest last year came to a new drop that felt like a night at a comedy show with a complete lineup.
So it’s refreshing to be able to start 2022 with Season 3 of “The Standups.” (The last round ended up having some of the best comedy Netflix put out in all of 2018.) Technically a release in the waning days of December, these latest installments might as well be a page-turn. It’s not that these six half-hour sets are some declaration that the worst is over (especially considering the big events that are still being canceled). But this collection, especially when taken together, is helpful for this in-between state that many of us find ourselves in — not wanting to ignore what we’ve all collectively gone through and also not wanting to have to be dominated by it.
When Brian Simpson starts off his half-hour set with a joke about pandemic relief checks, it’s more than just a “let’s get this out of the way first” opener. It sets the tone for much of what’s to come, largely built around reevaluating things that you usually take for granted. It also has the spontaneity of a truly great crowdwork moment, one of the highlights of the whole season.
One of the joys of going to a live standup show is feeling the energy in the room change with each new comic. Not better or worse, just noticeably different. Naomi Ekperigin arriving on stage is an instant jolt to the rest of the room — by the time she’s giving you her personal theoretical Nancy Meyers movie (“My name is Margot, with a ’t’…”) there’s already enough momentum to propel you forward through the rest of the 30 minutes. (Her set also makes for a good companion piece to her always enjoyable podcast “Couples Therapy.”)
Mark Normand and Dusty Slay’s sets show how much pacing can make a difference. Again, not necessarily better or worse, but Normand’s set would definitely result in the longest transcript. Slay returning to his “We’re having a good time” transition/mantra gives the audience a little extra time and patience to soak things in. It’s two styles for people who expect different levels of joke density from their standup specials. In that way, “The Standups” can work for a wider comedy audience without feeling watered down.
Of the six, it’s Janelle James who zeroes in the sharpest on some of the bigger lessons from the past 21 months. Lines like “We don’t know how to sacrifice and it sucks” still keep their edge, even as she’s smiling as she says them. She’s a talented performer, sharp enough to keep her set insightful about some massive collective shortcomings without getting fully trapped by nihilism.
Melissa Villaseñor, like Slay, pretty much avoids any references that would date this to the end of 2021. It’s a hybrid of impressions of celebrities and family and hypothetical grandkids, along with some great stories from the not-so-distant past. The order of these sets is always interesting, but putting Villaseñor’s at the end almost represents a little bit of finger-crossing. We’re certainly not out of the woods yet, but with luck, this whole collection should feel familiar again before too long.