What does a joke sound like in 2020?
Volume 4 Issue 3: We ask stand-up heavyweights Jaboukie Young-White, Janine Harouni, Jamie Demetriou, Phoebe Walsh, Catherine Cohen, Sam Campbell, Kate Berlant, Jordan Brookes and Chris Redd about the new era of comedy.
Article taken from The Face Volume 4 Issue 003. Order your copy here.
What does a stand-up comedian look like? Visions of rowdy open-mic nights, half-baked insults, lukewarm observations and barely-constructed characters haunt your memory. You picture heavy-eyed dinosaurs – male, pale, stale – aimlessly freestyling with sensitive topics and no punchlines, convinced it’s society’s fault that the laughter stopped a long time ago.
After the off-centre comedy boom of the Eighties, the arena-sized rock-star success of Nineties stand-ups and the industrialisation of the form in the Noughties (with acts such as Peter Kay taking up seemingly eternal residencies at the O2), live comedy stopped being a laughing matter. It became unadventurous, ubiquitous, a stepping stone to a telly programme or dry panel show.
Broadcasts such as Live At The Apollo, the standard cycle of quiz shows and semi-autobiographical sitcoms sandwiched between EastEnders and the news are restrictive. They force funny people to water down their idiosyncrasies, breeding a bland, middle-ground mediocrity. It’s a space that gives us sitcoms framed around Josh Widdecombe and Netflix shows where Jack Whitehall does wacky stuff with his dad.
“Pitching to Eddie Murphy was like reading scripture to Jesus Christ!” “Pitching to Eddie Murphy was like reading scripture to Jesus Christ!” “Pitching to Eddie Murphy was like reading scripture to Jesus Christ!” “Pitching to Eddie Murphy was like reading scripture to Jesus Christ!” “Pitching to Eddie Murphy was like reading scripture to Jesus Christ!” “Pitching to Eddie Murphy was like reading scripture to Jesus Christ!” “Pitching to Eddie Murphy was like reading scripture to Jesus Christ!” “Pitching to Eddie Murphy was like reading scripture to Jesus Christ!” “Pitching to Eddie Murphy was like reading scripture to Jesus Christ!” “Pitching to Eddie Murphy was like reading scripture to Jesus Christ!” “Pitching to Eddie Murphy was like reading scripture to Jesus Christ!” “Pitching to Eddie Murphy was like reading scripture to Jesus Christ!” “Pitching to Eddie Murphy was like reading scripture to Jesus Christ!” “Pitching to Eddie Murphy was like reading scripture to Jesus Christ!” “Pitching to Eddie Murphy was like reading scripture to Jesus Christ!” “Pitching to Eddie Murphy was like reading scripture to Jesus Christ!” “Pitching to Eddie Murphy was like reading scripture to Jesus Christ!” “Pitching to Eddie Murphy was like reading scripture to Jesus Christ!” “Pitching to Eddie Murphy was like reading scripture to Jesus Christ!” “Pitching to Eddie Murphy was like reading scripture to Jesus Christ!”
Meanwhile, over in America, former heavyweights like Seinfeld, Gervais, Chappelle and Rock are waging war, convinced that their diminishing relevance is somehow the fault of a turbo-woke generation that just doesn’t get it. Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock now refuse to play colleges, claiming that a political correctness among undergraduates makes it impossible for them to do their act.
“‘These fucking kids won’t give me money!’ That’s all I hear when they talk,” 25-year-old comedian Jaboukie Young-White told us. “Then go do your club shows and yell about trans people for three hours!” He is convinced that, somehow, the old joke is over for good.
Young-White is part of a burgeoning cast of bright, funny people who get it. Granted, that “it” is a refreshingly different thing to what it was 30 years ago. As we enter a new decade it’s clear something new is happening: on timelines, in writers’ rooms, on stages and on screens, a wave of imaginative new voices are driving traditional formats to new places. People such as Michaela Coel and Jerrod Carmichael, as well as the hugely successful but no less imaginative Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Donald Glover. These voices are symbolic of a new age.
Thanks, in part, to the internet, the conventional gatekeepers of the entertainment industry are losing their grip, allowing offbeat characters and styles to bloom. Meanwhile, social media has created a new language for comedy, informing writers as they grapple with an era that is increasingly precarious and self-aware. And it’s an era being understood in new ways, with many of the most exciting comics in the world eschewing traditional satire in favour of the confessional, the cerebral and the surreal.
To read the temperature of this fast-moving landscape, we spoke to some of the people shaking up humour on both sides of the Atlantic. We discussed social anxiety, Trump, millennial dread, the impending destruction of the planet, car accidents, incest and poverty. Seriously, it’s funnier than it sounds.
In January of this year, #freejaboukie began trending on Twitter.
Jaboukie Young-White, the 25-year-old writer, comedian and The Daily Show correspondent, had his Twitter account suspended for posting a tweet. Posing as the FBI on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, he claimed responsibility for MLK’s assassination. Few comedians would prompt such a widespread campaign if their Twitter was taken down, but Jaboukie’s half-a-million followers are dedicated.
His feed covers politics, cinema, music and vegetables, with all the ingenious recontextualisation that makes the timeline such fertile ground for comedy. While often niche (he recently said the British actor George MacKay (turn to p160) looked like “King Krule on SSRIs”), Young-White’s tone is so conversational and informal that it has a universal appeal to millennials. It’s a kind of lower-case comedy, unrehearsed and unpredictable.
Young-White grew up just outside Chicago and fell in love with comedy early on. “Growing up I was fucking obsessed with stand-up,” he says. “In third grade I would watch Comedy Central Presents and I would memorise jokes and then go to school and try to slip them into conversation.”
In the mid-Noughties he zeroed in on his stand-up obsession, studiously watching Dave Chappelle specials and bootlegged Katt Williams DVDs that came through the barbershop where his dad worked. “There’s this naughtiness about it that really attracted me from a young age, even before I knew how to tell jokes… Like, you thought it was going to be one thing, but it’s actually this thing. At the very basic level, that’s what drew me to comedy.”
He studied at DePaul University in Chicago before dropping out in his senior year to pursue comedy full-time. “I started doing stand-up when I was in college, so I had some false starts. Mostly because I was going to open-mic nights and everyone was older than me and so bitter. I just couldn’t relate to that. I was young and full of hope!”
It wasn’t until he started trialling material at a college class that he realised his optimism wasn’t redundant. “I was like, ‘Oh, no, I am funny! I’m just speaking a different language from these other people.’”
While that language exists largely online and through live sets, Young-White is making significant inroads into TV. He’s written for Netflix shows such as Big Mouth and American Vandal and has been a correspondent on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah since 2018 – a high-profile role that has helped him settle into his voice even further.
“At first I think I was so stressed, it was insane. And then it just broke me at a certain point and I was like, ‘OK, I fear nothing. I trust in myself.’”
Young-White, the son of Jamaican immigrants, came out as queer on national TV, so identity and visibility are important topics for him. Now, having spent time in writers’ rooms for big shows, he sees first-hand what behind-the-scenes representation and real-world experiences can bring to comedy. “On Twitter, people can tell if a black person didn’t write it.”
For Young-White, comedy has always been a mechanism for surprise and delight – making people happy and finding new ways of communicating. “I think stand-up will always be my starting point because it’s the only medium where no one is stopping me at all. It’s sort of like my direct line.”
In conversation and in his set, he often returns to this idea of individualised experience – that contemporary audiences aren’t all wired to like the same thing any more, which allows hyper-specific work like his to thrive.
“We’re beyond the point where I’m expecting to be for everyone. That’s just never going to happen. I think a lot of people who detract from the shit that I do just are not informed enough to know that doesn’t happen any more. You find that thing that is specifically for you, and then you like that thing. There are no more Jerry Seinfelds. There is no shared consciousness.”
“It’s easy to hate an idea, but it’s hard to hate a person who’s in front of you.” For London-based New Yorker Janine Harouni, the person in front of her was her father, and the idea was voting for Donald Trump. Harouni’s father is a lifelong New Yorker based in Tottenville, Staten Island, the son of Middle Eastern immigrants from Lebanon. Despite all that, he’s a die-hard Trump supporter.
It’s one of a few knotty dilemmas that Harouni skillfully untangles in her debut stand-up show. Having trained at drama school and started out in sketch comedy, there’s definitely a level of theatrical polish to the 32-year-old’s work. But it’s by no means inauthentic – she decided to try stand-up when the acting work dried up. In the middle of a shift selling brownies at a market, she figured it was time for something new and signed up on her phone for an open-mic gig.
When starting to construct a show she thought it best to write about what she knew. But at first, one particularly transformative experience was deliberately left off the page.
Ten years ago, when travelling back to Staten Island from a birthday party in Manhattan, Harouni’s car blew a tyre. They pulled over and another car rear-ended them at 70mph. She suffered multiple broken bones and a crushed sciatic nerve. She spent months in recovery learning to walk again, but her leg remained paralysed for three years.
“I didn’t want to exploit tragedy for my own gain,” she explains, with the same straight-forward clarity she delivers on stage. “For a long time I resisted putting the car accident in the show at all.”
“It’s easy to hate an idea, but it’s hard to hate a person who’s in front of you.” “It’s easy to hate an idea, but it’s hard to hate a person who’s in front of you.” “It’s easy to hate an idea, but it’s hard to hate a person who’s in front of you.” “It’s easy to hate an idea, but it’s hard to hate a person who’s in front of you.” “It’s easy to hate an idea, but it’s hard to hate a person who’s in front of you.” “It’s easy to hate an idea, but it’s hard to hate a person who’s in front of you.” “It’s easy to hate an idea, but it’s hard to hate a person who’s in front of you.” “It’s easy to hate an idea, but it’s hard to hate a person who’s in front of you.” “It’s easy to hate an idea, but it’s hard to hate a person who’s in front of you.” “It’s easy to hate an idea, but it’s hard to hate a person who’s in front of you.” “It’s easy to hate an idea, but it’s hard to hate a person who’s in front of you.” “It’s easy to hate an idea, but it’s hard to hate a person who’s in front of you.” “It’s easy to hate an idea, but it’s hard to hate a person who’s in front of you.” “It’s easy to hate an idea, but it’s hard to hate a person who’s in front of you.” “It’s easy to hate an idea, but it’s hard to hate a person who’s in front of you.” “It’s easy to hate an idea, but it’s hard to hate a person who’s in front of you.” “It’s easy to hate an idea, but it’s hard to hate a person who’s in front of you.” “It’s easy to hate an idea, but it’s hard to hate a person who’s in front of you.” “It’s easy to hate an idea, but it’s hard to hate a person who’s in front of you.” “It’s easy to hate an idea, but it’s hard to hate a person who’s in front of you.”
Eventually, she was persuaded to write about what happened. Now she’s performed the show – titled Stand Up With Janine Harouni – countless times around the UK, including two runs at London’s Soho Theatre, with plans to take it to the US later this year. Harouni has won acclaim for her thoughtful handling of the stories she tells.
“Performing the show has been really cathartic. I don’t want to sound wanky but the writing of it was quite painful. I typed the whole show out, and reliving those things made it real.”
While fully acknowledging the horror of both her crash and her clashes with her dad, the show never veers into sob-story territory. Harouni is a great storyteller who reels off jokes with purpose, while her skills as an actor mean she paints characters such as her Italian-American mother and her larger-than-life best friend Josh in bright, believable colour. She also manages to weave in progressive political ideals without talking down to her audience or adding any moral-of-the-story cheesiness.
Now she’s in the process of transforming her show into “something” (our guess would be an episodic translation for TV) where, it is hoped, her increasingly necessary voice will find a bigger audience.
“It’s kind of like me trying to assemble my favourite series of The Apprentice.” Jamie Demetriou is talking about what he tries to achieve with the characters he writes. The 32-year-old Fleabag actor (he played Bus Rodent in the first series) and creator of Channel 4 sitcom Stath Lets Flats was in his teens when the UK’s first reality TV boom happened.
The north Londoner was obsessed with shows like 2001’s Pop Idol/The Voice precursor Popstars – so-called “talent” shows where everyday people bared all, at a time before they were savvy enough to play up to the cameras or develop any kind of cohesive personal brand.
“It gave birth to this idea of mockumentary bravado,” he says, wide-eyed, as if the show had just stopped airing yesterday. “That show is bursting with good characters,” he adds of a series that gave us the likes of Darius Danesh (who he’s especially obsessed with) and “Nasty” Nigel Lythgoe. “But as people become more self-aware, you get less of those good characters on TV.”
It was this era of British television that gave birth to The Office – Ricky Gervais’s hugely influential Year Zero mockumentary that first aired in the summer of 2001 – a show that perfectly balanced the mundanity of the everyday with a hunger for overnight celebrity. Like most comedians his age, Demetriou was heavily inspired by the strip-light realism of Slough paper merchant David Brent’s world.
After a few critically acclaimed years at the Edinburgh Fringe with a comedy troupe he’d formed at university, Demetriou had a series of shorts commissioned by Channel 4. He wrote and starred in three character-based comedies called Colin, Andy and Stath. Stath got picked up for a series. The title character of Stath Lets Flats is a Greek-Cypriot lettings agent who works for the family business. He’s incompetent both professionally and personally, blindly optimistic and utterly endearing as he tries to inhabit the role of a swish estate agent whizz kid.
“I’ve learned that it’s really useful to make a character in major rather than minor. It has some kind of chemical effect on an audience that makes it easier for them to align with – you want to align yourself with someone happy.”
Demetriou’s lanky frame and youthfully expressive face give Stath a big-kid warmth. “He’s definitely not doing well at life by normal standards, but his key trait is that he doesn’t see that. His stance is, ‘Well of course I’m amazing because… why wouldn’t I be?’”
Stath… exists in the same vein as the understated sensibilities of The Office, but Demetriou purposefully opted against making the show a mockumentary. This wholly fictionalised approach gives a softness and authenticity to its family heart, both on- and off-screen: Stath’s sister is played by Jamie’s real-life sibling, the actor Natasia Demetriou.
For years after The Office the mockumentary format became a short-cut for realism in British sitcoms. Shows such as People Just Do Nothing, W1A and This Country – while sometimes hilarious – used knowing looks to camera and character interviews as tools to flesh out storylines. But in Stath… you’re shown characters as they really are – a marked shift in contemporary comedy that reflects the best of Demetriou’s work.
On stage, Phoebe Walsh channels the twitchy aimlessness of modern life, switching between topics at tab-swapping speed and nailing the mix of egoism and complete hopelessness that haunts so many inner-city professionals nearing 30. In person, the 33-year-old from Burgess Hill keeps up the tempo but speaks about her work with focus and care.
“I’d sort of started doing characters, idiots, and the audience wasn’t that comfortable,” she says over drinks in a north London pub. “But as soon as I was confident in myself, talking about what it is to be a stupid white girl today when the world is burning down… then I struck upon something.”
Walsh’s voice has been compared to social media accounts like @sosadtoday – vacant expressions of existential dread and the search for meaningful companionship presented with the same breezy tone as small talk. “I’m not totally interested in escapism comedy, I like a mixture of sad, truthful and funny stuff,” she says.
Following the acclaimed 2017 run of her solo show, I’ll Have What She’s Having, at the Edinburgh Fringe, momentum around Walsh’s distinctive perspective began to build. She’s just back from a stint writing in LA for an upcoming Apple TV+ show.
Growing up, a career in comedy wasn’t something her mum and dad ever expected for their daughter. It wasn’t a career consideration full-stop. Walsh wasn’t surrounded by privilege or creativity. Luckily, the kind of rooms she’s now working have assured her parents that she has a proper job.
“They’re just like, ‘It’s fantastic!’” she says, thinking about her mum. “But I don’t think [my show] is her sensibility. I’m just talking about sex and the internet.”
The only thing with the potential to be more cringe-inducing than stand-up is musical comedy. For years, comedian, actress and singer Catherine Cohen knew this better than most.
“I grew up doing musical theatre, but then I left it behind to do comedy because… musical theatre is life-ruining!” the New Yorker laughs.
Between co-hosting the popular Seek Treatment podcast with her best friend Pat Regan, running a weekly stand-up night in the East Village and a growing slate of film and TV roles, including HBO’s High Maintenance and an upcoming spot in The Lovebirds (starring Issa Rae and Kumail Nanjiani), it’s a miracle she’s able to fit us in.
Cohen, 29, blends the melodramatic persona of a showbiz great with the everyday perils of being young, single and easily infatuated in 2020. The songs in her act range from a number about getting into comedy because boys didn’t like her, to an uptempo showtune about marathons being “clinically insane”.
The juxtaposition of subject matter and fabulous delivery is part of her formula. On her podcast, on stage and in person, Cohen speaks with no filter and at a whirlwind pace that many have said is reflective of a contemporary online vernacular – a kind of stream of self-consciousness.
“I really can’t keep anything to myself, and I don’t know how not to talk about my feelings the whole time. This job has been a good outlet for that.”
Her award-winning solo show, The Twist… She’s Gorgeous, returns to London later this year and she’s in the early stages of bringing her show to the screen.
“In Edinburgh [last summer], I had an old man come up to me at the end of a show and he was like, ‘I couldn’t understand a word you said,’” she tells us, recalling the interaction at her signature lightspeed.
“I was like… ‘OK!’”
There’s a moment in Sam Campbell’s recent short film, Get Real Dude, where he’s sat in a pub reading a newspaper with his dog at his feet. Some passers-by crouch down to stroke the dog, before realising the animal has a USB port on its head. Campbell looks to camera and says: “What can I say? I’m the luckiest guy in the world!”
This kind of spiky surrealism is typical of Campbell, an Australian writer, actor and comedian whose work often leans on the aesthetics and functions of technology. “I like to do a lot of comedy about planned obsolescence,” the 27-year-old says via Skype from Sydney.
Campbell is a previous winner of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival’s prestigious Barry Award. His live show is a patchwork of non-sequiturs, Powerpoint cut-aways and sharp left turns. And while his career is rooted in performance, the multimedia potential of online content seems even more suited to his style.
“I don’t look down on stand-up at all, it’s the most beautiful art form. But I’d like to explore other stuff.”
Speaking to Campbell, it’s clear that the disobedient nature of his comedy is hard-wired. Following our conversation, he emails over a series of surreal sentences, all of which we “must” print what he said. The final reads: “I write for nine hours a day and have never watched a porno.” You can quote him on that.
Despite roles in art-house smashes such as Sorry to Bother You, collaborations with New York’s Museum of Modern Art and countless articles dubbing her act “absurdist”, Kate Berlant isn’t high-brow. There’s no barrier to entry with her jokes.
“The origin of my comedy is literally just making funny faces,” says the Los Angeles-based comedian and actor. “I never want to stray too far from that.” In fact, she adds: “I’m incapable of straying too far from that.”
In her episode of Netflix’s The Characters – a series of six 30-minute episodes where left-field comedians are given free rein to create whatever they wanted – the 32-year-old plays Denise St Roy, an esteemed modern artist whose latest masterpiece is a collaboration with Sprite, a lapse in credibility that none of her team has the nerve to flag up.
“I love this idea of being the person who’s been told yes so many times that they’re completely unexamined,” she says of her character.
Growing up on Jim Carrey, Fifties US sitcom I Love Lucy and Chris Farley, there’s an inherent, old-school silliness underpinning Berlant’s performance style. For example, she often amplifies funny moments by crossing her eyes. But she pairs it with an onstage persona that deconstructs performance itself, becoming a faux-intellectual, unpacking the big questions of the day with all the conviction and none of the substance.
“I think the funniest thing to me is social performance – people posturing or trying to seem a certain way and that performance failing.”
It makes sense that Kate has resonated so much over the past few years – her comedy certainly speaks to a tirelessly self-obsessed generation. Or maybe it’s just her funny faces.
The first time I saw Jordan Brookes perform, he had a long bit about shagging his dad. When I saw him more recently at a sold-out run at London’s Soho Theatre, he built much of his show around trying to seduce his mum. Somehow he managed to turn the sordid stories into piercingly funny moments through imaginative writing and bold physicality.
The USP of the tall, thin and hairless Brookes is bleakness and intensity. He’s become one of the UK’s most talked-about comedians by leaning into his own insecurities and deconstructing the very notion of what makes stand-up. As the 33-year-old from Merseyside puts it: “It’s more engaging watching a human struggle to make sense of something, as opposed to someone who stands on stage presenting themselves as if they’ve figured it out.”
The Jordan Brookes experience is definitely best enjoyed live. His recent success has opened doors in TV but there’s no clear way to upscale his unique act. In one show, Brookes feigns sound problems, before handing headphones out to every member of the audience.
As the set continues, the headphones start to play his inner monologue while, in person, he carries on performing. In I’ve Got Nothing, his latest stand-up show, which won Dave’s Edinburgh Comedy Award last year, he frames an hour around a total lack of material, taking the audience with him as he struggles to find purpose.
For Brookes, creating a live experience that is challenging and immersive is the important thing. He doesn’t deal in outrage necessarily – rather it’s about finding ways of smuggling in dark ideas through traditional routes.
“It still poses a really fascinating challenge for me: how do you make people laugh at something they don’t want to laugh at? You can’t just say it. You have to find a way of saying it.”
Saturday Night Live, for all its frequent insipidness, has a storied history of connecting newcomers with their forefathers. For cast member Chris Redd this happened in December, when Eddie Murphy returned to host 35 years after his last appearance.
“Pitching to Eddie Murphy was like reading scripture to Jesus Christ!” hoots Redd – before apologising that he has already tweeted that analogy and is also using it in his stand-up routine.
Redd, 34, came up through Chicago’s legendary improv institution The Second City, excelling in sketch comedy and nailing impersonations with his all-round likeable demeanour.
He performs at an unbothered pace, counterpointing energetic character work with relaxed storytelling. “I like being calculated about when I use energy,” he says of the varying levels of dynamism at play in his technique.
Like Richard Pryor, Redd handles dark topics in his routine. But also like Pryor, his innate empathy as a writer stops it from ever feeling like you’re entering dangerous territory.
“There are a lot of dark things that I’ve seen or been through in my life,” he says. “You have to try to make light of it, to work through.”
With a stand-up special in development, and a secure spot on comedy’s most fabled training ground, Redd’s expert approach is edging him closer to the spaces occupied by his heroes.
Jaboukie wears coat Bottega Veneta and shirt Dries Van Noten at Matchesfashion.com, knit Acne Studios, Shirt and jacket HUGO, scarf Margaret Howell, jeans Eckhaus Latta at Matchesfashion.com, belt Hermès and shoes Jimmy Choo, Janine wears jacket and trousers Gucci and top Charlotte Knowles, Jamie wears polo Moose Knuckles, vest Margaret Howell, trousers Acne Studios and shoes Church’s, Phoebe wears cardigan Loewe, earrings and necklace Chanel, jeans Phoebe’s own and shoes Bottega Veneta Bottom: Cardigan Miu Miu, jeans Phoebe’s own and shoes Bottega Veneta, Jordan wears jacket Stone Island, shirt Martine Rose, trousers Hermès and shoes Jimmy Choo, Chris wears jumper Jil Sander and jacket Hermès Bottom: Shirt Martine Rose, trousers Balenciaga at Matchesfashion. com and shoes Jimmy Choo
Grooming Marina Belfon-Rose, Movement Direction Luke Farley, Photography assistance Luke Farley, Styling assistance Hollie Williamson and Holly Francis.