Looking to Laugh

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The last 10 years have seen a ton of stand-up comedy specials, thanks mostly to the rise of streaming. Netflix especially has been throwing fistfuls of cash at comics in a scramble to meet the apparently endless demand for laughs (which might have something to do with the days we’re living in). Today’s top comedians get paid like ball players. They gave Chappelle 60 million dollars for his three specials (plus one) in 2017. They signed Chris Rock for two specials at 20 mill a piece, the same deal they gave Ricky Gervais. Seeing how much they handed the boys, Amy Schumer asked that the original 11-million-dollar deal for her Leather Special be bumped up to 13 million. (Even when a woman asks for a raise, and gets it, it’s still way less than she deserves.) And Netflix gave Seinfeld a cool hundred million for his show Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee plus two specials.

The big-name specials are spaced out evenly, one premiering every three months or so. But because Netflix has been giving spots to a lot of lesser-name comics (and for a lot less cash), you can watch a new special practically every other Tuesday, from New Year’s Day to New Year’s Eve — which has led Norm MacDonald to ask: with a hundred specials airing every year, “are they really all that special?”

That said, last week I watched two of the best stand-up specials in these past 10 years: Mike Epps’ Only One Mike, and Ramy Youssef’s Feelings. But before I explain what’s so special about these two, I should lay out my credentials for being a fake expert on comedy.

Comedians and stand-up specials are not only my jam — they’ve been my lifeblood. I’ve watched as many as I can, as many times as I can, for the past quarter-century or so. One of my earliest memories is watching the old Def Comedy Jam at my cousins’ house in Chicago, where I lived with my mom, my dad and my brother, back in the early nineties. All I remember about those early episodes (I was born in ’84) is Martin Lawrence’s raw, goofy ass, and Kid Capri on the turntables.

By then we were watching In Living Color religiously, and as a second-grader I could reenact sketches way faster than I could recite the tiniest passage from the Bible: Damon Wayans as Homey D. Clown (“Homey don’t play that!”), Jim Carrey as Fire Marshall Bill, David Alan Grier as the ridiculous shop teacher. Later on my big mouth and thick lips were perfect for Jamie Foxx’s Wanda (“Oooo, Dirty Harry!“).

Just as you might ask someone for their top five favorite artists or albums in order to get a sense of their taste in music (or lack thereof), let me give you my top five comedians, so you’ll know where I’m coming from.

There’s no way for me to really rank them but, if forced to choose, number one has to be the first comic whose special I ever saw: Eddie Murphy. The special, of course, was Raw. I wasn’t born yet when Eddie came out with Delirious, and though it too is a classic, and just as good in many ways, Raw is still Eddie’s tour de force. He was about 26 at the time and already a goddamn rock star, the new King of Comedy, knocking Pryor from the top spot like Michael did Elvis. Even now, Eddie Murphy is my generation’s Richard Pryor, or Lenny Bruce. No matter what you think of his later, family-friendly work (or Norbit), for people my age, especially brown people my age, Eddie Murphy is the beginning of comedy.

I’m not sure if I’d seen either of the 48 Hrs. movies, or either of the Beverly Hills Cop movies out at the time, or even Trading Places. But Raw stuck with me, the way a specially great Christmas or family gathering stays with you, becoming part of how you see yourself for the rest of your life — a memory that is part of your identity. Raw showed me how to be funny, not just kid-funny but funny-funny, which was important for a dark, scrawny, clownish kid from a broke family in the old Bucktown (not the new one). On that stage Eddie Murphy represented everything I hoped to be: articulate, charming, talented, sexy, confident, and funny as hell. Everybody loved Eddie. I went around trying to be him for a long time, well into high school: first as the Eddie from the specials and the early movies (eighties Eddie), then as the Eddie from Nutty Professor (as Buddy Love and the Klumps — even Granny, especially Granny — but minus Sherman, obviously).

Being like Eddie kept me from being bullied so much. After a while, even the bullies wanted to be friends, just for the laughs. But my brother still teases me about the fight I got into in fourth grade. One of the ESL kids had his eye on my girlfriend, and he decided he wanted to fight me for her in front of the swings during recess. A circle formed around us: the Spanish-speakers on one side, the English-speakers on the other. The kid was swinging at me and I countered with as much repartee as I had honed at the time, watching all those comedians and shows and specials. I don’t remember my punchlines (or the punches), and my Mexican opponent probably didn’t even know what I was saying, but the way my brother tells it, the other kid was hooking and jabbing while I was asking him, “Why did the chicken cross the road?” (My jokes were better than that, but I get the point.)

I didn’t get into SNL till much later (Saturday nights were for Svengoolie), but once I rented the Best Ofs from our local Family Video store, the nineties cast had me rolling. (Lorne Michaels says that most viewers think the all-time best cast was the one they saw in high school. I graduated in ’03, but the SNL shows I watched in high school were mostly from the nineties, right up to before Colin Quinn left the show.) Just now I began typing some of my favorite people and moments from that era, but the list got so long it became pointless. Of course, I watched all the SNL-related movies on repeat: the Adam Sandler movies (Billy Madison being the best, then Happy Gilmore, then Waterboy, then Big Daddy), the Mike Myers movies (never got into Wayne’s World; Austin Powers was more my thing, and So I Married an Axe Murderer might be the best Mike Myers movie of all), Tommy Boy (not so much Black Sheep, though who doesn’t like watching Farley and Spade go toe-to-toe?), Jay Mohr in Mafia! I loved and rewatched most of Will Ferrell’s movies too, but they came later.

The next comedian to have a huge influence on me was George Carlin. I don’t remember which of his HBO specials I saw first. It had to have been You Are All Diseased, or Back in Town, or Jammin’ in New York. He did so many — I count 17, all legendary — and I’ve seen so many of them (though not all), that they all blend together into an Everest of comedic genius. My mom’s Ukrainian boyfriend was really into Carlin, and he and my mom were watching a DVD one night back in 2000. I had really been into social studies since we moved from Chicago to the burbs in third grade, plus I’d been raised Catholic but dumped God sometime in middle school, so, even as a freshman in high school, I really understood and appreciated the social commentary in Carlin’s act, almost all of which was lost on my brother, my sister, and my high-school clique. As a budding writer, I was in awe of the man’s wordplay, the way he’d put together a clever bit that added up to one long tongue-twister, and how he cut through so much of society’s bullshit with a few smart, funny observations.

Wait, let me back up. I can’t forget Robin Williams. As a millennial, growing up I didn’t know a thing about his stand-up, or Mork, which is what most people past a certain age think of when they think of him. My introduction to Robin Williams came after my mom and dad split up sometime around ’89, when my mom joined the Navy. (I was only about four at the time, so my memory is hazy, and nobody has ever offered me any details.) For a time my brother and I lived with our dad and his new wife near the Brickyard. But then, when my dad’s drug addiction caught up with him and kept him from being a good cop, my brother and I went to live with our grandma in Logan Square.

It was there where I saw Good Morning, Vietnam. I watched that movie over and over, with a card-stock-framed photo of my mom in her Navy dress blues on top of the television set. (To the kids reading this: A TV used to be this big, boxy piece of furniture made of wood that you could put framed photos, bunny ears or, if you were rich, a cable box on top of. Bunny ears were antennas that let you watch all the regular, non-cable channels, which in Chicago were 2, 5, 7, 9, 11, 26, 32, 44, 50 and 66.) Since the movie is set in Vietnam during the war, I figured Good Morning, Vietnam gave me some insight into where Mom had disappeared to and what she was doing there. (As it turned out, Mom was in a somewhat similar place — Gitmo, Cuba — in the midst of a somewhat similar war. That photo of Mom in her Navy uniform is my very first memory of her.)

What I loved about Robin’s performance, even as a first-grader, was how frenetic he was, his jokes and impersonations coming in rapid-fire succession like Black Cat firecrackers. I didn’t get most of his references, characters or impersonations, but he was so energetic and seemed to be having a lot of fun, which is the root word of funny after all, and all-important to a boy. Only years later did I learn, that though Robin Williams was a genius at improv, he was also hopped up on coke during those frantic performances. Nor did I realize, as I assume goes for a lot of kids my age at the time, that the voice behind Genie in Aladdin came from the same face behind the makeup in Mrs. Doubtfire. Both performances were formative in my early understanding of funny. I repeated lines like I had Tourette’s. Shit, I still repeat Robin’s lines from those movies (along with Sally Field’s always useful line: “The whole time? The whole time!“).

Money got tighter than a frog’s asshole after Mom left Dad for good and moved us to the burbs, which for me meant no more HBO, no more Def Comedy Jam, no more a lot of things. When after a few years Mom was able to swing for basic cable (we were living in a one-bedroom apartment, but we had our priorities), I mostly watched kid shows on Nickelodeon — Doug, Rugrats, Ren & Stimpy, Rocko’s Modern Life. Comedy-wise there was really only All That, which spun off the movie Good Burger, starring Kel Mitchel and Kenan Thompson.

But then I stumbled across ComicView on BET, and Rickey Smiley. That same year, Dad resurfaced. His parents had won the lottery, bought a few buildings, and bought him a new PT Cruiser. He came around wanting to show it off, and maybe get Mom back. She had left her Ukrainian boyfriend and pretended to be seriously considering taking Dad back — but only if he took his boys out on the town, showed them a good time, and bought them stuff for school. He took us to the movies to see The Original Kings of Comedy, the greatest stand-up special (by an ensemble) of all time. (I still remember the middle-aged white people who kept trickling out of the theater during the show. I guess Steve Harvey, D.L. Hughley, Cedric the Entertainer and Bernie Mac weren’t their thing.)

All that’s to say I didn’t hear Chris Rock’s Bring the Pain album till I was a sophomore or junior in high school, a good five years after it came out. It hit me the way Raw had. And though Raw will always hold a special place in my funny bone for being my first, Bring the Pain is arguably the most earth-shifting stand-up special released in my lifetime. It’s why today the name Chris Rock is still synonymous with comedy. With it, Rock snatched the comedy crown that Eddie had snatched from Pryor. I might enjoy watching Raw or Delirious once a year, but I could listen to Bring the Pain, front to back, once a month. “Tossed Salad,” “O.J., I Understand,” “The Commitment Dilemma” and, of course, the crème de la crème, “Niggas vs. Black People” — it’s all endlessly hilarious.

Then, of course, there’s Dave Chappelle, and Chappelle’s Show. What can you say about Dave? He’s it, man. He is everything he himself said about Richard Pryor on Inside the Actors Studio: “The mark of greatness is when everything before you is obsolete, and everything after you bears your mark.” Everything before Dave is out-dated; everything after Dave is a version of Dave. When the first season of Chappelle’s Show was released on DVD, it became the highest-selling DVD for a TV show ever, overshadowing shows like The Simpsons, Friends, and even the greatest TV sitcom ever, Seinfeld. The show not only made Chappelle the new King of Comedy, replacing Chris Rock the way he did Eddie; it made Chappelle a titan of TV, and a leading voice in politics and culture in general, loved by a whole generation of people around the world — white, black, brown, Korean, Blackfoot, whatever.

“Richard was the highest evolution of comedy,” Dave told James Lipton during their first interview. In the “evolution charts of man … [Richard] was the dude walking upright.” It’s funny and sad how those who are able to see the widest and the farthest still can’t quite see themselves. Maybe Richard was the highest evolution of comedy, but just as the evolution of man won’t stop at Homo sapiens, the evolution of comedy didn’t stop at Richard Pryor. Next came Carlin, and Prinze, and Williams, and Martin, and Kaufman, and Klein, and Leno, and Letterman, and Eddie, and Mooney, and Shandling, and Seinfeld, and Barr, and Kinison, and Izzard, and Clay, and Wright, and Hicks, and Rudner, and Goldberg, and Carvey, and Degeneres, and Hedberg, and Romano, and Lawrence, and MacDonald, and Stewart, and Attell, and O’Donnell, and Mac, and Hughley, and Sykes, and Wallace, and Mohr, and Garofalo, and Silverman, and Cho, and Sommore, and… Like the human species itself, comedy keeps going, always looking for new laughs in new places. If Richard Pryor is the upright man, then Dave Chappelle is Neil Armstrong skipping across the moon.

I first saw Chappelle not on Def Comedy Jam (we couldn’t afford HBO at the time) but in The Nutty Professor, where he played the madcap Reggie Warrington. He actually outshined Eddie in his two scenes with the legend, and damn near stole the whole movie with those two scenes. (If it hadn’t been for those dinner scenes at the Klumps’…) I immediately memorized all of Dave’s lines, and to this day I can still do Reggie’s act with my eyes closed. (“Boy, you got more crack than Harlem! Look at that! Boy so fat, every time he turn around it’s his birthday! He gotta put his belt on with a boomerang!”)

Dave was only 22 at the time, the same age Eddie was when he filmed Delirious in Dave’s hometown, D.C. Just like Eddie at that age, Dave already displayed the comedic talent and skill of a veteran. (Eddie got into stand-up when he was 15, after hearing That Nigger’s Crazy. Dave first got on stage when he was 14, inspired by both Richard and Eddie.) Dave had to have been at least 10 when Delirious dropped, and I was about to turn 12 when I saw them both in Nutty Professor, soaking up everything they did and said.

A lot has changed since man first walked on the moon, and so too since the first season of Chappelle’s Show aired in 2003, the year I graduated from high school. I’m not going to go through all of the comics and comedic performances that have influenced me since then, just as I haven’t mentioned the ones before Eddie Murphy that have shaped my appreciation for comedy. Like anyone, I’ve gone through some phases, some longer than others, and a lot of them persisting to this day: Three Stooges, Lucy, Airplane!, The Simpsons, Futurama, Disenchantment, Married… With Children, the Naked Gun movies, the Hot Shots! movies, Seinfeld, Raymond, Politically Incorrect, Daily Show, Colbert Report, Real Time, Curb, Martin, The Wayans Bros. (“Yitadee!”), The Jamie Foxx Show, Mel Brooks movies, Woody Allen movies, Farrelly brothers movies, Todd Phillips movies, the McKay-Farrell movies, Judd Apatow movies, Seth Rogen movies, a little Dane Cook phase (Waiting… and Vicious Circle), a little Mencia phase, The Office (both U.K. and U.S. versions, multiple times through), everything Ricky Gervais (and of course my boy Karl), everything Rickles, everything Christopher Guest, everything Norm (especially on YouTube), everything Patrice, everything Colin Quinn, everything Louie, everything Bill Burr, Howard, WTF, JRE, GDWH, The Church of What’s Happening Now, This Past Weekend, Your Mom’s House, South Park, most of everything Seth MacFarlane), most of everything… Most of everything comedy, really. If it claims to be funny, then I want to see it.

And I’ve only told you the half of it, mostly for the sake of time, but also because I’m sure I don’t remember half of all the comedians and performances I’ve seen. Things just pop up in my head throughout the day, punchlines sliding to the tip of my tongue unasked. And I don’t watch much TV these days, but when I do, I mostly stick to three genres: stand-up specials, horror, and crime documentaries — stand-ups come first though.

Now that you can tell I’ve probably spent way to much of my life on comedy (is that possible?), let me get to what I meant to say to begin with.

First: Mike Epps is one of the most underrated comedians in America. (Another being Norm MacDonald, and Patrice O’Neal might’ve been the most underrated comedian of all time.) I think, because he first really made a name for himself playing the goofball in movies like the Friday sequels, too many people see Mike as one of those bit actors trying to prove his comedic chops by stepping onto the stand-up stage. For those that don’t know or may have forgotten, Mike has been doing stand-up since before the movies, back when he was on the Def Comedy Jam tour in 1995. Like most people, I first saw Mike as Day-Day opposite Ice Cube in 2000. But when I saw Inappropriate Behavior, his 2005 special — one of my top five favorite specials this century — I thought, This motherfucker isn’t just a two-bit actor. He’s a legit comic, and damn good too!

(In case you’re wondering, the greatest stand-up special this century is Killin’ Them Softly, the second-best is Elephant in the Room, and I will fight any man, woman or baby who suggests otherwise. When it comes to comedy, Dave is a genius, Patrice was a monster — both true originals, and so is Bo Burnham.)

I’m not going to get into what exactly I like about Mike Epps’ comedy. Dissecting an act isn’t fun or funny, and it’s a crime against comedy. How do you explain funny? You can’t, really. You just feel it. It’s visceral. The laughs come from your gut, just below the breastbone. And Mike is probably the most viscerally funny comedian today.

Dave has earned his reputation as a natural on stage, and naturally funny. (Just watch the incidentally funny things he does and says during his Actors Studio interviews.) But Dave brings an intelligence to his comedy that, though it makes the laughs more satisfying in intellectual ways, it also moderates the physical reaction to his jokes. Dave says something, you process it for a couple seconds, and then you laugh, in your soul.

Meanwhile Mike just radiates comedy. A recurring theme in Mike’s act is that he was put in special-ed classes as a kid, and if it’s true, then it might be the reason he’s so physically funny. Dave tends to come on stage all sedate, even somber at times, and the crowd connects with him on a mental level. (I was at the show he and John Mayer did here in Vegas last December.) But Mike storms on stage this big ball of comedic energy, almost like a clown, but funny. And though Mike doesn’t get into any of the deeper political or social issues of today, he’s still a sharp observer. What he lacks cerebrally he more than makes up for with his instinct for people, and his deep bag of impersonations, of people both famous and not. Embodying a cast of characters from the block and TV, Mike recreates a whole world on stage, his world, the brown poor and working-class world. You hear people in the audience not only laughing, but screaming. You laugh till it hurts, and you keep laughing.

Mike’s latest stand-up special, Only One Mike, is his second-best yet, and almost as good as Inappropriate Behavior — which is high praise, since most comedians can’t get anywhere near it. The closest I’ve seen is Lil Rel Howery’s RELevent, and yet still…

Now, about Ramy Youssef…

Feelings is the first thing I’ve seen from Ramy. The ads for his new show Ramy caught my eye back in April, but I put it on the back-burner thinking Hulu had only given a show to this Muslim guy for the sake of diversity (and tapping into Muslim dollars). I’ve seen the work of a few Muslim comics — Maz Jobrani’s two most recent ones, along with those featured on Netflix’s COMEDIANS of the world and Larry Charles’ Dangerous World of Comedy — but none of them made me laugh. Plus I don’t support affirmative action in comedy. Stand-up comedy is an art-form, so identity plays an important part, but being funny, making people laugh, is all-important. I’m not going to watch your act just because you’re Mexican (shoutout to George Lopez, Felipe Esparza, Anjelah Johnson, Sofía Niño de Rivera, and Cristela Alonzo though!) or Asian (shoutout to Russell Peters, Bobby Lee, Jo Koy, Ali Wong, and Hari Kondabolu!) or dying (shoutout to Tig Notaro!) or nuts (shoutout to Maria Bamford!). I’ll only watch your act, and I’ll only keep watching it, if you do one thing, and one thing only: make me laugh.

Ramy made me laugh — a lot. He also made me think — a lot. He’s the first comedian I’ve seen, the first person I’ve seen, who really humanizes the Muslim experience, showing how being Muslim is different from Western-Christian culture, but also how it’s the same. When he talked about going to the mosque to pray on Fridays (before the weekend’s debauchery), or his family, or how he interacts with his non-Muslim friends, for the first time I began to really feel what it’s like to be a young Muslim man in America. What it feels like, or what it sounds like anyway, seems a lot like being a young Latino man in America: you’re in America, and of America, but there’s this major part of you, no matter how diluted it may be, which is foreign to America, at least the mainstream America presented on TV and social media. It’s to be in and of two places at once, what Du Bois famously called “double-consciousness”:

this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness … two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.

Feelings offers the hard-hitting social commentary of Killin’ Them Softly, or Michael Che Matters, or Jerrod Carmichael’s 8, but the tone never gets as serious as those, even when Ramy deals with issues that are deadly serious. Ramy comes across as smart, funny, young, religious, liberal, and American. And judging by the joke he ends his first special with, he’s also very, very brave.

I can’t wait to dive into his show on Hulu. I’m predicting it will be yet another of the great comedy shows I’ve seen.


Featured image: Robert Bejil/Flickr

Hector is the founder and editor of MANO as well as the host of the LATINISH podcast. A Chicagoan living in Las Vegas, he's also the senior editor of Latino Rebels, part of Futuro Media, as well as a former managing editor of Gozamos, an art-activism site based in his home town. He was a columnist at RedEye, a Tribune-owned daily geared toward millennials. His work has been mentioned by The New Yorker, Good Morning America, TIME, the Washington Post, and other outlets, and his writing was featured in 'Ricanstruction, 'a comic book anthology whose proceeds went toward recovery efforts in Puerto Rico. He studied history at the University of Illinois-Chicago where his concentration was on ethnic relations in the United States.

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