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USA TODAY TV Critic Kelly Lawler discusses her big takeaway from the 72nd Primetime Emmy Award nominations.

USA TODAY

Five months into our “new pandemic normal,” the best relief is the stand-up comedy special. 

We’re in a new phase of this, I’ll say it, unprecedented coronavirus era. The post-bread baking, post-panic shopping phase, where our fear of COVID-19 meets exhaustion meets annoyance at everyone we see not wearing a mask. We’re tired, we’re burned out,  and in many parts of the U.S., we’re also sweaty and hot as the summer sun beats down.

Sometimes, the world is so bleak that the only uplift you can get is from a laugh. A guaranteed, low-effort belly laugh with no extra thought. Streaming stand-up comedy specials, from John Mulaney’s “Kid Gorgeous” on Netflix, to Yvonne Orji’s “Momma, I Made It!” on HBO, to Sarah Cooper’s coming Netflix gig, offer uncomplicated guffaws on demand, at a time when we desperately need them. 

John Mulaney in his special “Kid Gorgeous.” (Photo: Netflix)

My cravings for TV have followed the general cultural mood of the pandemic. Back in March, when we all were experiencing shock and fear as society largely shut down, I watched pure comfort series like “The Great British Baking Show,” “Parks and Recreation” and “Queer Eye.” They have low stakes and lots of happy-crying.

By the end of April, as we settled into a stay-at-home routine and started using phrases like “new normal,” I needed series I hadn’t seen before that would engage me for many seasons but wouldn’t be too depressing. I turned to “Elementary,” “New Girl” and “Supernatural.”

More: 2020 TV premieres: Here’s when your favorite show returns, and your new addiction starts

Those shows kept me going until late July, when COVID-19 cases began to surge across the South and Southwest, and my own panic began to rise. My attention kept drifting away from serialized dramas, so I started watching high-stakes cooking shows with dramatic musical scores like “Chopped,” “The Final Table” and “Cutthroat Kitchen.” But I could watch for only so long, because I started to worry about each contestant’s restaurant career during the pandemic (How is their restaurant doing financially? Are they doing outdoor dining? Are customers wearing masks?)

Mike Birbiglia’s “The New One” started as a Broadway show, then was turned into a Netflix comedy special, and now has been expanded as a book. (Photo: ERIC LEIBOWITZ/NETFLIX)

With stand-up comedy, I don’t need to worry about the state of the food service industry. Instead, I can listen to Mike Birbiglia recount an escapade in Amsterdam’s Red Light District (in “The New One,” on Netflix) or hear about how Seth Meyers’ wife gave birth in their apartment building lobby (in the aptly titled “Lobby Baby,” on Netflix). There are no complicated plots or mythologies to understand. There is very little time investment, as many specials clock in around an hour. There’s no preamble to the laughs. No bad episodes to get through before the good stuff. Most stand-up specials are to the point – a comic, a microphone and an audience slapping their knees. 

That is not to say that stand-up comedy is a genre of entertainment that’s shallow and meaningless. Many comedy sets offer incisive social commentary and analysis. Dave Chappelle, for instance, has used recent Netflix stand-up special to discuss race and police brutality. But even when comedy reminds us of the world’s woes, there is always a punch line or witty observation to help us swallow the poison pill of reality.

That’s what makes them perfect viewing for this particularly fraught period of the coronavirus era. It’s impossible to shut out reality, but at least we can laugh at the absurdity of it all. 

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