When Is a Comedy Special Also a Corporate Synergy Message?


At the beginning of “Death to 2020” a reporter, played by Samuel L. Jackson, sits alone in an abandoned office and listens to a disembodied voice that explains that he is looking back on the past year. “Why do you want to do this?” Jackson responds with an additional curse for emphasis.

The question haunts the next hour. A reasonable answer is that one of the finest joys in popular culture is to hear Samuel L. Jackson swear. Another: Where else do you go for some new famous people jokes? The last week of the year is traditionally rich in live comedy events, but the pandemic has put the popular annual shows by Sandra Bernhard and Dave Attell out of the way. Two streaming services have tried to fill the void by creating their own new genre. With talented one-off specials, “Death to 2020” (on Netflix) and “Yearly Departed” (on Amazon) are the comedy’s answer to journalism’s year-end lists.

“Death,” skillfully produced by Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones, the couple behind “Black Mirror,” is a fake documentary starring a fantasy team of actors, while “Yearly,” a stripped-down affair by Phoebe Robinson, envisions a funeral for lost things in 2020 accompanied by a cast of great female comics. But both of these notions are essentially thin pretexts for pulling together a range of jokes and rounding up the latest news in socially distant terms. Some of the bits are solid and some are not. But they never add up to more than subtle distractions.

“Death to 2020”, which lists no fewer than 18 authors, features a number of speaking heads, all cartoons joking about a number of news events: Tom Hanks gets Covid-19, Trump talks about injecting bleach, Biden in the basement and more of the greatest hits. Outside of ugh, there isn’t a strong perspective this year. Can you belive that? And these gigs are fun to play with, including Hugh Grant playing an incredibly discerning academic with impeccable condescension.

Grant, who has aged into a masterful villain player, always starts out in earnest before moving on to silly absurdity. He describes the fires that ravaged many parts of the world at the beginning of the year: “These areas were completely inhospitable” before pausing for the punch line: “Even for Australians.” Then there is: “People think democracy is permanent and immutable, “he says. “The truth is, like a woman, it’s something that you need to maintain constantly. Or a professional grudge. “

Many of the actors play less new characters than versions of characters that have been popular elsewhere. When Dr. Maggie Gravel, Leslie Jones alternates between sudden anger and pleading lust. And in a twist that fans of “The Comeback” will love, Lisa Kudrow transforms a pathologically lying adviser to the White House into a hilarious cringe comedy.

My favorite is Cristin Miliotis Kathy Flowers, the ultimate Karen, whose series of monologues here comes closest to a fleshed-out arc of characters, starting in quiet suburban normality before the internet radicalizes her and turns into eye-breaking, conspiratorial madness. It’s a goofy sketch comedy performed with the engagement of an elite actor. In this special, the joke often takes precedence over the character, and the monologues seem like a collection of punch lines that are dealt like cards around a table.

“Yearly Departed” also looks back in fear, but instead of acting as actors, stand-up comics act as eulogists and take turns at a lectern to pay their respects. Tiffany Haddish says goodbye to casual sex and Natasha Rothwell talks about giving up “TV cops”. Everyone seems to be together and watching each other, but they were all filmed separately and edited with reaction footage. The resulting feeling is oddly scary.

As well as seasoned stars like Sarah Silverman, there are also some new breakouts like Ziwe Fumudoh and up-and-coming talent like Patti Harrison who deliver one of the funniest and most closely watched eulogies of Instagram influencers with “rich girls”. “With mock sharpness, she asks:” Who could forget your superficial love of photography that you tried to get people to call “memory,” a term you coined. “

The comic book Natasha Leggero has a keen attitude towards the death of her desire to have children, where she speaks for many parents during the pandemic and says: “I love my daughter, but I love her as much as LSD. In microdoses. “

Along with the stand ups, some actors made cameos, including Sterling K. Brown lying on the floor to illustrate the six foot span, along with Rachel Brosnahan, perhaps to remind you that “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel “can be seen in the Amazon. Her flat set on the death of pants is a reminder that playing a stand-up isn’t the same as playing one. “Yearly” is a hit or miss, but so is most club stand-up sets. By showing a well-curated collection of female talent, there were more good jokes than in “Death to 2020”. And less stale.

Yet I repeatedly lamented these two shows about the misery of the past year. I had to think about how the streaming services they produced were actually doing very well. Just as the pandemic disproportionately hurt marginalized and disadvantaged groups, it has devastated small theaters and clubs while benefiting digital giants.

The fact that Jeff Bezos made $ 90 billion during the pandemic is not mentioned in Amazon’s “Yearly Departed”. And while the script for “Death to 2020” hints at how people who were detained during the lockdown were spending more time on Netflix, the reality shows “Love Is Blind” and “Floor Is Lava” leave you amid the tragic News events wondering if this was a self-deprecating comedy or a corporate synergy? Spoiler alert: It’s both.

In our increasingly consolidated culture, where product placement is the norm and few companies produce most of the large-scale entertainment, Netflix covers all the basics, pumps out escapist content for an audience stuck at home, and then makes up about itself funny for that. “Death to 2020” has been billed as a departure from the makers of “Black Mirror,” a comedy rather than a haunted vision of technology that went wrong. And yet, from a different angle, it could be their darkest dystopian production yet.