Who knew you could learn so much from stand-up comedy specials?
A great workout for your core and your mind
People line up comedy specials on their watchlist hoping to take that hour-long break from reality and get in some laughs. And we could all use some laughs right now. We’ll even take a giggle or one of those small scoffs, like when you see a funny meme on your phone at 3am.
Don’t go by the term ‘comedy’ in the genre title. A stand-up special won’t necessarily make you mindlessly laugh while putting your brain on standby mode. Comedy specials, like Hannah Gadsby’s brutally honest Nanette, spin a web so intricate that you’re laughing for a moment before you realise that the joke is actually on you. Or, like Hasan Minhaj demonstrates in Homecoming, they can make you nostalgic and cry over something that happened 18 years ago. Before you know it, you’re back to smiling. So, yes, the experience can get a bit messy, emotionally speaking.
That’s not to say there’s no humour in them at all. Well-crafted comedy specials can be great pieces of social critique and layered conversations about dark realities that use jokes to cushion the blow. Take Vir Das’s For India or Bo Burnham’s Inside. Each performer brings something unique to the table, a part of their own experiences that they open up about to an audience of strange faces. Sprinkling salt on their wounds to help you laugh through your own pain.
You don’t have to agree with everything they do or say either. But there will be something from the show that sticks with you. Maybe it was a passing statement that hit very close to home, like when Karunesh Talwar highlights the raja beta conundrum dogging Indian households in his special, Pata Nahi Par Bolna Hai. Maybe they shared a unique perspective on a common experience that helped you think differently. There are bits of wisdom and lessons to take away and apply to our own lives. Even if it’s mixed up with uncle jokes and slapstick humour.
It’s on the audience to take what the performer gives you and do with it as we please. We did laugh a lot with these comedy specials but we also took their words to merge it into our own understanding of the world. If nothing else, you’ll at least get to chuckle.
9 unmissable comedy specials you should be queuing up right now
“Men need to be asked more questions”
As far as comedy specials go, Karunesh Talwar’s hits close to home for desi households. Our favourite part is his recognition of the raja beta phenomenon. We say recognition because most people, men especially, would deny it.
It’s the mollycoddling of men that’s easily confused with love and support to the point where they can’t function as adults in the big bad world. Mothers fussing over sons, pandering to their every need at their own inconvenience, which carries on into their relationships with other women.
Talwar uses the example of arranged marriages. The boy’s family goes to the girl’s home to judge her on every possible aspect of being a good wife and mother.
Men on the other hand are “asked three questions – smoking, drinking, income. These questions aren’t enough. Girls should go and see what the guy is like. ‘How many times has he showered over the past week?’ ‘Does he scratch his balls a hundred times a day for no reason?’ ‘How many ‘Others’ inboxes can be he found in?’ ‘Has he ever made a crying TikTok video?’
Before you come at us, just take a look around and think about it. It may not be true for you but it is for A LOT. We’re not saying men don’t have challenges and gendered roles to live up to. But the degree of scrutiny that women face compared to men – from the simplest to the most complex of matters – is unmatchable in a patriarchal society.
So like Talwar, we say, ask them the questions. It doesn’t need to be aggressive. You could both end up introspecting and building a better relationship.
Watch Pata Nahi Par Bolna Hai by Karunesh Talwar on Prime Video
“I like the stay-at-home part. Not too crazy about the mom aspect”
A heavily pregnant Ali Wong killed it on stage in her special Baby Cobra in 2016. A pregnant women, gyrating on stage in a form-fitting dress while dishing out hilarious jokes, is hard to forget.
She came back with Hard Knock Wife, when pregnant with her second child.
While the first one spoke a lot about pregnancy and having children, in the second she got into the nitty-gritty of being a stay-at-home mom, a working comedian and mother.
A stay-at-home mom is a 24×7 job, and there are a lot of women who just aren’t happy with it. “I did it for eight weeks… A toy Tamagotchi is more communicative than a human baby,” says Wong.
She talks about how no one questioned the male comedians who got back to work after having a baby, so why were they so worried about her working with a baby at home?
And most women have fielded these questions, side-ways looks and disapproving frowns about being a working mom. Being a stay-at-home mom isn’t for everyone, and it’s time we stopped questioning those who chose otherwise.
Watch Hard Knock Wife by Ali Wong on Netflix
“Is it necessary that every single person on this planet expresses every single opinion that they have on every single thing that occurs all at the same time?”
Bo Burnham’s Inside is a masterpiece for so many reasons. For this pandemic-inspired piece, he’s the writer, director, performer, cinematographer, editor and musician – all shot and done in a single room in his home.
It’s bleak, witty, existential and socially critical, as most of Burnham’s work, that’s part entertainment and part holding up a mirror to the hellscape of our digital existence.
There’s so much to introspect about his piece, and sing along with too – from an ode to white women’s Instagram feeds to ironic Jeff Bezos anthems. What we can’t stop thinking about is his comment about our generation feeling the need to express every thought and opinion, about everything, all the time.
For a lot of us, it comes with a special kind of self-confidence as well – refusing to bow out even when we’re in the wrong. ‘Agreeing to disagree’ has almost become a thing of the past, and sometimes in order to learn, we really do just need to shut up and listen to what others have to say.
Watch Inside by Bo Burnham on Netflix
“Atithi Devo Bhava hasn’t always worked out”
A guest is akin to God – we’re all about hospitality but as Vir Das points out looking back at our history, we take it a bit too far. Case in point, the East India Company that came looking to trade cinnamon, a spice we’re not even that into, and stayed for close to 200 years.
It’s not just our hospitality, but the push to adjust. Whether it is with toxic bosses, catty relatives, and people on the Delhi Metro asking you to “thoda adjust” so they can squeeze their behind into a bench meant for 5 people already seating 11.
Being hospitable, accommodating, and adjusting can very easily turn into being taken advantage of. People don’t always come into your life with the best intentions.
This notion is expressly pushed on women from a young age. Being told to stay quiet when we’re uncomfortable, smile and nod along so you’re not perceived as difficult.
Rolling out the red carpet for a guest of any kind shouldn’t mean you let them walk all over you either.
Watch For India by Vir Das on Netflix
“Why is insensitivity something to strive for?”
Navigating this world, as women especially, we’ve learnt some hard lessons. One among them is that it’s better, easier even, to get your way and get things done with a harder persona. To be taken more seriously, to be listened to and not be dismissed, we often adopt meaner traits for self-preservation — that can often become a deep-rooted part of who we are.
Add to that the fact that we’ve all grown up being told that women are ‘too emotional’ or moody or sensitive to handle tough situations. In Nanette, Hannah Gadsby poses the question – why is sensitivity a bad thing, though?
A higher emotional intelligence, being able to read the moods and needs of others and pay heed to the boundaries of others – it’s a talent in our eyes. Funnier still is the fact that it is the hardships we’ve had to face that have perhaps made us this way, which is then called out as being ‘bad’.
As Gadsby says, “I happen to know that my sensitivity is my strength. It’s my sensitivity that helped me navigate a very difficult path in life. So, when somebody tells me to ‘stop being so sensitive’, you know what? I feel a little bit like a nose being lectured by a fart.”
So, be sensitive. Listen to your emotions and intuition, opening yourself up tune in to the same in others. Your sensitivity can be your superpower.
Watch Nanette by Hannah Gadsby on Netflix
“We know nothing about our parents”
Ah, the parental entity that is our desi family. Harder to crack than NEET and JEE exams. “Our parents are like a firewall to the outside world,” says Hasan Minhaj in his special. But they also hold up this wall with their children.
It’s often too late in life that we learn who our parents really are. Not as mummy and papa but individuals with high hopes, broken dreams, histories, triumphs and failures.
Not to mention the secretive nature of many households. It could be about something big like health scares that they hide from their kids, as their way of protecting their feelings. Even something as small as the fact that they used to cheat in their exams.
Our parents want us to be the best version of ourselves, perhaps even better than who they were at our age, so, they hide these sides of them. But we say, tell us your stories. Not just the good stuff you want to inspire us with but also the bad. Tell us about who you were before I took over your every waking hour.
It could be a generational thing where they’re not comfortable talking about themselves in this way. In which case, we need to take that first step. And the moment that facade cracks and they open up, your bond will only deepen into something even more beautiful.
Watch Homecoming King by Hasan Minhaj on Netflix
“Kiss your bullies”
There are several poignant and hard social critiques in Chris Brown’s Tamborine. Total Blackout is an extended cut of this 2018 special with even more insight into the world. A lot of the things he says stay with you long after he’s moved on to the next subject. But this particular line has been painted on the walls of our minds.
Every person who has been bullied has fantasised about the way they’d get back at the people tormenting them. Rock says instead of fighting your bullies, kiss them. Meaning, instead of indulging and fixating on this hatred and rage that becomes a part of who you are, the best revenge is moving on.
It’s taken from a clip from a Howard Stern interview he did which he added to this cut of the show. He spoke of one of his bullies from school who ended being a security detail on the set of the film Top Five.
The person who used his power to dominated Rock was now on the security team of a set where Rock was the director and boss. “The fact that he had to go through that whole day, watch me walk around…watch me be me, in all my glory. To be so close to me and yet so far,” that was revenge enough, says Rock.
Watch Total Blackout: The Tamborine Extended Cut by Chris Rock on Netflix
“Just because you get married doesn’t mean you should have children, they’re two very different skill sets”
In Wake N Bake, Rohan Joshi talks about the many joys of being in your 30s. But as is the case with any brown kid transitioning into independent adulthood – or trying to at least – many expectations and questions come with it.
The first and biggest, perhaps, is marriage. “I’m 36 now, so that 10-year patriarchy grace period that men get, that is also over.” There’s something about saying you don’t want to get married that shocks a very sensitive nerve in every elder relative’s body.
And what’s even worse? That you don’t want to have kids.
Joshi is right when he says that getting married and having kids isn’t for everyone. It’s a lot of work to sustain a healthy marriage. And even more time, attention and money to raise kids. These are things we need to think about before making these commitments. And we also need to give people the allowance to come to their own decisions.
The conversation you have before getting married is very different from the talk you should have when deciding to have a baby. And like Joshi says, just because you’re good at one, doesn’t mean you would be at the other.
Watch Wake N Bake by Rohan Joshi on Prime Video
“What is a revenge body?”
Supriya Joshi’s set is technically part of the stand-up series Ladies Up and not a comedy special on its own. But we want to give it a special mention.
In her segment, Joshi talks about relationships, break-ups and the aftermath. The ever-popular ‘revenge body’ unwillingly cemented in our psyches by Khloe Kardashian and her reality show by the same name.
It’s what everyone started to desire to attain after a painful break-up. After you’ve been wronged, hurt and made to live with an undeserving pain, according to Kardashian, “a great body is the best revenge” to show people who hurt you what they’re missing. But is it really though?
The concept has a kind of grim undertone to it. We’re all for self-improvement, health and fitness, but that’s not exactly the intention here is it?
Joshi says she booked herself at the gym to work on her revenge body, and every crunch, squat and deadlift only got her thinking about it more. “I’ve never done a crunch in my life…I’m on my sixth crunch and I’m like ‘one second, did I really like him that much?'” she says.
See, when you’re doing something just to spite someone else, you’re never really going to be happy. Five years down the line, you’ve given up on every favourite snack, cheesy pizza and samosa pav to maintain an 8 pack. Just to make someone else feel bad about what they did to you – while also making yourself miserable.
But the key is to be happy and thriving in whatever form you inhabit at that time. Revenge is not the motivation you need to move and grow. Neither is it going to let you heal from this pain.
Watch Love Hurts by Supriya Joshi in Ladies Up on Netflix