June 6, 2023

Most comedy about the American immigrant family is told from the point of view of the assimilated son or daughter poking fun at the thick-accented ignorant parents. The beauty of our current moment is the many new perspectives on old jokes. In the prolific scene of South Asian comedians, Zarna Garg represents something new: the revenge of the Indian mother. She has heard the jokes about narrow-minded Indian parents forcing their children to study medicine. Now she fires back powerfully, with enough panache to subvert stereotypes, even as she fully embraces them. Her ethnic and religious wit (she makes a persuasive case that Hindu is the chillest religion) is unashamedly old-fashioned: fast setups, lightning-fast punchlines, her name written in giant letters on the set behind her. There is a real warmth behind the smoothness. You believe her extreme pride that her daughter is going to Stanford as much as her opera horror at the fact that she’s studying ceramics. Garg has the kind of presence that powers network sitcoms. Of the recent series of specials produced by Amazon Prime, which is tentatively competing with Netflix, hers is the best.


Have you ever wondered if porn ruined the Catholic schoolgirl uniform? Or about the relationship between Judaism and diarrhoea? Or the many sexual sounds associated with the term “moral compass”? It shouldn’t surprise anyone that Sarah Silverman has it. These are just some of the scatological and sexual premises she evokes in her new hour (debuting Saturday). Silverman is 52, but looks and sounds exactly like that virtuoso comic that boomed in the 1990s. She’s evolved, of course, and the virtue of that is one of the themes of her typically funny special, but it plays a minor role next to bits about masturbation and Hitler. While she’s known for her youthful jokes and political wit, what’s also essential to her comedy, and seen in full here, is how striking she can be. As influential as she has been, no other comic manages to capture this aspect well. She has a randomly charming bit about how when she gets home she says hello over and over in a booming voice. “Sparkle peanut,” she tells herself before going on stage, just before an introduction by Mel Brooks, a spiritual ancestor.

She is sloppy and careless. Sometimes too much. Was she supposed to stay in the part where she singled out a man for leaving his seat, disrupting the flow of a joke? But her special is flanked by two fun skits: a closing number about bad breath, performed with incongruous and committed elegance, and an opening scene with her (fictional) children backstage. She thanks the woman standing next to them, says she’s been great, and adds, “Everyone said, ‘Don’t get a hot babysitter.'” Then she pauses for an uncomfortably long silence.


My favorite punch line in Wanda Sykes’ latest special is the title: “I’m an Entertainer.” It sounds banal or direct, but in the context of the joke, which is about her awakening sexuality (she came out as a lesbian after sleeping with men for years), it hits you with a shock that is surprising and a little disturbing . That’s Sykes at her best. Coincidentally, Sykes is an old-fashioned entertainer. She can act, improvise, sketch, host award shows and whatever without losing her signature snap. In her stand-up specials, she sticks to a recipe that includes a chunk of sharply topical liberal jokes (hit or miss), some personal bits about amusing tension with her cigarette-wielding French wife and white kids (solidly funny), and a few tense wild cards. Then she brings on for the crowd pleaser Esther, the role of belly fat that she named after the ‘Good Times’ star Esther Rolle. Empowered, no-nonsense, up for some fun, Esther always smiles. But we learn in this new hour that Sykes is considering removing her breasts on the advice of her doctor, who suggested making new breasts from tissue from her intestines. (Sykes doesn’t explain why.) In other words, Esther is moving neighborhoods and will be so close to her neck that Sykes is afraid of being strangled.

With the kind of inflated intensity often seen in high school football coaches and motivational speakers, Greg Warren brags that he was “a big deal in the peanut butter game.” He worked in sales for Jif and shot this hour in Lexington, Ky., because that’s where the company made its products. Maybe he really was a big deal moving pots. Who knows? But after this special he owns this nutty spread, comical. Directed by Nate Bargatze, a clean comic with a much mellower temperament, Warren talks to rival brands (watch out, Peter Pan), does on-brand crowdwork (“What kind of peanut butter do you eat?”) and gets political when discussing how Smucker bought out his old employer. It now owns peanut butter And jelly, he tells us, before adding with a mixture of seriousness and fear, “If they ever get their hands on bread.” Toward the end, Warren made another sale: He’s done for peanut butter what Jerry Seinfeld did for Pop-Tarts and Jim Gaffigan did for Hot Pockets.


If a stand-up can tap into or channel an audience’s anger, it can light up a room. But holding on to that anger is difficult. It can curdle to shtick or just wear out its welcome. Lewis Black’s great gift is that behind that dyspeptic front you can discover a thoughtful, introspective side, perhaps a little damaged. He shows us more of that vulnerable side here, partly because the isolation of the pandemic put him in a reflective mood. The title refers to the audience. Along with swinging sharp political elbows, in defense of the likes of Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, Black beats himself up about past relationships and sings the praises of company. He talks about his failed career as a playwright and brought up theater because “I like to feel the audience’s interest leave the room.”