“The disease couldn’t have come at a worse time, because, just this year, I was named a Vulture ‘Comic to Watch,’ ” the comedian Carmen Christopher drolly announces in a video that he posted on Instagram last March, just as the United States was fully shutting down. In the cartoonishly sombre clip, Christopher explains to his followers that he “might” have the coronavirus, a suspicion that he developed because he was suffering from a “slight headache.” But the real tragedy was that his creative and professional momentum would be curtailed by the impending global crisis: “It finally felt like this was the year I was going to break through,” he says in the clip. “But it looks like it’s not.”
Christopher, a thirtysomething Brooklyn comedian with a dry affect, has long been beloved in the insular world of comedy, working a robust standup schedule while writing for and appearing in shows such as “Chris Gethard Presents” and “High Maintenance.” He’s also developed a suite of digital sketches, such as “Little Banks on Wall Street,” a short about a wayward Christmas-tree salesman who tries to indulge his Wall Street-lifestyle fantasies after reading “The Wolf of Wall Street.” Christopher enjoys exploring the misguided hopes and dreams of especially dopey male characters—last year, he made waves with a short film called “I’m Killing It!!!,” a piece about a buffoonish trust-funded d.j. who remakes his life after being dumped out of the blue. It was a project that might have become a springboard, landing him on the radar of taste-making lists like the aforementioned “Comics to Watch.”
But, of all the cultural arenas that have suffered from lockdown, standup comedy has perhaps been dealt the hardest blow, as it relies on tightly packed indoor gatherings not only as a showcase for its final product but also as a lab in which to develop material. Dave Chappelle was the first comedian bold and moneyed enough to forge on with live comedy at the height of the pandemic, hosting a slew of socially distanced shows, in Ohio, and filming one of them for a twenty-seven-minute Netflix project called “8:46,” which was posted on YouTube with a warning: “Normally I wouldn’t show you something so unrefined, I hope you understand,” he wrote. Others followed suit, with varying degrees of success. Chelsea Handler filmed her new special, “Evolution,” outside the Central Railroad of New Jersey Terminal, resulting in a highly personal but overly slick hour of jokes. Other comics took their sets to drive-in movie theatres, where rounds of car honking stood in for laughter and applause. “I’ve been doing comedy for many years, and I finally realized that my fanbase was Kias,” the comic Ester Steinberg told a crowded parking lot outside the Rose Bowl, in Pasadena.
As these comedians strove for welcoming outdoor settings, Christopher abandoned the pretense of normalcy altogether. For his new project, “Street Special,” on Peacock, he actually took his act outdoors, to the streets of New York City, with little in the way of a setup. Like Chappelle’s sombre “8:46,” you can’t quite call it a special. It’s better described as a brutal experiment in the creative limitations imposed on us by the pandemic. Christopher has a deadpan delivery style that feels stoned, goofy, and soporific until it suddenly doesn’t, becoming something more nihilistic. In “Street Special,” he dons an Outback Steakhouse-branded windbreaker and ambles around New York City, lugging a rolling speaker and microphone. He stops at intersections or outside establishments—in Union Square Park, in front of young skaters in Washington Square Park, in the bustling restaurant thoroughfares of gentrified Brooklyn—and performs snippets of material, listlessly and to the confusion of spectators. He leans into the awkwardness of taking life outdoors and all the discomforts of trying to perform alfresco to an unwilling audience, and the arrangement is so rudimentary and absurd that the special takes on the mischievous air of a man-on-the-street bit, à la Eric André or Billy Eichner.
The experiment seems promising at first, but his comedy runs into resistance. At the beginning of the special, Christopher performs for a couple, rapt, at Grand Army Plaza, in Brooklyn. He pretends to get a work phone call and eventually says that an ISIS recruiter is on the other end of the line. “You can come find me now—we’re all down at Grand Army Plaza,” he says. The joke rightfully earns him some amused looks that might have turned into laughter if the audience weren’t wearing masks. Christopher has a fascination with violence and self-harm that tends to result in his most profoundly morbid and bracing jokes. (At one point, he fantasizes about getting shot and having his ex-girlfriends visit him in the hospital so he can take pictures with them, to be posted on Instagram.)
Still, even his best work in “Street Special” does not have much of an opportunity to land, given the circumstances of these outdoor performances. As the filming progresses, it shows the bystander audiences growing more and more aggravated by Christopher’s presence. Instead of heckling, booing, or remaining silent, as they might if they’d paid for a ticket, people often simply ask him to leave. “You can’t preach in front of my bar,” an owner of one establishment tells him. Christopher grows increasingly dejected as the footage wears on and his audiences fail to find him amusing.
We eventually come to feel as if “Street Special” was never intended to be funny. Rather, it seems to have been designed for us to share in the particular exasperations involved in trying to create anything at all in such a strange and constricting moment in time. We talk a lot about the psychological challenges wrought by COVID-19, but less about the particular difficulty of trying to delineate between garden-variety personal crises and the sheer crappiness of our circumstances. Is it me, or is it the pandemic? Was it quarantine, or was I actually depressed? Am I an uninspired person, or do I just hate working from home? Is my child a bad student, or is he just bad at Zoom? These are the questions that loom over “Street Special,” a project that will feel more like a coronavirus time capsule than an exemplary work of comedy. We may not be able to answer these questions, but we can try to laugh.
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