With the boom in self-released, Netflix and HBO comedy specials, it sometimes seems there's too much of a glut of comedians unveiling their new shows. LIke the comedy club craze of the 1980s, it's leading to plenty of entertainment options for comedy fans -- but hardly all of the work is first-rate or particularly original.
But at least five comedians and comic actors with great stage shows, including some, like Erin Foley and Jackie Kashian who tour American comedy clubs regularly and appear on late-night TV shows, are offering especially unique, funny and often heartfelt work that sets them apart. Foley is emerging as the Compleat Comedian, who brings her material alive through great acting, vivid writing and offbeat insights into boho faddism, relationships and politics; she could emerge as the next great charming lesbian cross-over comic with wide appeal, like Ellen DeGeneres or Tig Notaro. See, for example, her masterpiece routine on her gluten-free diet performed last year on a Conan show and excerpted on her Lady With Pockets CD, now on Spotify. Foley will doubtless continue to draw strong crowds brought there by her converted fans or TV appearances, and she's playing Midwestern cities this week and appearing with Maria Bamford next week at San Francisco's Sketchfest. But when can millions more see what they're missing by seeing a stand-up special by her on Netflix?
Kashian, in turn, has a DIY special that was ranked #4 for 2014 by New York Magazine's Vulture website, but even as she's been visiting New York with a multi-week blitzkrieg of some of the city's coolest clubs with her patented blend of warm-hearted yet biting stories, including a final stop at the Knitting Factory on Sunday, her special still hasn't been picked up by any streaming services yet.
So these fantastic five -- Sue Costello, Kate Berlant, Jackie Kashian , Erin Foley and Josie Long -- haven't yet had the widespread exposure in the U.S. that comedy specials and one-person shows available to millions through instant streaming on Netflix and HBO can offer.
But that could well change this year for all of them, because of an upsurge of rave reviews, sell-out shows, phenomenal word of mouth and steady touring. Kate Berlant , for instance, has gotten front-page New York Times arts section praise for her experimental comedy that is the funniest, most innovative work of any comedian since the emergence of Maria Bamford and Reggie Watts, but offering something wholly different: a post-modern, absurdist, largely improvised take on self-important feminists and academics that is at the same time hilarious and genuine underneath the persona she creates. In early February, she launches a national tour as a feature act for headliner Nick Thune that includes a stop at Washington's Sixth and I synagogue and arts center that's featured Maria Bamford, Marc Maron and others. This newest comic's comic on the stand-up scene should expect an A-list of LA's alternative comedy world turning out to see her perform in an "Evening with Kate Berlant" on Tuesday, January 27th at LA's Nerdmelt stage, launched by Chris Hardwick, behind a comic book store on Sunset Boulevard.
To see her best work, you have to see her in person -- as I discovered last fall when she appeared at DC's Bentzen Ball alt.comedy festival on a show headlined by Tig Notaro. With the pliant face of a silent movie comedienne like Mabel Normand, and her ability to mesmerize and amuse with mock-philosophical musings, she's truly unlike anyone regularly performing now. That's with the possible exception of the double-talking 100-year-old Professor Irwin Corey,the world's greatest authority -- if updated and reimagined by a woman in her 20s for a post-feminist age.
One key reason for this mounting interest in Berlant is that despite the growing attention of fellow comics who feature her on podcasts, and comedy critics who deliriously praise her while being baffled about trying to describe her act as anything beyond "hard-to-define," there's very little of her actual stand-up online. Instead there's mostly artsy videos or loose improvisations with comedy partner John Early. But unlike other comics who have built followings through YouTube excerpts of their most popular routines -- most obviously, Jim Gaffigan's world-famous "Hot Pockets" bit -- her growing fame among comedy mavens is building solely through seeing her live. A sample headline from one of her acolytes at the thoughtful Chicken Scratch comedy blog: "Kate Berlant's experimental comedy is the best thing since oh God I'm melting..."
Another one of these rising comic talents, the whimsical, adorably odd leftist alternative comic story-teller, Josie Long, is already a star in the UK, earning prizes and accolades routinely at the highly competitive Edinburgh Fringe Festival. But her latest themed special, "Cara Josephine," following a breakup, is perhaps her best received, most personal work yet -- and while her shows are performed throughout the UK, she essentially is unknown over here. But an artfully filmed special, drawing on her best material and themes in a new show, could make her a cult comic adored by millions in the US, too.
But let's start with a closer look at Sue Costello: Costello, a brilliant comedian and actor who was briefly a TV star in a short-lived sitcom on Fox in the late 1990s, has emerged from the roller-coaster ride of her life in violent, blue-collar Dorchester and the turmoil of a combustible Hollywood career with a stunning first-person play about her journey. I saw a preview show of her show, "I Wasn't Trying to be Funny," a while ago in New York, and, for once, the hoariest cliches of rave reviews -- "I laughed! I cried!" -- actually apply to this show. Fortunately, there is an opportunity to experience her high-energy stand-up comedy performance this Saturday evening, January 24th at mid-town's Cutting Room venue in New York at 10 p.m. at 44 East. 32nd Street. Her stand-up references a few of the experiences highlighted in the play, but this time played just for laughs. She'll be rolling out the one-woman show again later this year -- and it shouldn't be missed, either.
What's especially striking about that show is that it isn't simply a Mike Birbiglia-style monologue about her life or a series of quick impressions, but an actual touching and funny solo play about her life in which she's playing herself at different periods in her life. On stage, she converses in her solo act with real-life characters we can't see but whose presence is as real and riveting as hers. Local Boston papers aren't simply championing a home-town girl but heralding a major comedic and playwriting talent: The Boston Herald called the show "powerful, thanks to Costello's frank charisma and her ability to mingle humor with tragedy" and the Quincy Patriot Ledger proclaimed that "Costello rivets the audience with a comic's gift for delivery and wit and an actress' skill with emotion." At the risk of seeming excessive in praise of Costello, her one-person show is the best combination of genuine poignance and rollicking humor since the pioneering stage work of Lily Tomlin and early Whoopi Goldberg. She could easily have done a great one-woman show filled with the sort of amazing and hilarious stories of her life she told Marc Maron on a podcast after she reemerged into the spotlight with a supporting role as a feisty Southie in the movie "The Fighter." Instead, she has created a play that is told through scenes, re-enacted by an actress with extraordinary range.
Her influential friends in comedy have given her latest work unrestrained praise that, while they're blurbs from a press release, actually under-sell just how powerful, moving and funny her show is:
"Sue Costello's charismatic performance is mesmerizing as you march with her through her teenage
years on the Dorchester streets through her life in New York and Hollywood." -Colin Quinn
"...a wonderful journey filled with lots of laughter and love."
-Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara.
"Sue's show was amazing, hilarious, dark and brutally honest, Run don't walk to the theatre!
- Molly Shannon
Suggested Next Career Move:
Ask some of her admirers to bring along their wealthy show-business friends, such as Jerry Seinfeld, to her next show so they can bankroll an Off-Broadway run -- and then watch it get picked up by HBO.
Coming Soon: Look for brief portraits of these and other talented comedians deserving to be seen far more widely.