New York Magazine

Scary Funny

I was afraid of vir­tual com­edy shows—un­til I went to one.

- Covid-19 By Jesse David Fox

Black Mir­ror once. Ten min­utes into an episode where a woman (Hay­ley Atwell) at­tempts to re­build her dead boyfriend (Domh­nall Glee­son) from his so­cial-me­dia ac­counts, I had to turn it off. I find the idea of a cap­i­tal-S Satire about our modern de­pen­dence on tech­nol­ogy just so ex­haust­ing. Es­pe­cially now that we are liv­ing in a world that feels like some­one wished for “tech­no­log­i­cal ad­vance­ment” on a mon­key’s paw. But I find “Black Mir­ror” a use­ful term when de­scrib­ing any­thing that makes it feel like we are Icarus fly­ing too close to the sun—but the sun is a MacBook Pro. I’ve been us­ing it a lot since started rav­aging our coun­try and forced us to self­iso­late. Mostly while watch­ing com­edy.

Maybe the grumpy stand-up vet­er­ans were right about “these so­cial-me­dia co­me­di­ans” they’ve been rail­ing against for the bet­ter part of a decade. Though live com­edy is un­de­ni­ably pop­u­lar, com­edy to­day is most of­ten de­fined by the genre’s suc­cess on emerg­ing plat­forms—TikTok, Net­flix, and so on. As cos­mic pun­ish­ment for com­edy’s sin of glut­tonous ex­pan­sion to new chan­nels, co­me­di­ans now only have the in­ter­net as an out­let. Some­times the shows are good, some­times they are bad, and they’re al­ways a lit­tle weird. There’s one in which the au­di­ence lis­tens to the dis­em­bod­ied voices of co­me­di­ans while watch­ing a cutesy crea­ture “per­form” the jokes over the video game An­i­mal Cross­ing. It’s ter­ri­fy­ing.

Still, there’s one dig­i­tal com­edy show whose image has haunted me for months: InCrowd Com­edy. I be­came aware of it in

early July, when co­me­dian Tay­lor Tom­lin­son posted a photo on In­sta­gram. She was on a stage, per­form­ing stand-up in front of a wall of screens. Dis­played on each was the face of an au­di­ence mem­ber watch­ing from home. Cre­ated by the stage de­signer and part-time co­me­dian Bubba Gin­netty, it looked like the “Ar­chi­tect” scene in the se­cond Ma­trix movie. I asked Tom­lin­son what it was like per­form­ing for rows of faces on screens. “Noth­ing re­places live shows,” she said, “but this is the ab­so­lute clos­est thing.” For two months, I avoided ex­pe­ri­enc­ing one of these shows, but as the nights got chill­ier and out­door com­edy be­came less ap­peal­ing, my cu­rios­ity got the bet­ter of me.

For all InCrowd shows, which are an­nounced on no par­tic­u­lar sched­ule via In­sta­gram, there are two ticket op­tions: $15 to watch the show and $30 for a VIP ticket to be one of the faces the co­me­di­ans see. I chose the $15 one be­cause I’m al­ways afraid a co­me­dian is go­ing to ask me what I do for a liv­ing, and I’ll say, “Write about com­edy,” and it’ll be a whole thing.

Right away, some­thing un­ex­pected hap­pened. Host Tone Bell, a very good co­me­dian whom I’ve never seen live be­cause he lives in L.A. (the big­gest bonus of any on­line show is it al­lows peo­ple who live out­side New York and L.A. to see the best co­me­di­ans in the coun­try), tried to tell the au­di­ence a story about be­ing in Texas the week be­fore. An au­di­ence mem­ber re­sponded in a plain­spo­ken voice, “I’m from Dal­las.” This was a re­sult of the lack of so­cial norms for an event like this. All the VIPs’ mics were on so their laugh­ter could be audi­ble, which meant their small asides were, too.

Soon af­ter, an­other un­ex­pected thing hap­pened—I laughed. Af­ter spend­ing six months think­ing about how laugh­ter could be lit­er­ally in­fec­tious, I for­got that it is metaphor­i­cally in­fec­tious. At a show, the co­me­dian talks and you laugh, partly to com­mu­ni­cate to the per­former “That’s funny” and also to com­mu­ni­cate to the other au­di­ence mem­bers: “This is funny, right?” The co­me­dian is the con­duit for au­di­ence con­nec­tion. It’s nice! For the InCrowd shows, head­phones are sug­gested, so the laughs feel es­pe­cially close. I found my­self charmed by the peo­ple who are un­con­sciously com­pelled to say things like “Oh my God” or “That’s so funny” when they laugh. Bet­ter yet was the guy who re­peated a punch line he en­joyed: “Tick­ling my pizza.”

It took a while, but each co­me­dian was able to lock into a rhythm. Alonzo Bod­den, a 58-year-old stand-up vet, was hys­ter­i­cal, but it took him half his set to re­al­ize it. “It’s throw­ing me off,” he said, “be­cause ev­ery joke there’s a mo­ment de­lay be­fore ev­ery­one laughs. And I’m like, Oh shit. That one didn’t work. What the fuck else do I have? … I would hate to bomb in front of a sim­u­lated crowd at a ware­house in Sun Val­ley.” When I caught my breath from laugh­ing, I re­al­ized why I’d put this off for so long. I was en­joy­ing it too much. I thought of what Tom­lin­son said: “Noth­ing re­places live shows, but it is the ab­so­lute clos­est thing.” But does noth­ing re­place live shows? Weren’t Net­flix stand-up spe­cials and front-fac­ing cam­era videos and pod­casts re­plac­ing live shows even when live shows were still CDC-ap­proved? At first, it’s strange to feel like you are laugh­ing with peo­ple when you’re not ac­tu­ally with them. It was scary how quickly I was able to adapt. I’m Domh­nall Glee­son in Black Mir­ror. I’m Neo. I’m in the Ma­trix from The Ma­trix. One blue pill, please. Next time, I’ll pay for the VIP pack­age.

Fargo

Sound­walk.

Loy is so ded­i­cated to his men’s en­light­en­ment that he would make sure to de­fine tureen—which isn’t that ob­scure now, and def­i­nitely wasn’t then—on the spot, even if it meant step­ping on his own punch line?

An even worse mo­ment ap­pears soon af­ter: Odis gets in Loy’s face and says, “You didn’t fight in the war, did ya?” “Naw, man,” Loy snarls, “why would I fight for a coun­try that wants me dead?” While less dread­ful on its face than the tureen mo­ment, this one is more de­bil­i­tat­ing, be­cause it’s a twofer ex­am­ple of the dogged lit­er­al­ism that un­der­mines the show’s poetry. Chan­nel­ing sub­stan­dard Quentin Tarantino and Tarantino im­i­ta­tors more than the Coens, FX’s Fargo states or res­tates that which was al­ready plain from watch­ing the char­ac­ters go about their busi­ness (in this

case, a Black man’s es­trange­ment from a coun­try founded on white supremacy).

And it’s yet an­other Fargo scene in which a ma­jor char­ac­ter can­not en­ter a room and state what he wants or at­tempt to ac­com­plish a goal through di­rect or in­di­rect means with­out first forc­ing an au­di­ence to sit through a te­dious mono­logue. There are barely any ac­tual con­ver­sa­tions to be heard here, only florid anec­dotes fol­lowed by a char­ac­ter either ask­ing if the lis­tener un­der­stood the sub­text or pre­emp­tively re­lat­ing the moral. Ev­ery sea­son of Fargo is a ver­i­ta­ble mono­logue­fest, but sea­son four seems es­pe­cially top-heavy, per­haps be­cause it’s more doggedly pro­saic and lin­ear in its telling and more con­cerned—à la Board­walk Em­pire and Sons of An­ar­chy—with who’s whack­ing whom and where and for what im­me­di­ate pur­pose, not so much with the cos­mo­log­i­cal and philo­soph­i­cal as­pects of life and crime that made sea­sons one and two of Haw­ley’s se­ries so grip­ping.

This last fail­ing is par­tic­u­larly odd given the cen­tral con­ceit of sea­son four: Kansas City’s gang lead­ers have a tra­di­tion of swap­ping their sons as a fail­safe to stop vi­o­lence from es­ca­lat­ing too quickly or be­com­ing too all en­com­pass­ing, or per­haps to force the other side to think of their en­e­mies as hu­man be­ings when things get dire. If you can move past the fun­da­men­tal im­prob­a­bil­ity of, say, the leader of a Jewish gang send­ing one of his sons to live in an Ir­ish gang leader’s house and vice versa, then move past the fact (es­tab­lished in episode one’s pro­logue) that this ar­range­ment in­vari­ably leads to mas­sacres any­way, it’s a fas­ci­nat­ing na­ture-vs.-nur­ture prompt. Yet Fargo never treats the circa-1950 trans­planted sons as any­thing other than nar­ra­tive hot pota­toes to be passed from lo­ca­tion to lo­ca­tion as the plot re­quires. And it never ties the idea of trans­planted cul­tural rep­re­sen­ta­tives to the sea­son’s larger themes of im­mi­gra­tion, as­sim­i­la­tion, and shared and en­forced cul­tures.

All this and more is en­coded in the char­ac­ter of “Rabbi” Mil­li­gan (Ben Whishaw), a for­mer Jew who spent time among the Ir­ish and has now be­come an hon­orary Ital­ian (even though the Ital­ians never fully trust him). He is tasked with guard­ing Loy’s swapped-out son. Whishaw’s sad eyes and re­laxed lethal­ity (like a snake coiled in a bur­row) word­lessly com­mu­ni­cate the com­plex­i­ties of be­ing a per­son of many cul­tures who is ef­fec­tively with­out a cul­ture (i.e., the con­di­tion of most Amer­i­cans). But sea­son four of Fargo isn’t in­ter­ested in sub­text un­less it can be turned into text, un­der­lined and bold­faced, with di­rec­tional ar­rows.

Other ac­tors be­sides Whishaw man­age to spin straw into gold. Glynn Tur­man adds an­other panel to his gallery of clas­sic char­ac­ter turns as Doc­tor Sen­a­tor, Loy’s con­sigliere and res­i­dent fa­ther fig­ure. As U.S. mar­shal and de­vout Mor­mon Dick “Deafy” Wick­ware, Ti­mothy Olyphant brings his Dead­wood and Jus­ti­fied ex­pe­ri­ence to bear. He lets the show’s or­nate, of­ten pseudo-bib­li­cal decla­ma­tions roll off his tongue and grounds episodes filled with sceneryg­naw­ing ec­centrics by do­ing more re­act­ing than act­ing. As Oraetta Mayflower, a chirpy, mur­der­ous Min­nesota red­head who’s like Marge Gun­der­son’s se­cret evil sis­ter, Jessie Buck­ley seems to be star­ring in a barely re­lated but vastly more com­pelling sea­son of Fargo. She cap­tures not just the essence of her char­ac­ter (a seem­ingly mo­tive­less bringer of death in the vein of No Coun­try for Old Men’s An­ton Chig­urh and Rais­ing Ari­zona’s Leonard Smalls) but a hy­per­spe­cific sub­set of mid-cen­tury mid­dleAmer­i­can white lady: the kind who walks like she’s 80 when she’s barely 30 and has a sprightly apho­rism for ev­ery oc­ca­sion (even mur­der­ous ones).

But the rest of the cast ends up stranded in Fargo’s shal­lows—no­tably Chris Rock; Ja­son Schwartz­man as young Ital­ian gang boss Josto Fadda, who’s ba­si­cally Michael Cor­leone by way of Fredo; and Sal­va­tore Es­pos­ito as his brother Gae­tano, an Old Coun­try hot­head who seems styled on Jon Polito’s gang boss, Johnny Cas­par, from Miller’s Cross­ing. What’s the prob­lem? Some­times mis­cast­ing seems to be the main cul­prit: Rock and Schwartz­man, es­pe­cially, ra­di­ate moder­nity so strongly you wouldn’t be sur­prised if their char­ac­ters took cell-phone calls in the mid­dle of a scene. In other cases, Haw­ley and his fel­low episode di­rec­tors seem to have en­cour­aged their ac­tors to cling to the most ob­vi­ous choices (Es­pos­ito bugs his eyes out in ev­ery scene to show that his char­ac­ter is “crazy” and “ca­pa­ble of any­thing”).

At still other times, the di­a­logue hurls ev­ery other as­pect of the pro­duc­tion to the floor and pins it like those wrestlers who vexed Bar­ton Fink. Anachro­nisms sink oth­er­wise ser­vice­able ex­changes (the Twit­ter-cer­ti­fied warn­ing “slow your roll” shows up twice), and lit’ry word­clots fail to trans­late from page to screen. You can tell even Fargo rec­og­nizes that last prob­lem by the way it keeps self­con­sciously try­ing to make light of it. When Swa­nee Capp (Kelsey As­bille), a half–Na­tive Amer­i­can out­law, de­clares she has been “mas­ti­cat­ing sa­vory vit­tles and im­bib­ing top-shelf hooch,” her lover, Zel­mare Roulette (Karen Aldridge), peals, “Hoo-weee! Some­one’s been studyin’ their vo­cab­u­lary!”

One of the Coen broth­ers’ most quoted lines—prac­ti­cally a sum­ma­tion of their aes­thetic—is from 2009’s A Se­ri­ous Man: “Ac­cept the mys­tery.” Haw­ley’s Fargo seems in­creas­ingly un­will­ing to take that ad­mo­ni­tion (it­self rather cryp­tic) at face value. Still coast­ing on fumes from its sea­son-two peak—which ret­ro­spec­tively seems like more of a fluke than the ful­fill­ment of sea­son one’s prom­ise—the se­ries car­ries it­self as though it has the an­swers to every­thing. When one char­ac­ter asks a ques­tion of an­other and then an­nounces with a self-re­gard­ing smirk that it was rhetor­i­cal—some­thing both the au­di­ence and the lis­tener could al­ready tell just by the phras­ing—Fargo dis­ap­pears into its own navel, where even the lint is an­no­tated.

where, as proud pa­tri­arch Rory O’Hara (Jude Law) brags to his wife and chil­dren when they first ar­rive, Led Zep­pelin once stayed while work­ing on an al­bum. But there doesn’t re­ally need to be for it to scare the shit out of Ben­jamin (Char­lie Shotwell), the younger of the two kids, who seeks sanc­tu­ary at night with his teenage sis­ter, Sa­man­tha (Oona Roche), un­til she kicks him out; then he sprints through the dark­ened hall­ways to his room as though some­thing’s go­ing to drag him off into the shad­ows if he’s not fast enough. And then there’s the horse, which be­longs to wife and mother Al­li­son (Car­rie Coon). This gor­geous black an­i­mal just isn’t the same af­ter be­ing trans­ported from New York to the U.K. As the sound­track swells with au­dio of its dis­tress, there’s an omi­nous zoom in on the half-built struc­ture where it’s sta­bled, as if it’s a crea­ture pos­sessed.

As a vir­tu­osic movie about the slow im­plo­sion of a fam­ily, The Nest doesn’t re­quire the help of haunt­ings or de­monic forces—the call, as they say, is com­ing from in­side the house. It’s com­ing from Rory, mostly, a fast-talk­ing com­modi­ties bro­ker with a taste for lux­u­ries he can’t af­ford. It’s the ’80s, and Rory, who has been an English­man abroad for years, up­roots his fam­ily and moves them back to the Lon­don area af­ter he gets what he de­scribes as a job of­fer too good to turn down. This turns out to be a lie, which we learn at a party along­side Al­li­son, the cam­era hold­ing on her frozen face as Rory’s boss, Arthur (Michael Culkin), gives a speech about how his for­mer em­ployee called him up and pitched his ser­vices. Yet Al­li­son doesn’t con­front Rory, hav­ing served as co-con­spir­a­tor and en­abler in her hus­band’s games for a while now. She doesn’t press him about how much the house cost (“Less than you’d think!” he prom­ises), and she plays along when he tells his co-work­ers that they own a pent­house in New York and are look­ing to pick up a pied-à-terre in May­fair. Rory has been main­tain­ing this façade for so long he can’t even be hon­est with him­self about it, but the way Al­li­son hoards and hides cash hints at how many times they’ve flamed out be­fore.

The Nest is the se­cond fea­ture from film­maker Sean Durkin, who made a splash back in 2011 with Martha Marcy May Marlene, which launched El­iz­a­beth Olsen’s ca­reer via what you could call the ti­tle role of a young woman who has es­caped from a cult that still very much main­tains a hold on her mind. Durkin didn’t dis­ap­pear af­ter that de­but—he made the glum 2013 minis­eries South­cliffe for Chan­nel 4 in the U.K.—but this fol­low-up has been long in com­ing, and it’s im­pres­sive enough to make you won­der why. Durkin has a real skill in us­ing space, turn­ing the fam­ily’s gloomy coun­try house into a war­ren of door­ways and hall­ways that box in the char­ac­ters and fram­ing the glass-walled of­fice Rory prowls as though on dis­play at a zoo. Shots like the one of the fam­ily clus­tered at one end of the mas­sive El­iz­a­bethan ta­ble that came with the house, or the one of them strug­gling to get their sub­ur­ban fur­ni­ture into the grandiose space, un­der­score how poorly they fit this life­style with­out say­ing a word.

While all four fam­ily mem­bers ex­pe­ri­ence their own per­sonal mis­eries— Ben­jamin is bul­lied, Sa­man­tha is bored and re­bel­lious in her choice of friends— the film re­ally cen­ters on Al­li­son and Rory. Coon and Law of­fer a pair of per­for­mances that are among the best of the year, Law lean­ing into the air of ar­ti­fi­cial­ity that can ac­com­pany his beauty and Coon al­low­ing her char­ac­ter’s buried rage to bub­ble up sud­denly in ways Al­li­son her­self seems to find be­wil­der­ing. Sit­ting at a din­ner they can’t af­ford, the cou­ple play a form of chicken; Al­li­son or­ders the most ex­pen­sive items on the menu, and Rory sneers at her taste in wine. They’re per­fectly matched in their bruised mag­nif­i­cence, two peo­ple who have been ex­hausted by years of pre­tend­ing to be some­thing they’re not, chas­ing a dream they couldn’t en­tirely ar­tic­u­late. As a state­ment on a decade of con­sumerism, The Nest doesn’t have any­thing par­tic­u­larly new to say, but as a fable of fa­mil­ial dys­func­tion, it’s res­o­nant and, yes, fright­en­ing, with nary a ghost in sight.

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