We are living in the golden age of stand-up comedy. Oh, I know that contemporary comedians would say that they’re nothing compared to their predecessors: George Carlin and Richard Pryor, or even farther back folks like Bob Hope and Milton Berle. And I suppose that might be the case, I’m no expert in the history of stand-up comedy, but I suspect that even in his heyday Bob Hope wasn’t landing $20 million per event or getting a viewership of tens of millions (though admittedly any single event of Hope’s may have netted a higher percentage of the American population, just given the demographic changes).
Riding this wave is the skilled writer/comedian (and yes, that distinction matters–watch the special to find out why) Neal Brennan. His dry delivery–with just a hint of melancholy–carries the weight of his serious comedy in a way that stands out from the more… cheerful… comedians out there.
This really is a solid special and you should watch it, at least if you’re a fan of stand up. He does exactly what a good comedian (or comedy writer) should do: pokes at the sacred cows of contemporary society. No doubt that means there’s something here to offend everyone, and again that’s just what comedy should do.
And yet, the last little bit… where he gets more intentionally serious than he had been through the rest of the show (and this is not out of line with his other work, especially his “3 Mics” special) lands in a place that doesn’t hold up to the deeper thought of the rest of the show. After noting that he is not okay (something which is true of every human being), he suggests that he needs to be kinder to himself, give himself some grace, and stop attacking himself. That may or may not be true–I don’t know him so I can’t answer that. But then he ends with this:
“I’d like to believe that my ways of being, my thoughts, my habits, my emotions, my beliefs… I’d like to believe that they’re not defects… I’d like to believe that the alchemy of a personality… my spirit… it’s got to be enough. Please. Let that be enough.”
Of course our thoughts, emotions, habits, etc may or may not be defects. That depends a lot on the person in question (and again, I don’t know him so I can’t comment specifically here). But I do know that even if they’re not ‘defects’, they’re not ‘enough.’ And we can know that about everyone without knowing everyone individually because that’s true of every human being. You and I are not enough. We will never be satisfied or fulfilled in ourselves. Our thoughts, emotions, habits, etc in themselves are at best limited, and more often actively wicked. What we need is someone else, we need a substitute who is enough and who satisfies the desires of the heart in the way we were made to be satisfied. We need the forgiveness for our sins offered by Christ’s work on the cross and the obedience he accomplished in his life, and we need both of those things given to us without cost and without price.
So what we’re left with is a really solid stand up act with an ending that fizzles into a mild self-help mantra. And maybe that’s appropriate given our current cultural climate, but let’s hope it’s not where Neal Brennan ends as a professional comedian/writer or as a person. Because he clearly has things to say that are sometimes thoughtful, sometimes hilarious, and often both.