Nothing Like the Real Thing
New York magazine|October 11 - 24, 2021
Since when does a comedy special also need to be a documentary?
KATHRYN VANARENDONK

IN HER 2020 HBO comedy special, Momma, I Made It!, Yvonne Orji stands in front of an appreciative audience in Washington, D.C., telling jokes about her life. She is a confident, charismatic performer who can slip in and out of the characters she creates onstage so that she is with them, against them, laughing at them, illuminating them, all in the course of the same story. When Orji, who is Nigerian American, tells a joke about haggling at a Lagos market, she is three characters at once: the shopper pushing for the lowest price, the insulted seller, and Yvonne Orji the narrator, laughing at all of it.

Then the scene cuts, and now the camera is following Orji as she and a friend wander past market stalls in Lagos, looking at fabrics and negotiating the prices. “See?” this scene seems to say. “It’s just like she said!” This kind of footage returns throughout the special, woven in between scenes of Orji’s stand-up performance. Here’s a talking-head interview with her parents, teasing her material about parental expectations. Here’s a scene where she asks for directions, right after a riff on how Nigerians can’t give directions.

As a record of a live performance, the comedy special is not all that different from a band’s concert documentary. The backstage framing device has been a familiar gambit for decades, that fun little sequence in which we watch a comedian coming in through the stage door. But Orji’s Momma, I Made It! is one of a distinct new wave of specials—call them docu-comedy—that has taken shape in the past couple years. There was Gary Gulman’s The Great Depresh, Jenny Slate’s Stage Fright, and Craig Ferguson’s six-part series, Hobo Fabulous, all from 2019; Whitmer Thomas’s The Golden One in 2020; and, this year, new specials from Chris Gethard and Rory Scovel. In each of these, documentary scenes are spliced with parts of a filmed comedy performance. The documentary elements are not designed to stand on their own; they’re more like recurring bonus scenes, punctuating and ornamenting a comedian’s material.

The rise of these docu-comedy specials is—and I don’t mean to put too fine a point on it, but at some point I have to say it—bad. They play on a desire to see comedians as truth-tellers and feed into the idea that good comedy stems from a performer’s authentic self. They underline the expectation of personal access and surf on the assumption that documentaries are a higher art. Maybe most frustrating is that documentary footage rarely makes a comedy special funnier. You may know the comedian better now, but that doesn’t mean you laughed more.

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