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.
Continue reading your story on the app
Continue reading your story in the magazine
Jonathan Franzen Thinks People Can Change
Even if his new book suggests it’s nearly impossible to make it stick.
860 minutes with…Stephanie Grisham
In Kansas with Donald Trump’s former press secretary, who does not believe she will be redeemed.
Bed in a Box
Just how much drama can you pack into a studio apartment?
COVID Diaries: Sarah Jones
The 700,000 Death Toll An atheist stumbles toward a way to grieve.
Nothing Like the Real Thing
Since when does a comedy special also need to be a documentary?
Kumail Nanjiani's Feelings
The actor always wanted his own superhero transformation. Now he’s buff, a Marvel star, and struggling with how much of his new body is his own.
Performance Review: Ben Affleck Plays Himself
Becoming a tabloid star gave the actor his best role ever.
The Murders Down the Hall
393 POWELL STREET WAS A PEACEFUL HOME UNTIL RESIDENTS STARTED DYING IN BRUTAL, MYSTERIOUS WAYS.
The POST-COVID, POST-MANHATTAN PLANS PLANS of the MOST MANHATTAN of RESTAURATEURS
KEITH McNALLY, TO GO
Under Her Skin
Julia Ducournau funneled years of fury, angst, and comedy into her Palme d’Or– winning, genre-smashing film Titane.
BEST OF BOTH WORLDS
HOW TO SAIL AWAY WITHOUT QUITTING YOUR LIFE: ADVICE FROM A COUPLE WHO’VE DONE IT. PATRICK AND SHEILA DIXON EXPLAIN HOW TO MAKE ‘HYBRID CRUISING’ WORK
Startups With an Unusual Fight
Often targeted by police, Nigeria’s tech industry works on ways to help protesters
ABC to XYZ
Lagos Is Facing Its Bottle Problem
With plastic beverage container use doubling in three years, pressure to recycle is building
The Floating City
If you put a fish on dry land, can it survive? That is the way we people here are like. We cannot live on land. Living on water is part of our culture.” -Noah Shemede, native of Makoko
Welcome To Nollywood
Lagos is home to Nollywood, one of the world’s largest film industries. More than 2,500 movies are made in Nollywood each year. The industry adds about $10 billion a year to the country’s economy. According to the International Monetary Fund, as many as one million Nigerians work in the movie industry.
Preserving Ancient Mysteries At The Nigerian National Museum
Many amazing works of art are on display at the Niegerian National Museum in Lagos.
LAGOS: A City Of Opportunity
The Nigerian city of Lagos is Africa’s most heavily populated city. It is home to an estimated 21 million people. Researchers at the Global Cities Institute predict it will be the world’s largest city by the year 2100. By then, they estimate the city’s population will have reached 88 million.
Los pumas de Patagonia
Proteger estos felinos de Chile ha tenido graves consecuencias para los ganaderos. ¿El turismo es la solución?
Is Lagos the Most Dangerous Party City On the Planet?
With Nigerian music influencing America hip-hop and EDM, Adam Skolnick travels to the world capital of Afropop and finds a city that's both captivating and conflicted.