There’s more than one way to do comedy during a pandemic. Instead of holing up in a guest house and recording a bunch of silly songs about depression, or risking strangers’ lives by touring states that didn’t take Covid seriously, Carmen Christopher hit the streets of New York to bring his comedy to the people—whether the people wanted it or not. Generally, they didn’t, and the tension between Christopher’s intentionally awkward comedy and its unwilling audience makes Street Special one of the funniest things I’ve seen this year.
Not everybody is a fan of “so bad it’s good” art, especially when the art is intentionally bad. That’s not what Christopher is doing, though. Sure, many of his actual jokes are cringingly, purposefully awful, but the comedy comes not from the jokes themselves but from how Christopher tells them, how his audience reacts to them, and how he then reacts to their reactions. When his makeshift audience ignores or rejects him, Christopher leans into that discomfort, trying to extract every awkward laugh he can from the interaction. When a bartender or book store employee tells him he can’t perform in front of their business, he just immediately accepts it and moves on without a fuss, acknowledging his own mediocrity. When he finds a receptive audience, be it a middle-aged woman passing by or a young couple sitting on a bench, you can see the excitement it brings to Christopher; he sprawls out into increasingly long and weird stories to see how far they’ll go with him, almost like he’s challenging them, while retaining his non-confrontational, lovably hangdog demeanor.
Although those uncomfortable exchanges are the heart of Street Special, Christopher’s less interested in Borat-style guerilla pranks than in criticizing the concept of stand-up itself. With Street Special he mocks the self-impressed and obsessive mentality that dictates so much of stand-up culture, primarily the notion that stand-up is some kind of elevated life calling that pushes everything else to the background. Christopher implicitly targets self-aggrandizing stand-up shibboleths like the belief that simply telling jokes on a stage makes somebody a vital truth-teller, or that you have to constantly perform every night in order to be a serious comedian, even during a deadly pandemic. By forcing his comedy on those who don’t want it, he’s parodying the self-importance and selfishness of comedians who acted like the world couldn’t survive without their stand-up for even a few months—those comics who started booking shows again just a couple of months after the pandemic really started. Christopher makes himself look pathetic in Street Special, but it’s really the culture around stand-up that’s far too often embarrassing and cringeworthy.
The most remarkable thing about Street Special is how Christopher is able to do all of that without seeming smug or full of himself. While playing this character he’s able to maintain a weird balance between boldness and nervousness, someone with the courage to perform on the streets but who’s always one slight step away from deflating and embracing defeat. Christopher’s street comic lacks enough self-awareness to realize he shouldn’t be performing uninvited in public like this, but has just enough self-awareness to quickly back down and move on when challenged. The character he’s playing is at once supremely confident but also painfully awkward and aware that, when it comes to comedy, his abilities don’t come close to matching his ambitions. He’s a deluded clown who thinks he’s owed a platform to say what he wants, despite having absolutely nothing to say, and yet you still somehow wind up liking him and wanting him to succeed, at least a little bit more than he does. It’s a smart, acidic portrait of a certain kind of person who gets into stand-up and the culture they’ve created, and a special that should propel Christopher to the top ranks of alternative comedy.
Carmen Christopher’s Street Special is now streaming on Peacock.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s also on Twitter @grmartin.