If you’re having difficulty placing Mary Lynn Rajskub, she gets it. The comedian spends the opening of her latest special, Live From The Pandemic, diving into what it’s like being an actor that a stranger once described as “looking like someone who could be on Parks and Rec” (which she never actually appeared in, by the way). The truth is that her decades-long career is filled with dramatic highlights like playing Chloe the computer whiz on 24 and a plethora of comedy roles, including the disturbing entity known as Gail the Snail on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Boyle’s girlfriend Genevieve on Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and many more.
The most remarkable part of Rajskub’s latest special isn’t any particular bit, but its format. Over the last 11 months, comedians have been trying to figure out how to safely perform and release stand-up sets—or have decided to selfishly flout health advice and perform indoors, even at risk to themselves and audience members. Rajskub’s decision to film Live From The Pandemic in her garage with no audience at all is thus the safest choice pandemic-wise, but the riskiest in terms of comedy. It’s a bold and admirable decision that may not exactly stick the landing when it comes to punchlines, but nonetheless sets the standard for how comedy should be created during a time when we’ve lost 446,910 people to coronavirus in this country alone, according to CNN at the time of writing.
Rajskub’s awkwardness, which she alternately plays up as endearing or unsettling, has historically worked well with an audience before her. The crowd feeds off her nervous laughter and self-deprecating manner, amplifying every joke she unspools onstage. The absence of that back-and-forth is palpable, and the set dips in energy at some points as a result. Rajskub is trying her best at every turn, though, throwing out asides to the nonexistent audience and still bringing her signature frantic presence.
Live From The Pandemic is split into four parts—fame, pandemic, marriage, and dating—and besides the opening, these are the only cuts that happen. Rajskub stands in front of the camera like a YouTuber, with purple backlighting and nothing else to distract you. Unlike a YouTuber, though, there isn’t any fancy production added in trying desperately to keep you engaged. The title cards and easy-listening background music are both fairly unobtrusive, leaving Rajskub to do all the heavy lifting. That she manages to capture your attention and keep you laughing with this static perspective is a testament to her talent.
While Rajskub’s latest special covers familiar comedy territory, it proves daring in its bare-bones production. For that, and for her commitment to keeping audiences safe, we can’t help but applaud her.
Mary Lynn Rajskub: Live From the Pandemic can be rented or bought on Vimeo.
Clare Martin is a cemetery enthusiast, hibernophile and contributing writer for Paste’s music and comedy sections. She also exercises her love for reality TV at HelloGiggles every now and then. Go harass her on Twitter @theclaremartin.