aliwong

My Best Laughs of 2016

This article was originally posted on Anna Marfo’s blog.

The summer of 2016 brought me a silly but welcome challenge: writing a joke a day for 100 days as part of Elle Luna’s 100 Day Project. Despite being a prolific (if nothing else) writer, writing with the aim of humor has always proved to be a considerable, but always worthy, challenge. Writing on days where I was tired, or busy, or not feeling funny, gave me even more respect for some of the best jokes I know and giggle at. 

So, as a means of rewarding the hard – and superior – work that surrounds me, I am sharing with you my list of outstanding laughs that 2016 put forth. I can’t/don’t want to play favorites, so they’re in alphabetical order. Check them out!

Ali Wong, Baby Cobra (Netflix)
The press would have you believe that the revolutionary part of this special is that Ali performs it while seven months pregnant. And while that’s true, it’s among the less interesting parts of her hilarious hour. Her jokes about bathroom stall dominance, countering Sheryl Sandberg’s “lean in” argument, and wishes to eat mango sliced by white people are hysterical.

The revolutionary part of this to me, as someone who knows several women who have struggled to have kids, was for her to write and tell jokes about those struggles. The revolutionary part wasn’t that she did this while pregnant, but that she used such a public forum to talk about how hard it was to get that way. And that matters. Infertility is both fairly common and wildly underreported, so I appreciated – and laughed at – her successful efforts to make these circumstances funny. As she says, “it’s super common, and I wish more women would talk about it so they wouldn’t feel so bad when they go through it.” Glad you did, Ali, and in such an accessible way.

Aparna Nancherla, Just Putting It Out There (Secretly Canadian)
Aparna Nancherla speaks for me. Her ruminations on struggling to work from home, moving awkwardly within office norms, and struggling with anxiety were a comforting reminder that other women out in the world are ill-at-ease in their own skin, but managing to do big things and make their mark on the world anyway. It’s especially comforting to know that this is true of another woman of color; we don’t typically get that opportunity.

I was familiar with her writing and supporting work, including the criminally underwatched Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell. But this album was an exciting discovery. I look forward to making a live outing to see her part of my 2017.

Atlanta– “B.A.N.” season 1, episode 7 (FX)
Atlanta is something special. In a year that has given us a few examples that confound black TV portrayals and black humor (see also: Insecure), the surrealism and quiet humor of Donald Glover’s brainchild hit me just perfectly. Of the ten episodes released this year, “B.A.N.” is my favorite for its stark departure from its surroundings. Beyond a “bottle episode,” “B.A.N.” moves into “concept episode” territory, taking on the gestalt of a public access show about black issues. And as the sole thread between this alternate format and the show’s regular happenings, Brian Tyree Henry (as Alfred “Paperboi” Miles) plays it perfectly.

The humor is niche, to be sure, but it’s also spot-on for those familiar with the genre. It takes on the falsely combative nature of talking head television, while also poking at cultural and identity appropriation. Like the invisible car or black Justin Bieber from other episodes of the show, Atlanta cements its status as newly representative and wholly original with this episode.

Chris Redd in Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping
There aren’t a lot of people who have paid money for a Lonely Island album. There are even fewer who have done it more than once. But that’s who I am. So from the first mention of Popstar, I was already sold. Combine that with the fact that my honors thesis was on documentary filmmaking, including mockumentaries, and you’d think they basically made a movie for me.

This was a midweek, midday movie outing with my sister- one that allowed us to be alone in the theater, and therefore react authentically. Turns out, our authentic reaction was heaving, sobbing laughter for the duration. And the surprise source of many of those laughs was Chris Redd’s Hunter the Hungry, a bombastic and underhanded (or is he? I don’t know!) rapper who joins Connor 4 Real’s tour. I need Redd to go places. There were rumors he’d be joining SNL this year that, sadly, proved to be untrue; let’s fix this, Hollywood? Please?

Dan Soder, Not Special (Comedy Central)
When your favorite comedians recommend someone’s work, listen to them. This is how, in early May, I happened upon Dan Soder. I listened to it for the first time during the intermission of a hockey game, and got caught up enough in the laughs to miss parts of the game. And those who know me recognize that that is a big deal.

This album is comfortable in the best of ways, like a hoodie- a comparison I’d like to think Dan would appreciate. It’s my go-to album when I need a giggle, and anyone who’s been in a car with me over the past six months has been made to listen to it. You can ask, I’ve got references. As someone who loves stories and appreciates their power to bring people together, Dan’s easy conversational style appeals to me. You’ll feel the same. How do I know? Try listening to Not Special, and then seeing how many daily occurrences make you giggle afterward. Guys in tank tops. Abandoned cell phones in cabs. Crying at videos of unlikely animal pairings.

Dave Chappelle monologue, Saturday Night Live (NBC)
I believe my exact words projected to the world via Twitter when I learned that Chappelle would be hosting SNL were “AMMA’S NOT HERE ANYMORE SHE IS DEAD.” After so many years of following Chappelle – yes, even when we lost him to Africa for a bit – it was a dream come true to see him take on Studio 8H (serious question: did they lure him there with the promise of A Tribe Called Quest, or was their appearance part of his terms to do it? Anyone know?).

His monologue had the feel of his standup, which wasn’t a given when you consider the nature of his language and what the FCC tends to allow. It felt unfiltered and true to him, and that tenor was precisely what I needed on the Saturday after a historic and earth-shaking election.The full episode echoed with his frank and critically observational style of writing. I needed his perspective, and I’m so glad that SNL gave him the freedom to provide it in his own way- and I’m so glad that Netflix will be giving him the stage three times in the years ahead. We need you, man.

David S. Pumpkins, Saturday Night Live (NBC)
I can’t explain why this one tickles me as it does. I have no explanation. All I know is that the song was stuck in my head for a solid week, and I laughed harder every time I watched it. And the fact that it was Tom Hanks’ actual Halloween costume? My God.

Hasan Minhaj, Homecoming King
This is one of two live performances that made this list, which is likely remarkable given how much live comedy I consume. And Hasan earned it. The Daily Showcorrespondent crafted an engaging, emotional, and incredibly funny one-man-show talking about his experience as a first generation American. And from the transformation of his relationship with his younger sister, to dismaying experience “dating white” in high school, the full ninety minutes felt intimately familiar. It stuck with me for days. Because while I hear relatively few stories like his, or like mine, they exist in huge numbers- and I love that Minhaj created a companion space for those stories online. If you have the opportunity to see this show, get there. It’s amazing, no matter who you are.

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Josh Gondelman, Physical Whisper (Rooftop Comedy)
I consider myself to be a  reasonably kind person, and Josh exceeds my kindness by an embarrassing measure. And whereas most stereotypes of comedy imply shades of rudeness or even meanness, Josh manages to be wildly funny and profoundly nice at once. Wherever his writing is – Last Week Tonight, Twitter, or a terse email to a nemesis – is a happier place.

Physical Whisper is a pleasure of an album to listen to, touching on the quirks of family members and our friends at fancy events in a way that is so relatable.  As an example, I haven’t been to a wedding where this bit didn’t come to mind since the first time I heard it. So get it, listen to it, love it. It comes on cassette!

Lady Dynamite, “Jack and Diane”- season 1, episode 4 (Netflix)
I’ve written before about why I love what Maria Bamford did with Lady Dynamite. It was something I needed to see this year to deal with my own stuff. And there are so many episodes that caught my attention that could have landed on this list (give “White Trash,” “Bisexual Because of Meth,” and “Mein Ramp” a watch). But I love the episode in question (a) because it explicitly calls out how introverts fake fun at parties, and (b) a relationship ends because someone doesn’t find farts funny. Farts are funny. I’ll carry that opinion to the grave.

In a larger sense, I needed to see Maria Bamford joke about her mental illness for the same reason I and so many other women needed to see Ali Wong joke about infertility. It legitimized humor as a viable way to cope and heal for me, in a way that I desperately needed. And being able to count jokes about my anxiety as part of my hundred, came in large part because of what I saw them do. And going into the year ahead and years to come, I plan to continue laughing through it. Why the hell not, right?

Last Man on Earth, “You’re All Going to Diet” -season 3, episode 3
Last Man on Earth is a quietly hilarious staple of FOX’s Sunday night lineup- but anything that allows the minds of Clone High creators Phil Lord and Chris Miller to run free, I’m on board with. It challenges the viewer by blending legitimate drama and serious topics, with a silliness that allows it to hold its title as a comedy.

This moment, from earlier this fall, brought me to sobbing, gut-cramping tears. Easily my heartiest laugh of the 2016-2017 TV season to date. Like David S. Pumpkins, I couldn’t really explain why if pushed to use my words. But it’s the fact that moments like this can exist on a show that’s about a civilization-ending plague and the loneliness that presents, that forced my hand in adding it to this list (and yes, it was the last one added despite its relative middle positioning). So watch it. Love it. And keep it from getting cancelled because I have terrible luck in that way.

Matthew Broussard, pedantic. (Comedy Central)
I’m smart enough to recognize that most of the jokes that we see on specials or in albums originated long before we see them. And the benefit of a line of work that lets me watch comedians develop, is that you get to celebrate when they get the recognition they rightfully deserve. Whip-smart and wildly talented Matthew Broussard got that this year, and I refuse to stop talking about it.

pedantic. is an accurate portrayal of the Matthew I’ve come to know: self-aware and unapologetic in nerdiness, and yet accessibly hilarious. Yes, he knows that his face makes it a surprising development. But stick with him- you’ll laugh AND most assuredly learn something.

Michael Che, Michael Che Matters (Netflix)
Most people’s Black Friday was dedicated to a hasty return to Stars Hollow. Mine was spent watching this special, more than once. As a longtime SNL fan, this was going to be a must-watch for me regardless, but those only familiar with Che through the Update desk will find something new and hopefully entertaining about his one-hour outing with Netflix. His “Black Lives Matter” and 9/11 joke has gotten all the attention, but I’m a bigger fan of his arc on women taking hats at clubs to dance.

Che’s matter-of-fact delivery and willingness to tackle tough topics is in some ways like his Update stints that come into our home on a weekly basis, and yet there’s an element of freedom from his surroundings that feels palpable as he tackles topics like Jesus’ carpentry record, his desire to be best friends with Donald Trump, and phrases that only white people can say. For me, it was a welcome addition to my go-to stable of standup specials, and I recommend you give it a watch.

The Characters, “Natasha Rothwell” season 1, episode 5 (Netflix)
“Riddle me this! Why are you dressed for the job you have, instead of the job you want?” Tynesha, the precocious kid sent home from school is only one of the fantastic personas that Natasha dons during her half-hour turn on The Characters. Her outspoken and well-read hobo, her cadre of jury duty candidates, and willing girlfriend of “Black Bernie Madoff” Tyson Beckford pack her episode with so many outstanding moments, I can’t even name them all here. Rothwell just got upped to series regular on Insecure, and I can’t wait to see more of her. She may identify as a basic bitch, but I’m fine with it- she’s a genuine joy.

Two Dope Queens podcast (WNYC)
If you’re reading this, Jessica and Phoebe, couple things. Thank you for Two Dope Queens- it’s a welcome refuge for a black female standup geek, which up until you hit the block I was made to believe was on par with being an actual unicorn. Thank you for hitting upon the challenges of my late twenties and early thirties with equal shares of humor and critical truth. Thank you for introducing me to some of my new favorite comedians, and for introducing some of my favorite comedians to the rest of the world. And do you want to hang out when you’re in Boston? We can get nachos and walk around near the water.

I had the opportunity to see Two Dope Queens live in August, and it was such a fun experience. There was a dog there! I laughed so hard! And I got to watch Jordan Carlos crush a set- on the day that he learned of The Nightly Show’s cancellation. As odd as it might sound, that was the best part to see. Eight hours after crushing news, Jordan got onstage and killed it. Blew me away. It was a great reminder of how powerful humor can be- yes, when it’s easy to be funny, but also when it’s hard. Can’t wait to do it again in January!

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt– “Kimmy Goes to a Play!” season 2, episode 3 (Netflix)
I won’t say much more about this one, because I have written about it before. But I bring it up to reinforce the idea that some laughs can be explicitly designed to encourage you to ask questions. What was designed to be a throwaway joke about Aisha Tyler on Friends, thumped me in the chest hard. This conversation ensued (internally):

“Whoa.”

“What’s going on with you?”

“That felt weird.”

“Yeah? Why?”

“Doesn’t feel weird to assume Aisha Tyler was white.”

“Why?”

“Because she isn’t!”

“Yeah, I know. But why would Kimmy have come to that conclusion?”

“Oh, I don’t know, the whole rest of Friends’ run? There weren’t many other black people, so her reasoning was that they must have just assumed she wasn’t”

“Yup. And what was that about, by the way? Where in New York was that even possible?”

“Not now, you’re watching something, remember?” 

As I go into 2017, particularly since the grant work I’ll be doing means I’ll be watching A LOT MORE COMEDY, I plan to engage with it in ways that lean into the challenge of tough jokes. More from the previous post:

I think problematic comedy can be good. Now, unlike the Internet commenter refusing to get to the end, hear me out here. Well crafted jokes, ones not purely out for shock or amateurishly slapped together, can provoke thought and encourage the listener to examine their behavior. A joke that you struggle with is telling you something, whether you’re ready and able to hear it or not. But there are two sides to that process, and that means the listener has to be willing to rumble with it a bit.

Special Commendation: Rogue Island Comedy Festival
This past October, I spent three days in Newport, RI, watching a fantastic and diverse slate of comedians show their best stuff in one of my favorite cities. I would’ve spent four, but I had a thing…never mind. The brainchild of comedians Doug Key and Rob Greene and supported by an incredibly kind and competent support team, RICF attracts top-level local talent while also bringing national acts to a town that doesn’t always get to see them. And frankly, the commendation designation is only because I can’t identify a favorite moment. Too much good to rank! Only in its second year, I can’t wait to see how it’ll continue to grow. Try and get rid of me, guys. I’m just gonna keep coming🙂

Coming next week: this, but with books. Stay tuned!