2013: A year of laughter and wisdom

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By Benjamin Lucas

Last year saw a healthy variety of stand-up talent, including Bill Cosby’s first release in thirty years and new material from Marc Maron, Sarah Silverman, Pete Holmes and countless others. If you’re looking for something funny to ease the stress of settling into winter classes, here are some options.

Louis C.K. – Oh My God­Of the four comedians featured in this article, Louis C.K. is by far the oldest at 48 (with the second-oldest coming in at 35). As such, his tone and material differ radically from those of the others; whereas Birbiglia and Ansari ponder their transition from youth and their trepidation for what they have yet to experience, C.K. is cheerfully and hilariously self-assured in informing us how utterly soul-crushing adulthood can actually be.

His cynicism is earned every step of the way because it comes straight from life experience — it’s the reason he can launch into a tirade about waterboarding a kid in his daughter’s kindergarten class and get the biggest laughs of the night. In his latest, he covers Facebook posts, how to annoy your neighbors, putting on socks and young skinny dudes.

As someone who has spent hours upon hours watching and re-watching every bit of C.K.’s stand-up (I call this “the YouTube effect”), his latest special left me slightly cold. Yes, he’s as brilliant as ever, but this is mostly familiar territory. It’s easy to become so accustomed to one’s style that it becomes predictable; nevertheless, Oh My God is insightful, rich and definitely worth a watch.

Bo Burnham – what.Just like the very songs that launched his career, Bo Burnham has released his new one-man show free of charge on the internet. In three weeks, it has garnered 1.5 million views on YouTube with not a single cent made from ad revenue. I suppose he’ll make up the difference in CD/iTunes sales, but nevertheless, it’s a bold move.

Of the few specials posted here, Burnham’s may be the funniest. His stage persona is spontaneous and his energy infectious as he bounces left and right, utilizing anti-jokes, props, pantomime, voiceover, choreography and song to wring out every possible laugh.

In a way, what. doubles as a deconstruction of these comedic tropes. It questions the triviality of comedy from the start and moves forward with cutting self-awareness. It’s not always trying to be funny, but it certainly always succeeds in being entertaining.

Aziz Ansari – Buried AliveIn his third special, Aziz Ansari steers away from his usual targets (young people, his weird cousin and rappers) and zeroes in on more adult issues — marriage, maturity and parenthood. He examines these issues from the viewpoint of someone who has, ironically, never experienced them. In fact, most of his anecdotes are about how all of his friends are growing up and getting married, which begs the question: where, exactly, does that leave him?

I have no place saying that Ansari lacks the life experience to tackle these issues, but simply put, his perspective pales in comparison to C.K.’s and Birbiglia’s. Here, Ansari demonstrates a desire to dig deeper. He wants to grow as a comedian, which perhaps means ditching easy jabs at the social media generation to focus on something more personal, but unfortunately there isn’t much of value to be taken away from Buried Alive.

I only found this special sporadically funny, and, although I enjoyed his previous specials well enough, Ansari works best when he has someone else playing off of him (resulting in some superb comedy ensemble work on NBC’s Parks and Recreation).

Mike Birbiglia – My Girlfriend’s BoyfriendIn the case of any stand-up special, a comedian will end on the biggest laugh. It’s absolutely necessary to end strong, time your send-off perfectly and give the viewer a glowing impression of every joke that came before. A strong ending can let someone dismiss the occasional botched punch line or clumsy rant.

But the moment My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend fades to black, something magical happens — the auditorium is utterly silent. Not in disinterest, but in awe.

In My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, Birbiglia covers a variety of subjects that fall under a singular, driving narrative — his relationship with a girl named Jenny. Yes, his act is essentially an extended anecdote. But it’s more about a transformation of himself that he manages to not only communicate, but also actively capture in 2013’s most thoughtful routine.

Anyone familiar with Birbiglia knows that his main specialty is examining relationships, which he does here with a healthy dose of dry wit. He starts with the humiliating trappings of adolescent love-seeking and traverses through an evolution of understanding, finally culminating on a note that may have left the room silent, but speaks louder than any send-off I can recall.

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