Mash Up premieres tonight on Comedy Central at 12:30 a.m. Eastern
That previous sentence isn’t entirely accurate. This isn’t the “première” of Mash Up, per se. Back in March of 2011, host T.J. Miller and director Jordan Vogt-Roberts filmed a one-off special with the same name, featuring some of the best comics out there who also happened to share Chicago roots: Kyle Kinane, Kumail Nanjiani, Matt Braunger, and Hannibal Buress. It was going to be turned into a series, at some point, or so I was told. Then it vanished.
Thankfully, Mash Up is back. The elements are largely the same. The show still blends stand-up comedy with dramatizations, where the comedians act out the bits they’re telling. The show includes segments that are actual mash-ups of two or three words, like in episode two when the stand-ups demonstrate what “S.W.A.T.-O-Tune” might look like. Then there’s some weird stuff, like “seven people trying sexily to watch a penguin.” The formula remains similar to that first special, and like I pointed out then, it’s a welcome departure from the boring ol’ half-hour specials Comedy Central usually does (now simply called The Half Hour), where literally the only difference between episodes, other than the comic him/herself, is the color of font they use to display the comic’s name.
But this Mash Up is a more refined vision; the time the show spent on the back burner is, evidently, time well spent. The blend of pure stand-up and the video footage realizing the bits is much stronger, and in most cases enhances the words that are spoken. Routines that I’ve heard before take on a whole new light: Buress kicks off the first episode with his joke about stealing a bike locked to itself and throwing it into the water. That joke is a few years old at this point, but it’s refreshing to see Buress throw an actual bike into a kiddie pool and dance around with such unbridled joy. In the second episode, airing next week, Deon Cole talks about the time somebody punched him by bashing him over the head. Then we get to see the incident acted out, on repeat, each time building humor by the sheer surprise on Cole’s face. On Mash Up, stand-up is as much a visual medium as it is an aural one (though not to say that, you know, seeing the performer isn’t always a virtue).
It’s also an egalitarian one. Each episode of Mash Up has a few minutes from Miller, then two comedians, each given equal time. Buress and Jared Logan start the show off, then in the second episode Cole is joined by Chris Hardwick. Arguably, Buress is the more famous stand-up, and Hardwick is the bigger general personality, but I never get the sense that Mash Up cares. The show simply wants funny comedians, and once you’re chosen to be on the show, you’re treated as the equal of whoever else is on the lineup. Future episodes feature other rising stars like Pete Holmes as well as relative unknowns like Sean Flannery and CJ Sullivan. And I have no doubt they’ll be given equal treatment. There’s enough bullshit in the comedy world, where agents and managers get involved with the politics of who goes on first, how much time they do, how they are billed, etc. I don’t get the feeling Mash Up cares. The comedy comes first.
As for the sketches on the show, their success rate is a bit more subjective. The idea to do the word mash-ups is a heady concept, but the execution is relaxed and enjoyable. The first episode, does a triple: Bad Boys II Men In Black, and the song that follows is just a burst of high-minded silliness. Others, like watching a woman try to be sexy in front of a wind machine that’s set too high, are fully fleshed-out jokes played out in front of the camera. None of these sketches run too long, but I can imagine that the change in rhythm could be jarring. Stand-up is obviously setup, followed by punchline; these sketches are the kind you’d find on web videos, where leading with the punchline is the door through which the audience has to walk.
Mash Up is refreshing for exactly that reason. It takes the rhythm and politics of stand-up, and messes with both—finding ways to tinker with something that, for most, cannot be tinkered with. It’s not a wildly divergent vision, but it’s a step in the evolution of televised stand-up, opening it up to audiences at home in a way that typically only live shows could. Plus, any show that reference-checks Street Fighter II is a-okay in my book.