Capturing the intimacy of a live comedy show on screen is a difficult task. Most comedians shoot their hour-longs in large theaters or even stadiums—spaces that feel bold and cinematic. The belief seems to be that in order for standup to perform on the screen, the typically stripped-down aesthetic of a live comedy show needs to be upgraded into something spectacular. We go to a live comedy show expecting community and a laid-back good time, but that environment often gets lost when the cameras start rolling. Every new special Aziz Ansari puts out gets increasingly glitzier. Sarah Silverman, however, went against the script for her 2013 HBO special, We Are Miracles, which she shot in front of an audience of just 39 fans, resulting in a distinctive, cozy allure.
Comedy Central’s The Meltdown With Jonah And Kumail similarly tries to capture the infectious charm of the live comedy scene, focusing in on the camaraderie of the comedy club. For four years, Kumail Nanjiani and Jonah Ray have hosted a live stand-up show in the NerdMelt Showroom in Los Angeles. Every Wednesday night, a blend of L.A. locals and out-of-towners file into the small, dark room in the back of Meltdown Comics for a night of comedy crafted by consistently great lineups.
Now, that very same show is a TV series. Meltdown resists refurbishing the minimalistic aesthetic its live show has been known for, creating the same kind of intimacy Silverman harnessed. With the exception of some hanging lights, the space looks just about the same as it does when there aren’t any cameras shooting. The audience shots aren’t sweeping or distant; they’re up-close and personal. Ray and Nanjiani open with conversational but hilarious crowd work, which they return to between acts, making the audience, in a way, its own character.
But what about the comedy? To be honest, it’s lukewarm in this premiere. As hosts, Nanjiani and Ray face the challenge of needing to be good enough to provide a backbone, but not so good that they entirely overshadow the lineup. In the pilot, they teeter over into the latter. Nanjiani in particular lands his improvisations, and some of his unrehearsed quips outshine the prepared acts.
Those acts are supplied by David Koechner, Steve Agee, Neal Brennan, and Moshe Kasher, none of whom quite match the frenetic energy of their hosts. Agee does a confusing, drawn out bit about pot, soup, and Annie Potts. Koechner tells an OK story that lacks punchlines. Sure, they’ve only got a few minutes to dazzle, but the fact that their sets are so succinctly summarizable is pretty indicative of how one-note they are.
Brennan delivers the tightest set of the bunch. In a backstage shot, he explains that he’ll have three microphones: one for regular bits, one for one-liner quick bits, and one for true, emotional material. What I initially mistook for greenroom snark ends up being the truth: Brennan bounces between mics in a completely self-aware performance that breaks from the conservative nature of the other sets. He’s bombing on purpose, and it works because it’s wacky and weird—exactly the vibe that Meltdown should be going for. This is, after all, a show that takes place in a comic book store. Kasher similarly goes conceptual with a fellow comedian planted as a fake heckler, and while it’s not quite as hilarious as Brennan’s setup, it’s specific and distinct comedy that evokes the oddball voice of Comedy Bang! Bang!
Meltdown sketches a comedy scene that’s somehow underground and mainstream all at once, and that’s certainly a balance that can work, but this first lineup feels awkwardly detached from the inclusive comedy community the series is trying to both capture and appeal to. It’s hard to overlook the fact that the lineup boasts four white dudes, and even though future episodes promise a more diverse mix of comedians, that matters. Everything about Meltdown’s aesthetics declares that it wants to be unconventional, but its initial lineup is homogenous and unsurprising, and those details are inextricable from the pilot’s comedic shortcomings.
As Silverman proved with We Are Miracles, closeness can make standup more approachable and fun. The Meltdown With Jonah And Kumail comparably throws away the artificiality of the comedy-on-television experience by authentically looking at the L.A. comedy scene in a way that only podcasts have really probed before. While that’s certainly fascinating, it’s not enough to overcome the pilot’s scarcity of big laughs. And the pilot’s very white, entirely male makeup just contorts a series that should feel fresh into something a little too run-of-the-mill.
I know I’m still fairly new to the TV Club, but is anyone really surprised I ended on a call for #MoreLadies? Because you shouldn’t be.
Speaking of ladies, can we get some more Emily V. Gordon up in here? She’s delightful and also largely responsible for the live show’s success through the years.
What are you doing here, Adam Scott? No really. Like any normal warm-blooded human person, I’m a Scott fan, but the bit they drag him out for is awkward and boring.
For the record, my first crush was on either Alexa Vega’s character in Spy Kids or Carla Gugino’s character in Spy Kids. If I had to go with someone animated like Jonah and Kumail do though, it was probably Kocoum, and I’ll never understand why Pocahontas chose the very basic (and ahistorical rendering of) John Smith over him.