Chris Fleming has long been a fairly niche figure. He began uploading YouTube videos more than a decade ago, gaining attention for his series Gayle, which followed a deranged Yanni- and couscous-obsessed housewife through the trials and tribulations of her suburban Massachusetts milieu. But his esoteric style has always had at least some universality; his most famous bit probably is the oh-so-relatable “Company Is Coming.” Fleming has steadily grown a larger audience as his work has only grown more surreal. So in that sense, HELL, his special that hits Peacock on August 18, caps the alt-comedian’s deserved climb to the next echelon.
Luckily, Fleming has not jettisoned any of the flair that has made him a star among, as he says, “theater people who don’t get cast.” Taking to the stage dressed like “the woman who judges the parade,” Fleming moves through topics with lightning speed. The first five minutes alone riff on parades, Bruce Springsteen and Barack Obama’s podcast, and drivers of Nissan Cubes. The effect is pleasantly disorienting, and immediately breaks down whatever protective wall the audience had up. You don’t know where Fleming is about to take you, but you’re forced to trust him as your tour guide through, effectively, the suburban New Englander’s psyche.
A lot of comedians come from Boston; sometimes, it feels like there are more from Boston than anywhere else. But Fleming’s comedy feels distinctly, broadly Massachusetts. There are the requisite jokes about an Irish Catholic going to therapy, sure, but Fleming’s reflections on his childhood reveal the mundanities of growing up on a cul-de-sac raised by parents who went to Smith or Middlebury or Vassar. At one point, Fleming displays an image of a pair of knit coffee-table gnomes, opining, “There’s not much to say about these guys,” before launching into a several-minute episode about his aunt interrogating him on middle-school promiscuity. The connections between topics are somewhat tenuous (and may only make complete sense to Fleming) but they give the appearance of free association. And basically, we get a front-row seat to this suburban Irish-Catholic therapy session.
Much of the set’s success is owed to Fleming’s physicality. The comedian is well aware of how bizarre his own body is, offering it up for a slightly nightmarish sight gag in the opening minutes when he vocally compares himself to a horse. The horse metaphor is earned; he does prance, kind of a lot. He does momentarily fashion himself a feedbag from an audience member’s purse. But Fleming is more than a human horse (which, it must be said, is different from a centaur). In moments, his face seems to be made of pure elastic, contorting into Seuss-esque grins and the wide-eyedness of a Very Hungry Caterpillar. Fleming has the uncanny knack of making you read his face in his voice; he can communicate precisely without saying a word.
When Fleming isn’t speaking or miming, he’s occasionally singing. Pseudo-musical theater numbers have long been part of his act. When I saw him in 2018, he performed the famous Subaru song and debuted the Grad Student Shuffle. In HELL, we’re treated to two new songs: one about hat-wearing parents who can’t control their children or pets, another about what to spend a child’s allowance on. These aren’t Rachel Bloom-type productions; Fleming’s songs are largely arhythmic and atonal, as if he’s trying to race his musicians. They feed into the same stream-of-consciousness vibe that the rest of HELL benefits from.
If there is one gripe to be had, it’s the sketches. Sketches have become a frankly obnoxious trend in stand-up specials in recent years; John Early’s otherwise excellent Now More Than Ever ground to a halt every time he cut to a pre-recorded backstage sketch. Fleming, at least, has more of a reason, as he is primarily known for his YouTube videos. But comedy is about timing, and every time we go somewhere else, even if that somewhere else yields some laughs, you’re forced to warm back up to what’s going on onstage. And while the rest of the show has a rawness to it, the polish of these bits feels out of step.
Ultimately, these tensions feel like natural growing pains from a comedian taking the leap from niche internet celebrity to potential mainstream entertainer. In any case, Fleming has grown into a master of his craft. The skill required to produce an hour of work that feels off-the-cuff is tremendous. HELL is like watching the victory lap of a comic who has worked hard to find his lane. And god willing, the next decade will have a lot more Chris Fleming.
Chris Fleming: HELL premieres August 18 on Peacock