As Netflix continues to inundate us with a new comedy special every fifteen seconds, I think it isn’t too much to ask that we occasionally get a comedy special that knows it’s a comedy special. And this week we have. In the last year, we’ve gotten both Rory Shovel Tries Stand-Up for the First Time and Joe Mande’s Award-Winning Comedy Special, two incredibly innovative sets from young comedians pushing the boundaries of what a comedy special can be as we understand it. Todd Glass may have the grizzled experience of one of comedy’s distinguished elder statesmen, but he has a young man’s energy—firing off strings of rapid-fire jokes, observations and clarifications so fast that we can hardly keep up.
He also lacks the obstinance of much of the rest of his generation of comics. His new Netflix special Act Happy displays an unprecedented ability to roll with the times. Glass, an openly gay comic, knows what it’s like to stay silent about things he finds unfair, and now refuses to do so. For fifteen years he would refer to a guy as a girl in his sets and watch all the straight couples in the audience have the classic “that’s just like us!” reaction. Glass doesn’t suffer hypocrisy in anyone, and covers PC culture (“Stop with ‘everyone’s so PC.’ It’s just called ‘kind,’ that’s all it is.”) and the Gen X-Millennial divide (“You know who says ‘you can’t say anything anymore?’ Most of the time people with nothing fucking to say.”) with a more than refreshing candor.
The rest of the special is similarly insistent on breaking away from most comedians’ cookie-cutter approach. Glass has been doing this forever (or at least since the ‘80s). Why would he want to just stand on stage, set up pins and then knock them down when he could roll out a whole band to underscore him with the ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic’ whenever he gets preachy, collectively mock him whenever he drops a humblebrag (even about his heart attack) or launch into an improvised number whenever he runs out of things to say? He even has a sidekick he can use as a transparently fake audience participant and physically assault with a bottle. It’s about as far as anyone has pushed the ironic showman approach yet, and it functions as a complete relief for us because all an audience really wants from a comedian is for them to be in control and having fun.
You think that would be the bare minimum one could expect from a special, but watching Act Happy you may realize how infrequently that actually happens. And down to the direction of the camera (one sequence involves a delirious series of angle shifts like something out of the French New Wave) Glass has mastered control by surrendering it. Down to the last second, he is having so much goddamn fun.
Graham Techler is a New York-based writer and actor. Follow him at @grahamtechler.