There’s really not much to say at this point. It’s not just that Marlon Wayans spends a significant amount of time in Woke-ish—his new Netflix special—telling us how he feels bad for the Kardashians for having to accept Caitlyn Jenner (“I haven’t seen a white chick that ugly since—” insert White Chicks pat-on-the-back here), or doing a torturously long impression of Gay MLK, because apparently what gay people need is a civil rights leader (a premise so dumb and poorly thought-out that it’s not worth lingering on), or being so panicky that having someone eat him out will make him gay that he asks to be fellated until he’s straight again. That actually happens.
Nope, it’s that he wraps it all in a bizarre overarching narrative about him trying to become a more aware, ‘woke’ person, and how we should all be very patient and respectful with how difficult that is for him. Then there’s the usual stuff about how free speech is our most important right, and we need to respect our comedians for exercising it in whatever ridiculous way will make them feel edgy again. Believe me, I’m as bored writing this again as I was watching it again.
It’s even more of a shame when we reach the middle-third of the special, a genuinely incisive chunk of material revolving around the realities of being black in America, responding to Obama’s election, and having to teach your children about interacting with the police. The salient points that make up the only effectively satirical portion of the special just can’t thrive when they’re packaged in something that’s otherwise so juvenile and mean-spirited.
And again, it seems hopeless to try and assert at this point that there’s actually a big difference between being ‘mean’ and being ‘mean-spirited,’ especially in comedy. Being mean is incredibly fun, for both the performer and the audience. It’s awesome. Everyone knows that. Being mean-spirited involves being so off-base in your assessment of yourself and your target that beyond looking like a douchebag, you also appear out of control of your material. If you don’t care about looking like a douchebag, you should at least care about this.
Wayans begins the special bringing up his admiration for artists like Jay-Z, who have matured with age and found a way to make their art reflect their own growth. I think Wayans thinks he’s doing that by sharing stories like one about his daughter telling him she kissed a girl—a story he might genuinely believe is about a brave father putting aside his discomfort in order to make his daughter feel (kind of) welcome, and not a story about a teenager having to admit something very vulnerable to her repressed dad. It is insane that Wayans can call himself brave for sticking up for his daughter’s right to be different when he’s spent the rest of the special shitting on everyone else for being different. “You do you,” he says of gay people. “Just don’t do me!” Whatever, Marlon.
knows how to take a risk just as much as it knows how to fall back on name recognition, so I don’t see any particular reason why this special couldn’t have gone to Patti Harrison or Julio Torres. Why they couldn’t have just chucked another special at the Lucas Bros. Why not give it to Joel Kim Booster? Why not give it to Kate Berlant? And while I do look forward to tomorrow’s emails encouraging me to take a joke, I’d ask their senders to consider: when was the last time you looked—really went out of your way to look—for a better one?
Graham Techler is a New York-based writer and actor. Follow him at @grahamtechler.