I’ll admit these terms have been used to death at this point, but it’s worth noting up top the degree to which Contrarian, D.L. Hughley’s new special for Netflix, is a stark example of how a special can succeed when it ‘punches up’ and fail when it ‘punches down.’
Hughley excels at the kind of casual, cocktail party topical humor and mostly genial—though occasionally dark—family stories with a bite, both of which would make him an outstanding host in an otherwise conventional late night format. Not to mention he looks amazing in a suit. But he’s got charisma enough to hold court with a relatively light touch, right down to the whiskey he gently sips throughout the night.
He mostly applies that charm in order to disarm you as he suddenly rattles off a bunch of hard numbers and punctures an unfair belief—contrasting Colin Kaepernick’s protest and Robert E. Lee’s, or giving the audience a sobering reminder that he teaches his children to fear the police and not respect them. He effortlessly rallies the audience with his take on Black Panther—“black people went for inspiration, white people went for information.” Unfortunately, this is another special that is hurt by how fast the news cycle is these days, which makes topical comedy have a shorter shelf life than ever before. Jokes on the Delta scandal filmed one month and released months and months after that feel instantly dated, which isn’t the special’s fault, but still makes an impact.
More unfortunately, Hughley is just as quick to make easy jokes at the expense of others, diving back into that reliable well of underdog comedy: jokes about how trans women are in denial about some thing or another. “You can call yourself a woman,” says Hughley, “but eventually a doctor’s going to call and tell you you need a prostate examination.” I might find that distasteful and you might not, but when Hughley explicitly expresses a little bafflement at the idea that you can self-identify as something, even if Hughley can “see” that you’re not that thing, and he has to agree with you, it’s an inherently condescending position to take, which is a bad look. I’m glad he moves on from this quickly, but it’s rendered even glibber and grosser as a result.
Even if you’re inclined to write this kind of stuff off if the joke is funny enough, I don’t think that applies here. Hughley’s best material extends from an airtight argument that speaks truth to power. That is the foundation that allows it to be funny. Even material that isn’t as strong (there are a lot of puns, like “ISIS” and UsIS”) works in his hands because it’s built on that same foundation. You’re left wishing he applied his wit and confidence to defend everyone instead of offending some of the most marginalized members of society.
Graham Techler is a New York-based writer and comedian. You’d be doing him a real solid by following him on Twitter @grahamtechler or on Instagram @obvious_new_yorker. A real solid.