HBO Max gorges itself on stand-up this week, releasing four specials at once today. The best of the bunch comes to us from Beth Stelling, which is no surprise. She’s been one of the funniest comedians around for years, and on Girl Daddy she’s as good as ever.
Stelling’s sets are lean and sharp, even when she’s expounding on a single topic or story for minutes on end. She peppers her observations with pointed one-liners that often twist in unexpected directions, or that quickly reframe a familiar premise in an original and keenly observed new light. How many times have you heard a comedian talk about the differences between how men and women view sex? Yeah, that’s like Stand-up Stereotype #1, something so thoroughly stripmined by decades of comedians that it almost feels like an act of genius when Stelling is able to put her own personal stamp on it.
She tackles the #MeToo movement by calling out male comics who still don’t get it, including an unnamed one who debated it with her on a podcast episode that was ultimately never released. You would hope that this would be another example of Stelling personalizing common stand-up topics, but in an indictment of this whole damn medium there still hasn’t been much of a widespread reckoning about sexual misconduct in comedy. (People can talk about “cancel culture” but Louis C.K. is still putting out new specials and playing shows with Michelle Wolf and Sarah Silverman, among others.) Stelling calls out the pathetic anger and fragility of male comics who spout hackneyed jokes about needing “paperwork” to have sex now, in the process proving that she’s funnier, smarter, and more honest than all of them with a final punchline that targets the entire justice system instead of individual aggressors. And she does it all in her typically disarming way, in a relaxed, conversational tone that never feels scripted or overly rehearsed.
When you’ve been following an artist for years you like to look for signs of growth. Not necessarily “maturation,” which can be a double-edged sword in comedy (as in other disciplines), but proof that their experience has impacted their work in some way, whether that means making it more thoughtful, or nuanced, or complex, or even just slicker and more smoothly delivered. I mean this as a compliment when I say that Stelling hasn’t grown much, simply because, by the time she debuted on the national scene, she didn’t need to grow at all. She was a fully formed, well-rounded comedian by the time she released her first album, and has remained consistently great over her follow-up album and her two half-hour specials for Comedy Central and Netflix. Girl Daddy is the latest example of why she’s one of the best around, able to put a personal and hilarious spin on universal insecurities and indignities.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, music, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.