Being a comedian isn’t easy these days. That’s a bit of an obvious statement, but it bears repeating in light of comedian Jessica Watkins’ new documentary SPECIALish. The Nashville-born performer recognizes the need for comics to have some sort of edge to distinguish themselves from the rest of the pack. The fact that she decided her schtick would be walking across the United States—an arduous trek that reportedly goes unfinished by about half of the people who start it—speaks to the all-or-nothing mindset needed to pursue comedy.
Watkins documented her long, meandering journey for SPECIALish, beautifully integrating stand up and self-exploration. A talking head of herself and a comedy set from 2017 serve as the narration for clips from her 2014 transcontinental trip. The expedition proves anything but straightforward, in both the literal and figurative senses. Watkins’ trajectory is diverted several times due to the birth of her nephew and family illness, and the idea of quitting isn’t far from her mind.
As for her inner journey, Watkins ostensibly embarks across America with the intention of putting herself on the map comedically. She imagines herself having personal revelations while improving her comedy—she performs stand up in a hodgepodge of venues across the country—but even her personal growth surprises her in its complex, nonlinear course.
Over and over again people express well-meant but occasionally condescending concern for Watkins as a woman traveling alone, with one shock jock throwing around a raped-and-murdered joke awfully casually during a radio interview she does on the road. This threat of danger brought Watkins back to her own past as a survivor of sexual assault in her teenage years. Some of SPECIALish’s most memorable, if painful, moments come from Watkins exploring her own personal experiences while she traverses unfamiliar geographic territory.
While she relies on the kindness of strangers and her family during the trip (her chain smoking mother accompanies her for a hilarious stretch in Arkansas), this is really a story about Watkins finding something—strength, resilience, peace-of-mind—on her own. The comedian wrote, directed and produced the entire documentary herself with a deft, if occasionally heavy, hand. Some moments that feel like they should be shown and not told, whether through interviews with other people or clips of Watkins on the road, but are instead relayed from the relatively sanitized backdrop of her talking head. In general, though, Watkins succeeds as a storyteller, whether she’s doing it from behind a camera or a mic.
Currently when you Google Watkins’ name, the results are flooded with links to an astronaut or an Ohio woman who participated in the Capitol Hill insurrection. SPECIALish should convince comedy lovers, if not the algorithm, that that should change.
Clare Martin is a cemetery enthusiast, Hibernophile and contributing writer for Paste’s music and comedy sections. She also exercises her love for reality TV at HelloGiggles every now and then. Go harass her on Twitter @theclaremartin.