The half-hour special is a tricky middle ground for comedians. A half-hour set at a live show—low-stakes, relaxed atmosphere—makes perfect sense. That’s about the length of time I’d want to watch anyone perform. When that set is filmed and presented to a wide audience and positioned as a primer on and introduction to who this person is, the balancing act becomes more complicated, and the brevity of the form needs to be handled with care. For better and for worse, Joe List does not waste any time letting us know what he’s about for his episode of Netflix’s The Standups.
List’s biggest strength in this special is his ability to map his adult anxiety onto his childhood stories in a way that feels fresh, whether he’s threatening to sue his doctors after dental surgery (“I’m going to own this hospital. You can’t take a child’s teeth”), or trying to navigate the humiliation of his classmates attacking his Milhouse-esque flood pants.
This leads to some really inspired moments early on. List mines the cruelty of his childhood bullies taking on a surprisingly articulate shape. Take their breakdown of what they mean by making fun (literally, making fun) of List: “you’re not fun, so we’re creating fun using your face, body, personality and pant legs.”
The half-hour almost functions as an exercise in sadomasochism, with the entire middle act dedicated to List’s misadventures at the gym, taking potshots at the massive guys who’ve made it their domain (“’I like a guy with a sense of humor and a big, thick neck,’ no woman ever says”), but generally keeping everything at his expense. However, by the time he’s comparing switching off reps with a huge guy to watching someone else have sex with his girlfriend, the aw-shucks nerdy guy approach begins to wear a little thin.
Listen, I enjoy self-deprecation as much as the next guy. Watch: I have a bad haircut and every time I try to fix it, it gets worse. And I far prefer a beta male approach to a genuine alpha male approach, but when List returns to the childhood anxiety approach by the end of the special, it’s kind of a relief.
I also get that it’s unfair to judge a special based on the persona a comedian has carved out for themselves, rather than what they do with that persona. I hope I’m not doing that. But I do think it’s noticeable when that approach shifts only marginally in a half-hour. And while that distracts here, it doesn’t mean I don’t look forward to the full hour from List that is undoubtedly around the bend.
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.