Joe Mande refuses to die anything less than a fucking legend.
That is, if Joe Mande’s Award-Winning Comedy Special, the debut Netflix special from the comedian and former Parks & Rec writer, is to be believed. From the first moments of the sketch that opens the hour, “Joe Mande” is established as a creature of deep insecurity and fearful ambition (the rap refrain that hypes him up throughout is simply “I’m better than everybody/Shut up!” repeated over and over again). It’s a cockiness Mande feels he must adopt if he is to beat his famous friends, including Nick Kroll, Chelsea Peretti and others, who all drop by to help fuel Mande’s sense of competition (without spoiling anything, another comedy figure kind of makes an appearance, though in an equally fucked up and hilarious way).
Of course, the real-life Mande could give a shit. This special is his way of taking the pretentious fervor surrounding Awards Season and applying it to the world of comedy via the “American Humor Award”—a self-important prize granted only to the best of the best, as past winners Bo Burnham and George Wallace (“the perfect elder statesman,” Mande tells me) advise him early on in the special. In the world Mande’s created, one’s comedic legacy is decided on by a panel of judges, who observe his entire comedy special to see if he bags enough applause breaks to qualify. Even Mande’s intro-within-an-intro will have to impress them—Wallace and Burnham insist that his New York-set introduction must look like every black-and-white New York comedy special intro.
“Over the last few years watching specials, I noticed there was a very familiar routine to it—it’s kind of ironic that they’re called specials,” says Mande. “This isn’t even about material,” he clarifies. “That’s sort of what I’m parodying—it’s just the rhythm and the look of a special. I was trying to differentiate. I think that’s what Rory was trying to do too.”
Mande is speaking of his friend Rory Scovel, who released the similarly reflexive Rory Scovel Tries Stand-Up for the First Time earlier this summer. “It’s two very different versions of the same joke,” laughs Mande. “It’s interesting.” He’s right. The specials are almost two sides of the same coin; Scovel’s is based on the idea of a lack of expertise and what a special might look like from somebody with no idea of what to do, while Mande’s examines extreme expertise, and how someone would approach a comedy special if they knew exactly what they needed to do and had spent their whole life training for their moment to do so. Mostly, both transition from their inventive openings to equally inventive live material, though Mande notes with a verbal shrug that “the sketch element is probably six minutes and I probably spent as much time and effort trying to make sure that all worked just as much as doing an hour of stand-up.”
It’s worth it. Indeed, Award-Winning Comedy Special continues Mande’s run of personal projects with a particularly self-aware streak when it comes to form. His first comedy album BITCHFACE was more of a star-studded comedy mixtape than a traditional album, and his venture into podcasting was held up when Kickstarter initially denied his proposed “budget” of one million dollars. It’s never just as simple as doing a thing, which has historically been very good news for Mande’s audience. This comes naturally from Mande’s own curiosity and what entertains him, though, rather than from any pre-meditated formal agenda project-to-project. “That podcast came about because I was at a party and had a few drinks and was saying like ‘you’d have to pay me a million dollars to do a podcast…’” says Mande. “I think I started making [the Kickstarter] at the party. I’m very cool at a party… Cool guy to hang out with.”
The bulk of the material in Award-Winning Comedy Special similarly plays with our expectations of what stand-up is and how we should be reacting to it. The common formal approach of peppering long-form jokes with short punchlines is turned on its head by Mande, who will either end a bit abruptly, with no warning, or bring it back to pick up where he left off when we’re least expecting it. It’s pleasantly jarring, and keeps the audience on its toes. With stories and perspectives revolving around MTV’s Next, his short-lived experimentation with dick pics and a cringe-worthy experience at a Jewish summer camp, Mande is able to let the audience get a little bit ahead of him only to pull back and reveal how far ahead of them he actually is. And with an extended bit on ISIS, Mande finds himself asking the audience for patience while he tries to drag them onboard with his premise. At one point, Mande freely admits how alone he feels onstage. It’s a refreshing transparency for such a performative medium, but still, Mande is never remotely in danger of dropping the ball.
It’s a quality reminiscent of two of Mande’s storytelling peers. “My jokes, even when I started out, were kind of longer,” says Mande. “And then when I moved to New York I started going on the road with people like [John] Mulaney and Mike Birbiglia, and those are guys who really, in my opinion, have perfected that long-form stand-up. I’ve definitely picked up a couple of things from them just in terms of execution.” Not that you’re likely to see Mulaney or Birbiglia go onstage and gush about the production value in ISIS recruitment videos, as you will with Mande.
That’s a fearlessness that feels at home in a New York special, and Award-Winning Comedy Special is a quintessentially New York affair, even beyond the light roasting it gives the city in its opening. Though Mande is based in L.A., there was never any question that he’d go back to New York to film his set. “I feel like I perform better…in New York,” says Mande, citing both patient audiences and maybe his own youthful ambitions. “Until I was eleven, I grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico,” he recalls. “That’s about as far away as you can be from New York. I would just watch Comedy Central and watch, like, The A-List... and knew, weirdly… ’One day I’m gonna be one of those guys wearing an ugly sweater, performing jokes in New York City.’”
But does the real-life Mande “eat, sleep, shit and fuck comedy” as he memorably claims while studying his own album in the special’s opening? No, actually, and if he did, this special would probably look completely different. “I think that probably was true for me in my early twenties…” says Mande. “That’s not necessarily the case anymore—there’s real life stuff I have now. Especially now when I’m writing comedy for twelve hours a day [for NBC’s The Good Place] I come home and… the last thing I want to do is watch comedy. So I end up watching documentaries about the Cannibal Cop, or whatever. And then that ends up becoming stand-up,” he adds, with another verbal shrug. If it’s this process that nets him the American Humor Award, it sounds like it’s for the best.
Joe Mande’s Award Winning Comedy Special is now available on Netflix.
Graham Techler is a New York-based writer and actor. Follow him at @grahamtechler.