Amazon Prime Video | 53 min | Released: 13 September 2019
On Going Downhill, Neville Shah is jaded. The pattern is established with the very first shot of the special—Shah, slumped on his stool, resting an arm on the mic-stand, speaks of his late mother and how he grew up as an only child to a single mother. He remains seated through the entire set, sacrificing tempo and physical gags for intimacy. The choice is a bold one, but it works in the context of Going Downhill. Here, Shah is a little beaten down, a little weary, a little older. And he’s sitting down to take stock, to narrate tales of his life and the things he’s gone through.
A lot of the material revolves around a pivotal year in Shah’s life, the year he feels he became an ‘adult’. He was 35 when he lost his mother and became an orphan, and also went through a divorce. In a particularly riotous bit, Shah discusses how annoyed he was at not getting the sympathy he felt he deserved over becoming an orphan. How he’s jealous of the sympathy that two-year-olds get when they lose their parents, since he knew his for longer. Stylistically, he builds up tension through personal tales of adversity—instead of sympathy, he was instructed to pay hospital bills after his mother’s passing (a theme carried over from his previous special)—and undercuts it with outlandish jokes at his own expense. It’s a deeply confessional style of storytelling, where he mines personal tragedies for laughs almost matter-of-factly.
The themes he addresses are no doubt difficult to talk about, but the effortless way in which he dissects personal trauma makes it comfortable for viewers, too, to laugh at the comedy that he finds in his own misery.
This is where Shah is at his brightest. The themes he addresses are no doubt difficult to talk about, but the effortless way in which he dissects personal trauma makes it comfortable for viewers, too, to laugh at the comedy that he finds in his own misery. His ease allows us to not feel guilty for laughing.
While there’s an underlying sense of cynicism with just the slightest tinge of hope tying it all together, Shah adopts a series of different characters through the set. The one that sticks out—purely as a comic trope—is that of the cantankerous old man, as he complains about the “youths” and their flighty enthusiasm. He positions himself as that grumpy neighbourhood uncle in these bits, getting exasperated at how young his audience is and talking about how he enjoys calling the cops to bust parties on New Year’s Eve. Telling a young 20-something in the crowd that his career ambitions will remain unfulfilled. There’s even a whole section on the Y2K panic of 20 years ago, and his disappointment when it all turned out to be a damp squib.
He’s also, at several points, a young man unable to grapple with the burdens of losing not just a loved one but also a security net. Dealing with everyday life and how he struggles with filling out water bottles mindlessly. The complicated logistics of divorce and how the entire system works in a way to nudge an unhappy couple to stay together. These are subtle shifts but they add some necessary dynamism to a set that could easily turn into a one-note narrative without it.
A third character he pivots to is of a sagely old soul dishing out life advice. Shah spends a considerable time detailing his own battle with depression, which coincided with his divorce, and his reluctance to seek help. The role of therapy is discussed at length, and we learn how it has helped him understand himself better. Of course, he extracts plenty of laughs from the situation, but this is where he’s at his most earnest and, dare I say it, positive. He extolls the virtues of therapy, and treads these tricky waters with a fair amount of sensitivity. Shah is without doubt a skilled storyteller, and it’s in these moments of blunt vulnerability that Going Downhill shines.
It’s not perfect, and there are points where it falters. Like his insistence on employing throwaway one-liners or doing the odd generic gag or format joke for cheap laughs. The whole thing takes a while to get going—with a somewhat unmemorable early section on Parsi culture—which is perhaps understandable given that he’s going for a very specific, low-energy, conversational tone. That tone, though, helps support the material on Going Downhill, coming together to create a thoughtful and mature performance.
Going Downhill is streaming now on Amazon Prime Video.