Comedians proved that they could find ways to survive and even thrive amidst a global pandemic last year, but 2021 was a serious test of their resolve. Would that can-do spirit wilt in the face of a second year of lockdowns and restrictions? How would comedians experiment and push the art form forward if they couldn’t go back on stage?
But comedians not only managed to innovate during the lockdown, they were often inspired by it. Some drew on these experiences to innovate, while others kept on keeping on, making the of the restrictions by creating new formats with which to entertain their fans. So to mark the end of 2021, we’ve collected seven of our favourite experiments in comedy over the last year. Here goes, in no particular order.
1. Bo Burnham – Inside
Bo Burnham turned the comedy world on its head in 2021. In meticulously crafted sketches, Burnham nimbly juggles everything from a camera to disco balls, documenting his lockdown-fuelled mania, and the effects that endless hours of free time and a big imagination can have on an artist’s creative conscience. Untamed and unchecked, Burnham portrays the struggle to make meaningful work at a time when we are flooded with a mind-numbingly endless stream of content on our phones.
Inside has undoubtedly taken comedy to new places, so much so that whether the one-hour piece is a standup comedy special or not is aggressively debated. What isn’t up for debate though is that Inside is a groundbreaking venture into the cinematic arena for live-action comedy performances.
2. Tig Notaro – Drawn
This year, Tig Notaro released the first-ever stand up special to be completely animated. Comedy Central experimented with (rather clunky) cartoon accompaniments to standup bits back in 2013, and podcasts like The Ricky Gervais Show and King And The Sting have used animated shorts, but nobody’s really gone full-cartoon before.
With the help of animation studio Six Point Harness, Notaro complements each bit with a distinct animation style. Notaro was hands on with the studio and involved in everything from minor visual details to novel insights into her own character. Animations colour in the comedian’s meandering anecdotes, and then transition to cartoon-Notaro’s performance on stage, working a caricaturised crowd of audience members. It’s a compelling visual and comedic feast. And with the freedom that the animated medium provides, the possibilities of this new format seem endless.
3. Keaton Patti – Written Entirely By Bots
Keaton Patti went viral on Twitter In 2018 after sharing what he claimed was standup comedy material written by a bot, which he had forced to watch 1000 hours of comedy. In 2021 Patti upped the ante, deciding to bring the AI standup comedian to life for the Netflix Is A Joke comedy festival.
By the time The First Stand-Up Comedy Special Written Entirely By Bots was shot, Patti’s bot has been forced to watch 400,000 hours of standup (or 45 years in case you were wondering) and sent on stage to deliver the best jokes machine learning has to offer. Of course, this is all part of the act—and it is in fact Patti writing the jokes—but the unique and exaggerated premise proves to be a great setup. Patti’s bot is extremely accurate in identifying comedic tropes but fails to evolve past them (as we would expect an AI bot to do). Instead, the bot cracks disjointed jokes based on an imprecise understanding of the mechanics of humour. Patti has gone on to make a series of ‘Written Entirely By Bots’ videos for Netflix parodying romcoms, horror movies, stoner flicks and holiday films. A must-watch for anyone worried about an i, robot-style apocalypse.
4. Vir Das – Ten On Ten
Vir Das is a household name when it comes to standup comedy in India. But this year, Das also made some major waves on the global front. Das’ nomination for an International Emmy (a first for Indian comedy) was a major factor, but it was his work in Ten On Ten that caught the eye of many international publications and comedy insiders.
With Ten On Ten Das turned away from the standard comedy special format, releasing videos in chunks of 10 minutes each. Das’ new brand of guerrilla comedy was shot with a socially distanced crowd, spread out across a clearing at an undisclosed location in a forest in Goa. Das addressed some of the most pressing issues in India, even stating that he was done playing by the rules: “I’m going to effectively try to end my career.”
The series (watch here) features Das speaking about religion, freedom of speech, privilege, death and cancel culture. The comic’s controversial bits have earned a wide range of reactions including anger for transphobic jokes for which the comedian has apologised, saying “I did a joke… that my friends in the Trans community felt hurt by. I see why… Articulating my intent effectively is my responsibility, not yours.”
5. Biswa Kalyan Rath – Simple Maths/Biswa Maths Aadmi
Biswa Kalyan Rath spent the year evolving from mast aadmi to maths aadmi. 10 months ago, Rath premiered the first episode of a new YouTube show dedicated entirely to mathematics, streaming six solid episodes before the series sort of trailed off.
There are other comedians out there who have performed bits about maths teachers, their problems with maths, and even about maths problems, but nobody’s really tried to use their comedic prowess to make maths fun before. The comedian proves adept, not only at simplifying a challenging subject but also at gauging the attention span of his comedian-pupils and keeping them tuned in. To be fair, everyone who joins the stream seems more than happy to be dragged deep down into the mast aadmi’s maths rabbit-hole. No pretentions here!
6. Dan Ilic – JokeKeeper: Shaming Australia’s Climate Inaction
Recently, comedian and climate activist Dan Ilic launched a crowdfunding project to buy to billboard spaces for satirical messages about Australia’s dismal climate policy during the recent COP26 conference. Immediate contributions proved that Australians were ready to put their money where their mouth is, at least when it comes to opposition to the country’s environmental policies.
Ilic hoped to raise $12,500 to fund the project but ended up amassing a staggering $230,000. The comedian used the money to buy three billboard spaces in Glasgow—including one on the highway leading to the COP26 conference venue—and 10 minutes of screen time on Times Square’s biggest billboard, aptly named Godzilla. Ilic believes that along with the pressure mounting in Australia, the Times Square billboard forced Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison to attend the COP26. Using comedy and satire as a tool for positive change is an innovation we can wholeheartedly get behind.
7. Jambb – Non-Fungible Jokin’
All right, settle down crypto-bros. We know we can’t make a list of comedy innovations without mentioning NFTs (here’s Tanmay and Ujjwal Ankur explaining NFTs, for those still as confused as we are). Back in July, digital comedy collectibles startup Jambb organised the first comedy show to be minted into NFTs. The show spanned two days and featured comedians Maria Bamford, Beth Stelling, Adam Ray, Ian Edwards, Brooks Wheelan, Pete Holmes, Chauntè Wayans and Zainab Johnson.
Jambb’s goal was to mint as much of the show as possible, giving collectors the chance to pick up unique bits from a show, whether from the performance or backstage and greenroom content. The startup also gave buyers of Non-Fungible Jokin’ tokens the ability to display their tokens in restricted access galleries requiring pay-per-view entry with a royalty cut going to the comics. Basically, collectors can now make you cough up a couple extra bucks to see your favourite comedian battle with performance anxiety-related sweat pits before heading on to stage. Hooray for late capitalism!
Special Mention: Sumit Sourav – Play My Playlist Sumit
This is cheating a bit, since Play My Playlist Sumit technically started in August last year, but it thoroughly deserves the nod. On this YouTube stream, Sourav hosts a panel of comedians, each whom have shared a secret playlist with him on one topic (zeher songs being the go-to topic this season). One song is played at random and the panelists then vote on whose playlist the song is from. If you guess correctly, you get points, and if you get it wrong, the person you just slandered gets the points.
The strategies in the game are endless, and emotions range from coy to accusatory to a stone cold poker face à la Rohan Joshi. Others try to manipulate their fellow panelists, with Shashwat Maheshwari’s tactics a topic of great debate in the comments and Kenny Sebastian proving to be a bluffmaster. This is a great game of cat and mouse, easy to pick up, that leads to endless banter.