Meta Comedy Goes Soft (Kind of) (for the Better) with John Early & Kate Berlant, Joel Kim Booster, and Marcel the Shell

Baked in the very DNA of comedy is a mechanism to question that which is largely taken for granted, especially when it shouldn’t be.

As such, comedy can self-regulate as an art form as it is ready, at a tweet’s notice, to make fun itself if any mode of it becomes too commonplace or popular. Getting “meta” in comedy, (i.e. doing comedy about comedy), can serve this purpose and make sure that prevent too many comedians sounding like Seinfeld or skewer edgelord, free-speech-defending comedians that love wheeling-and-dealing with shock or calling out clapter-seeking comedy for being more “brave” than funny.

All that said, the comedic examination of comedy can do more than just satirize form’s well-worn tropes and archetypes. John Early & Kate Berlant’s Peacock special, Would It Kill You to Laugh?, Joel Kim Booster’s Netflix hour, Psychosexual, and the feature length Marcel the Shell with Shoes On film are all amazing displays where examining comedy can actually enlighten and even provide an emotional gravity on top of being so damn funny.

Psychosexual specifically takes on a certain establishment of comedy for a greater truth on top of laughs. Joel Kim Booster examines the concept of identity and the responsibility and reception of jokes depending on who is telling them and who is listening. This comes in opposition to simply having a devil-may-care attitude about it, which has been a prevailing attitude amongst stand-ups for decades. Booster specifically takes a pit stop during his hour special to check in with the crowd, especially one lone straight, cis-white man and how he feels about the various intersectional-ities (i.e. being boisterously queer, Asian, adopted, bipolar, and a comedian) that Booster plays with. Even knowing that this one guy is having a good time and being a good sport, Joel genuinely engages with him to see where he might feel marginalized, depending on how queer or how blue Joel jokes gets. The notion of a single comedian being representative of an entire community of any kind gets turned on its head with satirically putting that responsibility on the audience. The greater truth that Booster so cleverly gets to is that there is no single monolith to any identity and true inclusion means not invalidating someone’s experience no matter what your bias may be.

Alternatively, John & Kate present a collection of deftly crafted sketches with a narrative through line making fun of self-mythologizing as a comedian. Would It Kill You to Laugh? is presented somewhat as a some exclusive primetime TV event that reunites John Early and Kate Berlant, in conversation, after being an internationally renowned comedy duo made famous with a long running 90s network sitcom only to lead to a tragic estrangement lasting several years. Early and Berlant take on all the traditional trappings of comedy success and how they can potentially lead to a unwieldy ego, especially if the comedy that made you famous hasn’t aged so well (their fictional sitcom was called He’s Gay, She’s Half-Jewish playing up every single stereotype they could possibly think of). The precision of John and Kate’s observations on comedy through their looking back at their ridiculous fictional careers make the special a mischievous delight, but shows a path forward for the art form with making sure it never takes itself too seriously no matter what. They even go so far to skewer their own efforts in Would It Kill You To Laugh? with some off-screen narration of scene directions that, in a way, check themselves from getting too overly serious about making sure comedy-at-large doesn’t have an overinflated sense of importance.

Marcel the Shell with Shoes On has always been, above all else, one of the most adorable things that was ever put on the Internet. Thanks to the collaboration of Dean Fleischer-Camp and Jenny Slate and their endlessly creative vision of how to live in a world as a sentient shell, Marcel the Shell has captured the hearts of millions around the world. That’s part of why A24 made a whole movie about him that’s thankfully now in theaters. The fashion in which Marcel is presented in this feature length adaptation of the character is a scripted story following the making of a documentary about the one and only Marcel. Thus, the sort of moments that often would typically get cut out of documentary for time or story progression, despite their emotional resonance, are all shown here. The result is one of the best and most affirming expressions of the human experience that has shown up in your local movie theater this year (or last year or the one before that). The arguments between Camp, the shy documentarian, and Marcel about the value of capturing certain footage or being open and honest on both their parts provide an fascinating emotional through line that you might not get if this was just a montage of Marcel living the cutest life in existence. This sort of trick of seeing the documentary behind the documentary achieves a level of gravitas and humor that truly kept us smiling for nearly the film’s entire running time.

Being “meta” in comedy used to be Andy Kaufman’s game that would be mostly predicated on pranking on a possibly, unsuspecting audience and, for a long time, that was the only way “being meta” was approached (ex. Tim & Eric), but comedy’s essence forces its own examination and, in this case, a reinvention of how it even looks in at itself for greater artistic truth and purpose. Also, in the spirit of this piece, this is admittedly all kind of as intellectually dressed-up of an excuse as we can muster to tell you all that Would It Kill You to Laugh?, Psychosexual, and Marcel the Shell with Shoes On are absolutely fantastic and worth watching immediately and repeatedly.