Sitting in his Queens apartment, the stand-up comic Ted Alexandro counts every cough and constantly is convinced he just contracted the coronavirus, at least, he says, for 10 minutes. Then he shifts gears: “Oh, I guess I was just belching.”
This is one of many jokes about pandemic anxiety in “Stay at Home Comedian,” a bold experiment that represents the first stand-up special of the social distancing era. Early on, staring at the camera from one of the worst hit areas of the country, he says: “We are all one people, people of the virus.”
Alexandro, 51, is one of the sharpest comics working today, a gifted political joke writer and loose-limbed, adventurous performer who has never quite gotten the big break he deserves. The last time I wrote about him, it was to argue that live stand-up is its own distinct form that cannot be duplicated on any screen. Now that crowds are obsolete, that unique art has not only vanished, but its traditional method of developing material, testing and honing jokes in front of audiences, has been compromised as well. What is a club comic to do?
One understandable school of thought holds that stand-up on computers is hopeless, doomed to fail, and you can find plenty of support for this watching comedy online. The timing often feels off, bad jokes bomb harder, good ones don’t build momentum. But with the future of live entertainment uncertain, Alexandro, a Comedy Cellar regular, has decided to get outside his comfort zone and take the risk of performing in an entirely new way. He assembled a series of bits from a month of Instagram Live appearances, shot in close-up, with the only feedback being viewer comments scrolling under his face. He released it on YouTube for free.
I don’t know if this is the future of standup comedy, but it is most certainly the here and now.
There are funny moments, but fewer than in his previous three specials. Still, by making this special quickly, he captures an urgent brand of observational humor, a resonant portrait of the bizarre way we are living now, turning a mirror on our current mundane neuroses.
There’s the obsessive hand-washing, which Alexandro says produced so many wrinkles it appears to have “aged him into the danger demographic.” There’s the incensed bafflement at revelers who insist on going to spring break during the pandemic as well as celebrities playing savior. (The “Imagine” video from Gal Gadot and her celebrity friends gets another skewering). And in his most pitch-perfect bits, Alexandro evokes the peculiar brand of panic that this virus inspires, describing taking his family out to the porch for fresh air like the von Trapp family venturing out on a mission through Nazi-occupied territory.
One thing Alexandro mines beautifully is how this crisis turns the possibility of people on the street being friendly into a source of terror. It’s an amusing if disturbing element of daily life that Alexandro breaks down: rejecting an offer from a man to help him take a photograph comes across as an act of swaggering heroism. New Yorkers have never been as rude as people think, but the perceptive bits here make the point that social distancing incentivizes us to live up to our bad reputation.
Alexandro’s comic persona here is that of a sensible guy struggling to hold it together, which allows him to veer off into one extreme or another. He adopts a sternly lecturing tone, hectoring people to stay inside, repeating it over and over again, before adding: “P.S.: We went outside today.” Then he coughs and adds “You got to live, people,” ping-ponging between a hint of death and an instinct for life.
Onstage, Alexandro has an amusingly feline gait that you can’t see here. He has lost some tools in this medium, but he’s picked up a few others, finding some silly physical laughs in facial expressions. With expressive eyes and the long, scraggly beard of a cult leader, he constantly mocks his hairstyle (which he terms a “coronahawk”) and draws attention to two moles on his forehead, treating them as puppets and manipulating them with his hands to mouth a critique of capitalism, until he realizes he’s touching his face, interrupts himself apologetically and grabs hand sanitizer.
Some of his jokes don’t feel entirely finished, like a promising bit imagining what would happen if social media were around during Sept. 11 and someone accidentally liked a video of the World Trade Center towers falling. Other times, he includes long asides that surely would have been cut if they were tested in front of an audience. But there’s also something about the absence of laughter and the way he looks directly at the camera, essentially making eye contact with the viewer, that adds to the intimacy of the performance and allows some of the darker currents to emerge.
More than any other artist, comics trust the audience to tell them what works and what does not. But the wisdom of crowds has its limits. On a recent episode of “The Late Show,” Cate Blanchett, from her home, told Stephen Colbert she preferred doing the program without laughter, and the host conceded that an interesting earlier conversation about Bob Dylan would have probably been shorter if they were in front of a crowd impatient with diving down that rabbit hole.
Crowds are the best check against artistic indulgence, but they are rarely ahead of the curve. They often reward the familiar more than the novel. Of course everyone wants to return to live performance, but if I was to imagine the most optimistic take on the current Zoomed state of comedy, it would be that comedians, liberated from the need for applause, would take more chances, follow their instinct further than an audience with a two-drink minimum would allow. Maybe this will result in a blossoming of weird and personal comedy. I wouldn’t put money on it, but hey, a critic can dream.
You see a hint of this in how much Ted Alexandro allows his more philosophical instincts to roam in this special. At one point, he suggests that now might be a good time to take stock of your life, asking his audience, “What do you do when you don’t have to do anything?”
He just throws it out and pauses, letting the silence sit there, and as I waited for the punchline, something became clear: That is a very good question.