Chris D’Elia hates a lot of things. For starters, he absolutely cannot stand flying with his girlfriend, air vents on airplanes, telling children they can do anything, parties, birthday parties, bringing a gift to a birthday party, people who work out and won’t stop talking about it, cheesy quotes, meatheads, meatheads who spend their days sharing cheesy quotes on social media, and more. Anger is—whether visibly integrated into a set or not—the underpinning mechanism that keeps comedy churning. After all, if nothing annoying existed in the world, what would comedians talk about all day? The difference in D’Elia’s new Netflix special, Man on Fire, is the bald-faced rants that make up the vast majority of his time on stage. His is not the type of comedy where such pestering quibbles turn into smart notations about life, love and the human condition. Nope, he’s just grumpy. “This isn’t even a comedy show,” he tells the audience. “It’s a Ted Talk.”
Filmed in Vancouver, D’Elia’s latest for the streaming site (he released Incorrigible in 2015) shows growth since I saw him film his 2013 Comedy Central special White Male. Black Comic in New Orleans. Then, he relied heavily on the tired trope “Women do this, while men do that.” Now, D’Elia’s anger bursts past the point of brooding and instead borders on bombastic. Perhaps that’s the result of his age. He’s 36 and looks like a “tired eagle,” as he explains in Man on Fire, but he’s clearly reflecting on his life’s trajectory. “We’re not stars in our own movie,” he says, blaming the medium for tricking people into thinking they are the Denzel Washingtons of their own existence. Comics tend to play a heightened version of themselves on stage, or at least a projection involving some quality of their personality, but, damn, if that isn’t a nihilistic point of view. And he fails to give it the softening blow of a joke or personal anecdote. D’Elia taps into something dark, but he doesn’t tie it back to his own experience and therefore make it more relevant than a pure rant.
D’Elia holds himself back from becoming too introspective throughout Man on Fire. What glimpses he does provide the audience—about his failed marriage and the masculinity issues it signalled in his early twenties, and his reasoning for avoiding having children—get overshadowed by his penchant for hiding behind funny voices in between his longer “Hey kids, get off my lawn” diatribes. Part of the problem surrounding all those declamations comes down to timing. It’s such an instrumental characteristic to comedy. You don’t just need a decent joke, or the anger to gird a particular perspective—you need to know how to tell that joke, and how to harness that anger to do so. D’Elia’s timing often goes too far. He gets on a trip about, say, eating dicks, and enjoys miming all the different ways that can be done. The first few land with the punch he wants, but as he keeps trolling on, he undercuts his own power.
He breaks with his jokey, hate-spewed demeanor towards the end when he stars discussing why he hasn’t had kids yet. For a male comic, it’s an intriguing moment about a subject usually ascribed to women, and it produces a moment of rare insight into the potential that lies within D’Elia. But even then he doesn’t push his self-analysis too far. “I don’t want to be better, I want to be me,” he says. And in the end, that’s what he’ll keep doing.
Chris D’Elia: Man on Fire premiered on Netflix on June 27.
Amanda Wicks is a freelance journalist specializing in comedy and music. Follow her on Twitter @aawicks.