Scoring a show like The Standups’ third season is difficult. Each episode features a half-hour set from a different comedian, and obviously the quality fluctuates depending on the performer. Through their sets the six comics featured on the program—-Brian Simpson, Naomi Ekperigin, Mark Normand, Janelle James, Dusty Slay and Melissa Villaseñor—-demonstrate just how varied the comedy landscape is, and how devoted Netflix is to showcasing problematic performers.
Simpson starts off the season strong with incisive observations. His casual delivery quickly suckers you in as he rolls through hilarious and thoughtful bits about race. However, he ends his set with a joke that demeans people with Down’s syndrome, even doubling down as he addresses his use of a slur against disabled people with a callback joke. The bit leaves a sour taste in the mouth, which is disappointing considering his obvious talent throughout the rest of his half hour.
Ekperigin quickly boosts the mood, though, with her frantic energy and penchant for yelling to punctuate jokes. She’s a familiar name for fans of Broad City, which she wrote for, and the podcast 2 Dope Queens, on which she’s often appeared. Ekperigen’s infectious enthusiasm for Nancy Meyers films and curmudgeonly attitude towards Los Angeles make for a delightful combination. With her singular, turned-up-to-11 cadence, the whole half hour feels like a tonic for the soul,
I don’t want to waste much time on New Orleans comic Mark Normand, who has allegedly done some bad stuff over the years. Much of his set, devoted to the difference between men and women, fat jokes, transphobic jokes and other tired ideas, made me feel like I’d travelled back in time to 2007. Saying a bunch of shitty things in swift succession does not make you quick-witted; it just makes you an asshole who practices.
Janelle James keeps the laughs coming throughout her half hour, somehow managing to breathe life into the topic of coronavirus. She uses her deft physical comedy and impeccable timing to make razor-sharp points about humanity’s response to the pandemic, sex robots and men’s unwitting creepiness. Whether you know James from her appearances on Abbott Elementary and Crashing or are just getting acquainted with her, this half hour is well worth a watch.
No comedian surprised me as much as Dusty Slay, in a good way. The Alabama-raised performer is self-deprecating and self-referential, his bit-ending refrain of “We’re having a good time,” becoming funnier with every repetition. Slay feels like a bluer version of Nate Bargatze, with the same easy, genial manner, but accentuated by his slightly more colorful language. He’s a clear highlight of the season.
Saturday Night Live cast member Melissa Villaseñor rounds out the season with a half hour full of impressions, from Dolly Parton to her abuelita to a violin (all of them very impressive). There’s not much structure to the set, but this choice actually feels appropriate considering her goofy demeanor. Villaseñor is always ready to laugh at herself, and we’re lucky to join in.
Not every episode of The Standups’ third season may be necessary, but most of them deliver. And it’s easy to jump over the ones you don’t care to watch. The pattern seems destined to repeat itself considering Netflix’s history with comedy programming. Thankfully, the skip button is always there.
Clare Martin is a cemetery enthusiast who also writes for Paste’s music and comedy sections. Go harass her on Twitter @theclaremartin.