Jordan Peele’s reboot of sci-fi/fantasy anthology series The Twilight Zone has finally arrived. We usually wouldn’t cover The Twilight Zone here at Paste Comedy, but we’re making an exception due to the nature of the first episode “The Comedian.” Starring Kumail Nanjiani and a rare dramatic performance by Tracy Morgan, the episode follows a struggling comedian who makes a Faustian bargain to improve his act. And, let me say, as a comedian, it fucked me up.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should preface this by acknowledging that I love The Twilight Zone. As a kid, the Sci-Fi (now SyFy) all day Twilight Zone marathons were a family event. We’d eat Chinese food, watch each episode, and break it down together. I have a tattoo on my arm based on the classic episode “Time Enough at Last.” The Twilight Zone is my wheelhouse, but so is stand-up comedy.
Beyond writing for Paste, I’ve been a stand-up comic for about eight years. Before that, I’d done it a few times as a hobbyist. I’m not successful, though I can work at a couple of clubs around the country, get booked on shows, and know how to tour and make money. Just not enough to make comedy my full-time job.
“The Comedian” lands during a strange time in pop culture, where there’s a glut of stories about comedians. There are tens of thousands of podcast episodes about our struggles, and shows like Crashing and I’m Dying Up Here tried to turn the stand-up life into prestige cable TV. Hell, even the Joker is being rebooted as a failed stand-up comic who finds a new way to build an audience. Because these stories are all based, at least in part, in hyper-reality, they don’t actually tell you much about being a comic.
The hyper-reality of shows about comedy is where a headliner watches one of your early sets and give you a big break. The reality for most comics is that no one who matters is watching your set until they have a reason to. The first season of Crashing would have spent way more time in empty open mics if it was honest, but that doesn’t make for great episodic TV.
That’s why The Twilight Zone is such a perfect blank slate for examining the id of a comedian and what might tempt us. We’re entering spoiler territory now, so if you haven’t watched the episode yet head over to YouTube. Everyone set? Let’s continue.
At the beginning of “The Comedian” we meet Samir (Kumail Nanjiani), as he’s bombing on stage with a bit he adores about the Second Amendment. It’s a terrible bit, and the audience is correct not to laugh. Samir is caught in a classic struggle between what the audience wants and what the performer wants the audience to want. One of the dirty secrets of comedy is that even funny people don’t always do the act they want. Every comedian has lost darlings, bits they love deep in their soul that just never land. Political comedy in particular is brutal. At its heights, you become Doug Stanhope, a diseased brilliant mind with a niche audience. At its lows, you become Dennis Miller, traumatized by 9/11 and left forgetting the difference between whining and jokes.
When Samir walks off stage, the stink of his bomb follows him. His peers mock him, the bartender gets his order wrong, and no one else acknowledges he was on stage. Then he runs into J.C. Wheeler (Tracy Morgan), a legendary comedic who disappeared at the height of his career.
One thing that Crashing got right is the willingness of established comics to talk to newer acts. Comedy is one of the only art forms where someone who’s been performing for 35 years can easily share the stage with someone who’s been performing for two, without nepotism being the reason why. So it makes sense that Samir would be able to slide up to one of his heroes and just start chopping it up. Wheeler gives him a piece of advice, “put yourself out there, and you will get laughs,” followed closely by a warning. “Once you put it out there, they connect,” he confides, “and once they connect to it, it’s theirs. And once it’s theirs, that shit is gone forever.” Then Wheeler disappears.
The next time Samir goes up he once again bombs with the Second Amendment bit, but while stuck in the flop sweat of the bomb he starts to riff about his dog. Suddenly the audience is dying, drinking in every observation with uproarious laughter. Samir kills. When he arrives at home hungry to share his success, he discovers his dog is gone, and his girlfriend (a brilliant Amara Karan) has no memory of the dog ever existing.
Countless comedians have argued about how personal is too personal on stage. The reality is there’s nothing too personal if you can make it work. From Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette to Richard Pryor talking about setting himself on fire, the horror of everyday life can become comedy if someone is laughing at it. What I appreciate about “The Comedian” is that it completely avoids this argument. Instead, it asks if the cost of success based on blindly telling it like it is for laughs is worth the sacrifice. At first, the people Samir blinks out of existence are the collateral damage of his act. He doesn’t understand the power of his words, and their ability to make people disappear. But when he finally comes to grips with what’s happening, he doesn’t stop.
Instead of going back to his old act, he just aims his words at associates directly outside his life, old enemies, and known scum. Samir talks about a rival comic who got drunk and killed some people in a car wreck, so those deaths never happened. He attacks a pervy coach from high school and his girlfriend’s clingy mentor. Eventually, his words catch up with him—this is The Twilight Zone after all—leaving the lives of everyone around him in ruins.
“The Comedian” isn’t so much a story of a man who violates people’s privacy to build his act, but what happens when only one side gets to tell a story. Part of the power of doing comedy, especially if you have people who love you, is owning the conversation. The audience doesn’t know your wife or your boyfriend or your enemies. They only know what you put out on stage for them. And getting laughs for dunking on people you love feels amazing. It’s validating, a room full of people agreeing that someone else sucks, even just a little bit.
There are people who can do this sort of comedy without hurting others. There also are funny ass people who are wildly successful at this kind of comedy who’ve left hurt loved ones in their wake. For many comedians, this type of hyperpersonal material just comes down to not noticing the people who disappear from your life.
But the thing that fucked with me in this episode is the Second Amendment joke that kick starts Samir’s walk to hell. In its current form, it’s not a good joke, but it’s a great premise. Samir overexplains it, doesn’t get to the funny part fast enough and shows defeat when the crowd doesn’t like it, but it’s the sort of joke that could be great with work. And instead of doing that work, he decides to rant about his life and get by with cruel shocks.
Samir gets to become a successful comedian, but not by being Samir. He abandons all the things he cares about, specifically making a difference as a comedian, to chase the first thing that gives him a taste of easy success. Then he pretends this is what he wanted to do the whole time anyway. It isn’t until he goes too far and hurts himself that he realizes what he wanted.
On paper, this is an episode about making a deal with the devil, but I’ll be damned if it isn’t also about just working harder. Each time Samir tells the Second Amendment joke, he tells the damn thing in the same way. He never trims his material, adds new tags, or listens to the audience feedback that it isn’t ready. Samir just abandons who he was for the easy laughs, without questioning where the easy laughs are coming from. Maybe it’s because he’s a brilliant riffer with a supernatural gift, or maybe he made a deal with the devil and didn’t read the fine print.
Every comedian has gotten a laugh after a joke’s bombed by saying something dark or overly personal. When the silence is replaced with laughter that feeling is intoxicating. But that feeling isn’t what you were working on; it’s just a moment of joy following the pain of a bomb. In all the hours of TV about stand-up comedy I’ve seen in the last few years, this might be the first one whose moral is “just keep writing.” You’d think Crashing or I’m Dying Up Here might have found time for this lesson at one point. But instead, we’re left to find it here, a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. A middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, lying between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. A dimension of imagination. It is an area we call The Twilight Zone.
John-Michael Bond is Paste’s assistant comedy editor. He’s on Twitter @BondJohnBond.