This Week at the Comedy Cellar shows off the unpolished part of stand-up comedy

As the first season of This Week at the Comedy Cellar wraps up, the show has established itself as a true look at the craft of stand-up comedy.

Sure, the show can be a little forced at times with the “comic’s table” banter, but it still illustrates a side of comedy that most people don’t get to see. On This Week at the Comedy Cellar, comedians get up and do material on current events, and work off the crowd in a way that is unique to comedy clubs. They are performing new jokes, ones that often have a shelf-life not much longer than the news cycle the topic existed in. This is not tried and true polished material. So much of what comics do never makes it into a Netflix special, but it’s still worth watching. In fact, watching someone perform fresh material can be more exciting than seeing their best hour. The show is a testament to the writing and quick-thinking abilities of some of New York City’s best stand-ups.

Specials are usually well-crafted and honed for months, sometimes years. By the time a joke is ready for a special taping or album recording, it is already completed. Most stand-up that is performed, however, is not even close to the finished product. Thanks to Comedy Central, HBO, Showtime, and Netflix, it is possible to be a fan of stand-up without ever seeing a live show. This means missing out on the best parts of the live show experience: seeing a comic save a new joke, watching someone play off the energy of the room to get back on track with their set, the response to a spilled Bud Light. This Week at the Comedy Cellar does not rob the at-home viewer of these special moments.

A great save came from Jessica Kirson during her joke about Elon Musk on one episode. “Elon Musk wants to go to Mars,” said Kirson. “I really hope he does go, and stays there, and I really want him to take some people. You know what I mean? Like, Kid Rock, Ann Coulter, my mother-in-law.” The joke gets a tepid response. She pauses, taking it in, and frowns a little. “Let me rewind and do that again and get the response I deserve,” she said.

Kirson then does a perfect impression of one of those ‘90s tape deck rewinds and redoes the joke to thunderous applause. It’s a joke save she has probably used countless times, but it still reads as fresh to the audience. The save may be old, but the joke is new, and the clip is still a great example of a comic calling an audible, something audiences don’t always get to see on television.

Of course, there are some well-known specials where the comic goes off-script—Greg Giraldo’s railing of a sleepy Rastaman comes to mind—but for the most part This Week at the Comedy Cellar is the best look at comedy a person can get without paying a $20 cover and two-drink minimum.

Many comedians spend their nights working out new material, mixing it in with old stuff. There are always exceptions—some people have their tight 10 or 15 minutes and perform that ad nauseam—but much of comedy gets performed a few times and disappears into the ether because the comic either stops working on the bit or the joke topic is no longer in the public’s consciousness.

Bits with a short shelf life are common on the new stand-up series, and that is no more evident than in Sam Morril’s joke on the El Chapo trial in another episode. The joke was even used as a promotional video for the show. Morril talks about how he’s rooting for the cartel leader to escape prison a third time. “If you escape once, I’m like whatever, but if you escape twice, I’m definitely rooting for the hat trick.” He says. “I’ve seen Shawshank [Redemption] too many times not to be on this guy’s side.”

He then continues to talk about a headline from that week about how El Chapo promised not to

kill any jurors. “I like that we’re going by the honor code with this guy,” he said. “You just find a dead body. We’re like ‘El Chapo, you promised.’ He’s like, ‘Sorry.’”

The 45 second-clip showcases just how good Morril is (he recently had a one-hour Comedy Central special come out you should all totally check out). In less than a week, Morril turned one news headline into a multiple-punchline joke worthy of being on any late night stand-up set and worthy of being seen by more people than were at the club that night.

If nothing else, This Week at the Comedy Cellar is a great insight to what comedy is really like for non-comics, even if Comedy Central is still showing a groomed ‘best of’ collection from the week. It is unclear whether or not This Week at the Comedy Cellar will come back for a second season, but it was still a success. Instead of only trying to showcase comedy in the traditional “special” format, Comedy Central is presenting comedy in its purest form: comedians in clubs working crowds.

Lucien Formichella

Lucien is a comic and journalist based out of New York City. He also freelances for The Observer. He loves eating. Twitter: @lucien_form

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