Netflix’s unprecedented stand-up event Comedians of the World brings in the New Year by reminding us to laugh at ourselves and each other.
Since it increasingly seems like laughing at almost anything can get you in a great deal of trouble these days, now is probably the time for an ambitious stand-up streaming event such as Netflix’s Comedians of the World. And when they say “world” they really mean it. Cataloguing half-hour routines of 47 comedians from 13 regions who tell jokes in eight different languages, the series is a timely reminder of not just what’s funny to us, but what’s funny to people nothing like us at all.
Netflix’s worldwide reach has long been the secret to the streaming giant’s success and after a year in which many international shows and films have become breakout hits, Comedians of the World feels like a marketing strategy in microcosm. Comedy isn’t just about whether something is funny – it’s about transgression, toying with taboos and trotting idly over the boundaries that define what we can and should be allowed to make fun of. But what does comedy and all its attendant hand-wringing outrage mean to someone who doesn’t partake in our coddled culture?
None of this is to say that all – or even most – of the routines in Comedians of the World are political. But the existence of, say, a female comic from Jordan, is enough on its own to challenge our perceptions. When I think of the Middle East, I don’t think “burgeoning comedy scene”. And yet here we are. Comedy is often about subverting expectations; taking you to a place you feel you’re comfortable in and veering wildly off-course. By its very existence, the series takes starkly oppositional cultures, people and points of view, and presents them in a context where all the arbitrary distinctions are stripped away. In the end, it’s people telling jokes.
The jokes (like the people) are all different. They emanate from different perspectives and take aim at different targets. Some are meaningless; others are loaded with social, political or cultural buckshot. But they’re all jokes. These days it’s so easy to forget the essence of what comedy is, what it can do; how it elevates and unites us, and how integral it is to understanding who we are. Comedians of the World, like the art of comedy itself, and like the simple pleasure of being able to laugh at ourselves and other people, is not really about what’s funny – it’s about coping with all the things in life that aren’t funny at all.
Jonathon is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has been Senior Editor and Chief Critic of the outlet since 2017.