“The Comedian” offers a classic idea in a shinier package, but there isn’t much new beneath its slick surface.
This The Twilight Zone Episode 1 Recap, for the episode titled “The Comedian”, contains spoilers.
“The Comedian” isn’t funny; neither the premiere episode of Jordan Peele’s rebooted version of The Twilight Zone or the failing funny-man at the story’s center played by Kumail Nanjiani. That’s the point, of course. A classic morality tale with some contemporary sensibilities, the debut episode is a cautionary capsule of tepid observations about comedy, fame, and artistic integrity. It works, just about, but it’s far from a sell-out show.
Nanjiani plays Samir, a small-time comic with the big-time ambition of using his comedy to make people think and feel. But his undercooked bits about the Second Amendment aren’t earning him the reaction he covets, so he’s receptive to the rather questionable advice of Tracy Morgan’s J.C. Wheeler, a sagely well-established comic who suggests he gets more personal. The problem is that once a story is shared with an audience, your ownership of that story is lost; it becomes theirs, and something essential about it is lost forever.
“The Comedian” takes this idea literally. Once Samir starts to tell personal stories — about his dog and his nephew, at first — he starts to win the crowd, but he loses the subjects of his material. His dog and his nephew cease to exist, and even people’s memories of them are erased. It’s a functional, if not entirely original, commentary of what it can be like to sell one’s integrity for approval; to take the easy road no matter where it leads. And this being The Twilight Zone, it naturally leads to some dark places.
Once he realises what’s happening, Samir sees his new ability as a kind of low-key working-class superpower. He starts trawling his social media feeds and picking people who have bullied or hurt him during his life, and incorporating them into his act. He picks on people who have caused harm to others, justifying meddling with reality on moral grounds. But material dries up. The laughs die down. And the power to meddle with reality for personal gain becomes too tempting.
When Samir targets the old “friend” and mentor of his girlfriend, Rena (Amara Karan), the butterfly effect sends a damaging gust through the new life of adoration he has underhandedly built for himself. Having never met her law professor, Rena never became a lawyer. Their relationship suffers and quickly ends. At a loss, and competing with his mouthy rival Didi (Diarra Kilpatrick) for a part on a well-known show, Samir goes postal, his routine devolving into simply taking potshots at everyone he knows, belting out a list of names, a frenzied meltdown that the audience laps up. But Rena, in the crowd, exposes Samir for what he is; selfish, and stupid, and spiraling deeper and deeper into a calamity of his own making. With no other option, Samir turns the joke on himself and poofs from existence. Now that’s a mic-drop.
But “The Comedian”, as an overall tale, doesn’t land with quite the same impact as Samir’s self-sacrifice. Peele, fresh from the success of Us, fits neatly into the old Rod Serling narrator role, and his influence can be felt here and there. Director Owen Harris has a knack for framing the on-stage scenes to evoke maximal awkwardness and embarrassment; it’s easy to feel, while Samir is on stage, just like a bombing comedian. But for all the episode’s superficial technical success, it’s a played-out idea that takes a predictable path through well-worn cautionary territory. As a commentary on the world of comedy, it doesn’t work quite as well as the careers of some comics who were Samir, and who lost themselves in their search for approval.