The Year’s Best Joke Is Also Its Saddest

Kyle Kinane being funny.

Comedy is too subjective to assume one’s sense of humor is inherently better than others’. The “best” joke doesn’t necessarily mean the funniest joke. In this context, the best joke essentially means the greatest use of the form of stand-up comedy. And so far this year, that distinction goes to Kyle Kinane in his recent appearance on Netflix’s The Standups. He uses one of the greater difficulties facing comedians — time, specifically as it relates to topical comedy — to make a political joke feel even more vital. I haven’t stopped thinking about it since I first saw it weeks ago, and I can’t say that for any other comedy I’ve seen this year.

Ever since Donald Trump was elected president, comedy has struggled to keep up with the news. But it isn’t just Trump’s fault. Sure, he’s shaking society’s tree like he was a baby who thinks he gets fed because he plays with his rattle when really his mommy just gave it to him as a distraction while she gets his lunch ready, but the news cycle was already moving faster than it ever had because of the internet. And it’s not necessarily Netflix’s fault, either. While the streamer airs its many comedy specials months after they were filmed, networks have been filming stand-up specials and holding onto them for undetermined amounts of times ever since Blockbuster’s only worry was the surge of Hollywood Video locations.

The difference is, Trump is bad at such an intense rate, and there are so many more specials now (and topical late-night shows), a six-month delay means you’ve probably heard 20-plus jokes about a topic already. Watching time-stamped material in a special months after it was recorded is akin to hearing an off-key note. It’s an uncomedy valley of sorts. The first time I remember feeling this discomfort strongly was watching Bill Burr’s Walk Your Way Out, which came out 11 days after Trump’s inauguration, but starts with him talking about the election, joking, “This is literally like, what is going to happen?” But that was nothing compared to watching Rory Scovel joke about what it would be like if Trump wins the election in his special that came out in JUNE 2017! It is noble that comedians feel more engaged to discuss the sociopolitical now, but when filming the special of that material, it creates a M.I.T.-blackboard-level problem.

And Kyle Kinane is the janitor caught chalk-handed. Like a martial artist, he used the problem of time to his benefit. First, Kinane takes advantage of a different sort of time problem — that he only has a half hour. Kinane, one of the most prolific stand-ups working, released three hour-long specials on Comedy Central between 2012 and 2016 (all of which charted in the top three of Vulture’s Best Stand-up Specials of the Year list) — giving him just 30 minutes means he has to get down to business. So, he starts his special by saying, “We kinda need to just jump into shit, you know. Let’s go for it: Mass shootings!” Beyond the hilarious disconnect of misplaced excitement, Kinane is clearly setting up the audience — both the one in front of him and the one that will watch it at some later date — by pausing enough after the laugh, to have their mind go to the last shooting. He continues, “Don’t worry, I’m not going to talk about the one that happened yesterday because that would be insensitive. I’m going to talk about the one that happened a couple weeks ago, because tragedy plus time equals comedy.” In that moment, I could feel the joke being time-stamped; I could feel that uncanny feeling building. Kinane turns right into that skid: “I know what you’re probably thinking, Kyle, by the time this airs, what if there’s no mass shooting and the joke won’t be relevant?” Leaning down, resting his hand on his thigh, like a father talking to a child, he simply responds to the question in the audience’s mind: “This is America.”

Sure, as Kinane says next, “That’s a sad fucking thing to laugh at,” but, boy, is that a good joke. Watch it back, and you’ll notice the ways Kinane gets all the potential audiences on the same page, whether they were there live, watching it later, don’t watch a lot of comedy, or watch a ton of it. The joke is not just the words, but the feeling of connection he creates between the people in the past and the future. Those in the audience laugh realizing nothing is going to change; those at home laugh because nothing has changed. At its most essential, comedy, like all art, is a form of communication. A joke is a novel way of presenting information so that other people better understand what you’re trying to say. Everyone knows that mass shootings are a problem (even if they have different answers for why they happen). Pointing out that they happen isn’t interesting comedy, but using a joke to undercut how truly helpless we feel to stop it is. It evokes the numbness we feel to then shake us awake to the gravity of the problem again. Let’s go back to the formula he references: Kinane creates a feeling that the tragedy is unending + flattens time so that it’s infinite = the best joke of the year.

Since Trump got elected, you’ve had a lot of people who haven’t really done topical material before trying it for the first time on a president who is a terrible, uninteresting, exhausted premise. The result has been a lot of, as Jack Handy said in an interview, “first step you think of … rather than going to the second or third step.” Kinane’s joke is that next step. It’s not just Trump is orange-haired/faced and dumb, or mass shootings are tragic and dumb; it’s getting at something deeper and making the audience feel it in a deeper way. For that matter, Kinane’s whole half hour — though it never hits harder than that first joke — tries to find that next level, focusing almost exclusively on white supremacy. And it’s so freaking good. Not only that, but it’s also so Kinane. It’s his comedic voice — his idealistic pessimism, his ability to find moments of pure joy out of utter hopelessness — that I’ve praised for as long as I’ve had a platform to praise stand-ups. A lot of previously nonpolitical comedians have tried to pivot in recent years, but few have done so as gracefully as Kinane does here. Watch the master at work:

The Year’s Best Joke Is Also Its Saddest