Ray Romano’s first stand-up special in 23 years is totally on-brand. Right Here, Around the Corner is more of a documentary of a veteran getting his feet wet again than a recording of a polished, intricately written bit of theater being performed for posterity. Romano does sets at two New York comedy clubs, the Village Underground and the Comedy Cellar, which are, as the title suggests, around the corner from each other. After a preliminary bit of walking-and-talking that explains the premise of the hour-long special, Romano does about 20 minutes at the Comedy Cellar, then heads over to the Village Underground, muttering amiably as a camera crew trails him, and does a set there, too. And that’s it.
Romano’s entire career could be described as amiable muttering — the rueful but relaxed thoughts of a guy who’s happy, all things considered, and not unduly frustrated by all the things he knows he’ll never understand. His hyperspecific niche is something like “the funny guy you know in real life, but who doesn’t annoy you by always trying to be funny.” Fans of his stand-up as well as those of his long-running CBS sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond won’t be surprised to learn that most of the material here is standard, Romano–style befuddled-husband-and-dad stuff, delivered without a lot of fuss over the wording. He doesn’t seem to be trying very hard here, and the framework of the special allows for him to be just okay without the audience’s feeling cheated. (“We are both gonna be disappointed,” he assures the first audience, responding to their enthusiastic applause.)
The first part of his set at the Comedy Cellar is about getting older. He advises the audience on the various stages of friend-making, noting that when you’re in your 20s, you make friends with people who can get you anything; in your 40s, it’s lawyers (because of divorce, or needing to “get a picture of your dick off the internet or something”); in your 50s, you want to make friends with doctors. The second half of the Comedy Cellar set and most of the Village Underground set are about Romano’s persistent mystification about what his wife wants from him (constant attention, for starters) and the varying levels of promise exhibited by his children (his high-achieving daughter is “the good one,” and his twin sons are goofballs). He tells us he killed a spider in the shower the other day because it saw him masturbating, and reveals that he keeps snacks under his bed to compensate his wife for subpar sex; both scenarios could’ve been the A-plots on Everybody Loves Raymond, a sitcom that prided itself on having only three scenes per episode, and on avoiding sentiment whenever possible. There are a couple of moments where Romano courts censure for oblivious-white-guy jokes (he tells an audience member in the first row at the Comedy Cellar that the guy was on the no-fly list the last time Romano did a special), but having established that he’s an idiot about most things keeps any sort of confrontational or nasty edge from developing. Romano’s stage persona is that of a guy who is constantly asking to speak to a manager when he’s shopping or dining, not because he wants to get people in trouble, but because he can’t find something in Aisle 5 or can’t read the menu because the font size is too small.
Even though, obviously, both venues had to clear the presence of Romano and his cameras and sign the appropriate permissions (and, one assumes, arrange to get paid), the entire thing has the feeling of a caught moment, a step up from a viral video captured on somebody’s iPhone. It takes Romano a couple of minutes to walk from one club to another. Director Michael Showalter doesn’t cut the long silences where Romano isn’t talking to himself, or to the people on the street who call out to him because they know who he is, or who don’t know who he is but figure the cameras mean he’s famous. (“They don’t know who I am,” he assures us the first time this happens.) At the end, some of the people glimpsed in the audience at the Comedy Cellar turn out to be his wife and children. Artistically speaking, this might be the lowest-achieving comedy special Netflix has ever aired, likable as Romano is. I’d say we should expect more from him if he hadn’t warned us not to. Don’t be surprised if it becomes a series.