The highlight of Y’all Wanna Hear Something Crazy?, the new Robert Townsend–directed Netflix special from comedian Ms. Pat, is a joke in the middle of the hour. She has spent much of the set until this moment trying to simultaneously rankle the audience and pull them along with her, and at this point it’s been roughly balanced. Her material on the overpreciousness of pet ownership doesn’t land all that well, especially once she pivots to the well-trodden territory of companion animals on airplanes. But stories about her life go better. The audience roars when she describes not understanding what a chicken thigh was as a child because her mother only ever made “asses and backs,” and a long joke about her mother’s neck ailment allows her to build a narrative rhythm, arriving at the triumphant conclusion of a perilous incident with a train. But Ms. Pat’s joke about her Uncle Cecil is the best and fullest articulation of the comedy she’s interested in doing, and it’s also the moment the audience seems to abandon her.
Ms. Pat’s Uncle Cecil, she explains, “suffered from seizures, was crippled, and he was also retarded.” “Now calm the fuck down and tell me why I used the word ‘retarded,’” she says to the sound of uncomfortable chuckles. She goes on to explain that Uncle Cecil was born in 1932, long before she says language around disabilities began to shift. “Atlanta, I’m gonna need you to open your mind with me on this one, okay?” she says before going on to explain that her grandfather’s theory of how to get rid of Uncle Cecil’s seizures was to take him to see a sex worker once a week. Ms. Pat and her sister’s job was to “go in there and help him get started.” There is a groan off to the side of the stage. “Shut the fuck up. This is my story, and I’m gonna tell it!” Ms. Pat interjects.
The story escalates, going from physical descriptions of the various genitalia involved, through to Ms. Pat’s role in getting things started, and eventually to Uncle Cecil’s death and some pointed questions about the shape of his coffin. It is a horrific story from any number of angles: the language she uses about disability, the fact that Uncle Cecil can’t consent to any of this, her own youth as she was made to participate, the role of the sex worker who is also caught up in this awful relationship. It’s only Ms. Pat’s knowing smile and the straight sincerity of her first-person account that turns any of it into a story people can laugh at. Even still, the reactions are uncertain. Through it, the audience response seesaws back and forth, and although several of the lines get raucous laughter, it’s clear that Ms. Pat is growing increasingly conscious of how they’re taking it. “This story is not going to send you to hell, baby,” she tells someone near the front. “I don’t know who y’all think y’all came to see!” she later tells that same side of the room, apparently frustrated with how they’re taking a joke about Uncle Cecil’s Pepsi consumption. (“He shouldn’t have that much pussy and Pepsi in his diet!”)
Ms. Pat is actively registering that some of the crowd isn’t responding the way she wants them to, and in several sections of the hour, it’s not hard to blame them. Some of the jokes are either overfamiliar premises or executions that don’t quite work the way she wants them to. She does a section on why there are so many white parents with adopted Black children, and so few Black parents with adopted white children, and while the observation is promising, the payoff is underwhelming. The reverse is true for her joke about Black school shooters, which has an effective punchline but otherwise feels underbaked. At one point, she throws out a Larry Bird reference, appears to believe some in the audience don’t understand her point, then corrects, “Larry Bird, the white Michael Jordan. C’mon, goddamnit, we ain’t that young!”
Some of these lines feel deliberate, like practiced retorts for when the audience protests too much. It makes sense when so much of the material toys with what the audience views as appropriate material to laugh about. “Open your mind; this shit is funny!” she says after a joke about being pregnant at 13 and confronted with her 21-year-old boyfriend’s wife, who’s asking her to get an abortion. But there are enough interjections like this, and they’re specific enough, that they begin to look like honest frustration. When she eventually arrives at a line about what she imagines lesbian Black sex to sound like (“I assume when two Black vaginas get together, it sounds like you’re stepping on a bag of Doritos”), there’s one particularly notable laugh from the warmer side of the room. “Can you spread some of that shit over here, sir?” she says, gesturing as though she can distribute the laughs more evenly around the room.
It’s rare for a special to acknowledge when jokes don’t land, and even though there are several Ms. Pat jokes that would probably have done better with more revisions, there’s something thrilling about feeling the range of responses. It feels right, especially in the truly startling, off-putting, and well-constructed sections like her Uncle Cecil joke. It’s also a fitting representation of the kind of material Ms. Pat is obviously drawn toward — stories she knows are both true and outlandish, stories that will shake people a little. It’s what she’s best at, and her closing remarks are about the power of turning “the darkest shit of your life” into comedy. That dramatic swing back and forth between shock and shocked laughter is an accomplishment, and when she admonishes her audience for not laughing, it becomes part of the game of her performance. Even later in the show, when the jokes are not as strong and her frustration with some of the crowd feels less controlled, there’s some real pleasure in the experience. In the typical polished mode of a comedy special, it feels transgressive.
But the direction and editing of Y’all Wanna Hear Something Crazy? undermines it. Even in a more staid set, one with a less combative relationship with the audience, the framing would’ve been annoying. Ms. Pat is frequently boxed into a claustrophobic full-body shot that conveys neither intimacy nor scale, while the audience’s faces are underexposed and indecipherable. For a set like this one, though, the direction is actively detrimental. There are many instances where Ms. Pat’s face, her body language, and sometimes her explicit audience goading suggests that the crowd is not behaving the way she wants. And yet watching at home, we hear laughs. Some are obviously more full-throated and boisterous than others, but it creates a real gap between the special’s sound editing and the imagined experience of what that performance was actually like. How much of what Ms. Pat is doing is purposeful? How many of those faces in the crowd are actually dismayed, and how much is she just playing it up? Any answer to those questions would be fascinating, but the special itself wants us to have no answer at all.
It’s an uneven hour of comedy, but the most compelling and notable moments are the ones that let viewers sit with the purposeful discomfort Ms. Pat creates. Yet at almost every turn, the special itself tries to smooth over those bumps and to eliminate what makes this performance distinctive. At its best, Ms. Pat’s hour is a roller coaster. It would be better — probably more uncomfortable, but definitely more exciting — if Y’all Wanna Hear Something Crazy? let us feel the full range of the peaks and valleys.