Comedy is rarely more exhausting than when multiple comedians tackle the same premise. In most cases, it points to the shallowness of a certain observation or unoriginality of a particular punch line. But every now and then, these examples of parallel thinking offer fascinating opportunities to appreciate how the styles of different comedians diverge and cohere. Two recent stand-up specials — Chris Rock’s live Netflix special Selective Outage, and Kyle Kinane’s recently released YouTube special Shocks & Struts — present an interesting example of the latter. And it’s all thanks to a pair of filthy pillowcases.
In Rock’s special, the comedian made history by becoming the first performer ever to livestream his special on the platform and offered his long-awaited thoughts on being slapped by Will Smith at the 2022 Oscars. Naturally, his take on pillow hygiene didn’t dominate the ensuing headlines. “You don’t even realize all the amazing little things a woman does for you until you don’t have one,” he says, launching into a bit about being a single man in his 50s. “The other night, I’m trying to get some sleep. Trying to sleep; couldn’t sleep … And suddenly it dawned on me. I was like, This pillowcase is filthy! Are we supposed to change these?” He pauses to squint at an imaginary pillow. “I flipped it over. It was black and greasy. I was like, Did Draymond Green sleep on this motherfucker?”
Kinane’s bit starts with the same jumping-off point. “If you’re a single man in here, leave now! Go buy new pillows!” he implores the audience in Shocks & Struts, his sixth hour-long special. But then it spirals into several different tangents, each as ornate as the next, before looping back around. “I was doing bed laundry during the day — ‘linens,’ if you’re classy,” he starts. “I unsheathed what I assumed to be a pillow one day in the daylight, and what I extracted from that pillowcase, it had the same texture and patina as a wild-west wanted poster. It was gold and slick. The edges were crumbly and curled. One side was burnt. How did that even happen? It looked like a map to the new world! That’s what it looked like. Whatever fluids come out of my face at night, the liquid had expanded and then created rudimentary coastlines of the Americas over here. You could tell this is how they went from the Mediterranean to here.”
Kinane launches into another digression about gay men sailing spice routes in the 1300s (because “that’s what happened when you were gay back in the day”) before returning to his original map analogy (“This part of the pillow just says, ‘Here be monsters’”) and then, finally, to his initial premise. “We all think like, Oh, I snore, but probably cute. Probably whimpers and wheezes. Probably like a new little kitten. No, you snore like a dragon with no lower jaw. That’s how you snore. And you emit fluid like a chocolate fountain filled with mucus.” He tilts his head back and lets out a guttural yell: “That’s how we all sleep. You snore like a fireplug filled with pudding … And you think you can forget until you look at your pillow, which is now just a sponge that collects the memories of your nightmares. Just a document of your savagery.”
Rock’s bit is snappier. It grounds his generalizations about the differences between men and women in personal experience and builds momentum with a Draymond Green reference that doubles as a callback to an earlier part of the set. It’s quick, effective, and over before you start to question, Doesn’t this very famous man have a housekeeper who cleans his bedding? But it also leaves a lot of meat on the bone. By contrast, Kinane really sits in it. For nearly four minutes, he digs into all of this premise’s offshoots, constructing vivid images of antique posters and maps, and poetic turns of phrase like “sponge that collects the memories of your nightmares,” to bring the audience along for the journey. He conveys a level of detail and specificity that only someone who recently had this experience could write.
The differences in these bits speak to these comedians’ contrasting sensibilities. Rock uses brevity to sell his material, while Kinane achieves the same results with extended soliloquies. Rock takes great pains to appear in control; Kinane deliberately engineers chaos. Rock’s material stops at the pillowcase, but Kinane takes the pillow out of its cover and traces its many blemishes for the audience to see in graphic, grotesque detail. Both comedians make the same point, but they trace different routes along disgusting pillow maps to get there.