Arts

Jokes + Exasperation + Subtext = a New York Club Comic on the Rise

Like genius, great comedy requires some mix of inspiration and perspiration, but when it comes to the stand-up of Raanan Hershberg, neither is more important than exasperation.

One of the funnier moments in his 2019 special, “Downhill Ever Since,” was his extreme incredulousness over the name of the fictional serial killer Hannibal Lecter: “We’re supposed to believe,” he said, pausing to let the crowd register his umbrage, “there’s this cannibal who just happens, just happens, on the rarest of odds, to have the only name in the history of names to rhyme with cannibal.”

His breakthrough new special, “Jokes From the Underground,” which premieres Wednesday night on YouTube, finds him plumbing comic aggravation more deeply, this time sparked by a sentence spoken by his mother: “I can’t believe it’s already April.” This sends the comic, a Comedy Cellar regular with a growing reputation, into a head-swiveling frenzy, spitting consonants. Of all the things to disbelieve? Hershberg, 37, launches into an operatic tour of the bizarre events of the past few years. (“Last year marked the only time where the Baldwin brothers weren’t jealous of Alec’s career.”) What began as a skewering of a cliché culminates in the baroque comedy of a man unhinged.

Stand-up is an art form full of control freaks, and most reliably funny stand-ups are poised performers who orchestrate laughs from the surprise and insight of their premises and punchlines. In his recent Netflix special “Same Time Tomorrow,” Sam Morril, another skilled Comedy Cellar craftsman, offers a clever bit comparing the jobs of police officers and teachers that relies on an abrupt misdirection he calls a switcheroo. This kind of joke has the structure of a trick: get viewers leaning one way, then startle them by going the other.

Hershberg tells some of these kinds of jokes, too, but they tend to be more minor key and straightforward: jabs, not big swings. He favors benign lies or the thuddingly obvious stated with conviction. At one point, he confides that when it comes to sex, his penis is “his spot.” What really distinguishes Hershberg, and makes him the next great practitioner of that fabled artistic genre known as New York club comedy, is when he seems to be losing control, letting his runaway emotions become the joke. His most ambitious set pieces, the ones that get the belly laughs, work not by outsmarting the audience but by playing the fool.

To be specific, he has a premise arguing that women talk more about sex than men, but the real punchline is how the unruly intensity of his emphasis on this point actually shows he’s worried about secrets revealed by certain women. The biggest laugh is in the subtext, not the line. This is tricky, clever writing that relies on making sure the crowd sees something the comic isn’t telling them.

In his new special, Hershberg displays this gift. He’s more strategic about his delivery than in his previous special, varying the pace, taking a break from his roaring vexation to become softer on occasion, allowing silence for a jarring contrast. It’s also a more stylish production, with camerawork that nicely serves the joke, including a close-up from the side, where his face is framed by candy-colored lights, a shot often employed after a sly comment.

Exasperation can easily tip into anger, and there are easy laughs to be had there. But Hershberg wisely steers clear. He wades into touchy territory — the Holocaust, #MeToo, his mother’s sex life — but the aim here is not to tell it like it is but to find obstacles for his hapless protagonist to navigate. His jokes aren’t just tightly written. They have stakes.

And yet, his greatest strength is clearly his gravelly, booming voice. Rub sandpaper and the wrapper for a corned beef sandwich together and you might hit its frequency. It can remind you of Gilbert Gottfried, but the comic he most frequently resembles — this comparison has so much baggage that I hesitate to make it — is Louis C.K. The way Hershberg wanders into uncomfortable territory, draws attention to it, then pushes further along the tightrope. His radical shifts of perspective. Even his hand gestures. In some of Hershberg’s punchlines, there are hints of a delight in pure nonsense that suggests a more surreal direction in his future. You see it in some of his most banal jokes, like one about President Biden’s age. It’s almost as if Hershberg needed to find a way to make this bland premise more interesting.

Several times he returns to a refrain — “More information beats bad information” — but to say this show has a theme, other than trying desperately to make you laugh, would be a stretch.

New York is the best training ground for comics honing ruthless jokes that work for the widest array of audiences. That’s because there are more places to perform than anywhere else. But the scene has its own groupthink that can resist certain kinds of ambition. Some of Hershberg’s most familiar premises, like complaining about cable news, feel dutiful, less personal. But digging into well-worn topics can also be a challenge that excites an imaginative mind.

There’s no subject more overdone now than Covid. But he finds a fresh take: This is the first pandemic that people admit to enjoying. “No one in the 1500s said the bubonic plague really gave me a chance to slow down and just live in the moment,” he says. “Thank God the Black Death came along and I finally got to work on myself.”

Hershberg is the kind of New Yorker that E.B. White argued brought passion to the city: the one born elsewhere, in his case, Kentucky. You would never know it from his act, which feels firmly located in New York club comedy, a category that for some evokes a certain neurotic sensibility or swagger or density of punchlines.

To me, its defining trait is an ineffable comic sound, as nervy and raucous as the subway during rush hour. Hershberg plays that rumbling music beautifully.

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