As I poke plastic squares with symbols on them to transfer the thoughts in my brain into a rectangle of light—thoughts that will soon appear on other rectangles of light—I’m reminded that we’ve outdone ourselves. I shouldn’t say “we’ve,” because I had nothing to do with it. I’m in this mindset because Bryan Callen’s new comedy special, Complicated Apes, takes an overhead view of humanity in an attempt to parse the ridiculous from the insane.
Callen covers many of the hot topics of the last few years, such as the misguided offensive on cultural appropriation (ever heard of creole?) to the uncommonly good posture of racists. None of this is gutted with a sharp knife as you’ve seen with Carlin or Hicks. Instead, Callen takes the foam mallet approach: running up behind contentious subjects, hitting them in the back of the head, then running away. As a result, some of the bits are amusing, but none of them land in a way that will have you repeating them to friends—and butchering them, of course. In the history of comedy, has anyone ever successfully recreated a bit for a friend?
“…Callen takes the foam mallet approach: running up behind contentious subjects, hitting them in the back of the head, then running away.”
With his closer, Callen disappoints. It’s a lengthy, self-deprecating anecdote about a time when he learned a valuable lesson about heuristics—a lesson he now passes to the audience. It’s a good lesson, but is it funny? His delivery is energetic and physical, as if he really wants to get the story out but has somewhere else to be. This zaniness might be enough for some, but, ultimately, everything comes down to the jokes. In this case, Callen gives moral precedent over the jokes. On his most recent appearance on the Howard Stern Show, Norm Macdonald pointed out the absurdity of referring to comedians as the “modern philosophers” when there are actual modern philosophers who know something about philosophy. In an understandable attempt to remind the audience to view people as individuals and not file them under predetermined labels, Callen trades his Groucho glasses for a monocle, and it doesn’t suit him.
For context, Callen’s bouncy “funniest guy at the BBQ” style doesn’t mesh with my personal taste in comedy. Complicated Apes doesn’t do anything to change that. Though I’m partial to the sentiments in Callen’s act, there were times when he began to feel like a guest speaker at a high school, trying his hardest to get the kids’ attention by proving he’s not one of those stiff teachers. If you like your comedians to tell jokes, you’re in the wrong place. If you like your comedians to be multi-purpose entertainers/educators, you’ll get more out of this special than I did.
Complicated Apes (2019) Directed by Brian Volk-Weiss. Written by Bryan Callen. Starring Bryan Callen.
4 out of 10 stars