The E! Entertainment show The Soup established its host Joel McHale as a sardonic-but-amiable screen presence. Blatantly aware of – and self-deprecating about – his own good looks and imposing 6’4” frame, McHale dissected the absurdity of pop culture, focusing primarily on reality television. He soon landed a lead role on Dan Harmon’s NBC sitcom Community, which, despite the low ratings, had an ardent following (myself included) and a somewhat-tumultuous six-season run. McHale’s Jeff Winger amplified the man’s self-aware persona to the nth degree, with hilarious results. A slew of TV and film appearances followed: you may have seen his Netflix show The Joel McHale Show with Joel McHale, or glimpsed him in comedies like Ted, Blended and – oh God – The Happytime Murders. It was only a matter of time before the self-proclaimed “professional dick” got his own comedy special.
”…continues to play up his self-aware/deprecating shtick.”
Joel McHale: Live from Pyongyang continues to play up his self-aware/deprecating shtick. First of all, let’s get it straight: it obviously doesn’t actually take place in Pyongyang, North Korea – he’s performing in San Jose, California. As he never explains the title’s implications, I assume the frequent metaphorical bombs he drops on the Unites States are the reason behind its misleading nature. Unfortunately, his performance is not nearly as subversive and/or controversial as the title suggests. Yes, he does take stabs at a variety of states (and countries), but they’re half-hearted, as if he were careful not to cross the line, while awkwardly dancing right on it. He makes fun of San Jose’s nightlife – or lack thereof (“Is there like a curfew?”). He refers to the French quarter of New Orleans as “shitty Paris” and makes an inbreeding joke. He bashes Denver, Utah and Canada (“I’m half-Canadian, so I can make fun of them”).
Apart from that loose connecting thread, McHale mostly goes on and on about football (“The 49-ers should change their name to The San Francisco Homosexuals”), politics (“Bakersfield is the one red zit on the blue a*s of California…”), and, um, tornado news coverage. A good comedian ends his act on one of his best jokes, one that will resonate with the audience as they’re leaving the auditorium. McHale’s last joke revolves around his child gradually becoming a dick, like him – exemplified in an incident involving a little person. Go figure.
“…the funniest bits come from his little asides…”
So yes, the results are mixed. McHale’s lack of stand-up experience comes through in some uncomfortable moments. His bit about yarmulkes and horns is borderline wince-inducing; another bit about the “Jew’s harp in country music” reiterates McHale’s odd focus on the Jewish race. It would be fine if the rest of his act were as scathing about minorities, yet he treads cautiously with a piece about wounded warriors and black men in New Orleans. His natural charm goes a long way in helping him get through the rougher patches; the funniest bits come from his little asides, like how The Los Angeles Times is “a small newspaper south of here”, or being mistaken for Daniel Tosh. The director – Brian Volk-Weiss – has been around the stand-up comedy block (Aziz Ansari: Buried Alive, Ali Wong: Baby Cobra), so he stages the static performance with enough panache to make it diverting, if not riveting.
Perhaps McHale should stick to his day job. In this day and age of #MeToo and political-correctness-gone-mad, even seasoned comedians find themselves in a perplexing position – what’s kosher to joke about anymore? McHale should’ve either gone-for-broke or remained harmlessly affable – but he goes for both, and consequently underwhelms, making one wish his show did take place in Pyongyang.
"…Bakersfield is the one red zit on the blue ass of California…"