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A comedy routine often benefits from a straight man. When Carl Reiner died, in 2020, the Times noted that, as the foil to the likes of Sid Caesar and Mel Brooks, he had “specialized in portraying the voice of sanity, a calm presence in a chaotic universe.” This year, some of the most chaotic comedy occurred in, of all places, the United States House of Representatives. It started in January, when it took Kevin McCarthy fifteen floor votes to secure the Speakership. That meant fourteen straight losses, stretching into five days, with preening nominating speeches, occasional huddle-ups signifying nothing, and lots of pictures of members looking down at their phones. But mostly it meant roll-call votes, which dragged on and on, from Adams to Zinke. Like the best cringe comedy, the whole thing started out serious, got sort of funny, then very funny, then gratingly unfunny and awkward, and finally just demonically hilarious. How long could this go on?
At the center of the show were the straight men, or, in this case, women: the House reading clerks, Tylease Alli and Susan Cole. Everything about their manner—capable, organized, serious—as they called the roll was a counterpoint to the politicians sitting before them. For a few days they became niche sensations, the voices of sanity that kept the gag going. Thanks to their crisp, measured voices, C-SPAN became must-see slow TV. And when, in October, the House found itself speakerless anew, there were our familiar guides, unflappable as ever. Asked by a political reporter about her sudden social-media celebrity, Cole sounded bewildered. “I’m just Susan,” she said. Always playing it straight.
There are, of course, many other ways to help bring a joke into the world. Here are some of the funniest moments of the year, onstage, onscreen, and everywhere else.
Photograph courtesy WarnerMedia
Kendall Roy Makes His Last Pitch
The final season of “Succession” compressed the phases of history, giving us tragedy and farce in one go. Many of the funniest moments came from a newly empowered, though still piteous, Cousin Greg, who clumsily fired a throng of ATN staffers over Zoom and even found the courage to roast the terrifying Logan Roy. (“Where’s all your kids, Uncle Logan, on your big birthday?” he asks. To which Logan responds, “Where’s your old man? Still sucking cock at the county fair?”) But, in the end, the best line was delivered by the No. 1 Boy himself, Kendall Roy, who was reduced to begging his sister for the C.E.O. job. “I feel like, if I don’t get to do this, I-I-I feel like, that’s it,” he said. “Like I might, I might, like, I might die.” It’s gorgeous, stupid poetry—the pathetic plea that launched a thousand memes.
Nate Bargatze’s New Masculinity
The comedian Nate Bargatze, who in April broke the attendance record at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena, performing in front of nearly twenty thousand people, speaks in a light Tennessee drawl and moves carefully around the stage. He often tucks his right arm behind his back, a little like a country preacher. This gentle affect flows into his material, through which he probes the modern condition of a certain kind of American man: emasculated, slightly bewildered, not an asshole. “Anything I say up here does not come from a building of education,” he explains in “Hello World,” his well-honed Amazon special. “This is all stuff I’ve overheard at Target or Lowe’s.” He marvels at the hard work of digging a hole, recalls sheepishly talking to the various contractors who work on his house, and, in a very funny extended bit, explains his family’s lawn-care situation. “The guy that we have that mows our yard,” he says, “she’s my wife.”
Jennifer Lawrence Goes Hard
In this summer’s “No Hard Feelings,” Jennifer Lawrence plays Maddie, a Montauk native on the verge of losing her childhood home, who takes the job of deflowering an introverted nineteen-year-old at the behest of his rich summer-people parents. In exchange for “dating” him, they’ll give her a used Buick. The premise sounds dicey, and could easily have turned a dozen different flavors of sour, but Lawrence, who appears in nearly every scene, reaches majestic comedic heights. She’s mean, frightening, brave, and endlessly charming, whether she’s taking a break from skinny-dipping to beat up some kids on the beach or getting punched in the throat herself. The movie makes much of the generational divide between Maddie and her Zoomer quarry, and its best joke happens when she crashes a teen house party and finds bedroom after bedroom full of kids staring at their phones. Like a time-traveller from the raunchfests of yore, she yells, “Doesn’t anyone fuck anymore?”
Meet the “Parents in Structured Hats”
With this supremely catchy jam, the comedian Chris Fleming identifies a nightmare species from among the playground set. “When you see two parents in structured hats out with their child,” he sings, “then you know that that child’s gonna be your responsibility, cause they’re choosing the ha-a-a-ts over parenting.” The sight of a fedora, Stetson, or trilby is a sure sign that the child—“probably named something like Bishop Banquo Coxin”—will be running feral while his parents yammer on about “their Friendsgiving with Beck.” Steer clear, or hope they brought a nanny. Fleming scores extra points for inventing a new phrase for these hats: “Father John Mistys.”
Photograph by Rick Bowmer / Getty
Gwyneth Paltrow’s Must-See Court TV
The funniest fake trial in the United States this year took place in California, on Amazon’s gonzo reality show “Jury Duty,” in which a very nice guy named Ronald Gladden was made to think he was serving on a real sequestered jury, rather than on one populated by actors. The funniest real trial this year took place in Utah, where the actor Gwyneth Paltrow faced allegations that she had committed a “hit and run” on the slopes of Deer Valley in 2016, injuring a fellow-skier. Rather than settle, Paltrow countersued for one dollar, went to court, and won, and in the process inhabited what Naomi Fry called her best role in years. Paltrow wowed style-watchers with her courtroom outfits and seemed to melt one of the plaintiff’s lawyers into a fangirl puddle. During her testimony, when asked how the accident affected her, Paltrow said, “Well, I lost half a day of skiing.”
Jeffrey Wright Tells a Life’s Story
The actors in Wes Anderson’s “Asteroid City” took the director’s deadpan style to its flattest limits. But under a stoic exterior, Jeffrey Wright, who plays General Grif Gibson, the top U.S. military representative at a kind of science fair known as Asteroid Day, burns with joyful and poetic fire. During an introductory speech for the event, he recounts the high points of his life. “Chapter 3,” he says, “another war. Arms and legs blown off like popcorn. Eyeballs gouged out, figuratively and literally. The men put on shows under the palm fronds dressed as women in hula skirts. That was life.” It’s funny, and sad, and madly evocative—scenes from the war movie that Anderson has yet to make.
Photograph by Stephane Cardinale / Corbis / Getty
Posh Spice Fights a Class War
“We’re very working—working class,” Victoria Beckham says in “Beckham,” the Netflix series about the life she shares with her footballer husband, David. She’s talking about her childhood, and seems to be struggling a bit. Then David pokes his head in the room and says, “Be honest! What car did your dad drive you to school in?” Victoria equivocates. “No, one answer,” David demands. “O.K., in the eighties my dad had a Rolls-Royce.” “Thank you,” David says, and pops back out. It turns out that Posh and Becks, who spent decades sullenly making Zoolander’s Blue Steel face for the cameras, aren’t too bad as a comedy duo.
Hollywood Scans for Profits
The latest season of Netflix’s “Black Mirror” landed a month before Hollywood’s actors went on strike—and, as usual, it seemed custom-built for its moment. The first and funniest episode, “Joan Is Awful,” follows Joan (Annie Murphy), a regular woman whose life is adapted, nearly in real time, into a mega-hit TV show starring Salma Hayek. The show airs on Streamberry, a Netflix stand-in that uses A.I. to replace actors who’ve sold their digital rights. A terrifying future? Maybe, but then there were reminders that, in our sad present, studios were making complex digital scans of background performers and digitizing dead actors. This led to some of the best jokes on the picket lines. One protester held a sign that read: “The only part of my body the studios can scan for $100 is my middle finger.”
Brian Jordan Alvarez’s Ode to Sitting
Mix the old Robert Smigel celebrity impressions on “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” with those strange Quiznos Spongmonkey mascots and you get something close to Brian Jordan Alvarez’s social-media character TJ Mack, a wannabe pop star with a habit of putting the letter “M” in places it doesn’t quite belong. His pronunciation is sui generis—meaning that the lyrics of the earworm “Sitting,” which has become a huge viral hit, basically defy transcription. The basic idea is that sitting is the opposite of standing, a statement that a lot of people, it turns out, are ready to endorse. Remixes of the tune have proliferated, and, in the ultimate sign of normie crossover, even made it on the radio.
“Barbie” Gets Pushed Around
What’s the best joke from “Barbie”? That’s easy: it’s when Ken identifies his job as “beach.” Or maybe it’s when Weird Barbie, talking about Ken, says, “I’d like to see what kind of nude blob he’s packing under those jeans.” Or else it’s the commercial for Depression Barbie, with its sweatpants, family-size bag of Starburst, and endless loop of the BBC’s “Pride and Prejudice.” O.K., so it’s not so easy—but, to land somewhere, nothing fits quite as nicely as the sight of Ken, on the beach, aggressively serenading Barbie with Matchbox Twenty’s nineties hit “Push.” The gag gets better when the camera pulls back to show a gaggle of Kens all doing the same thing, as the chorus swells. (“I wanna push you around / Well I will, well I will.”) The joke, of course, is on the Kens—the Barbies are setting a trap for their male foils. But it’s really on any dude who has ever played his guitar at someone.
Photograph by Kirill Kudryavtsev / AFP / Getty
Sundays Are for the Swifties
Speaking of wounded dudes, a bunch of guys watched in horror this fall as Taylor Swift took over football. Her romance with Travis Kelce, the tight end for the Kansas City Chiefs (“Was it a stunt? Was it love? Is there a difference?” Louisa Thomas asked) united the two biggest brands in America. There were lots of good jokes about a new cohort of fans trying to make sense of the game; about little kids waiting to see their favorite player, Taylor Swift; and about football fans suddenly feeling a bit defensive about all the time they had devoted to the serious, adult, not-at-all-weird business of fantasy football. Maybe rooting madly for a sports team wasn’t that different from obsessing over a pop star? Best not to dwell on it. Anyway, the best joke in the whole affair was a little mean and a little sad. It came from the actor Katja Herbers, who wrote, “I wish Taylor Swift was in love with a climate scientist.” Maybe next year. ♦