HHow should we celebrate great comedians? Netflix’s latest exercise in live comedy is called The Hall: a new pantheon of iconic comics that was unveiled on stage at the recent Netflix is a Joke Festival in LA. Now on TV, this show finds four current comedians praising a quartet of dead geniuses: the first entries into this new Hall of Fame, which will be inducting acts annually henceforth. It’s a worthwhile endeavor, at least when the goal, as creator/director Marty Callner said, is to introduce today’s audience to yesterday’s greats. As for the tone (is it comedy? Is it ancestor worship?), I’m not sure.
For the most part, we don’t really get any comedy from the four comedian hosts. Jon Stewart is the first to preach about George Carlin – about his legendary ‘Seven Words Not to Say on TV’ routine, about his quest to ‘be realized as an artist’, about how ‘we as a culture [still] miss his voice”. Later, Chelsea Handler sings the praises of Joan Rivers, pausing after each statement she makes about Rivers’ groundbreaking genius to allow the audience to dutifully applaud.
Fair enough, you might say. Comedians aren’t respected enough. Comedy is overlooked at all usual awards shows; As is well known, only a handful ever won the Oscar for best picture. And some of these Hall of Fame acts lived their lives feeling underappreciated. That’s clear from the clips shown here, including Rivers, who bemoans her exclusion from the comedy scene, and Richard Pryor, who insists his comic brilliance – which is evident in this footage – isn’t given enough credit.
But the question remains: can you have an awesome show about disrespect? There’s something hypocritical about the vibe at The Hall that doesn’t quite resonate with all those pissing paeans. There’s also the odd unintentionally funny moment when the captions blare out “Congratulations, Robin Williams!” and “Congratulations, George Carlin!” for this prestigious posthumous award. (Is that a thing? Can you congratulate the dead?)
Peak Rivers or Pryor wouldn’t get through a minute of it without punctuating the piety as bluntly as possible. So the best moments come when the hosts deviate from the venerable script: John Mulaney screwing the idea that Williams’ comedy was driven by his personal demons (“fuck off with that shit!”), or Jeff Ross throwing some ” Roastmaster General’ energy in a section commemorating the standups who have died in the last 12 months. This barbed section splits the difference between awe and comedy more effectively — but even it needs to be played to sob music, a plink-plonk piano that undermines Ross’ efforts at the boom-table.
So you’re thrown back to the archival footage, which hasn’t all stood the test of time. But the best part is that all of these glorifications seem justified. I think of Williams’ cunnilingus silly show, bloodless features rising and falling over the crook of his hairy arm; Carlin’s barnstorming “religion is bullshit” routine; or (still stunning 40 years later) Pryor turning his own heart attack into an antique black comedy.
With an air of self-respect, Dave Chappelle Pryor connects to today’s fears about what we can and can’t say – and talks touchingly about his own relationship with the man he calls “the GOAT”. But based on this first edition, The Hall is a better platform for the initiates than those conducting the induction. Its live element still strikes the right note – while the acclaimed acts fully and at times rousingly commanded theirs (and always will in posterity).