Stream It Or Skip It: ‘Kate Berlant: Cinnamon in the Wind’ On FX On Hulu, Reflecting The Inherently False Moments Of Performative Comedy
FX threw everyone a curveball by tossing two new stand-up comedy specials on TV last week, the network’s first stab at the genre since releasing a documentary, Hysterical, a year and a half ago. Are these specials from Kate Berlant and Byron Bowers harbingers of more har-hars to come? Or will you get lost even just trying to find stand-up on the FX on Hulu hub thanks to the algorithms?
The Gist: Kate Berlant is all over the place right now. Playing baseball on Prime Video in the reboot of A League of Their Own. Playing sketch partners with John Early on Peacock’s Would It Kill You To Laugh? Playing disparate housewife in Don’t Worry Darling.
Her first solo special actually filmed pre-pandemic in 2019, and if you’re lucky enough to catch Berlant in her currently sold-out Off-Broadway show (KATE) then you can see where she has taken some of these premises and folded them into a fully-fleshed surreal narrative for the stage. Both her 2022 stage show and her FX special were directed by Bo Burnham.
What Comedy Specials Will It Remind You Of?: Collaborating with Burnham makes perfect sense, as both comedians love to toy with the relationship dynamic between performer and audience.
Memorable Jokes: As she explains in a bit from which this special gets its title: “Life, like this show, is just cinnamon in the wind. It’s gone. And you’re just there left cursing the air. There was spice here once.”
The 43 minutes (because remember, this initially was edited for TV broadcast with ad breaks) is full of fleeting moments and thoughts like that, as you never know quite where Berlant is headed before she pivots somewhere else. Sometimes mid-sentence. You’ll be struck by some of this shifts, often punctuated with freeze-frame facial expressions. The ad breaks feature interstitial moments of Berlant behind-the-scenes, cut to different voiceovers.
Perhaps the most memorable bit that resembles a traditional bit comes when Berlant wonders how the United States could ever bring itself to elect a woman as president. “I don’t see America just electing a woman, in pants,” she concedes. Instead, the first female POTUS would have to either be “pornographically feminized” or “so radically desexualized” and cold to win our votes. Berlant’s preference? “I want the fridge. I’m dying for the fridge.”
Our Take: Berlant wants to exist so in the moment, and yet also point out to us all the while how “it’s an inherently false moment,” thanks to the cameras. She mocks the artifice not just of her individual performance, but of all performance, show business and fame. That it’s shot by Burnham in black and white, with mirrors reflecting Berlant back at her, only adds to the deconstruction.
Her crowd work with the audience furthers the mockery.
One bit, where she asks the audience to shout out emotions for her to immediately manifest them facially, has transformed into something even greater in her off-Broadway production.
Or there’s the time when she stops to answer a phone call. Never you mind if the phone actually rang or if there’s someone on the line.
And yet, there are moments where she talks with an audience member that feel truly improvisational and off the cuff. So when Berlant later slips up on a line reading, you might be left wondering if the slip-up was intentional or accidental. How would we ever know by that point? But that’s part of the point!
It’s perhaps for the best that we later learn she’s an only child. Or wait, is she? The tension is palpable, and Berlant cuts through it judiciously and juicily.
Our Call: STREAM IT. Especially if you love the character work Berlant has done with John Early or in her previous Netflix showcase of The Characters, then this special is right up your proverbial alley.
Sean L. McCarthy works the comedy beat for his own digital newspaper, The Comic’s Comic; before that, for actual newspapers. Based in NYC but will travel anywhere for the scoop: Ice cream or news. He also tweets @thecomicscomic and podcasts half-hour episodes with comedians revealing origin stories: The Comic’s Comic Presents Last Things First.