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Communing with Comedy 

Rothaniel and Fire Island

click to enlarge Happy Pride.

Fire Island

Happy Pride.

JERROD CARMICHAEL: ROTHANIEL. Despite its boom and bust popularity, stand-up comedy is an elemental art form. Combining obfuscation and transparency, truth and illusion, tragedy and hilarity, it's all about vulnerability. There can be triumph, even dominance, but the prerequisite is for a spiritually naked person to climb into a spotlight with a microphone and communicate with a room/world full of other people. Like anything, the form is subject to abuse, but treated with appropriate respect, the rite creates a sacred space; laughter is the eucharist.

Maybe it's a little heady, silly even, but the medium relies on personal connection and fundamental honesty, and all of us are adherents and practitioners, to some extent. It can become a form without barriers or boundaries (though that's a white-hot debate), allowing confession, catharsis and occasional transcendence.

Jerrod Carmichael has been active as a stand-up comic, writer, director, producer, etc. for some 15 years and has his bona fides. He has released three specials, fostered projects for other artists, appeared in blockbuster comedies, had his own network sitcom. Still, he hasn't broken through as a major mainstream "star" and Rothaniel is all the better for it.

Having made his bones on stage, Carmichael treats it as his natural habitat, remaining himself as the lights blaze, without pretense or apparent effort; or so one might have thought. With this special, directed by Bo Burnham (Inside, 2021) and performed at New York's vaunted Blue Note Jazz Club, he takes an hour to talk about secrets: general, familial and personal. In a blood-red shirt, Carmichael exercises his mastery of the form to turn the club into a safe space: He expects a dialogue (within reason) with the audience and they, being respectful and attentive, provide a thoughtful one. The hour that follows isn't raucous or joke-y; it is, in fact, occasionally painful in its rawness and intimacy. But even when he's telling the crowd (us) he isn't sure what he's going to say, that he feels the need to leaven his intimations with jokes, we feel him in complete control.

Because Carmichael's comedic persona has always been unassuming and kindly, something less inflated or elevated than a lot of comics, it feels more natural for him to operate in this mode than it does/would for some. Compared to Aziz Ansari's 2019 Right Now, a commendable but perhaps too intentional diminution of his onstage character, Rothaniel feels like a person in conversation with himself and with us. It is riskier and closer to the bone than previous work, but feels natural and welcoming. He creates a space for himself but invites in those ready to join him — he makes a few hilarious jokes about all the dudes on their couches who will turn it off midway — so his confessions become lovingly participatory. With Burnham's empathetic camera placement and editing, Rothaniel not only puts us in the room, on the spot with Carmichael, it creates community. TVMA. 55M. HBO MAX.

FIRE ISLAND. With the theocracy looming like fire on the horizon, at least we're finally getting some breakthrough queer comedies. And it's about goddamn time.

Written by and starring Joel Kim Booster, and directed by Andrew Ahn, Fire Island describes the perhaps-last week-long retreat to the titular party destination for Noah (Booster), his somewhat distanced best friend Howie (Bowen Yang) and their ragtag family of confidants and weirdos. Against the backdrop of constant partying and the growing concern that their den mother Erin (Margaret Cho) might have to sell her house on the island, Noah dedicates himself to getting Howie laid. But when Howie starts to catch feelings and the group intersects with a bunch of snobby WASPs, the week of release and relaxation gets a little heavy.

Though not a romantic comedy fan per se, I've got space for any movie that can tell its story with heart and authenticity, both of which are found in abundance here. And a coming-of-age story, even/especially one about 30-year-old city kids, does something for me, especially when it brings jokes. R. 105M. HULU.

John J. Bennett (he/him) is a movie nerd who loves a good car chase.

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For showtimes call: Broadway Cinema 443-3456; Fortuna Theatre 725-2121; Mill Creek Cinema 839-3456; Minor Theatre 822-3456.

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