Comedy Central’s gotten a lot of credit recently, deservedly so, for a new wave of very good shows that highlight different comedic points of view. There’s Inside Amy Schumer, with its irreverent take on everything from hyper-masculinity to the societal pressures women feel to treat themselves and each other a specific way. There’s Key & Peele, with its deconstructions of everything from institutionalized racism to the need for men to be more macho than they actually are. There’s Broad City, with its singular look at the lives of two best friends and how they encounter everything from financial problems to drugs to pegging. Now, I think, we should add The Meltdown with Jonah and Kumail to that list.
Meltdown is a show that grew out of a stand-up comedy showcase hosted at Los Angeles’ NerdMelt Showroom by comedians Jonah Ray and Kumail Nanjiani and producer Emily V. Gordon. The show has developed a reputation as one of the best in L.A., where those lucky enough to score a seat can see the greats of the local scene do some of their best work while also discovering new and exciting talent and getting a chance to watch some really talented people just play around with some ideas.
I have not been lucky enough to attend the live show (yet), but in my imagination the TV series is very much a distillation of what goes on there. Stand-up sets are intercut with behind-the-scenes moments in which comics who are clearly friends just have a little fun. The sets range from comedy-magic hybrids to observational standards to outright bizarre bits. Through it all, you get a sense that this is governed by an idea the hosts and producer have cultivated: that they will simply let the best and most exciting people step on to The Meltdown’s very intimate stage and do what they want, and that the audience will welcome the originality and the passion.
The show’s first season, which aired last summer, exemplifies this mission. In the course of just eight half-hour episodes the series gave us Reggie Watts building an intricate symphony with nothing but his voice and a loop pedal, Emily Heller breaking down her relationship with Netflix, Nick Offerman singing a song about how good his handkerchief is for wiping up semen, John Hodgman wearing a dress and pretending to be Ayn Rand, Marc Maron delivering an intimate analysis of his anger issues, and Garfunkel and Oates (Riki Lindhome and Kate Micucci) singing about how anal sex isn’t really a sin. That’s only a portion of what Season 1 delivered, and it all took place in just four hours of airtime, with commercials.
Sure, Comedy Central’s had stand-up showcase series before, including things like the excellent John Oliver’s New York Stand-Up Show, but they’ve never had something quite like this. Meltdown feels like a very curated show, like it’s all, in the end, the vision of the people who design it, but at the same time it feels like something that’s brilliantly unpredictable. On any given episode, you’re as likely to see a veteran do their best work as you are to see an up-and-comer deliver a revolutionary comedy moment. In an age when the network is succeeding with unique comedic takes like Inside Amy Schumer and Key & Peele, it’s nice to be reminded that stand-up is still the medium’s bread and butter. The Meltdown makes a clear statement that stand-up isn’t dead on the network, but it also goes a step further. It reminds us that stand-up can still be surprising and innovative and even moving, and that’s something Comedy Central — and all of us — should cherish.
The Meltdown with Jonah and Kumail airs Wednesdays at 12:30 a.m. (aka Tuesday night) EST on Comedy Central.