Joe Mande’s Award-Winning Comedy Special is a zeitgeist trifecta. The title is search-engine optimized, the special is on the biggest platform in the world—Netflix—and the decades-old form is at its most culturally pervasive since George Carlin and Richard Pryor were doing it in the ‘70s.
The last of those—the comedy special itself—hasn’t actually changed all that much since the 1970s, and that’s a good thing. The 2000 pilot for CBS’s Survivor now looks painfully dated because the show’s technicals and storytelling have gotten so much better in the years since. Comedy has had the same technicals (a comic, a stage, a few cameras) and storytelling (the routine itself) since the Stone Age. It works.
The comedy itself remains deeply individualized, of course, and you can see that in Mande’s new special. He plays on representation by joking about the fact that he looks “ethnically ambiguous” and claims the mantle of Jewish comic on the sly. Instead of telegraphing confession or locker-room ribbing when he recounts a story about a particularly extreme morning-wood incident, he beams with pride.
Mande, 34, met me last week at the Walker Inn—a cozy cocktail bar in Los Angeles’ Koreatown—to talk about his first one-hour special, his career as a TV writer and his general thoughts on the one-hour special circa 2017. Here’s 12 things I learned:
1. RYE WHISKEY COCKTAILS ARE JOE MANDE’S FAVORITE.
Mande picked the location, so that more or less narrowed it down to vodka, gin and whiskey. We started with a couple of Vieux Carrés. “It’s my favorite cocktail,” Mande said. “It’s got a shot of bitters — a lot of bitters — in it.” And rye whiskey.
A Vieux Carré is a classic combination — Cognac, rye whiskey, sweet vermouth, Benedictine, Peychaud’s Bitters and Angostura Bitters chilled and served with an orange peel garnish. “There’s a another place in L.A. called Sassafras that makes a really good Vieux Carré,” Mande says.
2. HE WON’T WATCH HIMSELF ON TV.
Mande has never worked much as an actor — mostly parts on shows where he’s either one of the writers (Kroll Show, Parks and Recreation) or friends with the writers (Brooklyn Nine-Nine) — but recurred last season on ABC’s Modern Family as a love interest for Dunphy daughter Alex. He was in 10 episodes, and he has not watched them.
“I can’t watch myself,” Mande says. “I don’t like seeing my face. I don’t like hearing my voice.” He also hasn’t seen his 2012 half-hour stand-up special on Comedy Central. “When it came on TV and I saw the first five seconds, it was a joke from the middle part of the routine. I just couldn’t watch it.”
3. NETFLIX’S GRAND DESIGNS IS HIS FAVORITE SHOW RIGHT NOW.
“What are you watching on TV?” has replaced “How about this weather we’re having?” as the ice breaker du jour. That’s a good thing. First, it’s hot and we’re all sick of talking about it. Second, there’s a lot of TV to watch, everybody’s watching different stuff, and I almost always get interesting answers. Joe Mande is watching an HGTV-style British reality show on Netflix called Grand Designs.
“It’s so British,” Mande says. The show has been running for years on U.K.’s Channel 4, and Netflix has a couple of recent seasons. “There’s a particular episode where the construction company goes bankrupt and the narrator is like 'three years later…,’ and I think What? How is the show even made? My wife and I watched a whole season in two nights.”
4. THE GOOD PLACE TWIST DIDN’T SURPRISE HIM.
While he was recurring on Modern Family, Mande’s day job this past season was working in the writers’ room on NBC’s The Good Place. I won’t spoil in the event you haven’t seen it, but there’s a Keyser Söze/“I see dead people”-level twist — hugely unexpected — in the Season 1 finale. Mande was one of the few people who knew about it.
“Ted Danson and Kristen Bell knew, and all the writers knew from the beginning,” Mande says. “Nobody else knew until a couple of weeks before we did the table read for the finale. Kristen taped on her phone to get the reactions when [series creator] Mike Schur announced it and everyone’s heads exploded.” The Season 2 premiere, which Mande co-wrote with Jen Statsky, is September 28 on NBC.
5. HIS STAND-UP IS (MOSTLY) TRUE.
A couple of years ago, Mande took his first dick pic—to send to his wife, which is sweet—while he was in L.A. and she was in New York for work. “I don’t know the etiquette,” he says in the special. He calls at wife at work to let her know he’s texting it to her. “There’s this long pause,” he says, “and she was like don’t. And I was like right.” And that’s exactly how it happened, Mande says when I ask how close that story is to true.
“It would be so alien for me to go on stage and lie about stuff,” Mande says. “I may slightly exaggerate something for comedic effect, but those are all true stories.”
6. IF HE PLAYED IN THE NBA, HE’D WEAR SHORT SHORTS.
Though we’re in the midst of the NBA offseason, there’s still plenty for die-hard fans to obsess over. The NBA is switching from Adidas to Nike for apparel, so why not bring back short shorts? “If you’re a really good dunker, I would imagine you would want shorter shorts,” Mande says. “If you’re doing stuff between your legs in a dunk competition, you don’t wanna get messed up in all that material.”
Mande grew up a long-suffering Minnesota Timberwolves fan, and he said he’s really looking forward to their new uniforms. He checks Uni Watch, a blog about college and pro sports uniforms, several times a week. “If I were in the NBA,” he says, “I would absolutely wear short shorts.”
7. A FEW DRINKS DON’T SLOW HIS WIT.
An hour into a two-hour cocktail night, we’ve moved from Vieux Carrés to a Monte Carlo (rye whiskey, Benedictine, Peychaud’s Bitters and Angostura Bitters) for me and a Rye Boulevardier (rye whiskey in place of bourbon, Campari and sweet vermouth) for Mande. We had this exchange:
Have you taken Xanax?
I’ve taken Xanax before a flight.
You don’t like to fly?
It’s just an excuse to take Xanax.
That’s a good excuse.
I just wanna think my life is great while the plane is crashing. I’ve done my one-hour special, so now I’m ready to die in a place crash.
8. BLAKE GRIFFIN IS A FRIEND.
The NBA comes up several times during the evening, and it comes up early in Joe Mande’s Award-Winning Comedy Special in the form of L.A. Clippers forward Blake Griffin. The gag in the special is that Mande and Griffin are BFFs, which is only an exaggeration by degree. “I knew Blake superficially for a while,” Mande says, “and then I met him last year doing stand-up in Montreal.” Mande was in Montreal doing stand-up—and so was six-foot-eight, NBA All-Star Griffin. “And he’s good,” Mande adds.
Mande says he and Griffin spent some time together in Montreal talking about getting over performance nerves, and they’ve talked a few times since. “He tells me basketball gossip, and I tell him comedy gossip,” Mande says.
9. WEED AND BASKETBALL ARE HIS FAVORITE TOPICS.
After Parks and Recreation ended, Mande and Adam Scott, who played the Pawnee city manager on the show, sold a pilot to NBC about an L.A. weed dispensary, but the show didn’t go forward. (Neither is involved in Chuck Lorre’s L.A. weed dispensary comedy Disjoined that premieres August 25 on Netflix.) Mande was a writer on Season 1 of Parks and Rec alum Aziz Ansari’s Master of None—Season 2 conflicted with The Good Place—but he’s not sure he has an innwardly driven biographical series in him.
“I’m writing a pilot for FX about minor-league basketball,” Mande says. “It’s not a thing from my life, but I love basketball. Of the two shows I’ve sold, one’s about weed and one’s about basketball. Write what you know, right?”
10. HE REVERES THE ONE-HOUR SPECIAL. MOSTLY.
The one-hour comedy special is a surprisingly rigid form in a TV era when genres and structures in constant flux. Comics put their own stamp on it with opening and closing bits, but the middle—the actual stand-up routine—is almost always an uninterrupted performance taped in front of an audience.
“There’s a purity to a one-hour special,” Mande says. “I don’t want anyone to go away from my special thinking I hedged the actual stand-up.” Mande workshopped the material for a few months after he finished work on The Good Place and taped the special six months ago in New York. Mande frames the special as his Quixotic quest to win the non-existent American Humour Award. “I worked my ass off to get an hour of stand-up together that I thought was a cohesive thing.”
11. ROMAN POLANSKI DIDN’T ACTUALLY DIRECT HIS SPECIAL.
After a few comics tell Mande in the opening sketch that he needs a famous director for his special, he laments to BFF Blake Griffin that he’s shooting in a week and still hasn’t found one. “I’ve asked everyone—Ang Lee, Michael Bay, even the Wachowskis to do some crazy, futuristic, trans thing,” Mande tells him. After everyone says no, Mande just goes without a director and puts Roman Polanski’s name on it. I mean, what’s he gonna do?
Dan Longino, who Mande worked with on Kroll Show actually directs the special, but the opening credits say Roman Polanksi. Mande actually ran the bit by his lawyer to make sure it wouldn’t violate any Director’s Guild rules or provoke a lawsuit from Polanski. “After we talked about whether I could do the Roman Polanski joke, he said, 'You know, you’re my only client who calls me about First Amendment issues.’ I only care about Can I get away with saying this?
12. HE THINKS HE’S THE FLAVOR OF THE WEEK, WHICH IS FINE.
Netflix will have a new comedy special this week—Joe Mande’s Award-Winning Comedy Special—and then Netflix will have another new comedy special next week. And then another one the next week. And the next week and the next week. In one sense, Mande is the flavor of the week. In another, his special is on the biggest platform in the world—100 million global subscribers—and it will be there forever.
"There’s some truth to saying it’s the flavor of the week—this is when it’s going to get the most promotion—but then it just exists on Netflix,” Mande says. “I went to Netflix’s headquarters, and they showed me this map of the world. They’re basically everywhere but China and Syria, which I actually shout out as my people in the special."
Joe Mande’s Award-Winning Comedy Special is available for streaming on Netflix.