Jo Firestone Is the Latest Comic to Radically Re-envision the Standup Special
In "Good Timing," the comedian explains the joys of mentoring senior citizens, the "alt-comedy" scene and why it's weird to talk to dogs in a baby voice
“What’s the worst thing to have on a T-shirt?”
This is the question New York standup comic Jo Firestone asks students in her comedy writing workshop, a prompt to help brew creative thought concoctions. After a few amusing but sterile responses from a semicircle of eight, including “cream cheese” and “I love me, not you,” things take a decidedly dirty turn. “A naked baby trying to wee wee,” says one pupil, Evana, before her classmate Tequila tosses out, “Eat pussy, it’s organic.” While Firestone lightly giggles into her hand as she half-hides her face, only a single hearty laugh booms across the room from another pupil, Bill. It quickly becomes clear why it didn’t get a bigger response. “I couldn’t hear, what was it?” asks Bibi, seated two chairs away from Tequila, who repeats herself at higher volume. But that turn doesn’t help Barbara, who’s one seat farther down. Barbara says again, “Eat what?” “Pussy!” shout several of her peers, finally ending the inquisitions.
Cochlea wear and tear makes sense in this room. At 68, Bill’s likely the youngest of the student body; Bibi’s 20 years his senior, and Tequila doesn’t give her age. These base, sophomoric refrains weren’t conjured up by hopeful hipsters dreaming of Netflix specials. Firestone regularly imparts her comedy wisdom upon retirees, eager to fill long stretches of time with engaging activities that also generate crucial connectivity with others. One of Firestone’s most recent ventures into this arena of adult education has been chronicled in a new Peacock Original film, Good Timing. With Firestone’s aged Padawans enmeshed in basic training for a live standup performance, the side-splitting results emerge as something of a geriatric twist on Kids Say the Darndest Things. For Firestone, who’s 34 years old, age is just a number.
“I think people say the darndest things,” Firestone observes, in response to my TV show comparison. “When people are being not-self-conscious, they’ll say very strange things.”
She’s often befuddled by folks who approach her pooch while out for a walk, for example, speaking to it as though it were a young person with an ability to talk back. “Hello little doggy,” they’ll say. Firestone finds such behavior “insane.”
“That’s an adult that, like, works in finance or something,” she muses. “Why are you talking like that to my dog?”
The fun with words that her students have amongst each other in Good Timing flies in the face of a pandemic that hit their age group the hardest, and not just in loss-of-life terms. Ageism has been boosted, with many people of questionable character wondering why social concessions should be made to ensure the safety of seniors. This has made a large portion of our population — 16 percent — that’s already vulnerable to health risks associated with social isolation and loneliness feel even more disregarded.
Providing older people a creative outlet where they can interact with others is nothing new for Firestone, who’s been fronting workshops like the one in the 49-minute film for about 15 years.
“I think it’s really funny when people are just doing goofy exercises and being themselves,” Firestone says. “Especially in hospitals or places like senior centers, I think the levity is appreciated.”
Feelings of isolation can also regularly come for standup comedians, who typically work alone, on stage and off. Firestone wards off those blues with the workshops, too. COVID-19 only added an extra layer of import to them this past year and a half.
“During the pandemic, these people I probably saw more than anybody,” Firestone says. “It’s a space designated to feeling good and feeling happy. Anyone would get a lot out of [that].”
But challenges abound as well. She began instructing the group — that in total numbers 24, as some students said they didn’t want to experience the “Hollywood lifestyle” that would come with a film crew, Firestone jokes — three weeks prior to the start of pandemic shutdowns. The in-person gatherings shifted to Zoom, but once vaccines began to get injected into her students’ arms, she saw them in the flesh again. Firestone thought the classes could be chronicled in a compelling documentary, with a climactic comedy performance.
“Basically what we wanted to do with this thing was showcase [the students], and show them in their best light,” Firestone says, calling her pupils not only “charming,” but also “interesting” and “so funny on their own.” “Anything I’d script for them would be terrible,” she says.
Firestone and her longtime collaborator Julie Miller, who serves as Good Timing’s director, developed the concept and pitched it to a series of prospective broadcasters. Peacock took the project on, putting the film up on its platform last Friday, just a few months after the July 1 show, featuring Firestone’s students and a socially distanced audience, which brought the workshop to a close.
Good Timing is also the latest take on what a “standup special” can be. Starting with Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette, which hit Netflix three years ago, there’s been much conversation and ink spilled about the evolving form. The New York Times called Nanette, where Gadsby sometimes goes through long stretches of serious remembrances of personal turmoil, a “comedy-destroying” piece of performance art. In between bits of a recorded standup set, Gary Gulman integrated talks with his comedian friends, life partner and therapist about mental health for his 2019 HBO offering, The Great Depresh. Earlier this year, Bo Burnham brought his brand of YouTube-clip comedy to a wider Netflix audience, battling pandemic isolation through catchy musical numbers, with Inside. Firestone says this “shift” toward out-of-the-box comedy productions helped give her the creative freedom to experiment, and to believe the project could garner interest from broadcasting partners and contemporary viewers.
Doing something different is nothing new to Firestone, however. She cut her teeth in the “alt-comedy” scene, a community of performers who organize low-cost, experimental shows, often in non-comedy club spaces, with its most recent ground zero fixed in Brooklyn. (Firestone, who once used almost all of her 10 minutes of stage time during a gig to give shoutouts to people watching on a livestream, even appeared in an episode of the HBO series Crashing devoted to alt-comedy. (Its star, Pete Holmes, who plays an up-and-coming comic, ventures into the outer borough to find a more accepting audience, seeing some pretty zany alt-scene players, downstairs from a bookstore.) Though Firestone doesn’t shy away from her history of inclusion in the alt-comedy category, she does say that such “labels” are “helpful for an audience,” pointing them in a desirable direction, “but not super helpful for the comedians.”
“Some of the stuff is weird,” Firestone says about the comedy in the alt scene. “But I do think a lot of this stuff could play at a [mainstream] club; it’s just, I think the club culture is intimidating, for one reason or another, for a lot of people, and they found a different space where they can be themselves.”
Count Firestone’s students among those who can find a stage setting intimidating. Or as Bill says in the film, he was “scared to death” of performing. “You’re pretty vulnerable,” he adds.
Firestone was nervous for her students, too, but says she played it cool. She could tell her pupils’ respective blood pressures were already high enough. (She’s parlayed that kind of care for her workshoppers into a full-time position with the New York City Department for the Aging, which aims to “ensure the dignity and quality of life of diverse older adults” throughout the metropolis.)
Spoiler alert: In Good Timing Firestone’s pupils all make it onto the stage and off it okay, though there is one brief moment of concern for Babi. But such a reveal — if you can call it that, given that this is an article about a comedy production — is secondary to what Firestone hopes viewers experience while watching.
“I hope that they enjoy it and it makes them feel good,” Firestone says. “It’s nice to see people trying something new and hopefully maybe it’ll inspire you to try something new.”
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