‘Baby Reindeer,’ ‘The Contestant’ and ‘Hacks’ Expose the Scary Side of Comedy

Five ways these new and returning TV projects dramatize the stress and possible peril comics can face while doing their jobs
‘Baby Reindeer,’ ‘The Contestant’ and ‘Hacks’ Expose the Scary Side of Comedy

Anyone who still wasn’t sure how much comedy derives, at least in part, from the rage, spite and self-hatred of the people who tend to write and perform it probably got an idea pretty early into their first episode of WTF With Marc Maron. But the darkness inherent in the performance of comedy doesn’t belong only to the performers. Three current TV projects — Netflix’s Baby Reindeer, a scripted narrative based on true events; The Contestant, a documentary feature about an extreme reality show; and the Max dramedy Hacks, which premieres the first two episodes of its third season on May 2nd — dramatize the external forces that can create stress and even danger in comedians’ working lives.

External forces such as…

Your ‘Big Break’ Probably Isn’t What It Seems

Aspiring comedian Tomoaki Hamatsu, nicknamed Nasubi (the Japanese word for “eggplant”), has moved from Fukushima to Tokyo when, in the late ’90s, he wins a lottery for an unspecified job in show business. This turns out to be the starring role in “A Life in Prizes.” For a segment in the successful unscripted show Susunu! Denpa Shōnen, Nasubi is confined to a small suite, stripped of all his clothing, and instructed to start entering magazine contests until he has won prizes worth a total of 1 million yen. He won’t eat unless and until he wins food in a contest; he’ll stay naked until he wins some clothes. Having relocated with the goal of performing on camera, Nasubi can’t have imagined getting a gig dancing naked around his tiny apartment or figuring out how to cook rice without a pot, never mind doing so for more than a year.

On the other side of the world, Donny Dunn (Richard Gadd) of Baby Reindeer (which Gadd also created, based on his play) thinks he’s made it as a comic when he gets booked at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. What he learns is that not all venues are created equal, and that his competition for the attention of the patrons at the pub where he’ll be performing will be TVs — though at least they’ll be on mute. The legendary event has, over the years, launched the careers of Steve Coogan, Robin Williams and Stephen Fry, but Donny’s indifferent crowds aren’t likely to push him into that category. 

Your Success Could Rest on the Whims of Virality

Throughout Baby Reindeer, we watch Donny progress through several rounds of a London comedy competition, despite audiences whose reactions to his prop-based anti-comedy range from indifferent to hostile. Everything changes after he abandons his act and opens up candidly about the battles he’s been fighting offstage: the lingering shame and trauma following a sexual assault, and the inescapable attentions of Martha (Jessica Gunning), Donny’s stalker. A patron at the show films the set and posts it online, getting Donny booked on shows he’s never done before, to warm crowds who’ve already seen his clip. Donny might have never sought fame like this, but the positive halo effect from one of his most negative moments is, at least for a time, undeniable.

The Contestant’s Nasubi doesn’t have the luxury of deciding where and when his audience is going to see him. He’s not even sure anyone ever will see the footage he’s recording all day, every day. But if his long-term goal is for “A Life in Prizes” to springboard him from reality-show curiosity to legitimate comedy performer, he’s going to have to postpone that goal for a while: his segment makes him such a sensation that he quite literally becomes a victim of his own ratings success. 

Also Subject to the Whims of Virality? Your Failure

One of the inciting incidents of the Hacks pilot is that Ava (Hannah Einbinder) suffers professional blowback over a tweet, which makes the rounds before she can contain the damage — so a healthy fear of eagle-eyed internet users is an essential element of the show’s basic premise. The immediate consequence of Ava’s misstep is getting shunted to Las Vegas to work for Deborah Vance (Jean Smart), a stand-up comic who’s been in the business for decades, and who’s not not supposed to remind you of the late Joan Rivers, down to her line of apparel and home goods at QVC. 

Without spoiling anything: the trouble with having a long career, for a certain type of comedian, is that you create an extensive archive; some of that material won’t align with your values, or those of the audience you’re trying to cultivate now. Still being relevant later in life means staying on guard against a retweet or stitch from the wrong account.

A Crowd Is Only As Good As Its Most Disruptive Member

A well-written act is just the starting point for a good comedy set: you also need to have command of the audience, to elicit the reaction you want them to give, when you want it; to make them feel like you know what you’re doing and that they’re in safe hands. As a comic on the come-up, Baby Reindeer’s Donny hasn’t quite mastered this part of the job yet, which is why it’s unfortunate that one of his early performances for the comedy competition gets interrupted by an extraordinarily gentle heckler: Martha. Because she seems so friendly, but also so strange, and because Donny’s established that his set is kind of meta, some audience members might even wonder if Martha is a plant and part of his routine, like a magic trick the magician seems to screw up before a miraculous turn. It doesn’t matter how much Donny prepares, rehearses and hones his act; one disturbed individual can destroy it all just by being persistent and loud.

Deborah’s audience problem, in the third season of Hacks, is at the opposite end of the spectrum. One year since the spectacular launch of the special Deborah and Ava spent most of Season Two developing, Deborah’s in a whole new echelon of celebrity, such that she can’t trust her audiences’ feedback. It’s a different kind of disruption for a crowd to be too warm, but if they’re not letting Deborah get through her setups because they’re laughing so hard, it means she’s lost the control she needs in order to do her work.

You’re Ripe for Exploitation

Early in The Contestant, Nasubi tells us he wanted to break into comedy as a performer, but didn’t have any connections. Random chance results in his being chosen for “A Life in Prizes,” and from what we see, the show’s producers rush him straight to the suite without giving him time to find out exactly what he’s agreeing to. He never signs a contract. (The multiple media in which the show’s producers end up extending Nasubi’s brand — all, apparently, without his knowledge or consent — are shocking.) 

He’s told, by series creator Toshio Tsuchiya, that even though he’s required to film himself all day every day, most of it won’t ever air. Several interview subjects stress that Nasubi was never locked into his suite, and was free to leave at any time. But Nasubi is so determined not to let this platform go to waste that, in the absence of any contact with the outside world, he finds reserves of charisma and passion to perform for the audience of millions he doesn’t know is there. Unfortunately, this kind of freakish fame isn’t meant to boost him to the legitimate comedy career he hoped for.

The Edinburgh Fringe proves, for Baby Reindeer’s Donny, a hunting ground where he is the unwitting prey. Rising performers are expected to use their residencies to meet people in the industry who can help propel their careers, and Donny does, in Darrien (Tim Goodman-Hill). The head writer of a popular comedy on U.K. TV, Darrien advises Donny on how to make the best of his assigned venue and remains in contact after the festival. But the networking promises Darrien makes are all illusory; months go by and all Donny has to show for them are harsh notes on a script Darrien seems never to show anyone else; hangovers from progressively harder drugs; and, finally, a devastating physical violation. It’s easy for Darrien to manipulate Donny. Darrien has everything he wants, and Donny wants it badly enough that he can decide to trust Darrien more than his own instincts.

Of the comic protagonists in these three projects, Hacks lead Deborah is unlikely to face problems like Donny’s or Nasubi’s. Deborah is the monarch of her own queendom, in full control of her brand (and her brand deals), but there’s a ceiling to what she can achieve through sheer force of will; she’s still subject to corporate gatekeepers, and as she goes hard after a highly desirable, highly visible professional opportunity, her thirst to get it leaves her open to potential humiliation if she doesn’t. And though Deborah could probably transcend such humiliation by living well — the best revenge — whatever shit doesn’t hit her rolls downhill to Ava; having yet to reach her own living-well era, Ava has to make a lot of decisions on trust that, at any time, could prove to be misplaced.

In the years after Seinfeld, dozens of comics signed development deals for their own sitcoms. As of this writing, Baby Reindeer is the #1 TV show on Netflix, The Contestant is a multiple festival award nominee and Hacks is poised to add to its Emmy haul of six wins from 30+ nominations. If the next few years bring a boom of feel-bad stories about comedy’s grimmest horror stories, we’ll all know what started the trend.


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