I found Daniel Sloss the same way I imagine most people did: Netflix. The pair of specials – Dark and Jigsaw – that went up there last year were deep and, well, dark; they got at some really interesting truths about society and humanity; love and relationships. I became a fan. And so did the 177 others in the sold-out show I attended last week. And he knows where all that support has come from. Literally the first word out of his mouth was “Netflix” followed by, “It’s life-changing.” Nope. Not going to do an accent. I’m sorry.
The Netflix comedy scene is huge and, I think, one of the biggest draws its sticker price keeps increasing – especially as it’s gone international. From collections of fifteens-to-half half hours to solo hour-plus specials from names big and small alike, there’s not a better service for comedy fans – sorry, HBO. Of course, it’s not always great or even good, but there’s also some genuinely amazing stuff; heck, it’s home to arguably my favorite comedy special of all time, Bo Burnham’s Make Happy, a show I almost went to the taping of but that it’s ultimately good I didn’t for a variety of reasons mostly related to emotional stability.
Arguably the most significant special released last year was Hannah Gadsby’s Nannette, a poignant and timely hour that spawned more mainstream think pieces than any set not done by an admitted sexual harasser who has learned all the wrong lessons, stopped being funny, and really just needs to go away. Fittingly, Nanette was a response to all that. And every event like it.
So is X. Sloss’s latest is kind of like Nanette by way of Anthony Jeselnik – featuring the righteous sincerity of the former with the gleeful viscousness of the latter. But, like Jeselnik himself, I would say that the last few years has moderated Sloss’s punchlines. Offensiveness has never been as core to his comedy as it is to Jeselnik’s – or, really, anyone else’s – but Dark and Jigsaw both are far more antagonistic than this.
Which is to say, the 51.3% of people who disliked my review of Jeselnik’s Fire in the Maternity Ward special will hate X, and so will anyone insecure and-slash-or problematic enough to feel attacked by an ad for a razor company.
X is about being a man in 2019 – both in the literal sense of maleness and also the societal sense of masculinity. It is a complicated, layered performance that gets at some very fundamental truths, not all of which can or should be laughed off.
He refers to his format – used at least in Dark, Jigsaw, and an unnamed show mentioned in X that he explicitly noted Netflix didn’t pick up but sounded pretty darn interesting – 60 to 70 minutes of jokes followed by a 15-minute TED talk. This because at some point he stops searching for punchlines in order to say what he wants to say. It isn’t necessarily that the topics can’t be made funny but that what he wants to convey is better expressed during moments of that “tension” Hannah Gadsby is always talking about – sorry, last time.
What makes X so effective as a cohesive entity is how cleanly it transitions from jokes to non jokes – at least as far as the material is concerned (put a pin in that). You can draw a straight line from the first joke to that conclusion, because it was always building to an inevitable moment where he needs to talk about something that isn’t funny. The seeds were planted right after that Netflix aside, when he introduced everything by saying that we the audience were in for some serious discomfort. I thought at the time that that was going to be about the jokes he would be telling. Turns out… it wasn’t. They are very funny, and I laughed a lot. And there was some shock-for-the-sake-of-shock, but much less than I had expected.
So it was the inevitable turn that was going to make us squirm in our seats; that’s what he was preparing us for. For this ending, when his attention turned squarely onto the only thing one human could do to another that could never under any circumstances ever be justified.
And if you don’t know what that is… you should see this show. And also reassess a lot of things about your life.
If you do, then you’re probably already a little uncomfortable about the prospect of listening to another straight white man talk about rape. And Sloss is well aware of that – pin removed – as he breaks the flow of his storytelling to impress upon us that what is coming is not a joke, he is not joking, and that we need to trust him when he says that. He is not trying to pull a fast one; he is extremely serious.
This is centered around the story of an assault – not his own but one he inadvertently facilitated. It’s horrible. Awful. Infuriating. And only about him insofar as he is the one talking about it in his self-obsessed comedy special… so a fair amount, I guess, but all of this is part of The Point.
It’s interesting to see this show with that Liam Neeson controversy still in the headlines. For those unaware, the actor admitted during an interview with The Independent that many decades ago, he literally walked the streets in a black neighborhood waiting for someone to jump him so that he could then beat that person to death. This to quote-unquote avenge the rape of a close friend of his by a black man. He was mad at a black man and wanted to take it out on all of them in response – ya know, white hoods aren’t a great look.
But I think the thing about this that everyone is ignoring is the thing that’s always ignored: her perspective, whoever she is. Right now, that feels almost appropriate because it was so long ago. But let’s not pretend that if it had somehow become a story at the time we wouldn’t be focusing on him and not the survivor. It wouldn’t have ever been how his friend was dealing with it. Because even though it happened to her, that experience isn’t valued. It becomes about the angry white man who wanted to be the hero. As though that could have ever made it better.
But… do you know how many times I have thought about that? Not the walking through a neighborhood looking for an excuse to enact random killings, but how I would absolutely destroy a person who hurt someone close to me like that? Dozens at bare minimum, with disturbingly detailed plans considering there’s no actual situation to base it all on. It’s absurd. It’s awful. Awful that our society is such that it’s even the kind of thing I might want to mentally prepare for, but also awful that my reaction is not “I Will Be There For That Person” but rather “I Will Literally Cut Out Their Attacker’s Tongue And Watch Them Drown In Their Own Blood” (it’s dark up here).
And it gets to the critical reason why there needs to be a male version of Nanette, because even though Hannah Gadsby is speaking from the survivor’s perspective and that’s the only one we should really be caring about, it’s Daniel Sloss’s telling that triggers the realization that that thing I was just talking about is not good in any scenario. That I am preemptively making something about me that isn’t and never was. I do not, on the whole, relate to Gadsby’s experience. Her life has been full of trauma that I cannot even fathom.
Sloss I can get. He too is a straight white dude in his late 20s raised in a society that puts men at the center of all of these narratives. He has the same external view of all this horror that I do, that I can relate to in a way I can’t really relate to people who have been underneath the horror this whole time.
At the end of 2015, reeling from a genuinely horrible breakup that I had initiated, I wrote a twelve-thousand-word story about my relationships with women – and not just romantic ones. It became a very self-indulgent and masochistic one-man show; the only image of which is right here. It was cathartic – unexpectedly so – for me to sit mostly naked underneath a bright light, having just shaved my head for the first time in my life, and listen to an audio recording I had made of this story for the very first time in a room of other people also hearing it for the very first time – again, weird place to be.
That was me trying to grapple with some of the same questions that are now central to this conversation we’re all having. Men, on the whole, aren’t great at expressing their emotions. So we tend to do it in weird, showy ways if we do it at all. For me, that could be movies or one man shows or strange asides here on this channel – not always the most relatable methods of expression but maybe someone still gets something from it.
For many more, though, it’s comedy. Certainly that’s the case for Daniel Sloss. Too many men have actively misunderstood Me Too and Times Up and made it about them. Here is a guy who gets them both and is trying to wrestle with how to not make it about him in the context of a show written and performed by him. And that’s important to see. Because his onstage self-sparring is the catalyst for internal reflections about the same conversations we’ve had with ourselves. What have we done; what could we have done; what can we still do.
X should be required viewing for all men. But really, it should be required viewing for all boys – and not just for those final minutes. This whole show is about righting the wrongs of a 15-year-old’s perspective, one put in place by a society that just didn’t care about anyone else’s… and probably still doesn’t.
It is powerful. It is timely. And Netflix better fucking buy it.
Nine-Point-Zero out of Ten.