In the increasingly intense streaming wars, Amazon Prime Video holds a peculiar position right now. At inception, Prime was a little outpost of excellence and originality. Such series as Mozart in the Jungle, Transparent and The Man in the High Castle were striking in their freshness.
Since then, the wheels have slowed. Amazon is riding high on The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, and not much more. There is also Fleabag, but that’s an acquisition from the BBC.
The company has 100 million-plus Prime members around the world and seems to be eternally in the midst of big plans for big productions coming in the future. It’s much-publicized Lord of the Rings series will only go into production this spring and a large-scale sci-fi series from Oscar-winning director Steve McQueen, called Last Days, about Earth being evacuated, might be finished by the end of this year.
In the meantime, what Amazon Prime Video has going for it is small-scale gems. Its foray into stand-up comedy specials is especially interesting, since its choices are downright eccentric.
Rob Delaney: Jackie (now streaming) is the platform’s latest comedy special and it’s also odd as all get out.
Delaney has had a bizarre career and his material is idiosyncratic. His one hour on stage amounts to series of anecdotes, strange detours, much swearing and, in the end, a story about Jackie, a bearded dragon acquired as a pet for his children, and what happened when Jackie apparently escaped and died. It’s an unorthodox stand-up set and the Jackie story seems off-the-wall, but it is, in a singular way, very powerful and humane.
The origins of it all are equally unique. Some years ago, Delaney was doing comedy in Los Angeles and getting nowhere. He had a drinking problem and, after a car crash in which he broke both arms, an experience he talks about with filthy gusto in this special, he got sober. He also started sharing his acid humour on Twitter in 2009.
Twitter was then an obscure platform, and only when Irish comedian Graham Linehan (co-creator of Father Ted) started paying attention did Delaney get serious engagement. Through Twitter he met Sharon Horgan, and this led to the two of them co-creating and starring in Catastrophe, one of the most original and beloved comedies of the past decade. Catastrophe, by the way, reached a huge audience through Amazon Prime Video.
Delaney moved to England to make the series and much of the material in Jackie is about his perspective on Britain, which is both bewildered and benign. The biggest cheer he gets is for his admiration for the National Health Service there: “Because in America, if you get sick, even if you have good private insurance, you still have to take your credit cards, and your mom’s credit cards and your neighbour’s credit cards, and melt them down, and fashion them into a kayak that you paddle into the hospital and beg them to help you.”
He fantasizes about watching U.S. President Donald Trump die on live television. But the main thrust of his stories and meandering self-deprecation is that he’s a very flawed human being. Instead of punchlines he points to his own weaknesses and prejudices as a kind of safety valve. Much of the material amounts to his love for, and admiration of, his children.
You get the feeling that Delaney has been through hell in his life, and while he doesn’t shy away from confronting it, he doesn’t reduce his experience to jokes told in hindsight. He’s rueful, down to earth and wants to remain stable; he likes being middle-aged and surrounded by his family.
There’s a very funny sequence about his family taking its first trip on a train in England, to a holiday in Cornwall. There he encounters a bigoted taxi driver but this leads Delaney not into a riff abut racism in the country but into self-deprecation about his own internalized biases. Somehow, he manages to make this raunchy without going too far.
What he does is not comedy for everyone. It will pull some people out of their comfort zone. But if you watch it, and pay close attention to the story that is at its core, about that bearded dragon, that is precisely what all the jokes are about, in the most humane and engaging way – about adapting and surviving.