Review: In ‘The Twilight Zone,’ “The Comedian” Will Do Anything For A Laugh

The Twilight Zone "The Comedian"

Today the first two episodes of the new CBS All Access series The Twilight Zone were released. TrekMovie has adopted this show as we are big fans of the franchise and as it is a genre show on CBS All Access, home of Star Trek on TV. We also reviewed “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet,” released today as well. 

 

The Twilight Zone Season 1, Episode 1 – Released Monday, April 1, 2019
Written by Alex Rubens
Directed by Owen Harris

I’ve been a fan of the original The Twilight Zone since I was a kid, but I confess, there were always some episodes that dragged for me. The first time I watched “The Comedian,” it fell into that category, but when I did a second viewing—which I did for this review—it didn’t feel draggy anymore. I’d be curious to know if it works the same way for other viewers.

RECAP

Open mic

“The Comedian,” at its heart, is about the perils of fame. The story centers around Samir (Kumail Nanjiani), a regular performer at a comedy club where his stand-up act seems based on unfunny but well-intentioned jokes about the Second Amendment. His colleagues—particularly Didi Scott (Diarra Kilpatrick)— are all more popular than he is, but he persists in his joke, obviously feeling that what he has to say is important and if he only says it right, he’ll get the laughs he’s craving.

Then one night, he meets comedy legend JC Wheeler (Tracy Morgan), whom he reveres. He asks for notes on his act. Wheeler tells Samir that the audience doesn’t care about what he thinks, they care about him as a person. Samir resists. “Isn’t the whole point to provide insight into the human condition?” he asks. But Wheeler has a better question: “Don’t you want it all?” “Yes,” Samir asks. “More than anything.” Wheeler tells him is only export is himself, and if he puts himself out there, he’ll get laughs and be successful—if he’s sure that’s what he wants. Then he gets appropriately Twilight Zone-y and spells out the ominous part: “You have to be sure to be sure. Because once you put it out there, the audience will take it in. And once they connect to it it’s theirs. That shit is gone forever.”

Samir agrees, and they clink glasses.

Tracy Morgan as JC Wheeler in The Twilight Zone "The Comedians"

A deal with the devil.

Reading the room

Samir gets on stage for his set, bombs yet again with his Second Amendment joke, and remembers his idol’s advice. He starts making jokes about his dog (whose name, to the joy of the crowd, is Cat).

He kills. The audience is laughing. He’s on top of the world, finally getting the applause he’s been craving, but when he heads home, not only is his dog gone, his live-in girlfriend Rena (Amara Karan) doesn’t remember them having one in the first place.

We all know what’s coming next. In a familiar Twilight Zone-type arrangement, he’s made a deal with the devil. Each time he tries his Second Amendment joke, he loses the audience, so he switches to talking about people he knows. The crowd roars…and whomever he was talking about disappears. The next one to go is his cute ten-year-old nephew.

Kumail Nanjiani in The Twilight Zone "The Comedian"

He’ll be here all week, but will you?

Killing it

His dog and his 10-year-old nephew are serious personal losses for him, but when he realizes no one else even remembers them, he’s able to move on, emotionally. He finds different targets, seeking some moral grounding as he trades in their existence for his success: the misogynistic, boorish comedian whose drunk driving killed a mother and her baby; rich investor guy hecklers in the audience; jerks he remembers from high school who stayed jerks; pervert coaches, etc.

But this is The Twilight Zone, so eventually he gets pissed at his lawyer-girlfriend Rena’s former professor (and current mentor) for flirting with her and makes him his next target. Uh-oh: Turns out this mentor-professor is the one who helped get Rena into law school. Now she’s a waitress, and she and Samir are broke—and, before long, broken up. Unfettered by the one real relationship left that anchored him, his conscience is on its last legs.

And then right before Samir takes the stage for a major talent agent who’s looking to fill a slot on a TV show, JC Wheeler comes back. Samir’s onstage comedy may be lackluster, but offstage he’s funny, telling Wheeler he “wanted to be the next Chris Rock, not evil David Copperfield.”

“You can’t murder people who never existed,” Wheeler calmly tells him, and those people were never born. Samir asks where they went, but we—the audience—have the answer to that one: the Twilight Zone. Wheeler tells him there’s no reason to stop when he’s so close to getting everything he wants.

Samir’s next, obvious move is to talk about Didi Scott, who’s up against him for the TV job—and just gave him a pep talk even though she’s unhappy they’re competing for the same gig. To his credit, he hesitates. But then he starts with “Give it up for Didi Scott!” and off she goes, forever.

Diara Kipatrick and Kumail Nanjiani in The Twilight Zone "The Comedian"

Will he or won’t he? He will.

Don’t forget to tip your waitress

Next time he’s on stage, we see a more deranged Samir. His hair is longer and unkempt, he’s sweating, and he’s now shouting names, almost ranting. In walks Rena, who has found his notebook of jokes only to discover that it’s just a massive list of names. Furious, she tells him to make jokes about her, and there’s a long moment when it seems like he’s about to do it.

Instead, he talks about himself. “I’m a garbage can,” he says, “who needs lots of money and validation emptied right into me.” The crowd roars. He echoes Wheeler’s comments about being a country with one export, then does the final, necessary deed: he says his own name.

Mic drop.

Literally.

With no one to hold it, the mic falls to the floor.

By erasing his own existence, everyone who’d disappeared has returned. We see Reena with her nephew Devin at the club, and she takes a minute to tell Didi how much she enjoyed her act. Didi watches her go, then turns to the bar where—yes!–she finds JC Wheeler, ready to give her some career-changing advice.

“In the end,” sums up narrator Jordan Peele, “Samir’s final encore is a show you can only buy a ticket to in The Twilight Zone.”

The Twilight Zone "The Comedian"

Mic drop.

REVIEW

The burden of carrying this episode rests on the shoulders of Kumail Nanjiani, and he does a great job. All the actors do, with the other standout being Diarra Kilpatrick as Didi Stone, his rival comedian. Kudos also to Tracy Morgan—I tend to find him most effective in small doses, and he’s absolutely perfect here.

But the episode does lag, a little, perhaps because a seasoned sci-fi/Twilight Zone/general TV viewer is likely to see the path of this story the minute Samir asks Rena where their dog is. As I said, I found this more the first time; the second time, when I was done with proving to myself that I knew where the story was going, I was more able to appreciate the nuance of each successive disappearance. Each one is an escalation, chipping away at a different part of Samir’s soul, and while he initially tries to find some sort of moral justification for what he’s doing until, he finally recognizes what he has become: an empty shell, waiting for applause, social media followers, and selfie-seekers to fill him up. So while there’s a bit of a cycle to this as each new person disappears, which is what bogs down the pace, it’s clear that each one is taking Samir to another place he’s never been before, from wish fulfillment we can relate to (like wanting to take down high school bullies who never got any nicer) to choices we would hopefully never make (removing a worthy rival).

An intriguing choice here is that writer Alex Rubens chose not to write comedy that’s not actually funny for Samir to deliver. Nanjiani has done stand-up and co-wrote the movie The Big Sick, and he’s very funny himself, so this has to be part of the point: Samir is a big hit on stage but he’s not any funnier than he was before. The dog jokes were good, but once he takes on people, all he’s really doing is just ranting about how terrible they are. And the audience laughs.

But to this viewer, there is little that’s harder to watch than unfunny stand-up. Bad comedy is worse than bad drama, because you can laugh at bad drama and it BECOMES comedy. It doesn’t work the other way. It’s hard to sit through over and over, even though the purpose of it is clear: Samir eats up the applause for these non-jokes, an indication of just how much he craves fame.

In the end, he’s redeemed, but it costs him his very existence. Twilight Zone characters don’t always get a chance to use the lessons they’ve learned, but Samir does. The same guy who walked around with his 10-year-old nephew putting up lost dog signs is the guy who looked at his ex-girlfriend taking him down in public, and sacrificed himself instead of destroying her, miserable at what he had become.

“Isn’t the whole point to provide insight into the human condition?” he had asked Wheeler, who scoffed at him. But in the Twilight Zone, it absolutely is.

So all in all, it’s a solid episode but not a standout. Classic Twilight Zone theme, dragged a little in the middle due mostly to predictability and some (deliberately) bad stand-up, with a nice twist at the end, thanks to the last-minute redemption of the main character.

NOTES

  • Executive Producer Jordan Peele does a nice job hosting, bringing gravity as well as a nudgy wink.
  • The episode is written by Alex Rubens, who’s worked with Peele before on Key & Peele and The Last O.G. (starring Tracy Morgan), and worked on Rick and Morty as well as Community.
  • Director Owen Harris also directed the Black Mirror episodes “San Junipero” and “Be Right Back.”
  • There’s a painting on the back wall of the club of a seated, packed full-house audience, seen mostly in shots when the audience is roaring at Samir’s least funny jokes. In the final moment, reminiscent of the final shot of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, we see Samir is now in the painting, front and center.
  • The comedians’ excitement at seeing JC Wheeler, and Samir asking where he’d been since he disappeared, is a nice tribute to Tracy Morgan, who was in a life-threatening accident in 2014 and had to take a few years off from performing while he recovered.
  • As revealed by The Wrap, that joke about David Copperfield mentioned in the recap came about because Copperfield owns the actual dummy used in the original Twilight Zone episode “The Dummy,” and loaned it to the production for free on the condition that they make a reference to him in the episode. It makes a brief appearance in the scene where Samir makes the joke. Nicely done!

The Twilight Zone "The Comedian"

FREE PREVIEW

CBS has made the first episode of The Twilight Zone available for free for one week on YouTube.

 


Keep up with The Twilight Zone news and reviews here at TrekMovie.com.

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Afterburn

Loved this episode, and “Nightmare.” They weren’t perfect: they both end somewhat predictably, but the journeys they took to their respective endings had great twists and turns. So far a worthy successor. They really felt like the Twilight Zone, as opposed to just any old weird sci-fi anthology. Looking forward to more.

Professor Spock

The Twilight Zone does look promising. Jordan Peele is a genius. CBS made the right decision to hire him as the narrator. Jordan Peele makes great horror movies like Get Out and Us. I watched the episode on YouTube for free. I don’t have CBS All Access anymore. My subscription expired last night. I will wait until the Picard show comes out to use CBS All Access again. I will watch The Twilight Zone in the future. I do watch the original show on Netflix. CBS has Star Trek and The Twilight Zone. The episode was actually good. 5 out of 10 to be nice and fair.

Professor Spock

I like The Twilight Zone and Black Mirror. Black Mirror is my favorite Netflix show. Stranger Things and The Umbrella Academy are also great Netflix shows too. Both of them are great science fiction anthology shows.

Danpaine

A couple of thoughts – first off, nice review, and kudos to CBS for putting this episode on YouTube. I’m not currently signed up for AA, and wasn’t planning on it for the release of this show. Thanks to Trekmovie for reviewing these.

Imo the episode dragged because this was 56 minutes long! Arguably the best past Twilight Zone episodes have adhered to a half-hour format. This should have been 25-30 minutes shorter, the story would have been much tighter. It felt like it dragged, because it did. The pacing really suffered.

Not to be the old man in the room, but what’s up with the heavy cursing? By adding profanity, they’re potentially taking a lot of kids (teens, not little kids of course) out of the viewing audience if their parents monitor what they watch. Not that I personally have a problem with it, but it seems unnecessary and bad business. There’s no reason kids should be excluded from the Twilight Zone; I watched the original vehemently in reruns as a kid, still do.

As with DSC, the production values are excellent – the show looks good. Nice creepy music at points and some neat camera angles, which added to the (yes, pretty predictable) story. As a big Twilight Zone fan, I can say this was decent, but it didn’t blow me away. I wish they would release more on YouTube, because this isn’t enough to warrant the $10 a month for AA. I’ll just binge them when I sign back up for the Picard show.

Professor Spock

I will sign up for the Picard show. I want to watch The Twilight Zone in the future. Watching this for free on YouTube is a good deal on CBS part.

Afterburn

Though I agree the TZ episodes that run 1hr from 1964 did end up being lesser for the longer run times, I thought this and the “Nightmare” ‘remake’ episode really benefitted from the longer run time. It really allowed the tension to build in a more satisfying way, none of it really felt like filler. It allowed for a more dramatic presentation and better artistic choices; holding on strong shots, reactions, etc, which let them get into the minds of the characters a bit more. I think it helps that TV writing and directing have come so much further in the last 50 years.

So far so good.

Wheelie

Danpaine

I agree, it could’ve benefitted from being around 30 minutes. The characters and the situation weren’t quite strong enough for an hour, in my opinion.

Afterburn

SPOILERS FOR THE EPISODE

See, I think the long run time really helped this one because it allowed the show room to show more than just a quick 1-2. If it were 30 minutes it would have only been able to show his first use of the power (dog or nephew), the vengeful use (mentor) and then the final use (himself).

With the extra time, it allowed the story to show how he came attempt to use the power for good (eliminating bad people, even evil people who hurt others, and saving lives in the process), and how it backfired to hurt the ones he loves; how he used it both selflessly and selfishly. This, to me, showed a more nuanced look at the character, and the idea of how power like that– as Gandalf famously said– can ultimately corrupt even with out of a desire to do good.

Wheelie

That’s the thing though, I’ve never watched TZ for nuanced characters, haha.

Afterburn

But having them is a good thing.

Wheelie

That’s fine if you like that. But I always preferred the everyman stuck in an extraordinary situation, and archetypes will do in those kinds of short stories. I don’t need to hear their life stories.

“Get on with it!”

Afterburn

Well then you should like this episode, it’s just as you describe. If you want something lesser, go watch something else.

Afterburn

You know, someone on Youtube edited “Nick of Time” (the William Shatner episode) down to a speedy 6min40sec, by cutting out all the “life stories” you hate so much. If you want episodes that just “get on with it” maybe set it at 2x speed and you can get the whole episode in 3 minutes! Sounds like that’s more your style.

Me, who enjoys good drama, I will happily soak up a full 55min episode.

G66

They can’t keep releasing them on YouTube because they won’t make any money other than a few dollars if even monetized. It also wouldn’t help them push All Access.

ML31

I hear you. Cursing doesn’t bother me but they dropped a lot of F bombs in both episodes. Again, it doesn’t bother me and I had no problem when my kid heard these works when he was in single digits. (In fact, we taught him that there is nothing wrong with those words but he needs to understand that there are people how do have problems with them) It was just a little odd as I was not expecting it. Now I am.

Tiger2

Can’t wait to hear the calls and outrage of TM having the nerve to discuss and review a non-Star Trek show every week.

“How DARE you people call this site Trekmovie but yet you discuss other science fiction shows???? We are all being bamboozled!!!!!” ;D

Afterburn

I’ve given up on that argument– but do still think, if you were to ask me– that non-Trek shows should have a separate section. But this is their site, and they are presenting it this way. I voiced my grievance when Orville started, they made it clear what they would be doing, so no point in complaining about it anymore.

dennycranium

That’s like saying a pizza restaurant can’t serve pasta…I like seeing the reviews here of the other genre TV. Keep up the good work.
I won’t rehash what a lot of the other reviews were but I thought Nightmare was the stronger outing.

Afterburn

No, this isn’t like that at all. But this is just my opinion.

Professor Spock

Star Trek and The Twilight Zone are similar to each other. Both shows talk about the human condition and move society in a positive direction.

Danpaine

I’m a fan of the variety here, actually. Trek is great and all, but Trek is not ‘everything.’ (to me, anyway)

ML31

LOL.. Yeah. Wondering when the rage is going to show up. :)

J.S.

Well, at least we got that “can’t wait for” post that is trying to outsmart the outraged by predicting their strike. If they strike then “ha, I predicted it”, if not – “ha, they won’t strike now!”, clear win-win for the OP

Wheelie

A little dry, a little draggy, but not bad. So far the show reminds me more of the short-run “Nightmares & Dreamscapes” from 2006 than The Twilight Zone. Not that that’s a bad thing.

A34

I’m watching it now on CBS AA. Looks good, love the one hour format. Twilight zone episodes were always too short.

ML31

LOL!

Apparition

I am sad. I held out hope that the new Twilight Zone would be rated TV-14, but both episodes are rated TV-MA and I simply do not watch any TV-MA rated programs. Oh well.

dennycranium

I was surprised at the cursing as well. It won’t prevent me from continuing to watch the show. I think it’s just the nature of the business these days. People in RL talk this way.

ghostwriter

as someone who finds this stance utterly baffling, may I ask what is the predicate for it? Is it merely linguistic or is also some types of thematic and narrative structures, nudity, or whatever else that you’re trying to avoid?

Like is it okay to watch a movie or show that is originally R/MA for themes as well as language or nudity but it’s had the naughty bits bleeped and blurred?

I know I sound like a dick for asking, but I’m genuinely not trying to be one and am only curious to understand it.

CmdrR

‘The Comedian’ felt a little long at 50+ minutes, not counting previews. That said, it was stylishly produced and well-acted. I did nail the final final twist early — it borrows from a very famous movie, so… Still, I enjoyed it enough to keep watching the new TZ. Jordan Peele has much cred.

Starch Wreck

The use of language has altered since our arrival. Double Dumb a$$ on you and so fourth.

It’s simply the way they talk here.

Bob

Every other line has cursing in it. It’s a disgrace how much language in it. It will never be able to live up to the originals. It’s an insult to Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone. This is definitely not a family friendly show now.

A34

This how we speak now. The real disgrace is that thing in the white house.

Danpaine

Yeah, that’s what I said above, Bob. It’s like it’s just being used for shock value. Twilight Zone was, and should be something the whole family can sit and watch. They’re losing some viewership over this, I would bet. And look, I curse like a sailor. But everything has it’s place.

Kirk1701

Neither was the original. It was terrifying! I’m too young to have seen it when it first aired, but I saw reruns along with the revival in the late 80s(?). There was one with Vietnam flashbacks that gave me nightmares for years. There’s far more dangerous things for kids than a few expletives.

I thought this was a pretty great episode, personally. Nanjiani is terrific; so is everyone, really. Tracy Morgan was creepy as hell, and I didn’t think that was possible; turns out, it’s pretty damn possible.

Peele is proving to be an excellent choice for host. And you can tell he’s loving every second of it. Good for him! I hope this victory lap he’s taking lasts for quite some time to come.

ML31

Not only is Peele the host, but wasn’t this entire thing sorta his baby?

I think probably so. Not sure if he directly wrote any episodes or directed any, but his presence is very much felt.

ML31

It was a mediocre TZ episode made worse in that it ran too long. To me, the thing he needed to try was to talk about Wheeler. He makes that guy disappear and everything reverts back, he learns his lesson and moves on. However they could have gotten around that by making Wheeler a topic that doesn’t work. Apart from that, meh. Wasn’t bad. Wasn’t good.

Rockyc

The first show the comedian was absolutely terrible and from the first 10 minutes I wish it was over. IT IS A REAL LET DOWN. I hope 30000 is better. Plus the host does not fit the part. I really have looked forward in seeing the new Twilight show. I just hope it gets much much much better or it’s only gonna be on for one season and then canceled. The night Mia at 3000′ was a little better but it didn’t seem like it would be anything from the Twilight Zone. It was still lacking something And once again the way the host is always showing up in different parts that is just Nat real. I mean it’s not like half way up to the standards of the old Twilight Zone. So I don’t think it’s going to last unless it does get better

Stan

Tracy Morgan was surprisingly effective. It didn’t hurt that they shot him ar standard “TZ evil guy” angles.

Did no one notice that the bus stop was named “Franklin” ?

Original fan

I am a original fan of the Zone. Never missed an episode. These first two shows were just in the passable range but not near the quality of the original series. I do take extreme offense at the truly unnecessary bad language. If the writers think this makes it a more adult show instead of a family show then they should really re-evaluate themselves as to how they are providing meaningful, enjoyable, and entertaining television.