The Sharpest Comedy to Watch or Listen to This Summer

Tufts professor Joseph Litvak recommends podcasts and TV shows that’ll make you laugh — while they make you think
Actor-musician-comedian Donald Glover and comedian Tiffany Haddish
Donald Glover's "Atlanta" is "the best show on television," and Tiffany Haddish (right) is "one of the most inventive stand-up comedians around," says Tufts professor Joseph Litvak. Photos: Presley Ann/Getty Images and Rich Fury/KCA2021/Getty Images
July 29, 2021

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We could all use a good laugh this summer, after coping with the COVID-19 pandemic for more than a year. But humor isn’t just an escape from challenging times, says Joseph Litvak, a professor in the Department of English at Tufts and an expert on comedy. It can also help us confront pain and injustice.

“One of the ways in which comedy has been particularly helpful amid the COVID-19 pandemic and with Black Lives Matter in the national consciousness in a major way, is providing a place for people to hear others talking about social issues—which comedy has always been very good at,” says Litvak. He teaches two courses on the subject: Stand-up Comedy as Cultural Paradigm and Black Comedy, which examines satire and the dark style of humor that explores subjects usually considered too serious or upsetting to discuss.

“I think the most interesting comedy is comedy that doesn't bring comic relief, that doesn't relieve the pain, but is the pain,” says Joseph Litvak, a professor in the Department of English and an expert on comedy. Photo: Paul Rutherford for Tufts UniversitySince the earliest satires, Litvak points out, comedy has been used for social criticism. He sees comedy continuing to be an effective tool for expressing pain caused by social and political injustice and an effective weapon against racism.

“I think the most interesting comedy is comedy that doesn't bring comic relief, that doesn't relieve the pain, but is the pain,” he says. “Comedy that relieves pain is covering something up. It numbs it, hides it, but doesn't really address it, much less remove the cause of the pain.”

Tufts Now asked Litvak for his recommendations of podcasts, TV shows, and comedians that successfully mix humor and social criticism as they respond to the current moment. Given the mature subject matter and language, his picks are intended for adult audiences.

1. Bodega Boys podcast by comedic duo Desus Nice and The Kid Mero

Bodega Boys is a comedy podcast, but it's not always meant to be funny,” Litvak says. “The topics they address are often of grave and disturbing urgency, like racism and police violence. But they address them from a satirical perspective and in a way that really registers the pain, which I think is important. Right now, many of the most interesting comedians are not necessarily doing ‘straight’ comedy; what they're doing is more like a combination of comedy, teaching, and therapy. I think that's the case with the Bodega Boys podcast.”

2. The Read podcast by comedians Kid Fury and Crissle West

Comedians and co-hosts Kid Fury and Crissle West cover hip-hop and pop culture on The Read while “throwing shade and spilling tea with a flippant and humorous attitude,” according to their podcast description.

Comedians and co-hosts Kid Fury and Crissle West cover hip-hop and pop culture on their podcast. Photo: Ishea, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

“They talk about the week's events, most of which are usually horrific, but they combine humor with outrage and, in some cases, practical advice,” Litvak says. “It's a guide to surviving as a Black person in a racist world.”

Kid Fury and Crissle West are Black writers and comedians who have been collaborating for nearly a decade. Kid Fury, who is openly gay, rose to prominence as a YouTube vlogger, and West is also known for her portrayal of Harriet Tubman on the Comedy Central series Drunk History.

3. Las Culturistas podcast by comedians Bowen Yang and Matt Rogers

“This long-running podcast is hosted by Saturday Night Live cast member Bowen Yang and comedian Matt Rogers, and is heavily focused on popular culture, but they also talk about politics, race, and ethnicity from their perspective as gay men,” says Litvak. “It’s really funny. Expect lots of jokes and lots of talk about the Grammy Awards or the latest Real Housewives franchise. But you’ll also get a fair amount of insight along the way. It’s like hearing two really smart friends talking.”

4. Atlanta, Donald Glover’s comedy/drama TV series on FX

Atlanta, created by and starring actor-musician-comedian Donald Glover, is an Emmy- and Golden Globe-winning series that has been renewed for a third and fourth season on FX. Litvak calls it “probably the best show on television.”

Glover plays a college dropout who struggles with poverty and tries to improve his future—and his young daughter’s future—by managing the career of his cousin, a rap musician on the verge of fame. 

“It's as good as the best movie, and it’s very, very painful,” Litvak says. “It stretches the definition of comedy about as far as it can go, because there are moments where it's almost too painful to be comedy. But that's part of its brilliance.”

5. Sherman's Showcase, a TV series created by Bashir Salahuddin and Diallo Riddle

Sherman's Showcase, which premiered two years ago on IFC, is a satirical series created and performed by Bashir Salahuddin and Diallo Riddle. “It’s an homage to Soul Train and other popular Black variety shows of the 1970s, but it uses that premise to satirize American politics and popular culture today,” says Litvak. “It's one of the most brilliant and underrated shows. It hides its seriousness under a candy-colored surface, and it's very kitschy, but that's part of the fun. If you have any fondness for ‘70s popular culture, check it out.”

6. Stand-up specials featuring these comics:

Comedian Hannah Gadsby called stand-up comedy an abusive relationship between the comedian and audience in her 2018 stand-up special. Photo: Photo: Ryan Lash / TED / Flickr

Hannah Gadsby

In her 2018 stand-up special Nanette, Hannah Gadsby “brilliantly anatomized what she felt is wrong with stand-up comedy as a genre,” says Litvak. She called it an abusive relationship between the comedian and the audience, and she said that as a woman and a lesbian, she has too often made herself the object of jokes, which she doesn't want to do anymore. Gadsby’s most recent stand-up special, Douglas, began streaming last year.

Tiffany Haddish

“There has been a reassessment of stand-up comedy that puts it in a more critical light, and I've increasingly become interested in stand-up comedians who are breaking with the norms,” Litvak says, “like Tiffany Haddish.”

Litvak calls Haddish “one of the most brilliant, inventive stand-up comedians around.” The audio recording of her 2019 stand-up special Black Mitzvah, which aired on Netflix, won the Grammy Award for Best Comedy Album, making her only the second Black woman after Whoopi Goldberg to win the prize. Her 2017 book, The Last Black Unicorn, which details her journey from a childhood in the foster care system to the success she enjoys today, became a New York Times best-seller.

Simon Amstell

“A very sharp British stand-up comedian, Simon Amstell delivers the comedy of pain,” says Litvak, who recommends Amstell’s 2019 special, Set Free. “His humor has an edge to it, and it hurts, yet it's not mean.”

Amstell’s dry and deeply personal brand of comedy touches on a range of subjects, from his experience as a gay man, to his parents’ divorce and his relationship with his father. His confessional style makes the special feel a bit like a therapy session, for him and the audience, Litvak says. 

Julio Torres

Julio Torres, a native of El Salvador and writer for Saturday Night Live, has a comedy special on HBO called My Favorite Shapes. “He’s kind of a genius,” says Litvak. “For his stand-up, he's sitting down the whole time while he talks about a series of objects that have what he calls his favorite shapes. The objects are often silly things, like plastic figures on top of a wedding cake, around which he has created elaborate personalities and fantasies.”

Torres and Fred Armisen, another SNL veteran, also created an HBO show Litvak recommends called Los Espookys, a Spanish-language comedy that follows a group of friends with a fondness for horror and gore who start a business where they conjure thrills for clients.

Angela Nelson can be reached at angela.nelson@tufts.edu.