“These people have been programmed this way for 400 years. I’m not going to deprogram them in 5 minutes with jokes.” That’s Shirley Souagnon halfway through her 30-minute set on Netflix’s Comedians of the World. She’s got a point: nobody can have their entire world view changed in a few minutes just with a couple of one-liners. But comedy is at its best when it gives a voice to perspectives you haven’t heard before, whether you agree with them or not – Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette breaking down identity and prejudice with heartbreaking acuity made waves around the world for precisely that reason. Netflix’s new series, Comedians of the World, then, is something rather special.
The show brings together 47 comedians from 13 regions around the world and gives them each a half-hour to show their stuff. Taped in Montreal, Brazil, Mexico, India and more, it’s like Live at the Apollo, but more diverse and with every single set available to watch at the same time – a bumper box set of stand-up specials that makes Netflix’s existing collection of comics look like a warm-up.
It’s a move that’s clever as well as big. There’s the fun of seeing familiar faces, such as Nicole Byer (host of Netflix’s Nailed It!) and Nish Kumar (of The Mash Report, Newsjack and more). Nish is on fire as he walks onto stage in Canada and, while playing down the satire that he normally deploys, promptly begins to lay into the board game Monopoly and why it’s a fundamentally harmful thing to play with your family and kids. He’s brash, confident, witty and constantly praises himself for being all of those things – it’s a perfect half-hour showcase of what makes him an interesting talent, without duplicating the scorching material from his current UK tour.
Nish is joined by British comics Joel Dommett, Mae Martin and Ellie Taylor (a Live at the Apollo veteran), with Taylor in particular proving a hoot as she talks sex and trying to disguise being pregnant.
But the joy of Comedians of the World is getting to see just that: comedians from around the world. Netflix defaults to your home country’s selection of talent, most of them up-and-coming stars rather than major household names (and all the better for it), but it’s easy to navigate by what part of the world you want to sample comedy from. Some of it, naturally, isn’t in English, which provides a fascinating window onto what comedy’s like when performed in a variety of different languages and cultures. Some, such as Rawsan Hallak from the Middle East, may prove a little too specific in their cultural references, even as they chart universal issues such as long-distance calls with your mum and the pressure to get married, but the joy lies in seeking out ones that do chime with your experiences – and learning from the ones that don’t.
Loyiso Gola from South Africa is a real stand-out, as he takes on foodies with laugh-out-loud logic, picks apart problematic pop culture and punches white privilege in the face with sharp wit. Equally great is France’s bubbly Souagnon, who breaks down an awkward Haiti gig with insight and honesty. Kumar notes that the majority of comedy tends to be left-wing, and this line-up confirms that trend to be true, but, as he notes, the world has a way of balancing out its culture, so that comedy lets those who wouldn’t normally get their say in an unequal society have a chance to speak out. Given the current state of affairs around the world, Comedians of the World feels like a long overdue wave of left-wing voices. Wherever you’re from, there’s something here to make you laugh – and who knows? With almost 24 hours of comedy to binge through, it just might deprogram some of your opinions too.
Comedians of the World is available on Netflix UK, as part of a £7.99 monthly subscription.