Netflix’s comedy coffers unfurl a new stand-up special almost every Tuesday. This week, Jim Jefferies latest, Intolerant, arrives… and the timing, to use one of his favorite words, is “sh*t.” No comedian could possibly enjoy following up on Eric Andre’s immensely well-received Netflix special, Legalize Everything. Both specials obviously wrapped filming long ago, and while Andre’s special contains brilliance for which he should be credited (his Cops bit went viral for solid reason: it’s gut-bustingly funny while resonating amid recent Black Lives Matter protests), Netflix’s release strategy there was impeccable. Oh, and prior to Andre’s special, Dave Chappelle hot-dropped his police brutality-focused 8:46. Chappelle’s special was timed as a reaction to George Floyd’s death, but Andre’s special feels prescient, which puts Jefferies in an awkward lineup position.
Both Andre and Chappelle’s specials shall continue to reverberate, as they should. Yet with Jefferies apparently attempting to move away from his own hot-button reputation, this moment isn’t spectacular for that kind of shift. He (arguably) risks being seen as lacking the sharp wit (and bite) for which he’s become known onstage.
Look, Jefferies knows what it’s like to be that guy onstage — the comedian who, despite an extensive body of work, has one bit that overrides his entire reputation, partially down to the bit’s spectacular nature lining up with current events — too. I’m talking, of course, about his 2014 Bare comedy special, in which the Aussie comedian aired his opinion on gun control. That bit grew more notorious with each U.S. mass shooting to follow, and as Jefferies later stated in 2016’s Freedumb special, being the comedian that gets mentioned whenever there’s a massacre isn’t as fun as one might imagine. He received nearly 800 pieces of hate mail in one day following the Paris Attacks. In his 2018 special, This Is Me Now, he further revealed that Mariah Carey invited him to perform at Aussie billionaire James Packer’s birthday party specifically because of the gun-control bit.
One can see how such sudden notoriety (and the venom that followed) could wear on him. With This Is Me Now, Jefferies began to shift gears, to become less focused on issues, and with Intolerant, it feels like he’s pulled a 180 from where he was five years ago. It’s a little discombobulating. Some people might not like it. I still found value for a few reasons, including how it’s sometimes calming to slide into absurd comedy (with no serious issues discussed) for 70 minutes. Jefferies does get incredibly banal in this special, but beyond that (which I’ll touch on later), he makes two solid points:
(1) Stand-up comedy’s in a strange place: As Jefferies puts it, “Comedians are enemy #1.” Not only has he been fielding hatred from the pro-gun crowd, but jokes that went over well a decade ago often don’t work anymore. What’s socially acceptable now isn’t the same as it was back then. We know that already, but there’s an excellent bit (better than any I’ve seen before) in Intolerant that explains how “the line” has shifted. All of this puts comedians in a tough spot when it’s their job to be edgy. This got me thinking… guess who wasn’t edgy onstage, but turned out to be a monster in real life? Bill Cosby (although that 1969 Spanish Fly joke came back with a vengeance). Yeah, no one is trying to pull any sort of Cosby here, and it’s important to note that Jefferies isn’t totally shying away from edginess. He’s actually more hyperbolic now, but the material’s borderline preposterous. I’m not confident that it will translate well in 2020.
(2) One doesn’t have to love every joke in a stand-up set: Jefferies makes an interesting point. People are quick to trash an entire special if they don’t like every joke, but he hopes that people can squish that tendency. As an example, he refers back to Chappelle’s 2019 special, Sticks & Stones, in which Chappelle made clear that he does not believe Michael Jackson’s accusers. That didn’t sit well with many people, including Jefferies, who eviscerated Cosby in Freedumb. As Jefferies now puts it in Intolerant, Chappelle “said that he thought that Michael Jackson didn’t f*ck kids… I think Michael Jackson did f*ck kids… that’s how me and Dave differ.” Yet he’s still able to enjoy the rest of Chappelle’s 2019 special. One might wonder how Jefferies can look past such a massive disagreement with Chappelle, but, for real, it’s happening right now with everyone who’s thoroughly enjoying the 8:46 special.
The overriding theme of Intolerant — which is otherwise practically about nothing (he airs many seemingly arbitrary grievances and frames them within a story about his most disastrous night with lactose intolerance) — is that Jefferies is moving on from being the gun-control fellow. In doing so, he pointedly fires off an array of jokes that aren’t too consequential but are bound to rile up a lot of people. He comes for pretentious waiters and people with peanut allergies and selfie addicts and the inconsistency in which society spreads “shame” around to various addictions (that last subject will likely be the most incendiary). There’s a ton of bodily function humor, although to be fair, Eric Andre’s new special goes there, too (can’t say I’m a fan of that rimming/Nutella bit).
Jefferies remains a master of framing his sets, although I’m sure that a blow-by-blow of the lactose catastrophe will be viewed as frivolous right now. Again, the timing may be awful for a previously hot-button guy to drop a 100% un-serious special. And never, not even if I was Eddie Murphy, would I want to be the comedian who dropped a Netflix special two weeks after Eric Andre’s Cops bit. Intolerant might be a palate (and intestinal tract) cleanser in many ways, but only time will tell if it can push Jim Jefferies into a new phase — one that he so pointedly desires.
Jim Jefferies’ ‘Intolerant’ stand-up comedy special streams via Netflix on July 7.