The stand-up comedian, whose self-titled Joe Mande’s Award-Winning Comedy Special is now streaming on Netflix, is of course talking about former Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee. Once the governor of Arkansas, the ex-politician has become something of an oddity for fans and detractors alike with his particular brand of humor on Twitter. As a result, Huckabee has become a target for late night talk shows, professional comedians and magazine profiles attempting to discern what he thinks is funny. And Mande loves and despises all of it.
When I confess I sometimes share the governor’s latest tweets with friends in an attempt to decipher their hidden meaning, however, Mande explodes with laughter. “We do the exact same thing at The Good Place. We will pull up his fucking tweets and line by line try to figure what he thinks he’s trying to say,” he says. “It’s a waste of time for you, but it’s also a waste of time for NBC Universal, who’s paying us to try to figure out Mike Huckabee’s tweets.”
Awful sausage jokes notwithstanding, Mande and I are supposed to be discussing his new comedy special, and Huckabee’s Twitter stand-up is surprisingly relevant. That’s because Mande, who once half-joked that “we’re living in the darkest timeline,” isn’t afraid to discuss politics online or on stage. And sure enough, a famous anecdote about his and fellow comic Noah Garfinkel’s stoned participation in the audience for a taping of Huckabee on Fox News makes its way into the mix.
“A majority of the material is from after 2014,” says Mande, who released a mixtape comedy album titled Bitchface that year. “The Huckabee story was a thing that I took out of the album because I thought I might want to save it for a special.” Sure enough, the politico’s failed attempt to clinch the Republican nomination in 2016, support for the controversial clerk Kim Davis and eventual Trump affiliation offered Mande just the spotlight he needed to include his bit about getting stoned and watching the former Fox News personality do his thing. “He’s Trump’s court jester now,” Mande quips. “He’s a fucking convenient tool.”
Even so, contemporary American politics aren’t the true core of Joe Mande’s Award Winning Comedy Special. That honor instead belongs to Mande himself, whose penchant for self-deprecation shines throughout the highly meta comedy special designed to take the piss out of its titular star and the wider world of stand-up comedy. Hence why the hour-long program skips the walk-onto-the-stage montage that typifies most specials and instead begins with what looks like a documentary film. Old, grainy footage of a much younger Mande doing stand-up at smaller venues is spliced together while the comic declares, “I take comedy very seriously. It’s my life. I eat, breathe, shit and fuck comedy.”
It’s all one big joke, of course. The American Humour Award, the so-called “most prestigious award in comedy,” doesn’t actually exist. (The Mark Twain Prize for American Humor and the American Comedy Awards are its closest real-life counterparts.) Yet the Joe Mande depicted jogging through Los Angeles while listening to his own stand-up really wants to win it, and to accomplish this, he sets out to record his first special. Throw in cameo appearances by Bo Burnham, Blake Griffin, Chelsea Peretti, Kristen Schaal and many others, and bam — you’ve got a comedy special about a comedy special trying to win a comedy award. All of which sounds like a lot to cram into a stand-up hour, but it’s precisely what Mande set out to do.
“I knew I wanted to do something kind of high-concept after doing a traditional half-hour special and several late night appearances,” recalls Mande. “The way I even do stand-up, it’s sort of long-form and it’s hard to contain within a five-minute chunk of time. So I wanted to do something different for the hour. Originally, my plan was to try to shoot a special like a Michael Bay movie. That was my first idea. It would start with a car chase, then I would have to kill this dude. I’d have someone yelling at me in an ear piece, telling me my target is up ahead, and I’d be trying to find this dude and assassinate him like Jason Bourne or some shit.”
Seeing as how Kevin Hart: What Now? utilized this same approach in 2016, Mande abandoned the idea and decided to do something else. Besides, he admits “it was just outrageous and probably would have cost $20 million or whatever to do it right.” What’s more, as Mande puts it while insulting himself, he’s “not a good actor.” “You’d have to get a good actor to convey an assassin doing stand-up,” he relents, “so after some thought, I wrote down some different ideas and eventually honed in on what I ultimately based the special on — trying to do the ‘perfect’ special to win an award.”
Unlike What Now?, Mande’s new idea wasn’t claimed by anyone else in the business, and it felt far more appropriate considering his personal preferences and style as a stand-up. And with real-life friends like Ron Funches and Nick Kroll agreeing to pop up in the final result’s various sketches, Award Winning Comedy Special has all the hallmarks of an idea formed by camaraderie. Which it was, though as Mande cautions, he chose not to discuss it too often with his friends. “I didn’t really consult anyone about it. People probably would have tried to talk me out of it,” he admits. “It came from watching a lot of specials and realizing there seemed to be a natural routine to them. They kind of had very similar camera movements, intros, outros and all that stuff. I just wanted to separate mine from the rest.”
Award Winning Comedy Special has more in common with Rory Scovel Tries Stand-Up for the First Time and Maria Bamford: Old Baby than anything else that’s come out this year. Both are specials that, while they do include traditional stand-up, steer clear of presenting it in the typical manner Mande wanted to eschew. (Scovel makes use of skits, too, whereas Bamford tosses the standard format into the garbage disposal and creates a diamond.) The Good Place writer essentially accomplishes this with flying colors, but despite his insistence on avoiding friends’ perspectives early on in the planning process, Mande’s special wouldn’t exist without their help.
Like the Fancy Pants comedy troupe he started with Jim Hanft, Armen Weitzman and the late Harris Wittels during their time at Boston’s Emerson College. The group is listed among many other entries in the special’s end credits, and rightly so. “We all sort of found each other,” says Mande, “and I don’t think I would be doing comedy today if I hadn’t found those guys in college. If I ever do anything comedic that needs a special thanks card, they’re all going to get a special thanks.” Fancy Pants was primarily focused on sketch comedy during its heyday, but nearly 15 years later, the comic no longer participates in the form as often as he used to. “It’s really gone away,” he laments toward the end of our conversation. “The closest thing is being able to write stuff for my special at this point.”
Award Winning Comedy Special‘s emphasis on splicing sketches documenting the faux quest to obtain the nonexistent American Humour Award bears many of the same goofy, self-referential hallmarks of Fancy Pants’ skits and Mande’s subsequent work for The Good Place and Parks and Recreation. So despite his infrequent participation in sketch these days, the comedian managed to create new opportunities for himself and his friends when Netflix came knocking. Nowhere is this more pronounced than in the special’s final scene, when fellow nominees Peretti, Schaal, Kroll and Funches take the opportunity to roast Mande at an awards ceremony.
“That was one of the hardest things to edit, because those takes went on for so long. They were just saying the meanest shit about me,” he laughs. “There was a part where Kroll called me out and said, ‘This is ’cause you’re too mean on Twitter.’ It was really fun to just give my friends an opportunity to shit on me. Everyone should try it at least once.”
Joe Mande’s Award Winning Comedy Special is now available to stream on Netflix.