CBS’s The Twilight Zone
Season 1, Episode 1: “The Comedian”
Directed by Owen Harris
Written by Alex Rubens
* For a recap & review of the next episode, “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet” – click here
A comedian named Samir (Kumail Nanjiani) is doing his bit at a stand-up club. Is it just Father Gore, or does that opening mural with its strange faces remind anyone else of the original Twilight Zone episode “Eye of the Beholder“? Likely unintentional, and still a great visual reference. Samir talks about the “crazy times” of the current social landscape in America 2019. He’s ragging on the 2nd Amendment— rightfully— and it’s more a political rant than stand-up. Funny, but not riotous. After the lacklustre end to his set, he heads to the bar, where fellow comedian Didi (Diarra Kilpatrick) ribs him.
Funny is funny
At the bar, Samir actually runs into a legend named J.C. Wheeler (Tracy Morgan). He acts like himself instead of how he was onstage. This makes Wheeler laugh. Once Samir goes back to the political stuff he bores J.C, so Wheeler tells him: “Put yourself out there and you will get laughs.” There’s something eerie about the older comedian, as if he’s a genie appearing to grant wishes. He warns that putting oneself out there then means you’ve given yourself away, to a degree.
Once you’ve given yourself away, you might never get yourself back.
Next time onstage, Samir starts out with his 2nd Amendment bit and it’s going worse than before. Instead he launches into telling jokes about his asshole dog named Cat, and suddenly people are cracking up. It feels good to hear the applause, sending Samir off with a spring in his step. Back at his apartment, he calls for Cat. He goes into the bedroom, where his partner Rena (Amara Karan) is sleeping. He asks where Cat is, and she says they don’t have a pet. Confused, he looks around their place again.
Our Narrator (John Peele) tells us of Samir’s plight, being “an artist of great principle.” The comedian felt what it was to get that applause. Will he choose to wade deeper into the Twilight Zone?
Samir is putting up Missing Dog posters, even if Rena and his nephew Devon say there is no dog. At the club, he discovers other things have changed, like the sign: it used to be Eddie’s, now it’s Eddies with a No Smoking-style joke sign about no apostrophes. Slowly the world’s unravelling, though some things remain the same. Onstage, Samir again starts in on his latest material. He shits on his nephew, pleasing Devon and the crowd. He kills another set with this new sense of comedic power. In the blink of an eye, he can’t see Devon anymore. Backstage, Didi doesn’t know of any nephew. Just like Cat the dog, Devon the nephew has disappeared into thin air.
At home, Rena doesn’t dig Samir’s jokes about her supposed nephew. He genuinely doesn’t know what’s happening. She says it’s all part of what Wheeler apparently told him at the club, that by putting yourself out into the world you, in a certain sense, lose pieces of yourself.
Next time onstage, Samir headlines. He talks about the “fascist dickhead” POTUS and nobody’s laughing. He decides to take aim at the previous comedian Joe, digging into him for his weight and his “hateful misogynistic” stand-up act. After the show’s done, Joe is gone. Not only that, the consequences of Joe’s recent drunk driving accident across the street have reversed themselves because he doesn’t exist, so it never happened. With this comes a new sense of power unlike before. Samir feels godly. He’s changed the past, the present, and the future at once. Already he’s going through shitty dudes he knew in high school to create new jokes about so they can disappear into the ether, too.
Things in Samir’s life aren’t going so well now. He gets jealous over Rena’s relationship with her former professor. Later, he sees a man on the bus with a ton of creepy white supremacist and Nazi imagery tattooed all over him. Onstage that night, Samir uses him as a bit. Nobody finds it very amusing. He launches into a bit about her “creepy older mentor.” After the show, Rena can’t remember any mentor professor. And because the guy doesn’t exist anymore, neither does Rena’s career path as a lawyer. On top of that, their relationship history is altered. They never went to Paris and saved their relationship. Rena’s walking away. Now Samir is finding he has little left in his life, and what once gave him power has robbed him of control.
Maybe this is how it goes—
to get something,
you’ve gotta give something up.
Samir’s onstage again and when the audience heckles him he lashes out. He asks for everyone’s name at the laughing table. Samir lays into the Wall Street dummies and everyone’s laughing, even the bros. He soon uses two of the men’s names and they vanish in front of his eyes. He goes backstage and finds Didi. He says he doesn’t want to go onstage to headline, but she won’t have that. She still wants to support him, in spite of her career frustrations.
When Samir feels the guilt get worse he realises J.C. has reappeared, vaping devilishly in the corner. Wheeler tries to assuage that guilt, telling him there are no “crying moms” over the people who’ve disappeared: “They are gone.” Samir can’t help but wonder how their personal histories can so easily be wiped out of existence. J.C. only encourages him to go out there, keep putting everything into his act.
Samir hits the stage after Didi and then makes her disappear, too. The act devolves into a laundry list of people the comedian doesn’t like, the ones he wants to vanish. He descends into a rant. It isn’t stand-up anymore, it’s an endless tirade of anger. Someone from the crowd boos and he sees Rena. She pulls out his book of names and tells him he’s only using his stand-up ‘act’ to feel superior. “Use me for fuel,” she challenges him. Rather than hurt anybody else again Samir turns the tables and talks about himself. He criticises his own ambition and says he’s a “garbage can” of a human being who’s only seeking validation through his comedy. The crowd are dying in laughter.
He says his own name and disappears— a literal mic drop. The crowd goes wild. Because he’s reversed his own existence, he’s given existence back to Devon, to the professor, to Didi and Joe and everybody else. This doesn’t mean J.C. Wheeler has gone anywhere, though. And in the mural out front, Samir is now trapped like Jack Torrance at the Overlook Hotel, forever a part of the crowd at Eddie’s.
This entire episode has been a GREAT evisceration of the punch-down comedians who are whining in 2019 about not being able to make shitty jokes. Rena’s calling out of Samir is a perfect moment. She nails him to the wall for his false sense of superiority, and his use of comedy no longer to try and enlighten, as he once did unsuccessfully, but to go after people with a poisonous, dishonest agenda, to hurt and cause pain. Sound familiar? The best comedy, and particularly satire, punches up. “The Comedian” knows this well and gets its point across with a fantastic, charged dose of dark comedy.
“Nightmare at 30,000 Feet” is next time.