Chelsea Peretti performs onstage at the 2019 Clusterfest on June 22, 2019 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic for Clusterfest)
Artillery Row

Starring Chelsea Peretti as Herself

The moments of interruption in Peretti’s stand-up reveal the constructedness of what we are watching

This article is part of Kieran Setiya’s series on the successes and failures of online comedy in a time of coronavirus. Click here to read last week’s piece on Dave Chappelle.

In 2014, already on her way to small screen stardom as Gina Linetti in Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Chelsea Peretti appeared on Netflix in a brilliant stand-up special, One of the Greats. Her material is standard fare: gender, small talk, dating, and the hashtag #nomakeup. But her performance is disturbed by moments of theatrical estrangement. At 5:40, she looks into the wings and sees herself, dressed as a clown, taunting herself: “You’re a clown.” At 10:41, we cut to an audience shot of a sceptical baby. At 19:13, Peretti is addressed by a giant picture of herself as a child with pigtails from a seat in the stalls. At 29:22, she is interrupted by a janitor vacuuming the aisles. There are periodic shots of dogs in the audience, in varying states of emotion; and more.

Peretti isn’t claiming a unique position, but uncovering common ground

Why? Why punctuate routine observational comedy with surreal spectators, like Dalí watches in a tableau by Renoir? A first thought is that Peretti is exposing the artificiality of stand-up and the recorded stand-up special. The moments of interruption reveal the constructedness of what we are watching. There was no moment at which Peretti looked into the wings at a clown of herself; the scene is pieced together from multiple takes. Same with the dogs, the audience members making out or talking on the phone, eating a salted egg or drinking tea from a cup and saucer. We are watching a film of what could never be a live performance.

The special opens with a sequence filmed on the route to the theatre, in which Peretti rides a motorbike in black leather and intones a gravelly voice-over: “So many trials and tribulations brought me to this point … I did countless hour specials where I looked like a damn fool, trying to be something I’m not.” Cut to a montage of Peretti on stage, as a self-hating comedian – “Ladies, who’s a whore? We all are!” – a cultural appropriator – “Sometimes I feel like everybody tripping but me.” – and a depressive in a sleeping bag – “In all seriousness, though, who cares about anything?”

The sequence ends with an absurd kneeling speech in which she thanks God for “the humility He bestowed upon me … and supreme gift He blessed me with.” The first real bit in the show, after the clown in the wings, is about self-doubt, male confidence, and comedians who act out sex with a stool, using the microphone as their penis: “I’m always just so blown away by their creativity.”

So: artifice, pretence, theatricality, the roles that men and women play on stage. Peretti’s grandiosity is self-parodic: “Thank you so much for coming out,” she opens, “I’m just like you guys. I’m also a huge fan of my work.” She’s performing a part; which we know she can do. What lifts her solid observations into brilliance, often, is an actor’s facility for characters: the vanity of a rescue dog owner, dating advice from a hot girl, the white knight in the comments thread who swears that you look better without makeup – conjured instantly by inflection, grimace, posture.

The effect is potentially destabilizing: we are watching a pantomime. Peretti picks apart her own persona. A bit about motorbikes – “why not just unzip your pants and pull your balls out, and then just walk around town banging pots and pans?” – reminds us of the opening sequence. Before mocking the vanity of rescue dog owners, she tells us that she is one – to applause. About her own clichéd impression of a stoner-surfer: “That’s his profession. Why just because you go onto the ocean on a thingy… do you have a dialect?”

We perpetually moderate how others experience us, performing ourselves

So much reflexivity can feel like nihilism, as though nothing on stage is real. But I think it is more generous. Peretti isn’t claiming a unique position – comic, performer, shapeshifter – but uncovering common ground. What she observes is our everyday performance. “I hate small talk,” she moans, a conventional set-up, followed by a caricature: “I’ve never been to that town, but I’ve been to a nearby town, so I can kind of imagine” – at which point she emits a stage scream to the sky – “I would like small talk if it were socially acceptable to make those sounds during it.” Hugging, dating, dog-walking: Peretti’s theme is the presentation of self in daily life. She admits her aversion to peeing in public places or eating in front of others.

By this point, we may fret that she is too self-conscious to be up on stage, commanding an audience. Peretti reassures us: “No, I do love stand-up. I think it’s just cool that you get to say your feelings, and it’s this completely unmoderated experience.” The special ends with two more jokes, but this is the conclusion. We recognize the irony: our experience has been anything but unmoderated. Then the reflex: in that respect, it is the same as any interaction. We perpetually moderate how others experience us, performing ourselves.

Another reflex: the very scenes that alienate us – the clown, the baby, dogs – are bids for intimacy. Maybe I’m wrong about Peretti, but they read now as sincere expressions of her experience of us experiencing her. The artificiality of stand-up has nothing to contrast with; if sincerity is possible at all, it’s possible here. Peretti jokes about her relatability as a TV star: “For example, nothing really feels like it costs anything anymore. Is that relatable?” But I can’t help believing that her insecurity is sincere; and I relate to it.

I can’t help believing that Peretti’s insecurity is sincere; and I relate to it

That there is no way to prove it proves nothing but the problem of other minds. And there are little confirmations. Her penultimate bit is about periods and male comedians bleeding from their dicks. That ends the set. But the final gag, before the credits and the outtakes, has the camera cut to the audience sleeping as Peretti exits left. What must have been the live spectators of a live performance have been conscripted, brought in on the act. They are pretending to sleep for us, the at-home audience, who know they are pretending. Everyone on screen is acting, as Peretti is acting, as we are acting with each other, too.

Sincerity is not the opposite of acting; it’s a way of acting well.

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