How should we celebrate great comedians? Netflix’s latest exercise in live comedy is called The Hall: a new pantheon for legendary comics, launched onstage at the recent Netflix is a Joke festival in LA. That show now drops on TV, and finds four present-day comedians eulogising a quartet of dead geniuses: the first entries into this new hall of fame, into which acts will henceforth be inducted annually. It’s a worthwhile endeavour, at least if the aim, as creator/director Marty Callner has said, is acquainting today’s audiences with yesterday’s greats. Whether the tone is quite right (is it comedy? Is it ancestor worship?), I’m not sure.
For the most part, we don’t really get comedy from the four comedian-hosts. Jon Stewart is first on, sermonising about George Carlin – about his legendary “seven words you can’t say on TV” routine, about his quest to be “actualised as an artist”, about how “as a culture, we [still] miss his voice”. Later, Chelsea Handler hymns Joan Rivers, pausing after every statement she makes about Rivers’ pioneering genius so the audience can dutifully applaud.
Fair enough, you might say. Comedians aren’t respected enough. Comedies get overlooked at all the usual award ceremonies; famously, only a handful ever won best picture Oscar. And some of these hall-of-fame acts lived their lives feeling underappreciated. That’s clear from the clips screened here, which include Rivers lamenting her exclusion from comedy’s in-crowd, and Richard Pryor insisting that his comic brilliance – blazingly apparent from this footage – got insufficient credit.
But, the question remains: can you have a reverent show about irreverence? There’s something sanctimonious about the atmosphere in The Hall that doesn’t quite square with all these paeans totaking the piss. There is the odd unintentionally funny moment, too, such as when the captions blare “Congratulations, Robin Williams!” and “Congratulations, George Carlin!” for this would-be-prestigious posthumous accolade. (Is that a thing? Can you congratulate dead people?)
Peak Rivers or Pryor wouldn’t get through a minute of this without puncturing the piety in as blunt a manner as possible. As it is, the best moments come when the hosts deviate from the worshipful script: John Mulaney poo-poohing the idea that Williams’s comedy was driven by his personal demons (“fuck off with that shit!”), or Jeff Ross bringing some “roastmaster general” energy in a section remembering the standups who have died in the last 12 months. That barbed section splits the difference between reverence and comedy more effectively – but even it must play out to maudlin music, a plink-plonk piano that undercuts Ross’s efforts at boom-tish.
You’re thrown back, then, to the archive footage – not all of which has survived the ravages of time. But the best of it makes all this glorifying seem justified. I’m thinking of Williams’s cunnilingus dumbshow, gormless features rising and falling above the crook of his hairy arm; Carlin’s barnstorming “religion is bullshit” routine; or (still breathtaking, 40 years on) Pryor making antic black comedy out of his own heart attack.
With a soupcon of self-regard, Dave Chappelle links Pryor to today’s anxieties about what we are and aren’t allowed to say – and talks touchingly about his own relationship with the man he calls “the GOAT”. But based on this first edition, The Hall is a better platform for the inductees than those doing the inducting. Its live element is still reaching for the right tone of voice – whereas the acts being celebrated were (and in posterity, always will be) fully, and sometimes thrillingly, in command of theirs.