In his latest special, “X,” which premièred on Saturday, on HBO, the puckish twenty-nine-year-old comedian Daniel Sloss pivots to vulnerability.
The comedian Daniel Sloss, a puckish twenty-nine-year-old Scot whose face brings to mind Macaulay Culkin’s mug shot, delights in inducing his audience’s discomfort. In “Dark,” the first of two Netflix specials that he released last year, he brags about a punch line that cleared out half of one crowd in Indiana. In “Jigsaw,” the second, he delivers a misanthropic riff that has since, by his count, ruined more than forty-five thousand relationships, among them a hundred and nineteen marriages. (Sloss updates the tally online as newly single fans send him epiphanic messages.) His bits teem with curse words, wicked daydreams, and graphic descriptions of intimate hygiene, including a pre-coital routine of patting down his privates with mouthwash; onstage, Sloss mimes one lover’s response with a fit of sniffs and grimaces, the microphone a stand-in for his member.
But the slapstick is a preamble: Sloss’s signature move is a pivot to vulnerability. At the heart of “Dark” is an ode to his sister, Josie, who suffered from severe cerebral palsy and died when he was a child. Sloss posits comedy as a coping mechanism: Josie, he says, loved to laugh, and the idea that she’d resent her family’s bawdy humor—the puns about “deflowering” her, for instance, during maintenance trips to the graveyard—amounts, in his view, to a kind of dehumanization, a denial of his late sister’s capacity for lightness. Laughter, Sloss maintains, is not the opposite of sadness but a way to “bring a level of humanity back” to a “moment that seems to lack it.”
In his latest special, “X,” which premièred on Saturday, on HBO, Sloss promises to give this thesis a stiffer test. “Get comfortable,” he tells an audience in Sydney, where the show was filmed. “If you’re not comfortable, don’t worry about it too much. I’m going to provide plenty of material that’s going to make most of you very fucking uncomfortable.” As if to honor his reputation as a provocateur, Sloss then conjures the spectre of pedophilia in an opening—and otherwise rather innocent—riff about his love of children, particularly his two-year-old goddaughter. (For fun, Sloss teaches her to flip the bird at horses.) From there, he eases into the special’s central subjects: the gendered expectations that he claims prevent men from expressing affection, and the damage wrought by what he has learned to call toxic masculinity.
“As a man, you have to learn to not listen to a lot of the caveman instincts,” Sloss tells us. He dismisses each of his own instincts—resistance to intimacy, disbelief when women outperform him in sports—as “the residue of ignorance” and “the echoes of an uneducated me.” They remain in “a ramshackle clusterfuck” at the back of his brain, he explains, where they are safeguarded by a fictional archivist named Nigel, whom Sloss playacts with panache. “You’ve certainly come to the right place,” Nigel croons each time Sloss arrives to rout out the origins of an old misconception. Along the way, he dredges up buried miscellany: his favorite Pokémon, his crush on the Olsen twins, his teen-age belief “that all weddings are gay.”
Like Sloss’s other shows, “X” features a twist, of sorts, which arrives about seventy minutes into the set. “Once I’ve legally fulfilled my contract of being a comedian,” he explains, “I do a sad fifteen-minute TED talk.” This time, it becomes clear, Sloss has avoided hinting at his destination too explicitly, not wanting his audience to suspect quite what’s coming: although “X” features a content-advisory warning of “adult themes involving sexual assault and strong language,” its trailer avoids any specific allusion to the heaviness of its closing segment. Suddenly grave, Sloss tells a story that culminates in the assault of one of his closest female friends and his abiding shame at failing to prevent it. The ultimate introspection of “X,” it turns out, is the payoff of its cheekier prelude, which was designed, Sloss tells us in retrospect, to lull the men in his audience into listening. Their attention cinched, Sloss recounts his response to news of his friend’s assault and bemoans his own suppressed, brutish instincts: first, to interrogate her about the specifics of the encounter; second, to crush the rapist’s skull.
In the end, Sloss tells us, he comes to support his friend on her terms. He accepts her decision not to go to the police. He joins her in what they call “second therapy,” when, after his friend’s scheduled sessions, “she comes to mine, and we drink seventeen bottles of wine.” On his own, Sloss tells us, he confronted the rapist—who remains at large, apparently—and reckons with his own guilt. His parting message to male crowd members is an entreaty to identify instances of misogyny and preëmpt their worst consequences. “Instead of having this fucking hero complex and being, like, ‘I’m going to beat up a rapist,’ ” he says, “stop one—because I know it can be done, because I know how I fucking failed at it.” Sounding almost rueful, he adds, “For the first time ever in my fucking career, I do not hold a controversial opinion.”
In late October, shortly before “X” premièred, video footage of a comedian named Kelly Bachman calling out Harvey Weinstein went viral; the disgraced mogul had turned up, without prior announcement, in the crowd of a standup event for young performers in New York. A few attendees heckled Bachman when she made an oblique reference to Weinstein during her routine, calling him the “Freddy Krueger in the room” and adding, “I didn’t know we had to bring our own mace and rape whistles to Actors Hour.” Other patrons placated Weinstein later, when one of several infuriated crowd members accosted him at his table. Last week, Bachman, herself a survivor of rape, published an essay in the Times describing her decision to address Weinstein, her anticipation of some backlash, and her ambivalence about whether she should have done more. “A lot of the work in calling out rape, rapists, and rape culture unfortunately still falls on survivors,” she writes, pointing out that many others, in her experience, “fall silent, boo, or demand we ‘shut up.’ ” The conclusion of the piece is a call to action: “I want other people to speak up for us so that we don’t have to.”
Seen one way, “X” could be taken as a serendipitous fulfillment of this request, directing a sort of public-service announcement toward men who might be skeptical of the #MeToo movement. But the story of assault that informs Sloss’s straightforward plea doubles, for him, as an occasion to revisit the argument essential to his previous specials—that jokes are a necessary and cathartic response to discomfort, and that comedians ought to unsettle their audiences in the interest of destigmatizing trauma. The argument seems sound enough on a theoretical level, but something about the comedy that accompanies it doesn’t quite land. Though he opens the bit with a degree of solemnity, the end of “X” is spiked with jokes, all of which, Sloss explains, were first told to him by his friend, the rape victim, who happens to espouse a philosophy quite similar to his. (Some of the punch lines—which, Sloss suggests, constitute her coping mechanism—would otherwise seem indefensible.) Sloss makes clear that it was she who encouraged him to share their exchanges onstage, encased in his usual insouciance, in the hopes of reaching a wider audience. After the first preview, he tells us, he rushed to ask her whether she thought he was making the material too much about himself. “Yeah, every second of every day,” he tells us she replied. “That’s the only way you can do—talk about it from your perspective—and men will listen to you.” For all his self-deprecating transparency, Sloss’s delivery betrays a degree of unease. By ventriloquizing a woman to voice his most provocative punch lines, he seems to concede that he might not possess the authority to pull off the jokes, or the argument, on his own.
Another way to read “X” would be to see it as a kind of mirror image of “Nanette,” a similarly structured standup special, in which the Tasmanian comedian Hannah Gadsby professes to quit comedy, fearing its tendency to trivialize the downtrodden by engaging them in their own humiliation. Gadsby, who is a lesbian and autistic, sees laughter’s potential to defuse tension not as a blessing but as a weapon; in “Nanette,” she unspools a successful joke, told initially at her expense, to reveal the trauma at its center. Sloss attempts something like the opposite, embedding the story of someone else’s trauma within a broader argument about the necessity of comedy. But, as his reliance on ventriloquism suggests, jokes always depend, in part, on who is telling them. It’s a truism that complicates his sweeping testimonial to the virtues of irreverence. And, though he doesn’t grapple with it explicitly, Sloss seems to understand it: rather than risk relaying his friend’s riffs in his own voice, he entreats crowd members to trust her judgment. “Making jokes about a serious subject does not mean that you do not take it seriously,” he says. “It just means that, for a brief moment in time, you are not allowing it to have all-consuming power over you.”
In her Times essay, Bachman ends up alighting on much the same insight. “Laughter isn’t just medicine,” she writes, but “power”: “If I can laugh at the monster from my nightmares, if I can laugh at the most powerful predator in the entertainment world, maybe my pain doesn’t control me as much as I thought it did.” But Bachman’s power resides in the restoration of a kind of agency that Sloss never lost. To a degree that even he seems to recognize, “X” functions best not as a theory of comedy but as a raw and enthralling crescendo of confessions. Addressing the prevalence of assault, he says, “If you think this does not affect the women in your life, it’s not because it’s not happening to them. It’s because they don’t trust you enough to talk about it.” This, he admits, is the “single worst thing” that he has ever learned about himself. It’s a credit to Sloss’s special, if also a dent in his doctrine, that the most powerful lines of the set aren’t the funny ones.