Jen Brister: The Optimist.

Gorilla Specials: Jen Brister Will Make You An ‘Optimist’ After Watching Her Special

In Jen Brister’s special, The Optimist, the comic walks through, and partially relives, the struggles of lockdown. As much as she can, Brister looks for levity, but more interestingly, she relitigates the tedium and hell of having to be trapped home with people you supposedly love, while the world gets stupider, but no better. There is an argument to be made that it wouldn’t matter if the special was funny, since Brister does such a great job of reminding you how tiring it all was, and how performative we all had to be in 2020, making the hour successful based on this unique merit alone.

Exploring anhedonia, fatigue, the absurdity of a nation giving thanks not with money, but applause, and disconnection from reality for the rich, Brister does a worthy job of acting out the humor of our time spent not bettering ourselves. 

Jen Brister.
Jen Brister.

Jen Brister is thoughtful about the love-hate relationship comics might have with their career.

Early on in the special, Brister talks about not enjoying anything, even as she’s doing it. Being anhedonic is often a symptom of depression, but rather than explore the why of this, Brister shares this description of doing comedy on Zoom during the pandemic:

“”Off I go, out the kitchen, up the stairs, into the spare room, open up my laptop, and pa-pow! Fifteen minutes of dynamic stand-up comedy. Bam! I’ve made eleven quid. That’s gone. We’re not going to get that back, so we’ve got to let it go.”

The laughs come from how loud the set-up is compared to the punchline about making eleven quid, but the comedy of it comes from how absurd it is that all this effort was made for such little money. Smartly, Brister illustrates the bigger financial concerns and values we considered in isolation, underlining her initial point about the lack of enjoyment of things with this example of toiling for what surely deserves more reward. A lot of comedians quit during the pandemic, and even more hoped it would continue so they didn’t have to do it anymore. Yet, since returning to live events, comedians have been the primary individuals discussing those years, and their struggle remains largely unobserved. Intentionally or not, Brister does a good job of showing the struggle for her profession in this time. 

Brister is great at act-outs of frustration bordering on a mental breakdown.

At the start of her hour, Brister promises not to discuss her sons, saying:

“What is the legacy of my generation? It feels like it’s armageddon. Which is why I made a decision in this particular show that I am not going to moan about my children in this show. No, I’m not going to do it. They’ve got enough to worry about. They’ve got enough to worry about without having their mom moaning about them on stage. And the other reason I’m not going to moan about my kids is because what I’ve realized, as a stand-up comedian, is that when I moan about my kids, people…don’t like it.”

For the majority of her special, Brister breaks this promise, but does so only to illustrate the frustration and tedium of being a parent that went from being able to get time away from your kids, to being tethered to them against your will. In each small chunk, fatigue mounts, patience is lost, and after a lengthy bit about her kids using walkie-talkies to ask if they can hear each other over and over again, she loses it, not quite snapping, but not not snapping. Dropping her torso low to the ground, head near the stage, Brister talks to herself aloud in an attempt to share and release her exhaustion. In doing so, she does something only really seen in the comedy of Jessica Kirson, as she finds a new dimension to what comedy can look like on stage and using the audience as a conduit for her fatigue. 

Brister can build momentum and mocking absurdity like no one else.

When discussing her frustration with Gwyneth Paltrow’s disconnect from working-class realities, Brister shares that she memorized a post from Paltrow, and adopts a smug, righteous American white woman voice (think anyone you know who spends money on yoga retreats or who is a lululemon manager), and says “This is a time for resting. This is a time for reading. This is a time to learn a new language. This is a time to pick up a musical instrument. This is..I thought, are you on ketamine, Gwyn?”

This last line is a near shriek, as Brister yells at angrily at the voice/character she just inhabited. The joke is framed by nervy quick irritation around discussing Paltrow, which allows focus to be placed on the slower delivery of her Instagram lines, and is punctuated by the double-time scream at her.

Elsewhere, in the best part of the special, Brister creates an orchestra of idiocy by acting out the way Bristol clapped for essential workers, juxtaposed with the Donald Duck-esque jowl flapping of Boris Johnson. It builds to something vicious and seething, hilarious in its inability to conceive of any other way to capture the silliness of the time than by mocking it loudly with literal sounds and vocal trills. It, and the rest of The Optimist, must be seen to be appreciated for the smart and essential commentary that it is. 

Jen Brister: The Optimist.
Jen Brister: The Optimist. Courtesy of 800 Pound Gorilla.

Jen Brister's new stand-up special, The Optimist, is available now exclusively on 800 Pound Gorilla. Watch it here first before it hits YouTube on December 19th!

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1 comment

One my favourite specials of the year – thanks for putting a spotlight on the UK scene!


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