Every so often, a stand-up special can stand out for its refusal of formalities (having the comic walk out onstage and make a joke, including crowd reaction shots, performing on a wide stage in a theater, lighting placed high above the stage, etc). This all can go a long way to fostering intimacy and a woozy late-night feel that makes the comedy extra dynamic. Marc Maron’s odd, loose set in Thinky Pain, Jerrod Carmichael’s sitting down at a jazz club in Rothaniel, Paul F. Tompkins’ sharing stories in You Should Have Told Me, and Beth Stelling’s being in a small room for Girl Daddy are all recent examples of this. These decisions can give the special a kind of power in situating a comedian as someone that stands out, someone that’s worth watching. With her special, Prettiest Girl At The Special School, Tori Piskin joins that small pantheon.
Filmed at Brooklyn Comedy Club, the set begins with Piskin on a stage with family photos adorning the back wall. Centered in a bright light, a camera sits behind audience members and slowly zooms in on her, as if being drawn to a siren’s call. Piskin is immediately animated, providing quick context (she was dyslexic and attended a school for people with challenges like this), lands a joke, and begins to do impressions of the people who populated her world. In the vein of Maria Bamford and Rachel Feinstein, Piskin impersonates everyone from her coke-head principal, to a buff intellectual with a high voice she dated after tiring of hippyish Brooklyn men. A small impression of Frank, her boyfriend at school, leads quickly to the lines “We had no idea what Frank’s disability was. I think just from Staten Island.''While these impressions more often than not lead to or heighten jokes rather than serve as jokes, there is one massive exception: Piskin’s mother.
Tori Piskin’s impression of her mother is nothing short of astounding (and hilarious).
Impersonations are hard, especially if it's someone you’ve grown up with who is integral to you, let alone your act. There are details to nail down for the visual or sound, but more importantly one has to bring the character to life in a way that convinces the audience you’re portraying a real person while also making sure it’s always in service of comedy. Piskin does such an incredible job playing her mother that she’s able to simultaneously have the imitation serve as a story beat, be a comedic moment, and also serve punchlines. The portrayal situates her mother as a Jewish New Yorker who is of a certain generation that prioritized suspicion, caution, and incredulity, and these near-imperceptible characteristics help bring it to life in the best way possible. Piskin’s mother is able to play dumb when maybe claiming she’s slept with someone besides her husband, be critical of men her daughter dates, and both self-congratulatory and untrusting when describing the principal as “a big druggy” because “he doesn’t tailor (tailah) his pants.” All of it’s believable in the context and specific way of being Piskin’s mother is anchored in, making the decision to include her as a supporting player perhaps the best one for Piskin’s comedy.
Piskin’s incredible pacing allows her to showcase what makes her great in just twenty-one minutes.
Beyond this, Piskin moves fast, eating premises up and providing just enough context and language for the jokes to work before moving on to the next. Her sister, a ballerina, appears for a series of quick jokes about ballerinas with silly faux-posh accents (It doesn't look like they're dancing. It looks like they’re searching for food.”) and a joke about her voice and speech pattern being like ASMR. a chunk on dating moves through three very distinct men that manages to include both a ditzy Irish bartender and an act out of Voldemort giving a British woman an STD. There’s so much packed into Piskin’s set that it’s jaw-dropping when the twenty-one minute run time is considered.
New, surprising jokes are always just a few seconds away in Prettiest Girl at the Special School, as Piskin mines normal life for incredible observations and turns-of-phrase.
At one point, Piskin briefly impersonates James Gandolfini, who was a guest speaker at her school. She leans into his timid, average guyness he was said to possess, looking down and appearing uncomfortable as he says ““I had dyslexia. I tried; I tried. I went to college. I went to Rutgers, okay. But I was failing. But once I found acting I realized, eh, you don’t really need school.” The line sets up the auditorium to go nuts, and Gandolfini realizing he made a big mistake with that admission. The joke is hard to see coming directly, and Piskin is at her best when she’s able to find unobserved moments in her comedy. A Brooklyn fuckboy has a MOMA tote bag that never has anything you need in it. Jumping on the sound of a vape being inhaled and asking “Why does it always sound like they’re drinking a smoothie and there’s a clog in the straw?” Describing a date’s move in bed like he “bookmarked to eat me out later.”
These moments steamroll into one another, creating a buoyant and electric set that never lets up. Characters flit in and out, and a few callbacks help to end things tidily, but you can sense that if she wanted to, Piskin could have combusted the set into something truly zany. Luckily for the viewer, we get to connect with her because her no-frills set allows us to, making the twenty-one minute runtime feel like a concert that deserves an encore.
Watch Tori Piskin in her new special Prettiest Girl at the Special School available now on YouTube!