January 23, 2022

The Best Jokes of 2021

On July 27th, TMZ reported that the comedian and actor Bob Odenkirk had collapsed on the set of “Better Call Saul,” which was filming its final season, and been rushed to the hospital. For most of the next day, there was silence about his condition, leaving an ardent community on Twitter to enact a kind of vigil—fellow-comedians sharing memories, fans sharing favorite clips, and more people than anyone might have expected hoping together for the best.

During those unnerving hours, it seemed possible that the last example we might ever get of Odenkirk’s brilliant performance style—warm, absorbing, kind of grimy—was a short bit from the second season of the sketch show “I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson,” which had premièred earlier that month. In the scene, titled “Diner Wink,” a father convinces Odenkirk, who plays the man at the next table, to go along with a story he’s telling his daughter about how ice-cream stores close when it’s cold out. After indulging this white lie, Odenkirk’s character, in a mixture of pathos, desperation, and gleeful conniving, compels the father to agree to his increasingly strange claims: that he owns “every kind of classic car,” three of the same model in some cases (“Triples is best.”); that he has a dying wife; that he doesn’t live in a hotel. If these aren’t true, he reminds the father, then neither is the part about ice cream.

Like so many of Odenkirk’s characters, this man is a bullshitter whose twisted frailty reveals some tragic human truth. Thankfully, the scene wasn’t a farewell—on the 28th, Odenkirk’s son, Nate, had good news to share, tweeting, “He’s going to be okay.” In what’s been another rough year, it was a collective moment of relief.

Here were some other moments that brought relief—or at least a diversion, some bafflement, or a rueful chuckle—in 2021.

Flags of Our Forefathers

Photograph by Sean Gallagher / Courtesy Comedy Central

In his latest special, “​​Imperfect Messenger,” the comedian and “Daily Show” correspondent Roy Wood, Jr., jokes about the “residue of racism” that clings to modern phrases and objects, implied or faintly felt, though not expressed outright. “You ever been somewhere, and there’s too many American flags?” he asks. “It just feels . . .” He bounces back and forth a little, rubbing the fingers of his left hand with his thumb. “Like, how many American flags equal one Confederate flag?”

The Farce of Facebook

Facebook is a scourge, but it at least throws off sparks of humor as it grinds us all down. Take the preposterous video presentation that Mark Zuckerberg hosted, in October, to announce the company’s rebrand as Meta. “With waxen skin and glazed eyes, clothed in a signature dark long-sleeved shirt and jeans, Zuckerberg seems little more human than the replicant avatar he uses to demonstrate immersive 3-D experiences,” Kyle Chayka wrote, of the C.E.O.’s affect. Earlier that month, Facebook crashed for hours, giving the world a glimpse of life without it. Many people made jokes. A favorite was by the writer Ben Schwartz, who pointed back to Facebook’s origins as Facemash, a Harvard Hot-or-Not clone. “Mark Zuckerberg has concluded his research into rating every woman on Earth and has now shut down Facebook,” Schwartz wrote. “Thank you all for your cooperation.”

“Let’s Go, Brandon!”

A good example of how a legitimately funny circumstance can be made painfully unfunny in the hands of painfully unfunny people. This fall, after the stock-car driver Brandon Brown won a race at the Talladega Superspeedway, in Alabama, his post-race interview was momentarily drowned out by members of the crowd chanting, “Fuck Joe Biden.” The interviewer, perhaps mishearing, or maybe attempting a bit of live-TV dubbing jiu jitsu, noted that they were saying, “Let’s go, Brandon.” It was a real-life “Boo-urns” or “Find a stranger in the Alps” moment. The phrase quickly became a meme on the right, and then, just as quickly, was grabbed by the professional-grievance class of tweeting politicians (see Ted Cruz, Lauren Boebert, et al.), who have never met a joke they couldn’t spoil.

California Dreamin’

Photograph by Shane Brown / Courtesy FX / Hulu

The half-hour series “Reservation Dogs,” about a group of young people scraping by on a Native American reservation in Oklahoma, begins as a plain homage to Quentin Tarantino, but quickly spins out in several curious, hilarious directions. The four kids who make up the series’ wannabe gang are saving money to split for California. When one of them, Willie Jack (played, in a breakout performance, by Paulina Alexis), is asked by her father why she wants to go, the answer is obvious. Duh, it’s got the best doctors: “Snoop Dogg’s from there. Dr. Dre. Shit, even fucking Dr. Phil.”

Norm Macdonald Considers Time

Macdonald died of leukemia in September, at the age of sixty-one. It was a shock; he’d been diagnosed with the disease nearly a decade earlier, but he hadn’t talked about it publicly. Fortunately, there were hours of clips online to provide consolation, including his final Letterman appearance, in 2015. In his deadpan, discursive, and slightly out-of-time manner, he noted how, in bygone days, a man might have sat for a single photographic portrait in his life—a farmer, say, looking stoically and a little impatiently into the lens, eager to return to his work. The scarcity of that single picture made it worth saving. But what about our daily snaps? “Fifty years from now,” Macdonald ventured, “people will be going, like, Hey, you want to see a hundred thousand pictures of my great-grandfather?”

Dips for Dinner

Selena Gomez is the vital comedic ingredient of Hulu’s “Only Murders in the Building,” a satire of true-crime podcasts and Upper West Side mores that also stars Steve Martin and Martin Short. But, for the series’ silliest bit and finest earworm, the honors go to Short, who plays a washed-up Broadway director named Oliver Putnam. In a brief musical number, Putnam introduces his contender for the next fad diet. Keto? Intermittent fasting? Why not simply get all your calories in the form of dips? “Dips for dinner. Dips for dinner. I’m a nut for dips,” he sings. Later, he explains, “I bet I have not had a regular entrée for years. Granted, I’ve lost fourteen pounds and a significant amount of hair, but it’s totally worth it.”

The Uncanny Valley of “Ted Lasso”

Ted Lasso” is funny and charming, but it turns out that Brett Goldstein, who plays the gruff retired footballer Roy Kent, is very funny and very charming. During an appearance on “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” Goldstein told the story of how he’d gone from a writer on the show to one of its stars, by e-mailing an unsolicited audition tape to the producers. He also addressed the odd feeling, common among “Ted Lasso” viewers, that his character resembles a computer-generated image. “When I found out I was C.G.I., it was quite disconcerting,” Goldstein said. “ ’Cause I’ve seen a lot of sci-fi films, and I started to be, like . . . Maybe I am, ’cause they’d implant memories to make me think I wasn’t.” Whether he’s real or not, Goldstein was the year’s best late-night guest.

New York City Goes to the Polls

Photograph by Carlo Allegri / Reuters / Alamy

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