By: Isa Goldberg
December 31, 2023: Today’s comedy routines and standup are tragic affairs – self-involved and monotonous. They can be a real downer, especially if you enjoy your own laughter. The exceptions? Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s Rachel Bloom at the Orpheum Theatre and Jes Tom at Greenwich House Theater. Both are running through the first week in January.
And they are each exquisite performers that communicate challenging thoughts and experiences with the audience. Since they don’t take on the usual topics in the usual ways – partners, pet peeves, and problematic attitudes – their stories are original and invigorating. That each of these comedians is highly articulate takes their acts way over the top.
Bloom, like this or not – has actually bloomed. Her Crazy Ex-Girlfriend phenom sealed her fate as a confident writer, actor, singer, and producer. Now, taking over the Orpheum of Stomp is, as she tells the audience, one hell of a feat. One woman taking over the crash and burn of 11,475 Stompers over 29 years – she’d have to be tough.
An unflinching performer, confident as all get out, Bloom likes grabbing a story by the balls, and ushering it forward like a rock star, which she is of course. In fact, the basketball is an onstage prop, and a strong metaphor for a woman who knows how to bounce ideas around powerfully, with a plumb sense of humor.
In Death, Let Me Do My Show, she weaves life, birth, and death in such a subtle way, that the audience doesn’t anticipate what they’re in for. Stating at the top of the show that she has no more to say about the pandemic, she leads us by the nose into her post pandemic fears, and uncertainties. Revealing in her way, deeper concerns with the world at large, than a comedienne might be able to mine.
By the way, standup hasn’t always been a woman’s sport. Thankfully, both performers demonstrate a positive sense of feminism.
Whether branding herself as a hot young lawyer, or producing a musical television series, Rachel Bloom is the quintessential power woman. Jes Tom, on the hand, finds womanliness far more elusive, a kind of holy grail they may forever seek.
Walking into Greenwich House after a sold out run at the Cherry Lane Theatre,
Jes Tom Less Lonely appears pretty vulnerable. After all, most people don’t need to take a course in gender studies to introduce themselves, but Jes Tom does. They admit that their chosen pronoun makes them feel “less lonely.” So, loneliness is at stake.
Upon first impressions, that’s not an issue for Bloom. She walks on stage, everyone knows her, and wants to hear about her baby, her husband, and her new projects. Talking a mile a minute, knowing she enchants us, she sings a song, describes a stinky smelling tree, and calls off an interloper in the audience. That sexy looking actor David Hull (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend), turns out to be Death.
To fess up, Bloom confides that she lost her dog. This, not to be considered apocalyptic, is still a grieving issue. While singing a song about going to heaven with her pet, and showing a slide show, she addresses existential fears, like what happens when a “petless person dies.” If you’re in her audience, you’re thinking about what that could be like.
Eventually, her on stage conflict with Death butts up against her story about birthing her first child, her daughter, just before saying good bye to a beloved, lost to COVID.
In a manner of curiosity and openness, Jes Tom flips the conversation about death, in a quicker, more direct fashion. There isn’t anything here you can’t grasp. Their dating experiences with women and men land rather intelligently with the surmise that “the person you plan your death with is the person who you spend your life with.”
Their openness kind of puts a kibosh on the issue of dying “petless.” It’s not a spoiler alert, because if you didn’t live with a pet, you won’t even think about it.
However, on the subject of transitioning, Jes Tom’s personality, the one they show us on stage anyway, demonstrates a beautiful blending of masculine and feminine. Tall, thin and wan, with a blending of Japanese and Chinese traits, they merge the ying and yang of self into a beautiful harmonious person. One who is courageous and self-identified.
Their transitioning experiences reveal a kind of duplicity to gender identity – the fact that you can’t have one without the other. And being a lesbian, Jes Tom explains is anti-chic – it just takes a flannel shirt. Unlike women who discover it at Harry Winston, they will uncover it in the gay male community.
Change is the necessity in Jes Tom’s world. One can’t learn anything without being able to change. It’s the foundation of their social commentary – the observation that the inability to achieve change could bode the end of the world.
It could even be a happy thing. As they put it, “I’m not going back. I make so much more sense as a beautiful, delicate, twink sub bottom than I ever did as a caring, handsome, masculine dyke top.”
Regardless, transitioning is not a choice they made without trepidation. As Jes Tom explains, it took them 10 years to decide on taking testosterone treatments. A most admirable performer, they raise the stakes on comedy.
It’s interesting that both comedians find their humor in end of the world stories. While it may be topical, it isn’t that kind of a topic for most people.
In Bloom’s world, the topic of death requires something of a major production, with her name splashed across the back wall of the set by avant-garde designer Beowulf Boritt, a sparkly costume by Kristin Isola, lights by Aaron Copp, and projections by Hana S. Kim.
Being Jes Tom demands slipping the unspeakable subject under the radar. They know it’s unspeakable, they’ve been a part of the gay community since they were two, reportedly.
Oddly, there is something frighteningly alive about being alone, on the precipice of change. For them, the shadow of hope is genuine, and it’s life sustaining.
But mostly, it’s the humor…the comic relief of seeing things close up, but from a perspective you would not have imagined. If you’re feeling like bad news needs a new cover, don’t miss your chance to see each of these comedians. Their grappling with social commentary helps cut the pain.
Death, Let Me Do My Show ****1/2
The Orpheum Theatre
126 Second Avenue @ 8th Street, NYC
Photography: Emilio Madrid
Less Lonely ****1/2
The Greenwich House Theater
27 Barrow Street, NYC
Photography: Samantha Brooks