Talk shows are profitable and stagnant. Even the best talk show often boils down to a weird soup of promotional jargon, occasionally funny stories, and hapless pandering. It’s time for a fresh start, and Funny or Die’s latest web series, Under a Rock with Tig Notaro, is a crisp drink of water in the talk show desert.
The show’s basic premise is simple. Tig Notaro, respected international comedy icon, doesn’t follow pop culture. She doesn’t watch movies or TV and doesn’t know celebrities. Armed with her complete lack of knowledge, Tig interviews well-known celebrities, trying to figure out who they are. Over the course of the show, Tig must learn their first and last name, along with why they’re famous.
In the first episode, released last week on YouTube, Tig sits down with James Van Der Beek, introducing her guest as “this person.” Like all talk show guests, Tig has been given questions to ask, designed in theory to help her identify her interviewee. Instead, the questions ultimately just drive home just how little awareness Tig has of pop culture as a whole.
To his credit, Van Der Beek is charmed by the whole situation, and why wouldn’t he be? One of the most obnoxious aspects of modern late night talk shows it the assumption that the audience knows or cares about every detail of a celebrity’s life. For a star like Van Der Beek, who’s been a part of pop culture for over two decades, that means constantly reliving Dawson’s Creek in interviews. So when Notaro asks him about his infamous sad face meme, and then seems puzzled to discover it’s from something twenty years in the past, Van Der Beek is absolutely delighted.
Her sweet-natured lack of knowledge creates a space of equal power, free of the star-struck ass kissing of James Corden or Jimmy Fallon’s nonstop nostalgia parade. Most importantly, it’s not cruel or based on anything negative. Under a Rock immediately summons comparisons to Funny or Die’s Between Two Ferns with Zach Galifianakis, but the shows couldn’t be any more different.
While Two Ferns is understandably a beloved part of comedy history, it’s oddly mean in retrospect. Galifianakis mined comedy diamonds from interviews with Barack Obama and Bradley Pitts, but a large chunk of the jokes worked because of his unspoken knowledge of their careers. Its brilliance was being knowledgable enough to rip someone apart by appearing to not care who they are.
Under a Rock instead focuses on Notaro’s awkwardness. As Van Der Beek describes it, he’s “never been on a talk show and seen more trepidation from the host.” They create a delightfully playful game of inside jokes the audience is in on about the subject’s past that fly immediately over Tig’s head. It’s warm and charming in a time where negativity reigns supreme, a welcome change of pace I didn’t anticipate wanting.
In the first three days after its release, I watched this seven and a half minute episode ten times and it still makes me laugh. Frustratingly the series is sponsored by Amazon, with regular breaks to talk to Alexa. While the product placement isn’t all-encompassing, it feels incredibly out of place. Why would a comic like Notaro, who doesn’t even watch TV or movies, have a robot voice assistant? The answer is because the company paid for it, not because the gag is organic. To the shows credit, it is a little remarkable how similarly deadpan both Alexa and Notaro are.
If episode one is any indication of what’s to come Under a Rock how the potential to be the comedy sleeper hit of the summer. My only hope is that they get progressively bigger guests as the season goes on. There are five more episodes, and I’m ready to see Tig not recognize Jimmy Carter or DJ Khaled.
Part of me wonders if the good nature of the guest is a necessary ingredient to the show’s success, though I’d love to see someone who doesn’t understand the premise come on. Regardless of what comes, it’d be a crime for comedy fans not to know about this series. Even if they, like Tig, live under a rock.