Everyone in comedy is now either an internet star or an aspiring one.
More so than any other artists, comics adjusted quickly to the new normal, with theaters reinventing themselves as online portals, clubs producing virtual stand-up sets and just about everyone performing on Instagram Live. Jim Gaffigan put his family dinners on YouTube, and Mike Birbiglia live-streamed the development of new jokes with Maria Bamford and John Mulaney. In one of the best pivots, Sam Morril and Taylor Tomlinson, who both recently released stand-up specials, started shooting quick funny videos chronicling a new couple cooped up together in quarantine, and it has grown into a very funny series.
But the comedians doing the most assured work online didn’t need to adjust because they were already there, particularly those in the growing genre of “front-facing camera comedy”: short character sketches played directly to the camera. Owing a debt to the hectic editing of Tim and Eric and the influence of the defunct six-second-or-less platform Vine, these videos have gone viral for years, but with comedians and audiences stuck at home, they have replaced the special as the dominant comedy form of the Covid-19 crisis. In the constantly shifting ecosystem of young performers on Twitter and Instagram, the most vital voice to emerge during this anxious, isolating moment is that of Meg Stalter.
Stalter, 29, has become essential escapist entertainment, an oasis of invigorating silliness in feeds dominated by wearying tragedy. Part of the reason is her staggering productivity. In the last two weeks alone, she started a new podcast, “Confronting Demons,” and performed nearly nightly hours on IG Live, including comic versions of a cooking show, a magic show, a motivational seminar and a master class on the art of seduction. She has also produced more than a dozen flamboyant new characters, from Cameile Orgasm, the self-described richest person in Beverly Hills, to your aunt who just realized she should be in quarantine — along with a bunch of random experiments like recreating a segment from “Sex and the City” and narrating a scene from a Marilyn Monroe movie.
While live in-person comedy has vanished, the Meg Stalter Industrial Complex has filled the vacuum. And though producing such a titanic volume of material from her Brooklyn apartment will inevitably produce uneven results, there is an aesthetic through-line to her comedy, such a signature style that you see online comments refer to people as a Meg Stalter character. So who exactly is that?
She tends to be verbose, oddly theatrical, preposterously can-do, the kind of person described as a bit much. Her characters are ordinary eccentrics who drop unusually funny names (like Hannikah) and find epiphanies in the mundane, like the artsy mom who takes up drawing again. She becomes so inspired that she develops a new resentment for her children, despairing that she can’t make anything beautiful since she produced such an ugly son. As ridiculous as her characters can be, Stalter approaches them with warmth. For a satirist, she has a big heart, jabbing her subjects without really going for the kill. There’s even a poignancy to how clueless they are. Think Catherine O’Hara in “Schitt’s Creek.”
Typically accompanied by vivid eye makeup and subtle but pitch-perfect background music, her characters have an unexpected glamour, like the Parisian influencer who finds herself endlessly irresistible. “My morning routine is to make love to myself and then break an egg to celebrate,” she says in a buttery French accent. “After that, I like to fill up my bath with milk and look at it. I like to sit on a wooden chair for no reason.”
Such absurd riffs tumble out of her mouth as quickly as Robin Williams erupted impressions. Comics tend to be either meticulously careful with language or freewheeling and improvisational, but Stalter somehow manages to be both at once. She often mispronounces words, but then commits to the mistake, making it amusing. Other times, she delights in the goofiest word choice. One of her extravagant characters, a grandly self-regarding femme fatale in her own mind, flirtatiously tells a man on a date: “There’s just one little problem: You were looking even more delicious than the rigatoni.”
Then there’s this classic terrible wedding toast gone wrong: “Ezmerelda, you are hot, magic and did I mention hot?” she says, then returning to pasta comedy to address the groom. “Tortellini, you are average, brain-dead and more of a curse than magic. But opposites attract.”
On her podcast, Stalter plays a version of herself that’s harsher than any of her characters, a fame-hungry nobody who keeps calling up comics, asking them to appear on her show, and when they turn her down, erupting in hostility. (Chelsea Peretti and Chris Gethard sent themselves up beautifully by insisting on their niceness.)
Stalter does some more straightforward parodies like a satire of rom-com clichés, but what distinguishes her from her peers is an unpredictable surreal streak. Her videos start and end abruptly, and don’t build so much as evolve into a series of tangents with pivots that veer off into delightful lunacy. In a sketch about a woman who, in a misguided seduction, invited only one man to her birthday party, she gesticulates to her labored flirtation, then seems to be so delighted by her own waving arms that she makes them the main focus, transforming a conventional premise into deliriously abstract physical comedy.
With an exception or two, Stalter has steered clear of focusing on the pandemic, though on Twitter and Instagram, where you can see comments right by her face, fans often say she helps them deal with isolation or even the virus itself. On Wednesday night on IG Live, with her hair in a bun surrounded by a beaded necklace, she played a loony psychic (“I followed an owl here and the rest is history”) who invited people to appear on a split-screen and have their futures told.
One woman talked about losing her job and another slightly shaken teenager expressed worry about how the current chaos would change her college prospects. Stalter assured both that things would work out, that we’re in this together, and appeared increasingly aware of the cathartic purpose of her comedy. In one psychic reading, she seemed to get emotional comforting a girl, breaking character and saying: “I know this is a funny character but it’s more than that,” she said, adding. “People need magic right now.”
In that moment, Meg Stalter sounded a bit like a Meg Stalter character. She also was speaking a truth. But she returned to artifice quickly, shifting into the inherent optimism of the voice of a mystical figure who believes enough in the future to read it on tarot cards.
Six More to Watch
These funny men and women are especially good at “front-facing camera comedy” on social media.
With more than 300,000 followers on Twitter, she’s arguably the biggest star of this form, a magnetic performer whose motormouth characters evoke the comic anxiety of Roz Chast cartoons. Find her here on Twitter and here on Instagram.
Gifted at accents and impressions, she has been hilarious recently as herself, capturing the hostility of a couple cooped up in at home and the difficulty of conversation over FaceTime, a crossover collaboration with Eva Victor that went viral. Find her here on Instagram.
A rising star with a knack for finding the right detail, particularly in beta male character types: the needy boyfriend, the younger sibling in a fight. Find him here on Instagram and here on Twitter.
His cliché movie types (every expert hacker, the brutally meta character inserted into every horror film for a decade after “Scream”) are hilarious sketches that double as sharp movie criticism. Find him here on Instagram and here on Twitter.
Leaning less on quick cuts than taut, maniacal monologues, she has a gift for hilarious snapshots of the unhinged, the deluded and the startlingly vengeful. Find her here on Twitter and to a lesser extent, here on Instagram.
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