If The Characters is intended as a showcase for comics few have heard of, Paul W. Downs’ episode makes that plan explicit. For one thing, he’s known, to the extent that he is, as Abbi’s blithely condescending, easily duped gym boss, Trey, on Broad City, a fact he highlights at the end of the episode here, a verse in his self-sung closing theme asking, “Have you ever seen my IMDb? Since you’re in the dark, I’ll list it for you… Broad City, that’s pretty much it.” Downs is also a writer on the show, and he and comedy partner Lucia Aniello (also from Broad City) are writing the all-female 21 Jump Street spinoff, but Downs is right that he pretty much the sort of barely-known comic who could use a Netflix-sponsored half-hour to show what he’s got.
And what Downs does is turn the showcase concept literal. He opens the show (after the traditional The Characters backstage opening that sees him snorting an absurdly, comically long line of coke in preparation) in front of a live comedy audience. Or rather in the middle of it, as Downs—swaddled in enormous fake beard, fake glasses, and fake Irish accent, works his way through the crowd to the stage, ostentatiously telling a tale of woe about seeing Paul Downs’ perform being his dying wish. (”I saw him once! What a chameleon!”) Then—surprise!—it was Paul W. Downs after all! Delivering a smiling, unctuous self-introduction, the mustachioed Downs affects a cultured stage-British accent now, extolling the virtues of LIVE THEATER! (And, of course, Paul Downs.) It’s a deliberate piece of anti-comedy (one the audience eats up), skewering both his own improv background (he’s an Upright Citizens Brigade vet) and, more specifically, the sort of self-impressed improv actor you pray will not pull you up on stage but always seems to. Downs—who rips off his mustache with a flourish at the end of the intro to really drive home that “chameleon” thing—is both satirizing his own hungry showmanship and, well, engaging in some hungry showmanship, as the rest of the fast-moving special sees him donning and doffing a parade of variously obnoxious, showily funny characters as if in a hurry to squeeze in as many as possible.
In service of that urgency, there’s a running gag where most of his characters are killed off (via blackout epitaph) as soon as their sketches run out of steam. First up is the Joe Dirt-esque Jasper Cooch, host of the reality show Big Trucks, a show about how awesome big trucks are—and how Downs can toss in little absurdist details to make this redneck goofball oddly sympathetic. Apparently filmed at a real monster truck show, there’s a little light Borat DNA in this segment—Downs runs through almost as many formats as he does characters—as Jasper whips the crowd into an obedient frenzy simply be getting them to repeat his “Big!” and “Trucks!” for a long, long time. (He also scores an on-camera win by asking people if they like big trucks or little trucks, triumphantly affirming “big trucks!” every time.) But Downs also starts tossing in weird hints about poor Jasper’s mental state (“I gotta be honest, I had a tough year!,” he blurts out over the arena P.A. at one point). And when he falls in love with a sexy audience member (Amber Nelson), his obnoxious patter (“I’m gonna get my dick sucked!”) turns improbably, goofily touching once he’s discovered by his film crew naked and robbed by the side of the highway the next morning, still claiming to have found true love. (He also flags down an obliging random driver to go on the hunt for Amber, still buck naked.) Sadly, Jasper finds her a few years later according to the onscreen epitaph. She shot him dead.
The same goes for Mark, the party guest from a short exercise in serious cringe comedy later. Come to see the new baby girl of his friends (guest stars and real-life marrieds John Lutz and Sue Galloway of 30 Rock), he asks if he can kiss the baby. Then he does—for a long, long, very uncomfortably long time. The point of the sketch is partly to make fun of the utterly creepy habit some parents have of claiming their girl children are “real flirts” with men (c’mon, people—start reinforcing gender roles and your own hangups a little earlier, why don’t you?) but more it’s just a way for Downs to go for a big, squirmy laugh. It’s essentially a blackout sketch—literally once the screen goes to black and it’s revealed that Mark, too, is killed not long after. As with Jasper, it’s less a punishment than a way to signal that Downs has no more use for the character in his rush to get the next one rolling.
There’s not much connection between the sketches here except in how they serve to let Downs show off his talents, so it’s fitting that the episode keeps returning to that stage, as in the seemingly random bit where he comes out as a blind man on a Segway. Cane flapping out in front of him while he veers with deceptive recklessness right to the edge of the front rows—Downs is really good on a Segway—it appears like a silly, marginally offensive goof about a blind guy, except that it’s picked up in the following restaurant sketch. Broad City pal Abbi Jacobson, as the domineering, humorless wife of a meek Downs, proposes they do some bedroom roleplaying, only to snap at her mate’s joking Helen Keller suggestion. “Blind jokes are never funny,” she glares, and Downs’ sheepish, “Sometimes they can be funny,” seems like a justification for his previous bit. Except that Downs doubles down on the concept in the next sketch about a blind supercop on a Segway. At any rate, the restaurant sketch soon takes a turn into absurdism as Downs finds a graphically severed penis in his bowl of pasta and he and Jacobson continue their obviously ongoing fight about his ability to deal with conflict. (“I wish I hadn’t seen that. Maybe I can eat around it.”) He and Jacobson weave some subtle character work around the cringe comedy (her idea of roleplaying involves pretending to be black people, a concept Downs can’t bring himself to agree with), tracing the outlines of a deeply dysfunctional couple even as their supercilious waiter (Brandon Scott Jones) balks at apologizing for the severed penis. (“No I see it, it really is. Huh. Are you sure it isn’t yours?”)
Detective McClintock is the broadest sketch of the night, a deliberately silly setpiece with Downs showing off those Segway skills as the blind McClintock uses his heightened other senses to solve the murder of a prostitute by repeatedly and lingeringly fondling and licking the poor woman’s lifeless body. (She’s played by Aniello—Downs’ life as well as creative partner, perhaps so no one else would be subjected to the indignity. Still, a long closeup of Aniello’s unblinking eyes during McClintock’s tongue bath is funny because of how it seems to be begging the audience for sympathy.) Finding out his partner did it, McClintock engages in a car versus Segway chase and a fiery shootout, eventually rescuing the sexy construction worker hostage he took—but not without her protective gear stripping her completely nude as soon as she tumbles out of the car. Again, it’s mildly satirical stuff about the indignities actresses routinely are subjected to in the TV cop show genre, but it’s most just an absurdly silly premise, sold by Downs’ commitment to the bit.
In the episode’s other two sketches, Downs comes back to the theater to play a wacky Dutch MTV host, a brief bit that sees Downs deftly playing along with some audience Q&A in character in a moderately amusing accent. (“Coming to you as always from downtown Netherlands!”)
In the other, he plays the obnoxious literary agent of Jeremiah (Will Janowitz) who’s come in for notes on his recently submitted book, the Bible. It’s an opportunity for Downs to poke at the ever-smiling, glad-handing Hollywood executive types he must no doubt be familiar with, the type of guy who praises absolutely everything about Jeremiah’s work while suggesting, for example, that God resting on the seventh day makes him “unlikeable,” and that “It’s a little Jewy, over all.” Downs has fun—he does some alarmingly funny eye and tooth work as the agent—and Janowitz makes a fine straight man as he attempts to remain noncommittal to the idea that, say, the teenagers are really going to love this hilarious, shapeshifting Satan character.
When it’s all over and Downs is back in front of his audience, he resumes his praise of the power of LIVE THEATER! (and Paul Downs), proclaiming that his act has cured the racism of one audience member and coming back for one final curtain call to peel off the false eyelashes no one even knew he was wearing. “Always expect the unexpected!,” Downs demands. And while his inveterate performer’s showiness was hardly unexpected once he did that enormous line of cocaine in the opening (it even has a loop-the-loop), Downs’ showy showcase is consistently funny.
- Jasper describes his daily sustenance as “Cheerios, turkey jerky, Jägermeister, nacho cheese, the love of a woman, antidepressants, and Al Pacino movies.”
- Jacobson, after her husband suggests that her desire to roleplay as black people is offensive: “No one is gonna know. I mean maybe the dogs, but they haven’t watched us in months.”
- Questioned on his gender, the MTV host launches into a surprisingly enlightened and comprehensive list of all the possibilities before answering with, “I say keep it fluid because you never know when you’re gonna meet Lenny Kravitz.”
- Asked to play “fuck, marry, kill” on the Spice Girls, he says, “I guess I’d marry Baby and I’ll tell you why. She looks like a good homemaker.”
- The agent suggests taking all of that subjugating women stuff out of the Bible, not because it bothers him, but because, “Even if women can’t read, we want them to buy the book.”
- “He’s good.” “No shit, you bastard.”
- “Who found the body?” “A homeless couple on a date.”
- McClintock, pointing his gun at his hostage-taking partner: “Do I have a clean shot?” Hostage lady: “No!”
- McClintock overhears his partner Salters on the phone, helpfully: “I killed another prostitute last night. Salters, out.”
- “Hey, sorry to bother you, but—showtime.” “Oh, no, sorry—this is for Netflix.” “No, I know. You’re on in two.” Then, after he does that comically long line of coke: “Netflix!”