On Thursday, former New York City resident and current Twitter #cooldad Rob Delaney returned to the city to perform the first of his six upcoming shows at Carolines on Broadway. The underground comedy club has hosted countless names in the trade. Photos of stars like Louis C.K. and Dave Chappelle adorn the walls, and after a period of two years during which Delaney released a comedy special, published a memoir, and received the green-light for an upcoming TV show with Irish comedian Sharon Horgan, his place among these established names only becomes further legitimized by performing in this same, revered space.
Of course, there’s no question that Delaney is a different comedian than either C.K. or Chappelle, both of whom elevated to superstardom by more traditional means. While TV has been the setting for C.K. and Chappelle’s most memorable moments, Twitter has been Delaney’s comedic dojo, as the comedian has managed to accrue over 1M followers since joining in February of 2009. The platform has yielded unparalleled success for Delaney. There are certainly other comedians who are equally funny or popular to him, but Delaney is one of the few who has managed to capitalize from a non-monetized platform like Twitter, or rather, a platform that is still struggling to develop its monetization strategies. Either way, Delaney doesn’t get paid to tweet, but he’s found out how to make the practice insanely lucrative in other ways.
However, after watching his Netflix special, Live at the Bowery Ballroom, I wondered whether his talents online could ultimately transfer to the stage. There are funny moments in the recorded set, but Delaney is noticeably stiff, and perhaps even nervous compared to the version of himself who we had all come to know via Twitter. On Twitter, his greatest jokes seemed to come as a result of odd pairings in language (“moist wizard”, “hot sports”), ironic ramblings toward Fox News, or by slaughtering Internet trolls. On his special, certain jokes would get neutralized by an ill-timed dick joke or his stumbling, unpolished cadence. There was less of the sharp, rehearsed wit that writing a tweet affords you. Delaney has made it known in the past that his stand-up routine doesn’t just consist of him reading his tweets through a microphone. In this sense, his gift had become a curse.
However, based on the Delaney who was performing Thursday night, it seems that the comedian has managed to iron out of most of the inconsistencies or translation errors in his routine. He’s made his considerable vocabulary his greatest strength and has transformed his awkward nervousness into an off-the-cuff, effusive, and spontaneous brand of showmanship. It seemed so much in line with the confidence and subject matter of his Twitter persona that I almost expected to hear a joke about his neighbor, Karen.
Joined by host Janelle James and featured performer Aparna Nancherla, Delaney played to a packed house of people, every one of whom likely followed him on Twitter. Regardless of how they knew him, the most important thing was that everyone did. Delaney’s Twitter prowess can’t carry him through a set, but it does succeed in warming up the crowd before the show has even begun. It gives him the reputation that a stand-up special like Raw would give Eddie Murphy. It makes people ready to laugh before they even sit down.
Neither Nancherla nor James have the same luxury, but both performed strongly in the lead-up to Delaney’s set. Each riffed about beauty standards, issues of identity and race, and dating in New York City, and both earned considerable laughs for their time. James talked about having to audition for the role of a stereotypical “Strong Black Woman” whose only line was, “Excuse me?”, while Nancherla closed her set in the most contemporary way possible: reading off Tinder messages. At this point (after countless Tumblrs have been devoted to the subject), Nancherla's bit is an oldie but a goodie, and even Delaney could be seen belly-laughing in the back.
Still, however, for all of Nancherla and James’ talents, Delaney owned the show. He was loose and unhinged, firing off rounds about false AIDS scares from his days as an undergrad in the '80s, spilling hot tea on his genitalia, capitalism, mortality, and family. Delaney is a wordsmith—a talent which was likely perfected while writing his book, Rob Delaney: Mother. Wife. Sister. Human. Warrior. Falcon. Yardstick. Turban. Cabbage. The same sort of creativity that he has distilled into 140 characters or less was also on display with jarring phrases like “fuck mayonnaise”, descriptions of “buttholes so wide you can walk in holding hands with your child”, and fanciful tales of masturbating to a literally unearthed Playboy by the light of the setting sun.
Yes, Delaney was crude, but it was never to the point of cringe, and his set was an equal balance between political and potty humor, providing leeway for his calculated outbursts of vulgarity. Undoubtedly, Delaney’s best joke of the night was when he set out to describe a story that his mother had recently told him about her own parents on the pretense that he could implement it into his stand-up routine. The story was a gritty epic about the specifics of his grandparents' fatal illnesses (pancreatic and colon cancer), a lost inheritance, and his mother's near-estrangement from her dying dad while she was pregnant with her second child.
It provided the same, unfiltered look into Delaney that we were given from his book, and set the crowd on edge. Thankfully, the comedian provided a well-timed escape by shrugging his shoulders at the end of the story and answering the question lingering overhead: How do you make a joke out of this much tragedy? The answer is that you don't. “So, yeah, I’m still work-shopping that one,” Delaney said at the end of the story. In response, the crowd went up with a laughter that came from a range of emotions: fear, confusion, relief, joy, and it proved just how far Delaney has managed to come in blending his various skills and pursuits together. A good Tweeter does not an author nor stand-up comedian make. But Rob Delaney isn’t a professional tweeter, he’s Rob Delaney. Thursday night offered a welcome reminder of the person behind the profile.
Delaney will perform his last three shows at Carolines on Broadway on Saturday, June 21 at 7:30 and 10:00 PM, and Sunday, June 22 at 7:30 PM.
Gus Turner is the news editor for Complex Video Games. He tweets here.