The laughs and bombs of Netflix comedies

Alan Arkin and Michael Douglas in The Kominsky Method (Netflix Canada photo)

Around New Year’s, Netflix dropped an incredibly ambitious assortment of stand-up specials onto its streaming service – 47 half-hour sets, to be precise.

Titled Comedians of the World, the show features stand-ups from 14 different countries performing in their native languages.

I set out with the daunting task to binge on as many as I could, with the happy news that I liked all four English-Canadian picks (Deanne Smith, K. Trevor Wilson, Ivan Decker and Dave Merhege), although Smith and Merhege are actually based in the U.S. The four Americans are good choices, too, especially Neal Brennan, the stand-up and writer who created Chapelle’s Show, and whose bio reveals that he has a “Jewish father.”

But as I pored through the rest of the worldwide acts, I started to wonder if I was going to encounter any other young Jewish comics. I couldn’t seem to find any. In a section of the series titled “The Middle East,” there were four comics, but none from Israel. I surveyed the comedy scene in Israel a few years ago and found it thriving with lots of talent in English and Hebrew. But on this series of 47 comics, nothing.

I’m not accusing anybody of anything, but I will say that if there’s going to be talk about cultural diversity, I think the members of our tribe deserve a little love.

However, Netflix does just that with The Kominsky Method, starring Alan Arkin and Michael Douglas. The series won this year’s Golden Globe for best TV series and another for Douglas for best actor.

It’s very funny, and touching, and great to see these two veterans chewing up their dialogue. Arkin plays a retired agent who has just lost his wife and is struggling to find a reason to live. Douglas is an acting coach who’s just struggling, period. He has romantic problems, financial problems and prostate problems (the scenes with his urologist, played by Danny DeVito, are a hoot). His grown daughter, who runs his ailing business, is more of an adult than he is.

At 83 years old, Arkin is nothing short of amazing. It’s inspiring that he can remember all his lines, given the dense and complex dialogue of the series, and it’s thrilling to watch a master at work. Douglas is good, too, but he’s basically playing the same character as Henry Winkler has in Barry.

The series never flinches from its Jewish content, liberally throwing out Yiddishisms and setting one episode at a very Jewish funeral that goes sideways and might be completely tasteless if not for the quality of the writing. The writing, incidentally, comes from Chuck Lorre, creator of Two and a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory. But here, working on a streaming platform rather than network TV, he can get a little looser with language and plot.

There are eight half-hour episodes in the series, which isn’t too demanding on the viewer. I binged the whole megillah on one night, but that’s not necessary to enjoy it. The episodes vary in terms of quality, but the final episode is a masterpiece, in which Arkin self-sabotages his burgeoning relationship with a woman (Ann-Margaret, no less) at a dinner party that turns very, very sour.

At the Golden Globes, Douglas gave a shout-out to “all the alter-kackers” in his acceptance speech. I took this as some kind of a victory for both Jews and old people.


I wish I could say the same about The Last Laugh, a made-for-Netflix movie that stars Chevy Chase and Richard Dreyfuss as, respectively, an aging agent and a former comic. They wind up in the same nursing home and decide to try to surpass their former glories. What follows is witless, sentimental and not in the least bit believable. It is nice to see these two beloved comic actors work again, but one has to be in a very generous spirit to get through the movie.

Richard Dreyfuss, Andie MacDowell and Chevy Chase in The Last Laugh (Netflix Canada photo)

Are the characters supposed to be Jewish? I think they are, especially Dreyfuss’ character, but no mention is ever made of it, as if this might alienate middle America, or some such thing. It’s a failure of nerve that’s indicative of the whole enterprise. This movie is no Odd Couple, that’s for sure, but The Kominsky Method may come close.