If good comedy makes you laugh, while great comedy makes you laugh and also think, Man on Fire is Chris Delia’s jump from good to great comedy. It is a deceptively well-structured special with an underlying point – you are not special. “You’re just somebody.” – woven throughout Delia’s trademark barrage of silly faces, voices, and body movements.
After teeing up the audience with one of those traditional, self-aware quips about the comic’s own appearance (he’s a “tired eagle”), Delia cannonballs directly into the revelation that when he looks at himself in photographs, he no longer sees himself; he sees a generic 30-something that he identifies as himself only after writing him off disdainfully as a creep. It’s this recognition of unimportance and lack of uniqueness that underpins the set: You’re not special, your love isn’t like The Notebook, and no one wants to go to your birthday party.
Part of what makes this message-laden set work is that the message isn’t overpowering. It takes two viewings and multiple pauses to understand how different bits within the special are connected to the central premise, and these bits are sewn together smoothly enough that only a keen eye will recognize how Delia has arrived at each. For example, at one point, Delia takes eight minutes to air a bunch of relationship grievances – petty things, like sharing a bed with a partner who hogs the covers and traveling to visit the in-laws in Dallas. He lets his subject matter get dragged from topic to topic, waiting until the last line of the eight-minute detour to give the audience the key that unlocks the way in which this digression has actually been directly related to the central message. It’s a satisfying payoff showing unexpected craftsmanship and outdone only by the special’s strong closing line.
After an hour of telling the audience they are extras, not leads, in their own movies, and that they should stop telling their children otherwise, Delia concludes with a nine-minute story that’s light on content but heavy on message. He’s crafted a premise in which he is a gangster – a well developed metaphor for his desire as an adult to “keep it real” and be harshly honest with himself and others – and a friend’s four-year-old daughter, Anika, is so overwhelmingly cute that she threatens his ability to keep it real. The last line is Anika’s, and while it leaves the special open-ended, it implies that Delia’s gangster demeanor is broken, that at least part of him is willing to sacrifice his brutal honesty, and his selfish desire to remain the flawed person he is, in service of Anika’s sweet heart. It’s a close that flips the special’s message on its head and cements the set as more than just 65 minutes of jokes.
At its core, Man on Fire is an exploration of two things: the unspecialness of us all, and Delia’s relationship with his own honesty and selfishness as he grows. While Delia impressively weaves these themes into his silliness, if there’s one issue I take with them, it’s that they seem jammed together, fused like a transplanted hand on a new arm. It’s not that a special can’t have two separate themes; it’s just that this special may be torn between two, attempting to interlock them like puzzle pieces that don’t quite go together. This may also be me simply fumbling the special’s nuance, but I found myself wondering at points how the honesty bits connected to the overarching message that “You’re not Denzel. You’re not the man on fire.” It’s a sin easily forgivable thanks to the special’s consistent hilarity and the fact that, even if lacking compatibility, both themes function well separately.
As for Delia himself, he is as likeable in demeanor as he has ever been. Though in podcasts he has claimed to have experienced anxiety in his earlier comic days, his stage presence, rife with complete goofiness and an overwhelming sense of ownership, betrays a man that has grown well out of it. That outward lack of anxiety may be why, in the era of its prevalence, Delia has cemented himself as one of the coolest comics out.
There is the fair criticism that, stylistically, this is the same Delia as ever. The voices, movements, and idiosyncrasies of Delia and the characters he inhabits onstage are largely ones we have seen before in his work. As such, they begin to take the role of stock elements in his arsenal rather than one-off ingredients. This may cause some to reasonably deduct points for lack of originality, the same way people often prefer original films over their sequels, even if the movies are equal in quality; the one that introduces the world simply has more novelty. Still, Chris’ unconventionality is powerful, and these elements, repeated or not, are still funny on a second pass. That being said, if there’s a way for Delia to maintain his own voice while evolving these elements, he’s best off doing so if he hopes to dodge critiques of one-dimensionality down the road.
Man on Fire isn’t the special that solidifies Delia as truly hilarious – Incorrigible did that. While by my count, Delia is marginally less funny in this set than in its predecessor, he has compensated by offering a level of structure and meaning that takes you by pleasant surprise.