Note: River Butcher’s pronouns are he/his/him/they and are used interchangeably throughout this review.
God, I’ve missed River Butcher. Akron, Ohio has given us many gifts — Lebron James, the Black Keys — and River Butcher is one of them. His album Pull Yourself Up By Your Bootleg came out last year, recorded in Denver pre-pandemic, and it’s been a minute, so the news of his new Comedy Central half-hour show piqued my attention.
Every time a comedian releases material after a Big Life Event or two, I wonder how they’re going to incorporate it in a way that acknowledges the elephant in the room without regurgitating the news/gossip my timeline fed me months ago (looking at you, monsieur Mulaney). Here, Butcher has done a more elegant job and covered more ground than most. Since we’ve heard from them last, they remind us, there’s been a whole pandemic, they’ve transitioned and divorced, and they arise from the chaos of the last couple years, standing onstage before us, literally and triumphantly just some guy.
Butcher’s secret is to cut to the chase: efficiently dispatching these updates doubles as effective groundwork for Butcher’s impeccably-arranged callbacks. The result of this paired identity-callback motif structure is that Butcher’s trans queer identity is central to the humor but never its punchline, not in the spotlight but rather the spotlight itself. Divorce moves quickly to bonding with a father who sounds like a jalopy when expressing emotion. “Can we leave trans kids alone” turns into “let’s save all that energy for the people who hang rubber testicles from the backs of their trucks.” At every turn, Butcher diverts the joke’s attention onto the less vulnerable folks in ways that honor moments of lovable dudeness while also shredding the deep gender weirdness of the cishet world.
Despite the set being on the shorter side for a solo show (half an hour rather than a full hour), there are still a few places where Butcher drags out the delivery of an anecdote; this, however, is clearly deliberate, evoking the way a dad in a sitcom might navigate an awkward conversation. They over-elaborate the steps of stumbling across his divorced dad’s search history; he exaggerates the process of purchasing every conceivable kind of gummy at Target (and sending subsequent complaints about lack of flavor diversity, ha). But while these moments may slow the roll of the set, they do develop Butcher’s onstage character and voice in ways that I believe will set up Butcher’s future work under his new name.
That’s what it all comes back to. Beat after beat, Butcher’s special lovingly lampoons and celebrates gender-transcendent “dudeness” in all its forms: refusing to wear sunglasses, popping weird squats to squint at things, setting dumb shit on fire, benign social obliviousness, random chivalrous gestures, misunderstanding portion sizes, googling boobs. At the beginning of the set, they debut their new name and pronouns as an occasion to skewer the exaggerated support of wannabe allies.
“The dudes leave me alone either out of confusion or respect, and I think it’s a great combo,” they say, while laughing at how brave random white women tell them they are simply for having this identity (shortly before these same women misgender them, of course). At the end, they provide a moment of symmetrical exaggeration and deflation. After delivering a tongue-in-cheek reenactment of a minor act of kindness as if it were a moment of outstanding personal heroism (a time-honored dude-ly tradition), they deflate that “bravery” and return the spotlight to the revelation of self at the heart of the set. When we laugh, both at the bravery and the banality of such dudeness, we laugh with them in the full glow of queerness.