Let last night’s premiere of Not Safe With Nikki Glaser illustrate one of the great paradoxical principles of human relations: Sex gets funny at exactly the moment you stop telling jokes.
Just as her friend and fellow Comedy Central star Amy Schumer is more inventive in the pre-recorded sketches on Inside Amy Schumer than in her stand-up, comedian Nikki Glaser (the onetime co-host of MTV's Nikki & Sara Live) shines most in the moments when she isn’t pitching laughs directly to the audience. Split about evenly between taped segments and time spent spitballing sex jokes with friends in front of a studio audience, Not Safe is at its most exciting when it gets out of the studio and into the world.
Left to her own devices, Glaser fashions her camera crew into a safety net and proceeds to push her own boundaries, diving headfirst into the free fall of modern sex and dating. In the first episode of Not Safe, she straps friends up to lie detectors and asks them if they’d have sex with her, or throws herself into a foot-fetish party (as a woman with self-described “busted” feet) for the cause, and the results are both funny and insightful.
While the live-audience portions of the show are more familiar and probably more comfortable for a stand-up to record, talking about sex in front of a crowd doesn’t exactly lend itself to intimacy. Watching Glaser’s friends squirm as they are faced point-blank with the possible humiliation of revealing their sexual interest is about a thousand times more exciting than watching comedians spin confident laughs out of humiliations long past.
The promotion for Not Safe may have projected a kind of Sex and the City–meets–Schumer dirty confidence, but Glaser brings some much-appreciated nuance once you tune in. She’s always curious, sometimes shy, and rarely judgmental — a misguided Tinder bit aside, Glaser displays a humanity that is refreshingly vulnerable and generous. Her statement at the end of the night about banishing shame feels earnest thanks to her refusal to hide either her discomfort or her excitement when those feelings occur.
So much of today’s sex comedy treats sex (and often the comedian’s sexual partners) as ore to be mined, refined, and molded at the unilateral disposal of the comedian. But Not Safe With Nikki Glaser reimagines sex comedy as a system of give-and-take. At its best, Glaser’s approach doesn’t merely mine the topic for laughs, but instead lets laughs grow organically out of the sexual situations Glaser has facilitated. Glaser doesn’t pretend to conquer the sexual realm. She’s satisfied with encountering it as it comes — just so long as we know all puns are always intended.
Last night was Glaser’s debut; she’s got plenty of time to work out how to structure her bits with the studio audience. What’s already working is what’s harder to accomplish anyway: being honest about your hang-ups, being gentle with other people’s interest, being open to new experiences even when they don’t go the way you expected -- that’s all hard enough to work through in life. What a pleasant surprise to find someone working through it on TV.