Bar Jokes and Breakdowns ; Shiva Baby and the (False) Paradox of Stressful Comedies

What better way to welcome the academic year than with what is possibly the most nerve-wracking film about post-grad anxiety to date? 

Shiva Baby (2020) is a comedy film that takes place at a shiva, a Jewish week-long mourning ritual for immediate relatives of the deceased, and follows Danielle (Rachel Sennot), a college senior, who, like many college seniors, is met with a barrage of questions about what their post-grad plans look like at every family gathering. It’s a time that dictates the climax of a young person’s life with decisions that will, supposedly, pave the path towards the rest of their life. But like many college seniors, Danielle has no clue where she’s heading. But unlike most college seniors at family gatherings, Danielle runs into her high-school ex-girlfriend Maya (Molly Gordon), her secret sugar daddy Max (Danney Deferrari), and the sugar daddy’s wife and baby that she didn’t know he had. Also, she has no idea who’s shiva she’s actually attending. “Wait, Mom [Sic.]. Who died?”

From before she gave us Bottoms (2023), an offbeat queer comedy about two high schoolers who start a fight club to impress girls, Shiva Baby was Emma Seligman’s directorial debut and an adaptation of her New York University Tisch School of the Arts (NYU) thesis project. Released only a few years after graduating, the film captures the essence of its subject matter in a way only a young emerging filmmaker could.

In The Washington Post’s interview article ‘How Shiva Baby Captures the Anxieties of Being a Young Woman’, Seligman revealed that she “initially thought of it as a bar joke – a girl runs into her sugar daddy at a shiva, and what happens after that? But as I was making it, I realized [Sic.] I was putting a lot of my insecurities into it, especially the way I felt when I was approaching graduation. All the pressure I felt”. 

Now when I think of coming-of-age films I picture montages of laughing characters bathed in warm lighting that’s accompanied by a nostalgic soundtrack, painting heartwarming scenes of youth and self-discovery. 

But the majority of Shiva Baby takes place in one pressure cooker of a day, at one event, and at one location that’s accompanied by the claustrophobic symphony of hushed chatter, awkward interactions, and a crying baby. Composer Ariel Marx only ever interrupts the naturalistic ambience with a horror-esque score of shrieking string instruments that heighten moments of tension and invite viewers into the chaos of Danielle’s mental state.

Really, the bar joke foregrounds Seligman’s refreshingly grounded exploration of female sexuality and empowerment; cultural and familial expectations; financial dependency; education, and career paths. We see Danielle’s attempt at navigating a house full of complex relationships where she’s consumed by casually judgmental quips and glances, desperately fighting for control in a situation where she feels she has none. All these aspects provide what Seligman goes on to describe in the interview as “a window into the horror of being a young woman”. 

Ironically, this claustrophobic film about a packed family gathering premiered digitally at the 2020 South by Southwest Film Festival and was released in cinemas in 2021, as an indie film premiering at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Shiva Baby was an unlikely hit. It achieved the kind of success that may have only been possible in the streaming era through the help of digital word-of-mouth promotion and platforms like Letterboxd that garner attention to indie films without big-budget marketing and success outside of cinema screenings.

With pulse-pounding dramedies like Beef and The Bear being met with overwhelming critical and commercial success and dominating this year’s Emmy Awards there seems to be a noticeable rise in comedy shows aiming to get us laughing and sweating at the same time, raising questions of whether this type of media should even be considered comedies in the first place – though a controversy Beef avoids, being submitted in the ‘Limited Series’ awards category. 

However, it’s important to note that comedy and laughter aren’t mutually exclusive to the qualities of any other genre or sensation, and delving into not-so-lighthearted themes doesn’t always necessarily mean something less comedic. 

Comedy is cultural. It’s a genre that’s inherently subjective, relying on cultural references, language and wordplay. It feeds off of shared understanding and relatability. And it’s infamous for ageing poorly and not translating well across different languages and cultures. Dark comedy may not always be laugh-out-loud funny for everyone, but nothing really is. 

Comedic irony can be a powerful tool for social commentary and scrutiny – like criticising when familial events of mourning turn into gossip hubs. It can promote empathy with humour acting as a catalyst for visibility and open dialogue in a way that may be more appealing than a strictly sombre piece might. In Shiva Baby Danielle’s experiences as a young Jewish bisexual woman trying to find her way in life aren’t the bud of the joke, they’re the propellers of it. 

When it comes to film and TV award categories there are a lot of other factors that play into it, such as the length of TV episodes and which categories the film/show is submitted for to begin with. But artists playing with ideas and genre, diversifying what it means for something to be called a ‘drama’ or a ‘comedy’ is something that should be encouraged. Art wasn’t meant to be boxed into categories anyway.

Hannah Torregosa

The author Hannah Torregosa

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