About half an hour into her Prime Video comedy special Corsets and Clown Suits, Alex Borstein tells us exactly how to watch it. Standing in front of a live audience, wearing a glittery checkerboard skirt and shoes with red pom poms on the toes, she goes off on a barely coherent tangent about the reason the word “divorcee” has two Es at the end. Catching herself, she shrugs and says, “I don’t know. I just made that up. You know, I’m making all of this up.” Then she takes a beat and laughs, “But your tickets were free, so who gives a sh*t?”
It’s a great button on a bit that almost goes off the rails. When she revels in her own flaws, Borstein invites viewers to see her less as the Emmy-winning star of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and Family Guy and more as a live-wire friend who jumped on stage to get some things off her chest. By announcing her refusal to be polished, she makes it easier to embrace the anarchic free association of her set. Flanked by a pair of musicians, a sign language interpreter, and occasionally a burlesque dancer, she talks about her recent divorce and her general frustration with the way women are expected to behave. She makes crude jokes that are sometimes directed at her parents, sitting just a few feet away. She sings covers of David Bowie and Ricky Martin tunes, and she belts out original numbers, including one gleefully inappropriate ditty about Hitler’s maid. It’s an enthusiastic, chaotic jumble. The messiness is part of the fun.
The deeper gag is that even this messiness is purposeful. Shows do not have this many lighting cues (not to mention on-stage snowfall during a Christmas number) unless they’ve been carefully planned. And director Scott Ellis has been nominated for nine Tony Awards, which just emphasizes that everything on screen was crafted by professionals. In fact, Borstein’s so-called “mistakes” are shrewdly calibrated to create a rhythm in her storytelling. They usually interrupt an uncomfortable observation about the need to control how we’re perceived. It’s a theme she returns to over and over, whether she’s talking about her own self-image problems or the horrors of being a woman trying to date. Just as she touches on this heavy concept, she uses an awkward interlude to skitter away from it.
This doesn’t always work, particularly when she sings a medley of existing pop songs. Though Borstein has a charming singing voice, her rendition of Nena’s “99 Luftballons” doesn’t add anything to her arguments. She also falls back on a couple of bits so many times that they lose their sting. The first time she gets exasperated when one of her band members challenges her arguments, it plays like a cheeky reminder that even her collaborators are trying to control how she comes across. The third time, it’s a predictable trope.
On the whole, however, the approach is effective. There’s a compelling tension in watching Borstein’s act break down, because it suggests that even in a show about resisting the fear of how other people see her, she can’t help acknowledging how she must seem to her audience. That’s even apparent in her glammed-up clown outfit, which she wears for the entire show. Sometimes, it seems like a visual representation of the box people put her in, and sometimes it seems like a signal that her bawdy hijinks have set her free. Both interpretations are valid.
But even though these big ideas are present, Corsets and Clown Suits isn’t an academic treatise disguised as a comedy show. It’s entirely possible just to sit back and laugh as Borstein says shocking things in a clever way or rewrites the title song from the musical Hamilton to be about the actress Linda Hamilton. And if we end up practicing some of the dirty sign language she so helpfully elicits from her interpreter, then she’s already made her point about how much fun it can be to stop worrying what other people think about us.
Alex Borstein: Corsets and Clown Suits premieres April 18 on Prime Video.
Mark Blankenship has been writing about arts and culture for twenty years, with bylines in The New York Times, Variety, Vulture, Fortune, and many others. You can hear him on the pop music podcast Mark and Sarah Talk About Songs.