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Some Pain, Some Gain: Chris D’Elia’s “No Pain”, Cancel Culture, and Personas

We’re on YouTube now! So head over the YouTube Channel RhetoricLee Speaking–same name–if you’d rather watch me rant at you rather than listen. 

I barely played sports in high school and all I remember from getting my ass handed to me in gym class, other than wishing we were allowed to have water bottles, were those stupid “No Fear” t-shirts that said things like, “pain is your fat crying.” 

I hate the No Pain, No Gain mentality. Not only is it extremist, it’s not even true. 

No Pain, Some Gain. 

And Some Pain, No Gain. 

And for sure some pain, some gain. 

Which brings us to comedian Chris D’Elia’s new standup, “No Pain,” which premiered on Netflix a few weeks ago and was unanimously a let down to everyone who analyzed it. D’Elia has been a mid-level stand-up for a while now. He really took off last year as the host of the podcast, “Congratulations with Chris D’Elia.” Between his newfound podcast popularity and people being stuck at home AND being the only new comedy on Netflix, even mediocre material would be well received right? 

Well, no. This podcast came out and didn’t even get one day on the Netflix Top 10. So much for the cliche, “people will watch anything during the pandemic.” Apparently, no they won’t.

Except me. I watched “No Pain” and it was totally watchable. It wasn’t amazing but it was pretty good.  Maybe, like, a 3.5 out of 5 if I had to rate it.

Normally, I wouldn’t waste time unpacking a good-to-mediocre stand-up special by a straight cis white guy. 

Except that the reviews of “No Pain” were such superficial, cliche hackjobs that I just can’t let this go. I have no interest in defending Chris D’Elia or convincing you to watch this stand-up–you can never watch it and be no poorer for it–but I need to make this point very clear: 

Over and over again critics are missing opportunities to give thoughtful, interesting, nuanced analyses of culture and instead can give one-dimensional, binary, hack jobs. That’s fine if you’re a rando doing reaction videos but if you’re responsible for shaping the minds and language for tens of thousands of people that’s not going to cut it. 

I get it, Trump is President, but, like, be better, people. 

Here’s Ian Ward from Daily Campus

“No Pain” by comedian Chris D’Elia is a painful experience to watch.

There is next to no theme in this special, no self reflection, not even a coherent story about D’Elia’s life. 

What viewers get instead are stretched out “jokes” like one about dolphin rape. 

D’Elia’s stage presence is awful. He seems either nervous or cocky whenever he tells a joke. […] D’Elia’s movements on stage are limited and lifeless. 

D’Elia is a relic of an era in comedy in which shocking the audience with the crudest jokes possible got you laughs. Think “Family Guy” or “South Park,” minus the witty  social commentary. 

Do yourself a favor and go watch literally anything else. 

Ward is skipping over a lot of the complexity of the D’Elia standup. And for the record, there is nothing NOTHING about “Family Guy” that is witty social commentary–it is, at best, pointless irreverence and, more often, straight up patriarchy disguised as “irony.” That’s not wit–that’s hipster sexism. 

Here’s Steve Bennett for Chortle

It’s all ‘bro’ and ‘dude’ and ‘man’ with Chris D’Elia; a style of stand-up that’s long started to feel stale. 

Now, later I’m going to return to Bennett and Ward to pull out the pieces of their critique that were insightful–giving them the careful, generous read that they refused to give D’Elia. 

But the ledes for both pieces focus on the binary, the absolutist, and the sensational. When they do offer critique–it’s late enough in the game that it’s hardly going to be given a fair shake.

Perhaps the worst offender is Mike David from Redbar who has done multiple analyses of “No Pain”–one that rightfully charges D’Elia with stealing a short bit about his tiny legs from another comedian. But the episode in which Mike David is supposed to be analyzing the special–as an expert in comedy–is about the most boring and un-insightful analysis I’ve ever seen. 

Comedians have a concept called “punching up,” which means that comedy is better when it aims its ire at power not at the down-troddden. That’s good advice. I also think of “punching up” as being willing to tackle the nuance of even the most horrifying ideas, not because you want to validate them, but because it levels up our collective ability to think about things.

Mike David does not punch up. 

The headline of the review is ““No Pain” is VERY (all caps) bad!” 

Not much of an analysis. 

So the special starts with D’Elia walking out to Eminem, saying hi to the people, standard issue comedy stuff. 

Right away, Mike David clowns on D’Elia for 1) using Eminem as his walkout song and 2) liking applause. Those are about the two weakest disses I can possibly imagine, especially because D’elia in part got famous by doing a phenomenal Eminem impression. 

Mike David’s critique only looks at two parts of the D’Elia stand-up. The first is this opening bit about growling at a baby. Which, in fairness, is tedious. And, if the bit were actually as heinous as everyone says it is, I probably would have shut off the standup at 10 minutes. 

But the thing about 10 minute jokes is that they’re usually jokes within jokes. And if you don’t learn to look at joke structure then of course you’re going to have a really superficial read. But if you look for the other jokes in the series, there’s some good stuff going on. Like this joke:

This is a good joke. First of all, it pokes fun at this kind of uptight, “I can’t believe you don’t know how old my child is” when it wouldn’t make sense for anyone to know how old your child is. And the use of listing–one, two, nine—shows some good stylistic chops.

Now, D’Elia almost loses me with a cheap shot at pedophiles with the comment about the van. If someone is going to make a pedophile joke, then the juice had better be worth the squeeze. This was not that. Until…

Now this is a brilliant move. The pedophile, who was someone else at the start of the joke is now D’Elia, which actually turns what I thought was a generic pedophile schtick into commentary on all kinds of things including stereotypes and how our brains make assumptions. This is what good comedy does; it traps you into fulfilling your own stereotypes without your knowledge AND THEN shows your stereotypes back to you. 

Mike David spent half an episode on this one joke and never registered the reversal. 

The other reason I like this joke is that it introduces the strongest underlying theme in D’Elia’s stand-up: that he’s not hard. He’s got a whole bit about growing up with good parents, about being straight-edge, and multiple times he admits to punking out when things get hard.

I can’t figure out why critics keep saying this stand-up has no throughline. It quite clearly has one. And while it’s certainly not revolutionary, it’s not that bad.

At it’s best, “No Pain” transgresses and pokes fun at the expectation that people have to suffer to be interesting. That’s a totally worthy theme. D’Elia even jokes that when he tells people he has suffered, people suddenly find him interesting. This is the best of what comedy does–make fun of an implicit bias that you didn’t even know you have so that now you realize you have it. And the suffering artist is a pervasive and deeply problematic cultural bias–just ask Charles Bukowski or Robin Williams. Oh you can’t, they’re dead.

In fact, other men comedians, including Jim Gaffigan, Brian Regan, and Mike Birbiglia have built terrific stand-up work on the entire premise of the nice-guy comic. 

See? That shit is funny. And D’elia is at his best when he’s in his nice guy vein. Like the bit I’m calling “two pens”:

This is amazing. It’s got kind of a Mike-Birbiglia-meets-Whose-on-First with a little bit of edge. This is a solid joke. 

Now, you’ve probably noticed that D’elia does some weird voices and, if you’re watching the episode, some very awkward physical comedy. The reviews on this point have been conflicting:

Bennett for Chortle says, 

“a clear charisma and strong performance chops when it come to acting out the scenes he describes”

Meanwhile, Ward for Daily Campus says, 

“movements on stage are limited and lifeless.”

And Mike David from Redbar I can’t even tell what he’s trying to say…

David seems to be making fun of the voice but his only critique is that D’Elia is trying to find a unique, funny voice for his personas…which is…right…like…exactly what D’Elia is doing so…and then he makes the abrupt switch to “However…” and then talks about him being nervous, which is maybe true? But also, not the point? 

I love when critics wrap themselves in knots like this because it shows an unsolved contradiction in their approach. The problem is that a LOT of time the voice works for D’Elia but sometimes it’s definitely overkill.

Instead of working through that issue, however, Mike David just shit talks the accents and makes a non-sequitur to exit the problem before he’s solved it.

The problem is that there are only two choices: either the voice/physical comedy is garbage or it’s amazing. Now, in some cases, that’s the choice you’ve got to make. 

For example, Sean McCarthy from The Decider has a whole series, “Stream It or Skip It,” and the point IS very binary; it’s set up that way. Not surprisingly, McCarthy recommends a skip on “No Pain,” writing, 

“SKIP IT. D’Elia’s charm and charisma work better when he can play off of his friends and colleagues. So listen to his podcast [instead].”

But generally speaking, those are terrible choices. 

So what’s actually happening? Well, in rhetoric we have a word for this and it’s called a persona.

The issue is that @chrisdelia has two personas when typically performers have one. The first persona is what they are presenting themselves to be as comics. Mike Birbiglia is the awkward nice guy. Lewis Black is the angry white guy.

Most of the time these personas are treated like they are “really” the comedian. But that can’t be true because people are such a cluster of contradictions that to say you only ever behave one way would be ridiculous. So comedians pick personas, much like any performer, that give them a performative edge. 

Nobody wants to hear Lewis Black talk baby talk to kittens but you have to imagine sometimes he does that.

Now personas aren’t the same as characters. D’Elia has lots of characters. The voices for the characters make sense. It helps add depth to the act. The annoying questioner, Sgt. Starfish, his Eminem impression, and he does an awesome Russian guy in an old stand-up. Impressions are, like, stand-up comedy 101. 

But here’s the issue: D’Elia also does voices when HE is HIM. Which is also a thing other comedians have done. But the key is that you have to have the one character the whole way through. But lots of times, D’Elia is ALSO him and he’s not doing the voice. 

Why? Because D’Elia has a split personality as a comic and not in the interesting way. He doesn’t know yet who he is or what he stands for. Or, put more accurately, he wants to stand for two contradictory things.

One of D’Elia’s D’Elia’s persona is a Howard Stern Andrew Dice Clay shock jock. 

The other persona is as a nice guy who tells corny jokes and is maybe a little bit edgy–every comedian is–but has decided he’s going to write good material and not take the low road. The Bob’s Burgers to Howard Stern’s Family Guy.

But he keeps getting sucked back into being Family Guy. 

When D’Elia’s accents get awkward and out-of-place, it is a symptom of that contradiction within D’Elias sense of persona. Older comedians had consistent personas because they had rhetorical training and they understood to think about this stuff like speech not like social media.

New comedians seem to be running into this problem more and more because they don’t think about rhetoric. 

They think about “content” and so their sense of structure is off. 

That’s not a plea for the good old days–most of my favorite comedians are marginalized women who never would have been able to get the mic ten years ago–but it is a plea for standup comics to fucking learn rhetoric. 

Also, I’m talking mostly to white cis men here because, let’s be honest, women and men of color and LGBTQ comics are in WAY too precarious a position not to triple check that their personas on point. 

One place where we see D’Elia’s awkward voice persona get twisted around is his stuff about sexual consent. I was disappointed but hardly surprised that D’Elia included a bit about sexual consent. He’s a famous guy in the era of #MeToo and I’m sure that he is thinking about this a lot, given what happened with Louis CK and Aziz Ansari.

The problem is that he thinks he shouldn’t have to think about it but also he sort of gets that he should think about it. And, as a result, his comedy is similarly contradictory in ways that are both hilarious, awful, entitled, engaging. Frustrating for someone who just wants good comedy. Interesting for someone who studies speech. 

But as a speech critic, I also learn something very cool when I pay attention to D’Elia.

The BAD parts of the dick joke happen when D’Elia is in his Andrew Dice Clay persona–bad in the sense they are both not funny and also cringy. Again, that’s not to say you can’t ever make a good joke about norms of active consent. But the juice had better be worth the squeeze. In this case, it isn’t even worth being dried up and stuck in potpourri. 

Is that joke funny? I couldn’t tell.


The problem with D’Elia’s dick joke is that he reinforces the pervasive idea that the act of getting somebody’s consent is awkward, unsexy, just, like, a totally dorky and not hot thing to do. Which it is DEFINITELY does not have to be.

And, you know, Chris D’Elia is probably a dork in bed. He should play that to his advantage. Get ALL the consent. Good for you. Get every woman or person you sleep with to Tweet about how good you were at consent. Instead of resenting it, I say go entirely 180 and go all in. Well, assuming you have consent anyway.

That would make sense for D’Elia persona #2. But D’Elia persona #1 isn’t having it. And that’s a shame.

Because the biggest problem right now around sexual consent from a communication perspective is that NO ONE is talking about consent as something that can be hot and steamy and awesome. It’s always a “mood killer” and I’ll tell you right now until we have that conversation we will not move the needle on active consent. A portion of this joke just simply isn’t funny enough to warrant the negative consequences.

But when D’Elia’s dick joke is told from his persona #2 it is SO SO Soo Soooo oooo good.

The question is not “how do you know someone wants to see your dick?” The question is “how do you know someone knows they want to see your dick.” 

This is brilliant because this is exactly the conundrum that we find ourselves in when we’re trying to navigate sexual consent. How DO you know someone else knows? 

Also, the use of understatement and parallelism is stylistically engaging. The homeless jabs are lame and they don’t get redeemed later like the pedophile jabs. The homeless jokes just need to go. But he also has some stuff about “pulling it out and asking if they want Gatorade” with some serious potential. You can watch that on your own if you are so inclined. 

But of course he eventually starts doing the whole “wanh it’s so hard to know whether someone wants my dick” and is back to persona #2. 

Still, I stan the persona #1 jokes about consent. I stan hard.

And I stan even harder D’Elia’s very astute observation about using the word “rape” as clickbait. Granted, it does come at the end of a very convoluted and overdone bit about how dophins fuck people. 

The joke relies a LOT on the repetition of the phrase “dolphins fuck people” over and over again. It’s not great.

Mike David also dislikes the dolphin bit.

And, to Mike David’s credit, he did make the astute observation that the Dolphin joke appears approximately 35 minutes into the stand-up, which is apparently the point at which comics are supposed to deliver their best material. See, I did not know that. I would have surmised it. Good job Mike David. That’s called an insight. I would like more of that please!

Unfortunately, Mike David also quite obliquely misses D’Elia’s critique of rape sensationalism because he is preoccupied with ragging on the dolphin joke.

WHAT?! What is that guy even talking about?! That last piece is amazing. Sure, clown on the rest of it. But you’ve got to give this part credit. It’s smart, it’s insightful, and it’s not even a joke! It’s just D’Elia using a platform to make a short pitch for people to be thoughtful about their language. I could not have loved this line more. 

But then the pendulum swings back again and D’Elia is back in his tough guy Howard Stern routine where he stays for just far too long.

Obviously I loathe people using the word “pussies” for about anything except if you’re trying to get hot active consent. 

But I’m not even mad at this line because it feels so superficial.

@chrisdelia has done us a favor because he’s written a stand-up in which his WORST material is when he’s ragging on how “nobody can say anything anymore” which means I don’t have to PC police him because the joke is even more NOT funny than it is offensive.

I find my real challenge is when highly offensive jokes are also rhetorically brilliant and very hilarious, like Mindy Kaling’s joke from Comedy Death Ray about using the word r-e-t-a-r-d. 

I would never discuss Kaling’s joke publicly because I would have to put my money where my mouth is and say that the juice is worth the squeeze. And that territory is just way too dangerous. 

Chris D’Elia is much easier because his offensive material is also his absolutely worst material.

His offensive material comes to a head in the dolphin skit, which aside from the critique of rape click bait is a lot of bitching and moaning that comedians just can’t say anything anymore. It both drags out a skit that is already too long and feels feigned because it directly contradicts his other material that relies on his nice guy persona to work, like two pens.

But then the pendulum swings back and immediately after he wraps on the “I can’t make fun of dolphin suicide because people are pussies” he introduces my favorite joke of the special: Sgt Starfish.

This is that kind of absurd, silly comedy where this stand-up REALLY shines. The listeners can’t see this, but he actually performs being the starfish and picks up the suicide note with one of his little starfish appendages.

That is hilarious because if he were actually a starfish, he’d have little adhesive bits that would allow him to stick and grab a note–it’s earnest, it’s silly, it’s so, so good.

When everything in comedy seems to be a hyperbolic troll, this kind of thing can be really impactful. 

And here’s where we see the voice really working for him because he has to play multiple characters at once. Not only that, but when he goes to do the dolphin voice, he stays with his Sgt voice, which makes the reading more hilarious than if he did, say, the Ace Ventura dolphin voice. 

This is where D’Elia shows his rhetorical chops as a comedian. And he manages to be 0 offensive in the process. I’m not saying comedians can never be offensive. I’m just saying if you’re not going to make it worth people’s discomfort, stick to just being awkward funny instead of mean funny. And D’Elia just doesn’t have a knack for the offensive kind of funny. Most people don’t.

But D’Elia won’t commit to just being the dorky nice guy stand-up comic. That’s why his voices and his persona are all over the place–he’s conflicted about his style even though, as far as I can tell, there’s no reason for him to at all throw in the hard flex other than what I’d guess is probably the stand-up-comic celebrity version of peer pressure. 

As a result, he ends the Sgt. Starfish with an uninspired rant about “how comedians can’t say anything.”

It’s not just that this rant is cliche, which it is, it’s also that there’s a kind of smart self-awareness that leaks through that should tune D’Elia into the fact that this rant is, first of all, uninteresting, and second-of-all, completely out of sync with his best materials.

On this point, Bennett from Chortle does have some good insight. I quote:

There’s a sense [D’Elia] wants to be more than this lightweight entertainer, but struggles to find that position. 

Instead he opts for what’s becoming the default position for many a stand-up looking for an angle […] to hit back at those who would ‘censor’ comedy.

Quite why this is vexing him is unclear, as his own material is inoffensive. Indeed this whole section is triggered by an silly – if over-long – segment which ends with a single line in which a fictional shark self-harms. 

It seems like he’s inventing victimhood in his need to define himself and appear interesting. He defends himself against this straw man by insisting: ‘I will push the envelope’ – which saves him the bother of actually having to push the envelope. Not that the world wants any more edgelord comics, but he never gets near [it]

Couldn’t have said it better myself. 

I can’t believe how loudly the audience clapped when D’Elia said, “I’ll never apologize for anything I say.” 

What a stupid hyperbolic thing to say. So let me get this straight, in twenty years, when as a society we finally feel about the word “pussies” like we feel now about the word “faggot,” you won’t even be willing to say, “oh, yea, I see that now. My bad.”





“Cause you had, like, a problem and now you don’t anymore?”

Nah. I just don’t.






That’s the same thing as ever.

“Zero Times?”

That’s what I’m saying.

“Not even once?”

I just said zero. How the fuck is it once?

I just wanna say, I practiced that like, four times, and it is WAY not as funny if you can’t do a Chris D’Elia’s weirdo accent. So Mike David is mostly wrong. 

Yes the voice seeps into the wrong parts of the comedy sometimes but generally speaking the voices are part of what makes D’Elia funny. And that’s not shameful. Stand-up comedy has a long and storied history of voices. 

Robin Williams’ on the history of golf. 

Eliza Schlessinger’s P90X guy. 

And, of course, Jerry Lewis: “hey ladies.”

But that’s just one piece of D’Elia. D’Elia ALSO goes on to make more asinine assertions that are as unthoughtful and superficial as two pens and Sgt Starfish were courageous and clever. 

One, if we keep censoring comedians then we’ll just be paying people to make sounds out of their mouth. In rhetoric we call that a “slippery slope fallacy” because it’s meant to use fear-mongering to silence criticism and its beneath D’Elia

Two,  ugh…I can’t believe I’m even going to say this….

D’Elia says that if we keep criticizing comedians for being offensive…ugh

….that if comedians can’t be offensive…sigh…that

“Comedians won’t know where the line is and the comedy is just going to be corny as shit.”



Delia you are the corniest motherfucker I have ever not met. And you know what? It works for you. That’s why you’re funny. You’re not hard. And not acting hard doesn’t make you a coward, it makes you like every. other. comic–some stuff works for you and some stuff doesn’t. 

Your biggest problem isn’t that “you can’t say anything” it’s that you are Mike Birbiglia, not Andrew Dice Clay.

But you have yet to come to terms with that fact.


And the worst part is, you could be a very good nice guy comic and the world could use some of that right now. You clearly have thoughts swirling around in that peer-pressured brain of yours that are worth salvaging. 

You are 100% completely and utterly right. It IS up to comics to “PUSH THE ENVELOPE IN A FUNNY WAY.” And an offensive joke is TOTALLY WORTH IT…IF…one: it actually pushes the envelope and two, this is important: IS ALSO FUNNY. 

But jokes that aren’t funny and push the envelope? That’s not called a joke. That’s not being an asshole. And it’s not a pussy, cowardly move, if you tell an offensive joke that just turns out to be offensive and not particularly funny, that you get on social media and be, like, “my bad. That wasn’t funny. I’ll try harder.”

On this point I will also give some credit to the following observation made by Ward of Daily Campus:

D’Elia’s worst moment comes when he talks about people getting more and more offended by comedy and how the future of comedy will be limited. Not only is that statement false, it ignores how comedy has changed over time. People don’t want to laugh at jokes that target underprivileged communities; they want humor that addresses social issues without being offensive. 

And it wouldn’t have taken much for D’Elia to turn this earnest rant-hiding-as-a-joke about how he has to think about what he says into a really funny, insightful series of jokes transgressing the biases of cancel culture. 

For the record, “cancel culture” is a quick term that means anytime someone gets on the internet and is like “I’m unfollowing you” or “I’m cancelling you” because you did something awful–think Netflix cancelling House of Cards cuz Kevin Spacey is disgusting or people wilin’ out on Twitter cuz Kevin Hart said if his kid were gay he’d smash a dollhouse on his head.

Cancel culture is like anything else. It is complex. Sometimes it’s awesome. Sometimes it sucks. Most of the time it’s a lot of complexity. Which means, like anything else, there are ways to make fun of it that are both funny and insightful. And I’d be all for that.

But I have yet to see it happen. But no matter how many times a comic, nearly always a man, tries to do it, it doesn’t work. Why? Because they think it’s a bitch move to admit they’re wrong and, god forbid, anybody be a bitch, right? Oh my god. Apologizing? Backing off? Could there be anything worse than that?  

But that did get me thinking what an insightful response to cancel culture might look like. It’s definitely not Dave Chappelle’s stand-up special from last year, and it’s certainly not anything on Donald Trump’s Twitter. 

But it just might be this clip from former president Obama speaking at the Obama Foundation Summit last year, albeit it’s not stand-up comedy but it’s the only example I could find that had some potential.

This is excellent advice that I wish both D’Elia and Mike David would take. Instead, Mike David does the opposite, which is to say that he paints with the same useless, sensational, broad-strokes that he finds so distasteful in D’Elia’s standup.

At the risk of being captain obvious…all that stuff Mike David is saying about D’Elia…that’s sort of just what Mike David is doing, right? 

Anyway, to bring it home, let’s end on a really endearing note from D’Elia that, well, proves that I’m right about everything. 

Just before D’Elia ends the stand-up, after the drawn out jokes about babies, the under-rated joke about pencils and starfish police, and the insipid rant about cancel culture, he brings it full circle to the earnest, dorky persona that I like so much despite D’Elia being too much of a coward to lean in to the corny at a moment when we could use a little more corny and a little less asshole. 

See? D’Elia is at his best when he’s not flexing.

So Mike David is NOT correct to say, and I quote,

“You would only like this if you were a little boy who doesn’t know who you are and you’re fantasizing about the cool things you’d like to tell people off about.”

Well, I liked the stand-up, some of it, certainly not all of it. Like I said, it’s a 3.5/5. And, here’s the most important part:


I’m not a little boy. That’s a misogynist thing to say. 

And I certainly know who I am. In fact, that’s precisely the reason that I notice and am intrigued by watching D’Elia NOT know who he is. 

And, yes, I do fantasize about “the cool things I’d like to tell people off about” but, my dear rhetoric nerds, the structure of that sentence is so awkward, that no analyst of language–stand-up comedy YouTubers included- has any business uttering it in the same breath that they take a mediocre comedian to task for being apparently the worst human being on earth. 

And Trump is President.

I leave you with this: be careful about all-or-nothing binary verdicts–they’re never the most interesting part of the story.

Also, if it were me and I were you thinking about being me, I’d watch the D’Elia standup and I’d go get a snack during the baby and dolphin jokes. Or don’t watch it and instead go watch Wanda Sykes’ Not Normal or some old Margaret Cho on YouTube.

Cheers and don’t forget: use your words. Or they’ll use you.


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