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25 Sets (2019) Review

Aaron Berg shuffling from stage to stage, intercut with talking head interviews where he frankly and honestly opens up about how his stand-up comedy isn’t the level he wants it to be at is a double edged sword. On the one hand, it’s sort of upsetting to see how many comedians like Berg fail to make it to the big leagues of the industry, especially in one where Berg is confidently funnier than a majority of the mainstream. You can tell that from the brief vignettes we get from Berg who talks with passion about the industry. The other edge of that sword though, is that Berg is aware that his stand-up comedy isn’t great enough to break on through to television or film.  

That isn’t exactly the subject of the documentary per-se, but it certainly falls well within to the purview of documentary maker Matt O’Dowd, who looks to document Berg as he attempts to break Scott Bryne’s record of the most sets of stand-up comedy in one night. The biggest issue of doing so is that 25 Sets brings up the quality vs. quantity argument. Is it better to break into the industry through hard work or by setting the record for most amounts of presumably middling, rushed stand-up ever performed in one night? By the looks of it, Berg is in the latter mindset. 

All well and good, but the documentary soon falls into a near autobiographical category, as we struggle to fill a mere hour running time. To get us to the finish line, we spend some time with other, better known comedians, Berg’s girlfriend and scatter in a respectable amount of the routines Berg performs to various crowds. By the looks of it, Bergs work isn’t actually all that bad. Obviously I’m basing that off of the infrequent dives into the various sets he performs, but I can certainly see a solid enough stand-up, feature length routine coming out of such a comedian. He hits the right marks, interacts with the crowd in a way that is enjoyable and not smarmy or insulting and on the whole, he seems like someone that does in fact have what it takes to become a heavy hitting stand-up. 

There are more bombs than hits, and to give credit to Berg and 25 Sets, it adds a sense of realism and even an extra challenge to the proceedings. It’s not easy to stand up on a stage, it’s even worse to stand up on a stage and have nobody interacting with your set. There are times when it becomes frustratingly uncomfortable, all you can do is look on at an optimistic yet stressed comedian hoping the roof caves in on him or someone starts a bar fight. Either way, Berg’s perseverance makes for a nice ballast throughout the documentary, with a striking optimism in at times embarrassing situations. 

I think the best part of 25 Sets is that its protagonist and documentary subject is a likeable person. With stand-up, I sense there’s a certain ego to the industry, especially when you look at the heavy hitting individuals who have made it big and show no signs of stopping even though their routines are frankly mediocre. Berg has what it takes to do so, and 25 Sets sets out to prove so, especially when he can endure under a record-breaking amount of sets. Not every one is a hit, but his reflections on some sets throughout the documentary give it a much more humbling, responsible and investigative nature to his work. Frankly, he’s one of the few comics on the circuit that I hope to see succeed.  

A good observation of the New York comedy circuit for those names you’ve not quite heard of and the desperate measures some will go to in an attempt to get their name out there. 25 Sets is well worth the watch solely to see Berg’s energetic optimism and some self-evaluation from a frankly enjoyable comedian looking to get his name out there.  

Ewan Gleadow
Ewan Gleadow
Editor in Chief at Cult Following | News and culture journalist at Clapper, Daily Star, NewcastleWorld, Daily Mirror | Podcast host of (Don't) Listen to This | Disaster magnet

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