Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Jackie Kashian's "This Will Make An Excellent Horcrux"

A lot of comics feel like they need a gimmick. “I’m the comic with a puppet.” “I’m the comic who screams.” “I’m the comic who whispers.” “I’m the comic who used to be on Full House and isn’t nearly as funny as I think I am.” You know, that sort of thing. Not that there’s anything wrong with having a gimmick. Hey, if it works, it works. Sometimes, though, it’s a nice breath of fresh air to spend time with a comic like Jackie Kashian whose only gimmick is being funny (I know, go figure, right?)

You may not know Kashian by name, but you definitely know who she is. She’s been a doing comedy since the 80s and if you ever watched anything on TV that featured comedians, chances are you’ve seen her. Her new album, “This Will Make An Excellent Horcrux” is a fine example of why she’s still working today. 

Kashian is no-nonsense and addresses the standard “female comedian” issue right away. She takes the stage and simply states, “I am overweight. You may consider that addressed.” And that’s it. Let's move on. I love it. As someone who listens to a lot of comedy, can I just take a second to say how nice it is to hear a female comedian not do the standard “I’m a girl, I guess I have to talk about being overweight” routine? Kashian breaks the mold by simply being a comedian who makes people laugh. It seems a bit odd to praise Kashian as being revolutionary for simply doing what she does really well, but at the same time, it makes sense. 

There are people who crave attention, needing to be praised and coddled, jumping up and down, waving their hands, screaming a Horshack-ian “Ooo! Oo! Pick me! Pick me!!” Everyone’s heads turn and they give them the oohs, ahhs, and accolades that are being demanded. And while that’s going on, Kashian is in the club next door, no bells, whistles, or fireworks. Just... being funny. As a Midwesterner myself, that’s what I attribute her comedy work ethic to. Put your head down, work hard, and the rest will take care of itself. 

Kashian works at a steady pace, moving quickly - but not too fast - and before you know it, 45 minutes have flown by. She has a style all her own, accentuating the punch without hitting you over the head with it, and her on stage persona is confident and cool. She’s not afraid to say what’s on her mind (Don’t ask if she and her husband plan on having kids) and the title of the album comes as no surprise when you find out how much of a reader she is. 

Her stories and observations are easy to relate to, even when she’s talking about experiences many of us have never gone through. I have no idea what it’s like to be overseas with the troops or to be chased down by an attack dog (let alone both at the same time), but when living it through Kashian’s words, you get a good picture of how it is. 

If you prefer your comedy in bright, loud packaging with neon lights and flashing arrows blinking on and off, this may not be the project for you. If, however, you just want to sit down and have some good laughs, well… here ya go

Friday, April 4, 2014

Chad Daniels's "Natural Selection"

Having the ability to make a crowd groan is pretty easy; Go on stage and say something offensive. Having the ability to make a crowd groan and laugh is considerably harder. Anthony Jeselnik comes to mind as someone who really knows how to slug the audience in the gut and make them laugh at the same time. Chad Daniels, though, takes it one step further and pulls off the ultimate trifecta: He makes the audience groan, he makes them laugh, and he walks away with his image of the nicest guy in the world completely intact. 

To be honest, I don’t quite know how he does it. The things Daniels says on his new album, Natural Selection, are sometimes truly horrible. He calls his wife a twat, maintains that his recently-deceased high school football coach is still a dick (passing away doesn’t take away one’s dick status), and encourages you to let your stupid kids walk off of a cliff, yet he still comes across as a truly good guy. While the aforementioned-Jeselnik’s onstage persona is that of the ultimate douche, Daniels is the kind of guy you want to have as a neighbor, invite to the family barbecue, and vote for as school board president. 

Of course, being able to make people laugh can cover a multitude of transgressions and the fact that Daniels is one of the funniest comedians working today doesn’t hurt. While some comedians come across as truly angry, Daniels, although there are things that upset him, always has a light-hearted undertone in his voice that lets you know everything is said in the name of getting a laugh. And if you can make people laugh, you can get away with saying a lot.

Although the name of this CD is Natural Selection, the subtitle could very well be Please Don’t Let My Loved Ones Listen To This. No one in Daniels’s household is safe. I don’t know how much of this material his teenage son has heard - if any - but Daniels is in for an evening of “You told them that?!” when he does. Going through puberty is never easy and it’s impossible not to laugh as Daniels stands back and gleefully watches his son navigate this brave new world of nocturnal emissions and hairy penines* on his own. Considering his wife, father-in-law, and sister also get their fair share of pokes and jabs, I can’t think of another Christmas family gathering I’d rather eavesdrop upon.

It should be noted that Daniels is not what I would classify as a “shock comic.” Yes, at times what he says is shocking but that's not his final goal. Plain and simple, he’s out to make people laugh and he passes with flying colors. Sometimes he has to say harsh things to get his point across, but they’re always things that need to be said. His commentary on society is not done out of spite but of tough love. The track “InFATuation” is a prime example and it’s one of my favorites on the project. Daniels takes aim at, to put it bluntly, fat people and it’s a solid bit that had me laughing the entire 10-minute duration. Before you can even begin to protest that not everyone can help being overweight Daniels cuts off the argument at the pass and begins a tirade that is hilariously unforgiving.

If you like to laugh - at others and yourself - and you have your sense of humor securely intact, you’re going to love this album. If not, well…there’s a line of people over at this cliff the rest of us would like to invite you to join.

*Not a misspelling. I mean, it is, but not mine.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Todd Barry's "The Crowd Work Tour"

Seriously? Five bucks? That’s it? 

Sorry. I had to get that out of the way. Louis C.K., the Master of Releasing Amazing Comedy For Only Five Dollars, has done it again. He did it last year when he offered Tig Notaro’s incredibly heart-breakingly hilarious autobiographical special and he does it once again by bringing us this ingenious video offering from Todd Barry. 

Here’s the basic premise of The Crowd Work Tour: Todd Barry hits a handful of cities doing shows with no prepared material and instead spends his set time chatting with the crowd. As if being a stand-up isn’t hard enough already. And it works. It’s not unlike the guy who walked a tight rope across Niagara Falls, only Barry is doing it without the aid of the long balancing pole. And he’s doing it blindfolded. And while wearing roller blades. 

Of course, if you’re a fan of Todd Barry (I am), then this should come as no surprise. He’s always done well when it comes to interacting with the audience and this project is a fun way for him to really stretch his improvisational muscles. There are a million different ways a comedian could react to the guy in the crowd who makes dog collars for a living, the girl in Alaska who works way too many hours, and the comedian from another comedy club whose stage name instills cackles, but no one reacts to a situation quite like Barry. His low-key counterbalance is diametrically opposed to what one would expect from talking to a member of the instrumental-only band Avant Abstract (check 'em out on - that's right - MySpace) and the juxtaposition makes the interaction even funnier.

As Barry travels up the west coast, he meets an impressively amazing array of people from different backgrounds. What makes it all the more fascinating is that these are real people. They’re so good, they sometimes feel like plants or, as Barry puts it, people from Improv Everywhere out to prank him. Did that guy really drive that far to see the show? Did that guy really make a T-shirt for Barry and then leave it in the car? And what did it look like? And are people really that passionate about chicken eggs?

This mini-movie (It runs an hour and nine minutes) is so enjoyable, I wanted more, and my only critique of the project are the moments when Barry isn’t shown on stage doing his thing. There are vignettes between the performances in each city showing Barry in the car, in his hotel, and chatting with other comics and they’re fun. However, after I got my first taste of Barry and his crowd work, I found myself wanting more of that and just wanting to zip through the non-standup moments.

If you purchase this movie from C.K.’s website you get your choice of various download quality and streaming video options. I was a little disheartened to see there was no opportunity to download an MP3 file but for five dollars I really have no business complaining about anything (and it's a reasonably simply problem to work around). This really is a great, funny, and fun project. I mean seriously, for the price of a venti drink at Starbucks you get some amazing comedy moments from one of the best comics working today. Sounds like a good deal to me (Because it is).

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Hannibal Buress's "Live from Chicago"

I’ve gotten into the habit of not allowing myself to look forward to the things I enjoy. Don’t worry, I’m not as much of a depressing Debbie Downer as that statement makes it sound, I’ve just been burned too many times by things not living up to the amazing expectations they’ve built up for themselves. Indiana Jones 4, both Hangover sequels, the latest album from Justin Timberlake…All forms of entertainment I was looking forward to, only to be let down by my unrealistic expectations. That being said, there are a handful of things I’ve learned I can look forward to. Films by Pixar, the fourth season of "Arrested Development" and the fifth season of "Community" are all examples of things I am wary of building up too high only to have my expectations consistently blown away.

And now you can add to that list Hannibal Buress. 

When “Animal Furnace” came out, the follow-up to his hilarious “My Name is Hannibal” I was a bit nervous. How in the world could he possibly top that? Well, he did it by being funny (I know, go figure). So, when I saw “Live from Chicago” was coming down the pipeline, I felt a little more secure about looking forward to it. Yes, I was excited. Yes, I wanted to hear it. And yes, I was pretty sure he’d kill me with comedy once again.

He did.

Buress, with his biting comedy cleverly wrapped in relaxed delivery, confidently takes the stage and immediately wins over the crowd with his Windy City inside jokes. From that point on it’s smooth sailing as we are led through the seas of New Orleans (Seriously? A Parades Department, NOPD?), rappers trying to impress us with their not-so-hardcore drug of choice, and what Buress would do with an extra $5000, his bare hands, and an unsuspecting penguin.

The way Buress tells a story is engaging and I particularly enjoy how genuinely surprised he seems to be when the details take an odd turn. This isn't a guy coming at you with a look-how-funny-I-am approach or a you-won’t-believe-the-silly-thing-I-made-up braggadocio but instead sits down beside you and quietly asks, “This thing that happened to me. It’s kinda weird, right?”

There’s never a lull in the show and certainly no “skippable” tracks, as the CD rolls out one great bit after another. You’ll be glad to know that opening for Tracy Morgan is just as random as you would expect it to be, you’ll find out what it’s like to wait in line for the bathroom in front of Scarlett Johansson (and not let her jump ahead), and you’ll find out just why, when it comes to who Buress outlives, Will Smith needs to be the first to go.

So rest assured fellow lovers-of-Hannibal. This project is just as good as you hoped it would be. It’s just as funny as you wished it would be and Buress is just as skilled as you knew he would be. Keep keeping your expectations high and Buress will keep blowing them away.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Jasper Redd's "Jazz Talk"

I know you can’t/shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but in the case of Jasper Redd’s new project, “Jazz Talk,” you can. First of all, kudos to the CD’s production team for one of my favorite art designs in recent history. Capturing the cool hep-ness of classic album jacket sleeves, the blue tones and classic fonts over a worn cross-hatch pattern create a picture I wouldn’t hesitate to frame and hang in my home. In fact, “cool” is the key word here and the comedy that lies therein is exactly what the packaging promises.

Redd is smooth, laid-back, and - yes - cool. His style hearkens that of a beat poet from the early 60’s (without actually doing beat poetry) and the listener is instantly transported to a time when comedians didn’t have to shout or shock to be funny. Redd  brings laughter on his own relaxed terms. 

Early on in his set, Redd explains he doesn’t do material on relationships or politics but instead chooses to tackle important topics like dogs who rat out others, inane sports rules, and McDonaldland’s Grimace. As he circles these subjects - and many more - he shows just how funny someone can be without having to scream every observation. He slays us with calm razor-sharp insights that slice deep and make us wonder just what in the world the Whopper has been up to behind the counter.

One thing I love about Redd’s onstage presence is the way he almost gets things right. This is a character trying to sound educated and informed (proudly opting for words like “establishment” instead of “store”) and would pull it off if it weren’t for the random mispronunciation or use of a non-existent word that completely blows his cover (such as  the Spanish word “inappropriante”). It’s a small detail that, in someone else’s hands, could have been overplayed. It’s easy to point a neon arrow at yourself and say, “Look how silly I am!” but Redd - you guessed it - plays it cool. He doesn’t draw attention to what he’s doing and as a result it’s even funnier when he does it.

Redd closes his set backed by a live jazz band, swapping out his longer bits for one-liners and short quips. They’re fun, but I prefer him as a storyteller. I loved hearing him explain how, although he avoids anything to do with slavery, there is a time to be pro-white. His uninsured “in case of emergency” contingency plan is all-too familiar and you’ll love hearing the genesis behind the reason why he’s still not sure if he sold his father some marijuana. He invites you to keep your third eye open as he explains the real symbolism behind the penny and as a cinephile, I may never look at the DVD Director’s Commentary bonus features the same way again.

You will enjoy spending an hour with Redd. He’s a welcome change of pace from what you may be used to getting from a stand-up comedian and the laughs to be found here are real, genuine, constant and - yep - cool.