Sunday, December 11, 2011

Josh Gondelman's "Everything's The Best!"


Josh Gondelman opens his new CD Everything's The Best! by declaring he's going to do his best to try to be fun. I assume this is just some sort of ruse, because after listening to this hour-long project I don't think it'd be possible for him not to be. He is such a pleasure to be around, it's no surprise to find out he can keep any crowd of people entertained, whether it's a comedy club full of adults or a brightly colored room of kids (he reveals he is a pre-school teacher who's just put in his two weeks notice).

Sure, the fact that this guy who works with kids moonlights as a stand-up comic (or, more accurately, vice versa) initially comes across as a Can You Believe It premise but the truth is I can believe it. I'd trust this guy with my kids* and would feel safe knowing that they'll be in good hands. Sure, they may come back with a brand new mash-up of children's songs in their heads or learn the ins and outs of the legality of gay marriage but I can rest assured knowing they won't be taught the lyrics to any Def Leppard songs (that's the other guy at the pre-school).

The youthful energy of Gondelman carries over nicely to his comedy. His ruminations about child detectives (Encyclopedia Brown, Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys) and why we don't hear from them as adults are paired together with his theory of why Han Solo isn't nearly as cool as everyone seems to think he is.

The vast majority of his material is either culled from his own childhood experiences (opting to play the trombone in band class, how reading "The Catcher in the Rye" landed him in the principal's office, why comic book readers are considered the jocks of the nerd community) or lifted straight from his encounters with the pre-schoolers (the recreation of a magic trick he learned from a student, the little Mexican boy who wants to be Batman, and how he was outsmarted by Jake, the little guy who has never seen a purple cow).

That being said, Gondelman is just as funny when he steps up his material to topics people face in their adult life. He is just as consistently funny whether he's unveiling Boston's racist tendencies (""I'm not racist, but..." is actually secret code for "I am racist, and...""), explaining why he hopes his future daughter is a lesbian, or bringing to light the reason minor league baseball is the way to go.

The project draws to a close with the tale of how a one night stand blossomed into a full-fledged adventure in the pharmacy in search of a Plan B pill. Although the subject matter may not strike someone as the easiest, most-obvious, least-controversial choice for a series of light-hearted anecdotes, Gondelman navigates it with ease, never once crossing the line into Too Much or Too Dark. He manages to keep the tone light and humorous. Because of that, the laughs erupt just as easily and frequently as they did on the previous 19 tracks.

Another thing I really admire about Gondelman's craft is his ability to seamlessly transition from one topic to the next without coming across as stilted or jumpy. There's no whiplash here. His material flows really nicely and only when you look back at the track listing do you realize exactly how much territory was covered.

The title of this project really reflects not only Gondelman's approach to comedy, but also his outlook on life. He never gets over-the-top angry and he doesn't wallow in self-pity when he finds himself in a situation that may not be ideal. Instead, he looks at life through the eyes of an eternal comedic optimist. Instead of seeing the glass as half-empty or half-full, he opts to go for the laugh and pours the glass's contents over his head. Then he'll stand up, back away from the table with his arms stretched out to either side and declare, "Nothing in my hands!"

He's right. Everything really is the best. And when you get to the point where you can look at life and believe that it's true, well....if that's not a great magic trick, I don't know what is.

***

*For the sake of this review, let's pretend I have kids.

***

Matt Ward's "Glamorous"


If you open your CD with a warning informing people that what they are about to hear is unlike anything they've ever experienced from a comedian, then you'd better have the material to back it up. That was the first thing I thought when I was listening to Matt Ward's "Glamorous." He further prepares us by stating he doesn't mess around with amateur topics like GPS units but instead plans to go for the jugular by breaching such scandalous, never-before-tackled themes like (brace yourself) moonshine (What?), cocaine (Gasp!), and rewarding lack of effort (Well, I never!).

Ward spends so much time building himself up as a way-over-the-line button-pusher, when he finally does start in on his act it's a bit of a letdown to find his bark was much worse than his bite. I feel pretty confident in saying this, as his project is peppered with awkward pauses and silences that hang in the air, lingering like an abandoned cobweb. Ward doesn't appear to be fazed by the small responses elicited by his jokes and he barrels on undaunted. Part of me feels his brash confidence is to be commended. Another part of me wonders if the confidence is warranted. He's like a Cubs fan in August taunting the Phillies.

I don't know a lot about Ward or how long he's been in the game, but at one point he comes down on "new" comics for making the grave error of asking a crowd if there are any pot smokers in the house. He does this, of course, after asking if there are any pot smokers in the house. It might be humorous if he was aware of the irony of the situation but I don't think he is. He's too busy chastising those amateurish young comics for daring to make such a mistake. As Ward stumbles through his set, tripping over his words and mixing up the lyrics to his own original songs, you can almost hear the pot leaving a voice mail for the kettle.

A couple of things Ward needs to work on are the metaphors and visual pictures he paints with his words. He's so worried about coming up with what he thinks is clever wordplay he shoots himself in the foot, reaching so far that the crowd is silenced into a puzzled state of suspended animation as they try to figure out what Ward is talking about.

On why you shouldn't buy meth in the South: "It's been stepped on more than an old man's ball sack." Huh? Why are people in the South stepping on either one?

On what people would say if someone showed up to a fight with shaved eyebrows: "Whoa, he looks faster and leaner. Or packing, I'm not sure what's going on there."

Wha?

Listening to Ward doing what he thinks is crossing the line is quite entertaining simply because...well...At one point he dares to shock the crowd by confessing he's fine with marijuana but - believe it or not! - he boldly takes a stand by saying he is against doing cocaine. The audience (and I) just sit there in a stunned silence that screams, "Well yeah, no crap, we're against it, too. Most people are. Why would you think an anti-cocaine message would rile us up?"

At another point he mentions the fact that he knows a lot of famous people. But, of course, he's not going to drop any names because that would be douche-y. Insert your own comment here: ___________________________

The album ends with Ward playing a few songs that I'm sure he would like to think are reminiscent of Stephen Lynch, but neither his music nor his lyrics live up to the dream. "20 Year Old Poon," a tune he actually refers to as a "comedy song," is basically just Ward singing the title phrase over and over again. Call me a snob, but for me it's gonna take a little bit more than that.

A lot of the basic premises Ward tackles are fun ideas, but the execution is where he falls short. This project is an example of what happens if you focus on your stage persona and self-confidence more than your written material. To be blunt...it ain't glamorous.

***

Daryl Wright's "Wildly Inappropriate"

The new CD from Daryl Wright, Wildly Inappropriate, is one of those treasures you hope you'll discover every time you listen to a comedian with whom you're not familiar. I went into this one not knowing what to expect and I came away from it feeling like I opened a bottle of Coke and found a "YOU JUST WON $1000!" message hidden under the cap.

Wright is down-to-earth, approachable, and possibly the funniest ex-con you'll come across (besides my uncles, of course). He explains that he spent time behind bars for "shooting a crackhead" and he uses the fact that eight years have passed and he's still not sorry for it as the perfect metaphor for why white guilt should be a thing of the past.

At that moment you get your first glimpse of Wright's unique viewpoint on topics that until now may have lost their freshness. His approach is novel and clever, especially when he explains that class-ism has replaced racism. He uses as Exhibit A the fact that O.J. is in jail. He's not there because he's black but because he is poor. After all, when he was rich he was free to "run around killing perfectly good white women."

On paper, this project has a lot working against it. It's apparent there wasn't a massive budget backing it (the recording quality leaves a little to be desired, the packaging itself is fairly generic, and the "RIP Mike Destephano" in the liner notes suggests someone fell asleep behind the proofreading wheel) but when you're as funny as Wright is, the comedy transcends all of the technical shortcomings and takes center stage. In past reviews I've complained about the production quality of a project but this time around I really can't. When you're funny, you're funny, and Wright's material is much stronger and more powerful than any audio glitches. Only a few minutes into listening, any comments I may have had about the production value lost any and all merit.

Wrights riffs on a lot of things people may think about but are too afraid to say out loud: How America has become the ex-husband of the world ("We keep giving people money and they keep talking shit about us. The next time you have a flood, call someone else") and just why rappers who refuse to use the n-word don't make any sense (the country music tie-in on this one is brilliant).

You're not dealing with your standard comedian-next-door here, but that's not a bad thing. Because of his checkered past going to court for biting an officer of the law and being kicked off of BET (twice), Wright has some outrageously unique experiences to draw from and never before has a stolen stove been so funny.

The album ends with Wright recounting the tale of the time he did stand-up for the KKK. Actually, he tells you that story as a preface to the time he wore a confederate flag T-shirt on the beach. I won't spoil anything by going into it further but that track alone is worth the price of admission. The first and last tracks, throwaway remixes of Wright's comedy, can be skipped over. They don't really add anything to the proceedings and aren't nearly as good as the great comedy found here.

This album is a perfect example of comedy being able to conquer all. Wright proves you don't need to have a big budget, or major label representation to make people laugh. In the end, all that really matters is whether or not you're funny. Wright is. And if you ask me, that's wildly appropriate.

***

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Beards of Comedy's "Cardio Mix"

I don't know what it is about Atlanta right now but something seriously funny is going on. Maybe it's all the Coca-Cola or the maddening MARTA system or the fact that every street there is named Peachtree, but there is some amazing comedy coming out of the South and - most notably - from the Laughing Skull Lounge. Chicago is the go-to city for improv and New Jersey is your source for people you never want to be around. I never would have predicted that Hot-lanta  would be the biggest threat to topple New York City as the supreme source for stand-up.

Earlier this year the Laughing Skull Lounge blew me away with their Fresh Faces project and now The Beards Of Comedy are live at the Lounge with Cardio Mix to get our skulls laughing once again. The Beards consist of four guys (Andy Sandford, Joe Zimmerman, TJ Young, and Dave Stone (who appeared - and killed - on the Fresh Faces compilation)) and you'd be hard-pressed to find a lineup as consistent, complementary, and flat-out funny as this one.

First to take the stage is Andy Sandford and he doesn't waste any time getting to the funny. His set begins with one of the best reasons to not follow the Golden Rule and from there it only gets better and better. Sandford explores medication warning labels and giant cupcakes with a bemused curiosity.

Sandford excels at misdirection. When he brings up the MTV show 16 and Pregnant you think you know where he's going with it and with a lesser comedian behind the mic you might be right. Sandford, however, keeps you on your toes, blindsiding you once with his sudden U-turns and then again with how funny those detours turn out to be.

Whether he's explaining why a perfect game of baseball only shows that it's a boring game, revealing the recipe for an intense sensation of shame, or explaining why living next to an abortion clinic really hampers his hobbies, Sandford proves once and for all that - just like when it comes to recreational drug use - he's not here to screw around.

Joe Zimmerman is the next comic up and he's the kind of guy who likes to find out a little bit about the people in the audience. He asks a series of questions to find out who's in attendance so he knows how to skew his material and as it turns out, it's a dog-loving, racist, Jewish crowd. Zimmerman doesn't seem at all surprised.

His low-pressure approach is perfectly suited to his material. Rather than tackle weighty, politcally-infused topics he chooses instead to ponder the common everyday nuances of life. Why would anyone ever propose to someone in a hot air balloon? What would happen if someone took Papa John's up on their new program that lets you order a pizza a month in advance? Why would anyone have a python as a pet? And exactly how in the world do orgies get started?

All of these themes - and more - are expanded with hilarious results. By the time Zimmerman reaches his bit on scary movie trailers, his eyes are covered because he's scared of what's up on the big screen. In the meantime, ours are blurry with tears of laughter.

Animals that aren't color blind and a series of wrong number voice mails are perfect fodder for Zimmerman's observations and when he's reached the end of his time, even though the show is only halfway over, you've already gotten more than double your money's worth of laughs.

TJ Young is bubbling with a fresh-faced, energetic enthusiasm that is in perfect contrast with his ruminations on the homeless and whether or not they should have pets. The juxtaposition couldn't be better as Young playfully cavorts through a field of deadly tiger sharks, astronauts in diapers, and unsettling billboards.

Young wraps up with a revealing look at the Amish and which dances they will - and won't - do. It's a nice capper to a good set and before you know it the time has come for the final Beard to take the stage.

Time really does fly when you're having fun.

Dave Stone was one of the highlights of the Laughing Skull Fresh Faces compilation and I found myself eager to hear more from this very skilled comedian. Who knew that just a couple of months later my wish would be granted and it turns out I was right: I really did want more.

Stone is the perfect guy to be in the clean-up batter position. He easily smashes an out-of-the-park grand slam with his material on being a born-again carnivore, feeling sorry for almost-retarded people, and his less-than-impressive visits to the local Coinstar.

Stone finishes up with a great story about his time working as a DJ at a small Georgian Southern Gospel radio station. As he elaborates about his time as host of "The Party Line" program, the laughs come quickly and they don't let up.

After you listen to this project, more than likely one of these four guys will stand out to you as your favorite. All of The Beards are so good, each one of them so solid and spot-on, whichever one you decide is the best...you're absolutely right.

***

Christina Pazsitzky's "It's Hard Being A Person"

I'll be honest with you (Of course I will. If I wasn't honest with you, I wouldn't have the passionate feedback on some of my less-than-flattering reviews): Upon my first listen of Christina Pazsitzky's album It's Hard Being A Person, I really didn't care for it. There were a few smirk-inducing moments, but nothing that really grabbed me by the ears and made me laugh out loud (not that grabbing me by the ears makes me laugh out loud).

I couldn't quite place what it was that seemed "off." A lot of her material, especially in the first few opening tracks, is geared mostly toward the fairer sex and she seems to sincerely think that raspberries (you know, the "thlbt" noise you make with your tongue) = comedy.

But what really stood out to me was the fact Pazsitzky seemed to have a hard time finding a voice that is truly her own. She greets the crowd with a strikingly Maria Bamford-esque raspy, fake whisper voice but after a few lines morphs back into her natural self. She ends the album with an apology to anyone she may have offended that sounds lifted straight from a Lisa Lampanelli closing track. I found it a bit interesting that she felt the need to pseudo-apologize at all, as she isn't really a shock/insult comedian and for the most part I can't imagine she offended anyone.

Please understand I'm not saying that Pazsitzky is swiping jokes from these - or other - comics. It just seemed that there were a few times she - as Dane Cook so eloquently put it - was borrowing the essences of people she enjoys. We've all done it. We've all been influenced, often times without realizing it, by pop culture and things that make us laugh. There are some comics who admit they don't like to listen to comedy CDs lest they unconsciously lift material or delivery. And, of course, when many comedians first start out they tend to speak in the voice of the comics they admire and look up to rather than finding a style of their own. It's nothing intentional, it's just what happens.

And so, part of me feels that may be the case here. And sometimes it's not the delivery but the choice of words that stood out a bit. I just re-watched Bend It Like Beckham last week and in one scene the Indian women are being fitted for saris. One woman teases the less-than-buxom girl she is measuring by saying that one day she will have "juicy juicy mangoes." It was a line that cracked up my wife and me and we worked it into our conversations a couple of times later that day just for the heck of it.

So, when Pazsitzky gets a huge laugh from the crowd by using that exact same phrase in the exact same accent ("Juicy juicy mangoes!") while she talks about her Indian step-father, I felt a little cheated. It was like she didn't write a punchline but instead "borrowed" a funny line from a somewhat-obscure movie that most people have forgotten by now. At another point she tosses out the phrase "finger blasting" as if it's her own and, again, it gets a huge reaction from the crowd. Again, my first response was, "Hey, no fair!"

It immediately reminded me of the first time I listened to Robin Williams's Live 2002 project and he was spouting phrases and punchlines I had seen on bumper stickers, email forwards, and MySpace posts years earlier. He wasn't being ironic by referencing the familiar quips but seemed to genuinely be claiming them as his own. Whether it was intentional or he just forgot where he heard them and eventually just started to assimilate them into his act, I don't know, but it didn't sit well with me. Which is why, when Pazsitzky does the same, it's a bit off-putting.

As I mentioned earlier, I didn't fall in love with this project on my first listen but on each of the two subsequent spins (I listen to everything three times before starting in on the review) I came to appreciate it more and more. When things click with Pazsitzky, they really do come together quite nicely. Some of my favorite bits include the casting process for the movie Monster with Charlize Theron, living in a bad L.A. neighborhood, and her message to girls in their early 20s from the Ghost of Christmas Future.

Despite the fact I truly enjoyed those moments, they were greatly outweighed by much more basic connect-the-dots material (and those blasted raspberries). Pazsitzky is a confident presence on stage and I feel once she really gets a feel for who she is and exactly what she wants her stage persona to be, she'll be a real force to be reckoned with.

Yes, it's hard being a person, and even harder being a stand-up comedian (which is why, as you'll notice, I'm not one), but the two are connected and I'm looking forward to seeing how Pazsitzky develops. I truly hope I'll end up eating my words.

***

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Jim Florentine's "Cringe 'n' Purge"


Listening to Jim Florentine's new album Cringe 'N' Purge is like enjoying a visit from your long-lost older brother, home for the holidays and armed to the hilt with stories to impress you, make your parents blush, but mostly make you laugh. His delivery is low-keyed and comfortable, his storytelling relatable and down-to-earth. He's not so much a stand-up comedian performing for a crowd as much as he is a regular guy sharing the bar stool next to you and coming at you with tales you won't soon forget. In fact, I can almost hear him prefacing his adventures with an "All right you guys, you aren't gonna believe dis one..."

Florentine's set begins with a great disclaimer: "Basically if you DVR the show Glee this is gonna end badly for you," and he couldn't have said it better. We aren't here to change the world, take away life lessons, or learn how to better our society. We're here to laugh and if that means bruising an ego or stomping on a few toes along the way, well...whatever it takes, man. There's no sense trying to tiptoe around your Garden Of Sensitivity when it's much more fun -- and funnier -- to just crank up the Roto-Tiller and go nuts.

Fortunately the crowd knows just who Florentine is and what he brings to the table and they are more than willing to let him get this ha-ha party started. After all, it's difficult to judge when you're laughing so hard.

I especially like Florentine because he's not afraid to tell it like it is and if that means letting a buddy know his superstitions are ridiculous, then that's what's gonna happen. Whether it's someone knocking on wood or a football Super Fan sitting in their lucky seat, Florentine faces them head-on with the bravado of a man proudly roaming the aisles of Wal-Mart while holding an open umbrella (yeah, he does that, too).

Nothing fazes Florentine and when it comes to the two gay guys sitting in the front row, they only serve as a launch pad for his theory on why they "get it" and straight couples don't. Even something like choosing the perfect birthday gift can be broken down to a basic -- and admittedly primal -- solution.

Sometimes the best approach to a situation can be found by asking yourself what your dear ol' dad would do. Sometimes a wrong number is just a wrong number (you'd never catch Dad Googling a strange phone number in a fit of confused panic) and he'd never put up with the "convenience" of texting; neither the text-speak spelling like "c u l8r" nor the inanity of the messages themselves like "What r u doing?" or "R u mad? :(" When Florentine looks at social media through the eyes of his father, he makes us all long for a simpler, less technology-driven existence.

At the risk of making Florentine sound too much like his father, the truth is his rant on why he hates rap music (both the music and the artists) wouldn't be so effective if what he was saying wasn't so dead-on. Speaking of the music world, he also relates what it's like to be a comedian traveling with -- and opening for -- the rock band Slayer. Some of the material, like how rough their audiences are for a comedian, is to be expected but when he pulls back the curtain on the inner workings of a professional touring band, explaining why his own T-shirts sold for so much, his stories really flesh out nicely.

To call Florentine a 'shock comic' would be a bit of a misnomer as his goal isn't to see how loud he can make an audience groan or how far he can push the line. That being said, though, he is more than capable of getting just the reaction he wants and there are few people who can make an entire room explode into such spontaneous surprise and/or disgust, most notably when he reveals his tag-team partner in his bedroom pleasure-bringin' ways.

By the end of the album, the crowd is practically spent from laughter and one brave soul shouts out a tag for one of the jokes. Rather than call him out and rip him a new one, Florentine instead admits the heckle is funny and then vows to steal the add-on and use it for the next show.

It's Florentine's relaxed "Whatever, bro" vibe here -- and throughout the entire project -- that makes it so easy to enjoy the time spent with him. Sure, your parents may blush at some of the tales he shares during the family dinner, but it's only because he's so funny and we all know you're not supposed to enjoy cringing -- and possibly purging -- at the table.

***

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Andrés du Bouchet's "Naked Trampoline Hamlet"



Listening to the new project from Andrés du Bouchet reminded me of the first time I watched Pulp Fiction. I was living in the middle of the Mojave Desert in 1994 and had to drive over an hour to get to the nearest showing of Tarantino's groundbreaking film. I went with my dad and afterward we were so blown away by what we had seen, we were rendered speechless on the entire drive home, both of us lost deep in thought as we replayed over and over in our heads what we had just been through. At the end of the night we found ourselves in a Denny's, dissecting and discussing the events that had unfolded over a pot of coffee.

I was the first one in my circle of friends to see the film and I realized as I tried to express to them how good it was, I was having a hard time putting everything I experienced during the film into words. With its snappy dialogue, constant waves of building suspense, and its timeline-hopping lack of linear storytelling, it was unlike anything I had ever seen. And I loved every minute of it. As I answered (or attempted to answer) my friends' queries of "How was it?" I found I wasn't doing the film justice.

And that's also what I felt after experiencing the incredibly brilliant Naked Trampoline Hamlet. I don't know how I'm going to impress upon you how amazing it is, but I'm sure gonna try. I probably don't need to say this project is unlike any comedy album I've ever heard and as someone who is constantly on the lookout for fresh, new, and unique approaches to the art of stand-up, to say du Bouchet is exactly what I was hoping to stumble upon without really knowing what it was I was hoping to stumble upon is a fair statement.

Because NTH throws away the outline of what a comedy album should be, prepare yourself to spend an hour with a guy who isn't going to do anything you expect him to do. Gone are the simple set-up/punchline combinations, the obvious answers to old jokes, and the idea that a comedian can't be his own warm-up act.

du Bouchet is a captivating performer, and a performer is exactly what he is. To refer to him only as a comic is to take away from everything that is happening on the stage. And trust me...there's is a lot happening here.

The brilliance of what du Bouchet has constructed lies in the fact that he hasn't merely written an evening's worth of well-crafted jokes. It's more accurate to say that what unfolds before our eyes (or ears, in this case) is a full-on six-act play. Each segment of the show has its own distinct style, feel, tone, and theme. du Bouchet tackles and embodies the various narrators of each track with the flawless, committed skill of a classically trained actor. Whether he's playing the role of an eager comedian whose delivery is overtaken by the excited machismo of the ultimate alpha male specimen or rattling off one idea for a new reality show after another (And another. And another. And another), du Bouchet is the epitome of dedicating himself to a role and working hard to make it click.

The CD opens with the crowd being warmed up by Danny Yeahyeah, a du Bouchet creation that tests the patience of the audience (and the listener) to such extremes, the payoff comes in laughter that is equally proportional to the utter ridiculousness to which the audience is subjected. du Bouchet gives new definition to the phrase "crowd work" and literally makes the crowd work for their laughter.

Have you ever seen that clip from Family Guy where the mother (Lois) is lying in bed and baby Stewie approaches, craving attention? It's a brilliant scene and for a minute straight, nothing in the frame moves except for Stewie's mouth as he does nothing but call out her name. "Lois. Lois. Lois. Lois. Lois. Mom. Mom. Mom. Mommy. Mommy. Mommy. Mommy..." It's the classic gag of humor through repetition. It's funny, then the humor sort of wanes, and then by the sheer act of being perpetually repeated it becomes funny once again. du Bouchet takes that concept, scrunches it into a ball, and smashes Seth MacFarlane in the nuts with it. THIS is how it's done. Have a seat and allow du Bouchet to introduce to you a little something called The Yeah Yeah Game. You ain't seen nothing yet.

And, of course, just when you think you have it all figured out ("Oh, OK, du Bouchet is this kind of comic..."), the rug is pulled out from under your feet and you find yourself in the midst of a brand-new approach. You think you know who this guy is, and who he is going to be, but seriously...you don't.

The second act is probably the closest du Bouchet comes to what you may expect from a stand-up comedian but although he begins with standard fare like lawyer and knock-knock jokes, there's no way you could ever be prepared for the punchlines. Even when you start to feel comfortable and think you've got everything figured out...you guessed it. Ya don't.

Even though you know -- you know! -- du Bouchet is going to present you with some of the oldest jokes and riddles in the book and swap out the punchlines for something crazy, you know he's just going to say something random and off the wall, you still end up caught by surprise, trying to regain your footing by how off-balance and truly random things get.

On the album's title track du Bouchet calls together a meeting of thespians for a very specific re-creation of a classic dramatic work. du Bouchet's voice carries nicely, projecting with the stately resonance of a herald from Medieval Times mixed with the misguided pomposity of an enthusiast from your local Renaissance Fair.

As the album continues on, we really begin to see that not only does du Bouchet have a real knack for comedy, he's also extremely gifted at picking and choosing his words, giving everything he says a feel of very real intentionality (I don't know if that's a word, but I think you know what I mean, and it's exactly the word I'm looking for. So there). Never before has comedy felt so highbrow and sophisticated while at the same time infused with intentional mispronunciation, colorful metaphors, and the perfect poetic description regarding the unsettling distance between Maggie Gyllenhaal's eyes.

With his recitation of some of the more notable non-fiction books on the mating habits of finches (nope, I'm not lying) and his recounting of a special evening he shared with David Hasselhoff in which it seems he's challenged himself to see how off-topic he can get and still wrap things up, du Bouchet boldly leads you into a new realm of comedy. It's a place where the laughs come not in the form of punchlines but in the structure of what it being shared. It's a place where quitters are not tolerated, helium is regarded as the noblest of elements, and Joey Fatone never sleeps with anyone more than twice.

If you dare accept this invitation to such uncharted comedy territory you will be rewarded handsomely. That reward comes in the form of laughter, and du Bouchet is a very generous benefactor.

***

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Rory Scovel's "Dilation"

Confidence is a tricky thing, especially when it comes to stand-up. You could take the exact same joke in front of the exact same crowd told by the exact same comedian but deliver it with various levels of confidence and you'll get completely different reactions. It's up to the comedian to decide which approach works best for them. Are you going to take the stage like you belong there, sure-footed and determined, unafraid to let the crowd know who's in charge? Examples of confident comedians might include Robin Williams, David Cross, or Dane Cook.

Or perhaps you prefer the Confidence Meter dialed down, instead finding humor in the softer-spoken style of someone who doesn't want to rock the boat. One wouldn't naturally assume under-confidence (or at least the illusion thereof) and comedy could mix successfully, but I present as Exhibit B such talented performers as Mike Birbiglia, Demetri Martin, and Woody Allen.

And then you have the other end of the spectrum. The level that, I believe, may be the hardest to pull off. It's easy to portray yourself as an over-confident, pompous jackass, but who cares? That doesn't always equal funny. The trick is taking that over-confidence, putting it all out there for the world to see, and not only make a crowd of strangers laugh but also make them want to spend more time with you. When it's not pulled off successfully, there's nothing you can do to make people wish you'd get off the stage sooner. But done the right way, it really is pretty cool to behold. Comedians like Daniel Tosh and Anthony Jeselnik are so good at it, they make it look easy. It's almost as if they're trying to see who can say the worst thing with the cockiest attitude and still sell albums.

And they do.

Now add to that small-yet-impressive list of Comedians Who Kill With Over-Confidence this guy: Rory Scovel.

On his new album, Dilation, Scovel proves himself as a no-holds-barred comedian who has introduced a new ingredient into this over-confident jambalaya: Fun. Where Tosh and Jeselnik combine a smarmy disgruntled-ness into their format, almost as if they loathe the fact they have to perform for the general public (which isn't a critique; I think it's a vital part of their successful formula), Scovel has instead torn that particular page out of the recipe book and jammed it down the garbage disposal. He's not angry at or with the crowd, nor is he miffed that his presence is required on the stage. Nope. Scovel has a unique angle that breathes new life into his pomposity.

I'll say it again: Fun.

Sure, Scovel comes across as over-confident and arrogant at first, but dammit, he's also really happy to be here and that happiness is infectious. There are even a couple of times when Scovel cracks himself up and as he reveals each tiny chink in his armor, it humanizes him, and the laughs flow freely and more and more abundantly.

Scovel is a riot and each minute spent with him is plain and simply a great time. The track listing, with titles like "Drive," "Walk," "Eat," "Live," and "Breathe," refuse to give you any clue as to what lies in store but from the very first minute Scovel takes the stage you're ensured that no matter what happens, it's going to be funny. His smarmy "thank you's" as he basks in the welcoming applause that greets him in the opening track soon devolve into the paranoid rant of an amnesia patient desperately demanding to know just what in the world is going on.

And with that, a piece of armor is gone and the humor is instantly elevated to the next level. It's brilliant to witness.

This project is so incredible, it's actually really tricky to approach for a review. Each track covers so much ground, it's hard to decide what to focus on and what to leave for you to discover on your own. Not that I'm complaining. If the fact that there's too much good stuff to rave about in one sitting is the only downside to the CD, then that's not actually a downside at all.

Despite the fact I've already discussed Scovel's self-assured approach, that's not to say he doesn't span a vast range of emotions, energy levels, and points of view. He leads us through a wide array of mood swings and he knows exactly when it's time to switch gears for the most comedic effect. In one instant he's a guy bragging about being so rich he doesn't fly in planes but instead drives them around just to show off how loaded he is. But then at the drop of a hat he hilariously morphs into the pilot of the plane, a good ol' Southern boy who can only dream of the time his plane will hit a flock of birds over the Hudson River so he can show everyone how to really land a plane in case of emergency.

If he's not telling the most finely-crafted joke about a Tyler Perry movie title, then Scovel is in a mock fit of anger, crying and sniveling with all of his strength, doing whatever it takes to mock all of the whiny people who were outraged by the Karate Kid re-make. The only thing funnier than when Scovel puts into perspective everyone who actually took time out of their day to bemoan the Hollywood machine is when he explains why he actually liked the new version.

Scovel's crowd work is second-to-none and he's able to turn even the worst hecklers and audience participants into gut-busting gold. At one point he asks a woman in the crowd what she does for a living. She cryptically answers with "I do medical." Scovel doesn't let her off the hook until it becomes apparent -- to me, at least -- that she's a big fat liar and the closest she's come to "doing medical" is watching reruns of Grey's Anatomy with her diabetic rescue cats.

When Scovel begins another bit by mentioning how boring Michigan is, he's immediately interrupted by the most pretentious Michigander you'll ever find yourself wishing death upon. What is deliciously ironic about the entire exchange is that the more Scovel pokes and prods, the more this wannabe heckler proves his initial point. She continues to offer up reasons why Michigan is awesome but does so in such mind-numbingly boring fashion, she unwittingly becomes Scovel's best witness for the prosecution.  The more she talks, the less impressive she (and Michigan) becomes and in doing so, presents herself as the perfect punching bag for Scovel. I'm pretty sure the next time she steps up to defend Michigan, she's going to receive an overnight express letter from the state which simply reads, "Don't."

A great running gag that Scovel latches onto throughout the album is his conversation with the person listening to this recording in their car. He's not afraid to stop the action and give an occasional "Turn left here" or even come to complete radio silence just to freak out The Guy In His Car. Scovel's willingness to break the fourth wall and turn the format on its ear is yet another example of his unique approach that pays off. Big time.

Throughout the duration of the album, Scovel changes his method and persona, but it happens so smoothly you never realize it's happening. Only after the fact, as I looked back on the proceedings, did I even realize what took place.

It all started off with Scovel in charge, a mischievous trickster pulling us up a steep incline in a rickety red wagon, occasionally threatening to let go at any moment, careening to what would most assuredly be our demise. But as we crested the hill, Scovel showed us the other side. Yes, it's pretty steep and yes, we probably should have brought a helmet, but by this time it's too late. We've already put our trust in Scovel and it's a trust he has earned. He doesn't want us to get hurt, he just wants to give us the thrill ride of a lifetime.

By the end of the last track, as we're zooming down the hill in that little red wagon, whooping, hollering, and having a complete blast, we realize Scovel has jumped in beside us and no one is enjoying the ride more than he is. His hands are in the air, and no one is screaming louder.

Wooooooohoooooooo!

As fun as it may be to push someone down a hill and watch what happens next from on high, ultimately it's another story to give in and be a passenger. With Scovel, we're in this together and anything can happen. It's dangerous living via comedy and by the time the wagon slows to  a stop at the bottom of the hill, we're actually glad he left the helmets at home. Sometimes the best part of the ride is the risk that comes with it, and it just may be a while before another ride as fun as this one comes along. I highly suggest you trust Scovel and take your seat in the wagon.

I'll see you at the bottom of the hill.

***

Laughing Skull Comedy Festival's "Fresh Faces"

Way back in 2005 I was introduced to Invite Them Up, a 2-disc collection of comics that ranged from the familiar to the obscure (or at least, at the time, obscure to me). Sure, there were comics I already knew and loved like Eugene Mirman, Demetri Martin, Todd Barry, David Cross, and Mike Birbiglia, but what excited me the most were the newer comedians who were all able to hold their own when placed next to these powerhouses. It's funny to look back now at some of the names I didn't know then, especially since most of them have gone on to make a pretty big splash in the world of comedy. Names like Jessi Klein, David Wain, Chelsea Peretti, Jon Benjamin, A.D. Miles, Aziz Ansari, and Mindy Kaeling. It's hard for me to process that was only five years ago and the group of "newer" comedians had zero name recognition with me at the time. What I did know then was they were all extremely talented comics and it was fun for me to begin seeing their names pop up in more and more comedy credits.

Likewise, I'm really excited to hear more from the comics from the Laughing Skull Comedy Festival 2011 - Fresh Faces compilation. With the exception of one comedian (Adam Newman, whose CD I have already highly recommended), I wasn't familiar with the people found here (Go figure, I know. Lancaster Pennsylvania just isn't the stand-up comedy hotbed you probably assume it is).

That being said, just like I was excited to see what would become of the Invite Them Up gang, this is another strong lineup of solid comics who are sure to bring us some excellent projects in the (hopefully near) future. It's a stellar roster and although some of them have a stronger overall set than others, each one of the 16 comedians found on this 2-disc release has a home run bit to be proud of.

One of the comedians who really stood out is Nate Fridson. He's the first comic up to bat and he makes the most of his five minutes by doling out a strong set that spans an array of topics: drunk driving, the duties that come with being The Man Of The House, skinny jeans, and the comparison of his girlfriend to a customs security agent. He ends his set with a look at growing up Jewish, attending summer camp, and how difficult it must have been to get the first family to sign up.

Anton Shuford's set consists mostly of material on the difficulty of jobs: having one, not having one, being fired from one, being asked to leave one, and applying for a new one. Shuford is an engaging storyteller who excels in building tension, especially during his explanation of why he has to check the "YES" box in the section of a job application that asks "Have you ever been convicted of a felony?"

Mike Paramore approaches his comedy from a no-nonsense perspective. He's juts a regular, good Christian man who also admits to being "kind of a freak." He's looking for a woman who's not too bashful and won't ruin "business time." Paramore also admits he's pretty easily irritated but after explaining why (he prefers soap to the body wash women try to push onto him, his sexually-questionable friend has troubling requests, and women who give the ages of their children in forms that require doing long division in your head), you can't really blame him for being a bit agitated.

Another comedian worth noting is Troy Walker, whose observation that insults found in classic literature are much worse than anything we say nowadays was a great way to start his time (and also gave me an excellent word to replace 'douchebag'). Walker's insight into what a woman's birthday wish really means and his suspicions of a stripper's racial tendencies prove he's not just some guy bumbling his way through life; he thrives in picking up on and dissecting the subtleties other men would more than likely never even register.

Dave Stone may at first remind some people of Zach Galifianakis and not just because he is -- as he puts it -- "a 30 year-old fat man." His inflection and phrasing are also a bit similar, but there's no just cause for any accusations of copycatting. Despite any vocal similarities, Stone is very much his own person and sets himself apart with his unique comic perspective. His set is well-crafted and very funny as he ponders the ups and downs of being kidnapped and being so broke you have to plot the purchase of a Wendy's hamburger into your financial big picture. He's a born-again carnivore making up for all the time he lost during his brief stint as a vegetarian, and he's grown tired of football-themed radio ads. By the time Stone's set is over, you'll find any comparisons to other comedians totally forgotten and will instead wonder when we'll be hearing from him next.

From the moment she takes the stage, you can tell that Emily Heller is thoroughly enjoying what she does. Her comedy not only brings real laughter as she delves into dealing with her own self-image, but it's also infused with a very sincere sense of what can only be described as...joy. When you're spending time with someone who enjoys her work -- in this case, making people laugh -- as much as Heller does, there's no way you can't not have a good time. Whether she's divulging her plans for a uterus-themed Christmas card or attending her ex-boyfriend's Mime School graduation, you'll find there are plenty of good times to be had from this sexy librarian look-alike (At least, from the head, up. I'll let her tell you what you'll find from the neck, down).

I really like Sagar Bhatt for his uniquely positive-yet-dark outlook on life. He is the epitome of every white,fluffy, happy cloud having a dark lining. And lurking there in that dark lining you'll find some good laughs. Whether he's ruminating about the fresh-faced guy on an airplane whose very presence ensures everything is going to be OK on the flight or visiting his proud, first-time-parent brother, Bhatt guarantees that no matter how Norman Rockwell-esque the characters in the picture appear to be, it could all go to hell in an instant. You could be racially profiled by that American poster child on the plane or even end up comparing your newborn nephew to poop. Either way, he shows that no matter how good or nice something may be, it can always be improved by making it funny.

Those are just a few of the comics whose appearance on this project I really enjoyed. In all honesty, you could choose any of the comedians from this compilation and tell me they're going to be The Next Big Thing and I wouldn't even raise an eyebrow. Kudos to the Laughing Skull Comedy Festival and Next Round Entertainment for a very impressive group of "Fresh Faces" whom I am sure will be bringing smiles -- and laughs -- to our faces for years to come.

***

Michael Malone's "Let's Get Physical"

Call me old-fashioned or boring or whatever clever insult strikes a chord with you, but I'm beginning to fear the pre-produced high-energy intros found on comedy albums. More often than not, it ends up coming off like a bad WWE match where all of the work and production value goes into the glitzy introduction, the main event hyped up to a level that in all reality will not attained.

Michael Malone's new release, Let's Get Physical  begins with his appearance on a morning zoo-type radio show, complete with crazy sound effects and hosted by the deep-voiced male version of Robin Quivers whose job it is to laugh way too hard at every word uttered by the in-studio guest. When asked what kind of show people can expect from him, Malone promises high energy with a lot of characters and funny faces.

Um...OK.

Slowly a driving techno beat begins to build in the background as we are then whisked away to his big show. The music gets louder and you can almost see Malone in the wings, jumping up and down in place like a boxer waiting to make his triumphant journey into the ring.

It's a lot of bells and whistles and it doesn't quite reflect Malone's regular-energy persona and style. He doesn't necessarily burst onto stage with both barrels blazing and hey! Where are all of the fun characters we were promised? After an intro like that, I was certainly expecting more than the stereotypical gay/female voice and the oddly interchangeable Southern guy/black guy voice. Other than those two, it's pretty much just Malone being himself. We were also promised funny faces and, judging by the numerous long pauses scattered throughout the album with no explanation of what he's doing, I can only assume that's what's going on.

The crowd seems to be having fun and at times their over-the-top eruptions of laughter are a little suspicious. I don't know if they were sweetened up a bit in post-production or if they were promised free cookies every time they reacted or if they were all practicing to be morning radio DJs, but there were quite a few times when the joke-to-response ratio seemed way off-balance. It just struck me as odd that an aside like "Oh well" or "That was weird" would garner an outrageous explosion of unconstrained hysterical laughter from what sounds like an arena-sized audience.

For me, there didn't seem to be a lot of material here that was particularly unique or refreshing. Malone covers mostly standard comedy topics we've all heard before like men, women, and relationships. Not that comedians can't find new ways to cover such territory, but there weren't any insightful revelations to be found here. I don't know if you knew this, but apparently..wait for it...men and women are different.

I didn't laugh much as I listened to the CD, but that's OK because, just like the aforementioned radio DJ, Malone is more than willing to supply the laughter for us. He finds himself hilarious and I lost track of how many times he tells a punchline and then breaks out into full-on laughter.

Malone doesn't enjoy working with the crowd as much as he uses them merely as a device to move on to the next topic. His interactions with the audience are done so with a more-than-obvious agenda. At different points he asks,


  • Are there any parents in the house?
  • Are there any couples here?
  • Does anyone here have any pets?

From there, Malone seems genuinely surprised at the affirmative answers he receives. Oh really? There are people here who have kids? Wow, that's amazing, because that's what I wanna talk about now.

Sometimes, though, it backfires. When Malone asks the women in the audience for their #1 complaint about men, it's very obvious he's fishing for a specific response. Ladies shout out one answer after another, and none of them are what Malone is looking for. Finally, he has to awkwardly supply the correct answer himself and he finally moves on with a subtle, "Well, usually people say..."

I'm sure there are people who will enjoy this album. As evidenced by the crowd recorded during this particular performance, people from Alabama love it. But for those of us looking for a fresh voice with something more original in their approach, it'll take more than just getting physical.

***

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

"Weird Al" Yankovic's "Live! - The Alpocalypse Tour"

As a lifelong fan of "Weird Al" Yankovic (I still recall my very first introduction to him at a post-Junior High-play cast party; one of the older kids was blaring Yankovic's "In 3-D" cassette tape on an old-school boom box), I went into this one already knowing I was going to love it. The fact that I'd already seen Yankovic perform live twice this year laid the groundwork for my review of "Weird Al" Yankovic Live! - The Alpocalypse Tour , as recorded at one of his Canadian performances. Don't worry, though. I'm a fan, but not a total fanatic in a scary kind of way. Before 2011, I'd never been to one of his shows, so I had to make up for lost time.

Yankovic has always been able to make me laugh but I was also enthralled with his talents as a musician. Instrumentally, his parodies are always re-constructed from the ground up and I can't help but be impressed by how closely he mimics the originals. However, one thing I always found a bit frustrating was the fact that most people I encountered never really realized that Yankovic is also a very talented songwriter and performer. Believe it or not, he's not just some guy who changes the words to popular songs.

Yes, Yankovic made his mark by poking fun at pop culture, taking the biggest songs of the time and supplying his own new and twisted lyrics, often times opting to sing about food or television. But his parodies, as good as they are, are only half the story.

Literally.
On each of his albums the track listing alternates between send-ups of the latest Top 40 hits and Yankovic's own original compositions. His extremely-knowledgeable grasp of songwriting and music theory may come as a surprise to most people who only see Yankovic as the long-haired accordion player who occasionally throws one leg behind his head.

Which is why I'm so happy to see the release of "Weird Al" Yankovic Live! - The Alpocalypse Tour on DVD. Unlike any of his past releases, this project showcases Yankovic's vast array of skills that have, for the most part, gone unnoticed. After only a few minutes you can't help but admire Yankovic's energy, commitment, musicality (both vocally and accordion-ly), and his obvious know-how of what makes for an amazing live show. Yankovic isn't merely standing on stage behind a microphone singing silly songs...this guy performs.

The number of costume changes alone is staggering and Yankovic supports each wardrobe choice by completely embodying a vast array of characters:


  • With "Skipper Dan," his entitled thespian in a black beret, cape, and sunglasses morphs into a hapless Disneyland tour guide before your very eyes
  • On "Craigslist" he perfectly captures the essence of Jim Morrison in his white pirate shirt/leather pants combo
  • His red and black zebra-patterned suit couldn't more appropriately complement his suave Master of Bad Pick-Up Lines during "Wanna B Ur Lover"

Although this performance highlights songs from his latest album "Alpocalypse" (which I loved, of course. You can read my gushing review here), Yankovic is very much aware of the crowd-pleasers that made him who he is today and the audience delights to see him perform as Kurt Cobain from "Smells Like Nirvana," the bearded Lancaster, Pennsylvanian in "Amish Paradise," and fat Michael Jackson from...well..."Fat."

Joining Yankovic are his long-time faithful band members (Jim West, Steve Jay,  Rubén Valtierra, and Jon "Bermuda" Schwartz), each and every one of them amazing musicians in their own right and it's great to see them get a bit of very due time in the limelight. They're all eager to jump in on the joke with Yankovic and it's especially a lot of fun seeing them don costume pieces from the video of the Lady Gaga parody, "Perform This Way."

The concert ends with a Star Wars-themed encore that has arguably become the most popular aspect of the live Yankovic experience, culminating in the ever-evolving "Yoda Chant," a mash-up of nonsensical words, Hawaiian ditties, Jerry Lewis references, and rare Disney theme park music. Almost as much fun as watching Yankovic and the band perform gibberish in perfect sync with one another is watching the audience try to figure out exactly what in the world they're witnessing. The guy ain't called "weird" for nothin'.

The DVD clocks in at just under 90 minutes and that's not counting the three extra songs and tons of other goodies waiting to be discovered in the Bonus Features. To say the Comedy Central broadcast version of this concert wasn't able to completely capture all of the fun of this show is a severe understatement. If you caught the TV version and think you've already seen it all then I can only respond with the title of one of Yankovic's songs found within:

"Eat It."*

***

*I know, I know, you saw that coming a mile away. Whatever, ya white & nerdy Canadian idiot. 

***

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Nick Kroll's "Thank You Very Cool"

The new DVD project from Nick Kroll is the best of all sorts of comedy: characters, sketch, and stand-up. It seems that, for the most part in the past, when comedians combined characters and stand-up something in the act ended up suffering. Either they got so into doing characters they lost the knack for straight stand-up or their stand-up was solid but their characters became flat and one-dimensional, or they were so into doing characters that  it became more about character work and less about being funny and then they're no longer doing "stand-up" but "one man shows" where they drop the stand-up altogether and focus only on characters who are now taken so seriously they've had every last bit of humor squeezed out of them and then they end up stuck in a rut, doing the same basic show over and over again until they end up taking really bad roles in movies where they're playing Luigi from Mario Bros.

But I digress.
Nick Kroll: Thank You Very Cool has, in my humble opinion, figured out the very best way to incorporate characters into the show without it feeling forced. Instead of parading each persona out onto the stage one at a time (Now I'm gonna do this one, now I'm gonna do this one), Kroll has devised a way to make each person a different part of the live show-going experience.

Bobby Bottleservice is working security out front as people file into the theater and when he's not taking advantage of his authority by being way too eager to frisk the ladies, he's on-stage opening the show by giving the audience a list of do's and don't-do-its while they are inside.

Fabrice Fabrice is the Craft Services Coordinator (something tells me Fabrice Fabrice would like that I've capitalized his title. He'd probably want me to add glitter to it, as well) who takes his string cheese layouts a little too seriously. He's the only other character with actual stage time, appearing toward the end of the show to display his knack for flamboyant slam poetry based on suggestions from the crowd.

Although technically considered an audience member, the sweater-clad Gil Faizon and his -- for lack of a better word -- companion (played to perfection by the always-funny John Mulaney) spend most of their time out in the bar with their tuna-tinis (or is it a mar-tuna?) or in the restroom huddled together in a stall trying to score some "cuh-caine."

And finally, simulcasting everything that's happening on the stage from his studio on the rooftop, is my personal favorite El Chupacabra, the hottest Spanish-language radio DJ in Los Angeles who always has a room full of special guests. This time is no exception. His enthusiastic delivery is made even funnier as he welcomes an old man, a baby, and a goat (all of whom are, of course, voiced by El Chupacabra himself, in true Crazy Radio Host form).

Each one of Kroll's alter egos are incredibly funny and his sincere knack for improvisation can't help but shine through. There are no "fast-forward this one" characters in the bunch; each one has their own distinct quirks and idiosyncrasies that distinguish them from each other and makes them all uniquely hilarious for very specific and different reasons.

When it comes to being himself as a stand-up comedian, Kroll shines just as brightly. His material is top-notch, and if you've only seen this special as it was aired on Comedy Central then you're depriving yourself of about 20 minutes of material  that truly deserves to be seen. Everything that was trimmed for broadcast was cut for no other reason than to make time. There are no weak spots or obvious "Oh yeah, I can see why that was cut" bits.

Kroll brings new life to a trip to the DMV by admitting it's the only public place he feels comfortable passing his Apocalypse Now-level gas. He hilariously recreates why sex is better for dumb people and the conversation he has with his future son about life's tough questions (The Holocaust. September 11th. Michael Jackson) is nothing short of brilliance. Let it also be noted that Kroll gives the best answer(s) to the question "What did Michael Jackson look like?" I've ever heard. Ever.

His set ends with a bit on cats. If I try to explain to you with words the physicality of his feline impression, I won't even come close to doing it justice. Just trust me. It's dead on. And when he shows us his original interpretation of how cats act and behave -- and what it looked like to a buddy of his -- well....yeah. Suffice it to say I laughed a lot.

There's so much to love about this project, I've barely scratched the surface. The cameos (Mulaney! Mindy Kaeling! And hey, that's Chelsea Peretti!), the bonus features (please, for the love of Pete, do not, under any circumstances, deny yourself the bonus features), and the DVD menu.

That's right. The DVD menu.
As photos of Kroll and his various characters spin by endlessly, we are treated to an audio commentary that has quickly made this my favorite DVD menu of all time (Sorry, Zoolander!). Kroll is joined -- and interrupted -- repeatedly by his characters in a free-form conversation that is so entertaining it's almost depressing to think that most people will probably skip right past it to get to the main feature.

If you haven't figured it out yet, I'm a huge fan of Kroll and this project. I probably could have saved you the time it took to read this review and just used the title of the project as my write-up. It pretty much sums up my sentiments in six words:

Nick Kroll. Thank you. Very cool.

***

Monday, October 10, 2011

Tom Simmons's "Keep Up"


Tom Simmons is a down home, friendly comedian whose slight Southern drawl and relaxed approach to comedy makes him relatable and gives him a comforting sense of everyday Joe-ness. I understand that when I say "Southern," images of the guys from the Blue Collar Comedy Tour may come to mind, but don't let that scare you away. Simmons isn't "Larry the Cable Guy" Southern or "Jeff Foxworthy" Southern, which is to say: he's not a hillbilly.

On his album Keep Up, of the four Blue Collar guys Simmons is more reminiscent of Bill Engvall wherein he just happens to have a bit of an accent. He doesn't do hokey "being from the South" material but instead sticks to topics that are familiar regardless of where you're from. In fact, the only other giveaway of Simmons's roots is his propensity for using the word "damn" as an adverb.

Judging Simmons based solely on what he sounds like and where he's from (Atlanta) would be a mistake and he begins the album by shattering any pre-conceived notions you may have by swapping "America is #1!" blind patriotism with a willingness to realistically question that claim. "America is like a really boring hot chick that won't quit talking about herself," Simmons observes, "Maybe we are the best and maybe we just once were the best and now we're like Muhammad Ali and just think we're the best."

It's down-to-earth thinking and common-sense rationale like this that set Simmons apart and gives him a unique voice. Where other comics flourish in taking the mundane and giving it an outrageous twist, Simmons excels in taking what's already been blown out of proportion and bringing it back down to Earth. He has no problem pointing out that the silver mylar balloon that has society entranced is actually just a balloon and the little boy we all thought was inside is just hiding safely in his attic back home.

Simmons isn't one to be easily startled into paranoia or fear by the machinations of the media. Their relentless reminders that our economy is in the tank is not the earth-shattering society-ending breaking news we would be led to believe it is. "I have been in a recession for 35 years," he proclaims, totally unfazed. But there's an upside. "The only good thing about people losing their jobs is...less traffic."

It's hard to pigeonhole Simmons; he's not easily categorized and that's not a bad thing. He's a man of contradictions but let's be honest: To some extent, aren't we all? He longs for intellect but then thinks of Stephen Hawking and reconsiders. If that's the price for being smart, then maybe he'll pass for now.

The comedy of Simmons works whether he's tackling popular hot-button issues or taking on something as simple and common as the change in sleeping arrangements he and his wife have experienced over the years. This is a Georgian who is all for legalizing every type of drug (but only on Mars) and doesn't spank his son no matter how tempting it is ("They say the 2's are terrible. My son was great when he was two but he had a shitload of rollover minutes"). Simmons and his wife have taken some slack from friends and family for their peace-leaning child-rearing style, but I have to give him props especially for his approach to the whole Santa Claus subject.

Because of his commitment to living a peaceful life and his sincere desire to spread that message, there are some nice laughs to be had when Simmons is tested. Capitalism, traffic, Christmas shoppers, PETA, MTV's Sweet 16, and even his own evolving fashion choices all try their darndest to get him to snap. Some of them come close -- really close -- but it's not until Simmons declares "If you don't like Michael Vick then you don't support the troops" that you realize he just may be onto something. He's managed to take the "If A=B then B=C then C=D" concept to its limit, stretching the logic so thin you can see through it.

And yet, no matter how far he goes, we follow. Willingly. With Simmons leading the way, you'll find it nice and easy to (say it with me) Keep Up.

***

Monday, September 26, 2011

Lewis Black's "The Prophet"


Lewis Black's The Prophet is undoubtedly the most unusual project I've reviewed since Comedy Reviews first popped online. Although it is technically a "new release" the material was recorded wayyyyyy back in 1990. Researchers and archivists have delved deep into the annals of comedy and unearthed this treasure trove of never-before-released material from one of the great comedians working today.

This album is a must-have for comedy fans, as it gives us a rare glimpse at Black as a young(er) comic, still working out the kinks and finding his voice. It's an amazing study of stand-up, as we can see what aspects of his comedy he chose to keep and perfect and what he decided to leave behind. If nothing else, this project serves as further proof of Black's ear for comedy and what clicks with the crowd.

As a guy who's spent more than his fair amount of time listening to the director's commentary on more than his fair share of DVDs, one thing I've grown to admire about good directors is their ability to recognize scenes of a film that don't help move the story along and end up on the cutting room floor. A lot of those excised scenes share a common thread: They were really hard to say goodbye to. Often times it's a scene that was one of the director's personal favorite pieces of the movie and they had to come to the sobering realization that, as much as they love it as a stand-alone moment, ultimately it had to go.

Likewise, Black has made similar decisions with his approach to the craft of comedy. I can't speak for him and say it broke his heart to leave certain things behind, many of them bits that garnered respectable laughs, but I certainly commend him for his ability to step back and take a big-picture look at where we was at and assess whether or not it was where he wanted to be.

Which is why this review won't have any real "critiques" to offer. Let's be honest: There really wouldn't be any point to it because Black has already made the necessary alterations to his act that needed to be made in order for him to be the successful and highly-regarded comic he is today. The album serves as one of the best educational resources a new comic could get his hands on.

The CD starts off with a Black I wasn't familiar with and hardly recognized. His delivery was less frazzled and manic and more standard observational comic. At times his timing and inflection reminded me of Paul Reiser (of all people) and it was definitely interesting to hear Black speaking in such a different voice.

As Black covered standard comedy topics like crazy people in New York City, NyQuil, and being unable to smoke on planes, at times it's almost impossible to see Black for the comedian he would ultimately become over time. In fact, early on in his set the only glimpse of his trademark Furious Anger is in his crowd work. When he's cut off by an over-enthusiastic audience member, Black's switch is flipped -- and flipped big time -- and he unleashes both barrels on the poor guy with such a white-hot intensity, it seems to take the crowd a few moments to recover.

But when Black finally comes to his bread and butter -- politics, government, and the corruption found therein -- he shines. This is who he was meant to be. He finds his happy medium between hardly-angry and way too angry and the laughs really start to roll in. Black has shifted his laser sites from the audience to The Man and he finds he gets the biggest reactions when he asks the crowd to join his side rather than draw a line in the dirt and square off against them. He's found that Don't talk back to me! doesn't work nearly as well as Can you believe what these guys over here are telling us?!

Not only is this project an illuminating look at one comic's evolution, it's also an incredible study of humanity. Of all the amazing discoveries that came with listening, the one that stood out and most struck a chord with me is just how much history truly repeats itself. Comedy fans aren't the only ones who will appreciate this release. Students of government, sociology, political science, and economics will also marvel at the hot-button issues Black addressed then that are still with us today.

A few of the parallels that leapt out include:
  • An oil spill (the Exxon Valdez) and the laughable response from the oil company
  • President Bush (then George Sr.) and his lack of reaction to an ecological disaster
  • A high-ranking government official and a "conflict of interest" (or claimed lack thereof) regarding his current position and previous employer
  • Frustration with our inability to track down and capture one of our 'most wanted' (Manuel Noriega here)

Wow. Any of those stories sound like anything you've heard in the last few years? It was mind-boggling to listen and come to the realization that, yep...we really do make the same mistakes over and over again if we don't bother to learn from them the first time around.

Going into this project, I was curious to hear what Black sounded like 20 years ago, with 20 years less experience, and with the news of 20 years ago as the fuel to his fire. Sure, it was fun to hear the small differences in his act from then to now, but I was also impressed to see what was still the same.  What Black excelled at then -- pointing out the insanity swirling around The Powers That Be -- is still his strongest suit today.

And, if we as a society continue on the path we're on -- and apparently have been for the last couple of decades -- Black will have more than enough material to work with for the next 20 years.

It's a real eye-opener to see just how deeply we may be stuck in a rut, but as long as Black is here to be the guy prodding us to take a different path, it's a comfort knowing that at the very least we've got 20 more years of solid laughter to look forward to.

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