As if it wasn't already hard enough for a comic to write an hour's worth of material that keeps an audience engaged and laughing, Chris White has decided to challenge himself even more. The name of his new album, I Take Requests, is not a fluke. He takes requests. Literally. He took to his website and asked his fans to give him a topic, any topic, and he would write his entire set based solely on those suggestions. Although it sounds like a premise for bad improv, the resulting project is surprisingly seamless and if you didn't know how the subjects White talks about came about, you'd be none the wiser. White quite skillfully delves into each theme as if it came naturally and I admit I went into this fearing there would be a "gimmicky" feeling about it. I'm happy to report, there isn't. In fact, it's quite the opposite.
Requests avoids coming across as a parlor trick and manages to stand on its own as a solid comedy project that brings laughs. White is an eager comedian who is excited to be sharing with the crowd some great anecdotes; he talks with the enthusiasm of a kid who just got back from summer vacation and can't wait to tell you all of the new and exciting things he experienced while he was away.
Although White was faced with writing bits based on suggestions ranging from to Belgium to quadratic equations, he successfully makes them his own and he transitions from topic to topic with an impressive smoothness. The real proof of White's skill isn't just that he is able to jump from one seemingly unrelated subject to another; it's that he doesn't move on to the next talking point until he has thoroughly examined the current issue and squeezed every possible laugh from it. He approaches from one angle, takes a few steps to the side, and then enthusiastically goes at it again from a new point of view.
Of course, to focus solely on the fact that White is performing "requested" themes would take away from the fact that White is a great comedian who's very good at what he does. He tells stories with an infectious fervor that draws us in and he doesn't mind making himself look less-than-perfect to go to where the laughter is.
White also doesn't shy away from cringe-inducing material. He wisely knows there are laughs to be found beneath each cringe and he dives in head first to find them. It always pays off and he resurfaces with buried treasure. Humor can be found anywhere and White invites us to enjoy the lighter side of swine flu, fart nostalgia, and yes...eating babies.
Crafting a joke can be tricky. Some comics excel in the basic setup-punch process, some are better with the out-of-nowhere left hooks that you never see coming. There's also the bait-and-switch, where you think you know what's coming and suddenly find your face smashed against the passenger seat window as the harsh left turn leaves you reeling. White has mastered all of these approaches and, because he so adeptly jumps from one style to the other, he keeps you on your toes. It's impossible to predict where White is going and he takes full advantage of being two-steps ahead. Even when you know there's a punchline coming, as in the story of his grandfather answering life's more puzzling mysteries, White still manages to maintain the element of surprise.
The element of surprise.
Some would say that's the root of all comedy. Not knowing what's coming - even thinking you know what's coming - and then being totally surprised. Chris White has done it, not only with each joke, each theme, or each story, but with this entire project. Going into the album, knowing the story behind the title, you may think you know what's about to unfold.
But you don't.
By the end of the project, with White describing his funeral and encouraging the audience to splurge on theirs, he's taught us a valuable lesson: Laugh through life. It makes it so much more enjoyable.
And, when possible, take requests.