Monday, February 14, 2011

Steve Hofstetter's "Pick Your Battles"

How good is Pick Your Battles, the new CD from Steve Hofstetter? I sat down with my iPod and listened to it. And then I listened to it again. And then I listened to it again. That's right. Three straight listens in a row without stopping and with no regard for the time. It felt like 20 minutes had gone by, not 141. Pick Your Battles is phenomenal.

Hofstetter's press release tells me this is his fifth album, which made me feel a bit guilty, as I'm brand new to his comedy. My first gut reaction is to compare him to Daniel Tosh, but that's not 100% accurate. I find Tosh very funny, don't get me wrong, but he really works on stage. He expends a lot of energy to get the laugh (which is fine, I have nothing against it) and you can tell he's working hard. Hofstetter, on the other hand just...well...for lack of a better word, he flows. He's smooth. He's obviously put a lot of time and effort into honing his craft, but it doesn't feel like a chore. The laughs come easy. They come effortlessly and they come often. When you listen to Tosh, the comedy comes at you. With Hofstetter, he takes you with the comedy.

Hofstetter isn't out to make any enemies, and he tells the audience that. He's not out to make us angry or demand we agree with him. His goal isn't to offend, it's to make us laugh. He's just talking, carrying on a conversation, and if you get offended by anything you hear, it's not on him, it's on you. It's a genius approach because not only is it true, but it gives him license to talk about whatever is on his mind.

Everything about Pick Your Battles is perfectly planned out, right down to the track listing, where each one is titled "The War On...(insert topic here)." Most comedy albums begin with an over-the-top emcee screaming in your ear, "LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, THE NAME OF THE COMIC!!!!!!!!" Battles forgoes that and Hofstetter gets right into it. It's a bold choice to start right in with abortion. A lot of comics have to get the crowd warmed up to them and ramp their way to the edgier topics, but Hofstetter sneaks in the side door with a new approach. Instead of going with the confrontational - and easier -  "You abortion protesters are crazy" approach, Hofstetter instead has a great anecdote about being stuck in line at Home Depot in front of a couple of guys who are late for a rally.

As you may have gathered from my opening paragraph, Battles is an album you can easily listen to multiple times and laugh out loud just as hard the third time as you did the first time at Hofstetter's observations. A few of my favorites that come to mind:
  • On why mobile homes are terrifying, even to a guy who grew up in Queens: "How scary is it when a bad neighborhood can move?"
  • On being in Winnipeg, Canada in January: "That is religious weather. 'Cuz you walk outside, you say, "Oh my God!", and then you die and you meet Him. Unless you're an atheist. Then, you're just cold."
  • The noise Hofstetter makes when he imitates the sound of a Wal-Mart greeter greeting someone (Mah!).
  • Everything he says about Twilight.

As I finished my third listen to the album, I knew this would be a hard summary to write, because there is just so much about it I want to cover. Outside of writing a transcript of everything he says, there's no way I can come close to capturing the full scope of what I want to say. There's the man with the sideways face. There's the one about the guy who got hit by a car while texting. There's the one about the crazy tattoo the girl from Los Angeles had (and the tattoo she didn't but would have been even weirder if she did).

The album ends with Hofstetter opening up a Q & A session with the audience that begins innocently enough and rapidly morphs into an all-out assault by the Louisville crowd on our hero, making fun of his glasses and his haircut. As he humorously faces off against them ("I said ask a question, I didn't say f***in' take a shot at me!"), it quickly becomes one of my favorite comedy tracks of all time.

Listening to Battles did something that more comedy albums should do: It made me happy. It gave me hope for the future of stand-up comedy. It made me happy that there are comedians out there like Hofstetter knockin' 'em dead. Sure, it made me a little sad that I wasn't familiar with his work earlier, but then it made me happy that now I am, and I have a new favorite to follow. Pick Your Battles. Steve Hofstetter did, and he came out out on top.


Wednesday, February 9, 2011

"Comedians You Should Know"

I'm naturally a little wary when it comes to comedy albums that feature various artists. I don't know, maybe it's because I still wake up at night in a cold sweat with visions of Comic Relief III - accompanied by Elayne Boosler's hacky jokester voice - running through my head. But when you get it right ("Invite Them Up" or even Marc Maron's live-from-Comix podcasts), just like a killer line-up at a comedy club, an evening of big laughs is unavoidable.

I'm happy to say that Comedians You Should Know got it right.

The first comedian to take the stage is Marty DeRosa and he's a great choice to kick off the party (as well as a great choice to host/emcee the event) . He starts off by taking aim at women who text other people during shows, something we've all seen and been annoyed by a million times, yet this is the first time I've heard it addressed in a bit. DeRosa gets it right and then smoothly moves on to his experience of getting a haircut at an ethnic barber shop. When DeRosa boldly declares "Line it up!" I instantly started wondering how I could shoehorn that phrase into my next conversation. Whether he's explaining his summertime drinking game at Great America (it's almost a big fat "I can do ethnic jokes too, mofo" to Chris Rock) or telling the tale of how he ended up in an all-Hispanic comedy review because he was pre-judged by his last name, DeRosa did just what a comedian is supposed to do at a showcase event: he brought out some great bits, nailed every one of them, and then made me wonder when he's going to get his own full-length album.

Danny Kallas is up next and he picks up the momentum right where DeRosa left off. He begins with a Why Don't-Shake-A-Baby PSA's Shouldn't Be On The Back Of A Bus bit that kills and he has the audience right where he wants them straight out of the gate. From there, it's on to board games ("I don't like Scrabble; not because I have a difficult time spelling, but because I have a difficult time pretending I'm having fun") and Kallas's extremely passionate love for Fluffernutter. To be fair, Kallas is extremely passionate about a lot of things and when he gets around to the phrase "White Boy", you'd better make sure you're buckled in.

More often than not when you go to a club for a comedy night, there's one person that leaves you feeling a little - for lack of a better word - "Huh?" For me, that moment came with Michael Sanchez. He's introduced with a warning that he's "a weirdo" and a quick quip that he was just woken from a nap, and I'm wondering if maybe that wasn't too far from the truth. I don't mind off-kilter comics, and in the right hands deliberate, slower pacing can be an asset. I thought his premises were clever (sharing a sundae with another guy or having a phone conversation with Harrison Ford from the bathroom), but the problem I had with Sanchez was the payoff (or lack thereof) on his bits. He takes his time building up each joke and when we finally get to the punch, I couldn't help but feel the kicker wasn't proportional to how long it took to get there.

Joe Kilgallon is next on the mic and his place in the lineup couldn't have been any better. He instantly raises the energy level in the room and you can feel the audience coming to life with him. He has a great story about buying alcohol for minors that ends up being a valuable economic lesson. He defends the bad reviews his favorite bar received on Yelp and he talks about why he would rather be murdered in the city than in the country. He's a man who sincerely believes in his convictions and isn't afraid to stand up for what he believes, and because of that, he leaves the rest of us laughing.

Okay, now here's an interesting query: What can be used as both a punishment and a reward? There may be a lot of possible solutions to this riddle, but Mike Lebovitz has the funniest answer. And no, I'm not going to give it away here. How do you open your comedy set with summertime material even though it's the dead of winter? Once again, leave it to Mike Lebovitz, who will not only show you how to do it, but he'll then tell you it just happened. Who refers to his 8-year-old son as his "mistake" and wonders why you're not allowed to hit your kid (if you're white)? Who is a little disgruntled about how this economy has affected prostitutes? And who will have you laughing at things you know you shouldn't but can't help? Again, it's Mike Lebovitz, on all counts.

Drew Michael brings us home with a disturbing set where he reveals himself as the creeper he truly is. Sure, it's a little unsettling to hear him still obsessing about his ex-girlfriend, knowing he should want her to be happy but can't get to that point...but man, is it funny. Michael once stalked a woman to the point that she got a restraining order against him. And then - yes, after the restraining order was in effect - they had sex. I know it's not usually considered polite to laugh at someone else's pain, especially as the struggle to find the perfect relationship only seems to bring about more pain, but this isn't the time and place to be polite. This is comedy, and Michael has done his job. He didn't find the silver lining in the heartbreaking world of love, relationships, and friendship, but he did mine it for some amazing comedy gold.

Comedians You Should Know is an apt title. Especially since Comedians You Should Keep An Eye On So After They Hit It Big Time - And I Think They Will - You Can Brag To Your Friends You Knew Them "When" was probably a little too long.

Ed's Note: I was made aware of this CD from a reader who left a comment on one of my posts. I've always been open to suggestions of albums for review and in this case "sacc91" did not lead me astray. Thanks for the heads up!

Comedians You Should Know is available from The Red Bar Comedy Record Label

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Kelly MacFarland's "Bombshell"

One of the things I've learned in life is it's possible to not really be into something, yet still think it's good and have an appreciation for it. Does that make any sense? Take TV, for example. There are shows I love (Arrested Development), shows I like (The Office), and shows I can't stand with every fiber of my existence (Glee). There are shows that I've never seen and have no interest in seeing (Law & Order and all if its inbred spawn), there are shows I've never seen and judge others for watching them (any show that begins with the word "Battlestar"), and there are shows that I know are good, have heard great things about, have read rave reviews of, yet they're just not something that ever clicked with me (Gilmore Girls, The Good Wife).

The latter is the category where, for me, Kelly MacFarland's debut CD Bombshell fits. She's extremely likable, the crowd is obviously having fun, and as a comic she knows what she's doing and how to work a room...and yet for some reason I just couldn't get on board 100%.

Perhaps it's because the album itself is only 35 minute long and the first 20 minutes are primarily devoted to MacFarland's tales of trying to stay in shape. There are some amusing anecdotes about her battle with self-image ("I lost weight a few years ago and then I was hungry and I was like 'F*** this, I need a cake'"), running a 10k with women she refers to as "The Tinys," and taking a spin class where the bicycle seat meets an unfortunate ending. There are some clever lines and smirk-inducing situations but unfortunately, there are also a lot of gaps for physical comedy that don't translate to an audio-only format. I knew there was something funny happening, MacFarland's audience was clearly enjoying the visuals, but I felt a little left out of the joke. I was like a small kid in a crowd of adults, on my tiptoes, trying to catch a glimpse of the cool parade passing by. The thought running through my head over and over again as the crowd laughed at a gesture..or maybe a face..or perhaps it was just a blank stare held an extra beat for comedic effect, was "Hey, I wanna see!"

Bombshell wraps up with a few enjoyable anecdotes about the different ways people sneeze and also has MacFarland reminiscing about her mother making threats in public to her children through clenched teeth. It was during these final moments when the material branched out into more universal topics when I began to relate and really enjoy the ride. Afterward, I found myself wishing there was more, which isn't a bad thing.

Even though I didn't fall in love with this entire project, I'm not saying it's not good. I can think of a lot of friends of mine who would really enjoy themselves. Some of them are runners. Some of them are trying to stay in shape. All of them are women.

As a side note, after writing this review I went online and watched some video footage of MacFarland's comedy and it makes a big difference. There are some versions of the material that are on this album available on the Rooftop Comedy website that, in my opinoin, are better in the videos than they are on the CD. I don't know if it's because the wording is different or because I can see some of the gestures, but I wish some of the material done in the video would have been used for the audio project. If nothing else, though, it showed me she is indeed a talented performer and I'm looking forward to seeing the next comedy bombshell she delivers.


Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Brian Scott McFadden's "What Women Want"

Brian Scott McFadden's What Women Wantis an album from a by-the-numbers stand-up comedian. He hits all of his marks, he has the standard classic stand-up comedian delivery  and timing, he has all of the basic comedy topics covered (women are confusing, New Yorkers are strange, guys are horny, I have an Eddie Murphy impersonation), he even has the standard "Oh yeah" catchphrase (pronounced "Oh Yayyy-uh") he likes to toss around here and there.

But I wanted more...I wanted him to push it just a little further and break out of that standard comedian stereotype. The album artwork features a photo of McFadden on marionette strings and that's not entirely off-base. Part of me felt like he was being controlled by what he felt a comedian should be like, rather than cutting those strings to find his own unique voice.

When McFadden does break out, he's really clicking. He starts off strong with a quick bit on how women find a man with a sense of humor attractive - as long as he's good looking - and mentions one of the weirdest compliments he's gotten ("Brian, you get better looking as I get to know you").

The title track is another high point as McFadden points out the various contradictions in what women seek in men. The final cut, "CNN Guy", is easily the best bit on the album as the British-voiced guy who narrates every human disaster story is recreated with pinpoint accuracy.

Overall, though, the rest of the album feels a bit flat and restrained and I felt myself pulling for McFadden to just let go and let the funny flow.

McFadden has a bit on "Segues" where he talks about a comic's ability to move masterfully from one topic to another. I found this a little ironic, as not all of the tracks flow smoothly from one bit to the next. The transition between a couple of the bits is rough; at one point, the volume and intensity of the audience's laughter abruptly changes, indicating an obvious edit. I'm probably being nit-picky, I admit, but as someone who works in the audio editing field by day, those things stand out to me.

If stand-up comedians were compared to artistic styles, it could be said Brian Scott McFadden is like someone who's really good at color-by-number. His trees are green just the way they should be, he follows all of the rules step-by-step, and his crayons stay perfectly inside the lines. I just wish he would venture outside of those lines and bend the rules a little more frequently. Color a tree purple. Draw a monkey wearing a football helmet, even though it's not supposed to be there. Anyone can make a picture look nice and neat; it's the random scribbles that make it interesting.