Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Dylan Brody's "A Twist of the Wit"


There are few things in the world I like as much as curling up with a good book on a cold, cold day. Whether it's an elaborate novel or the latest jumbo collection of Dell word puzzles and brain teasers, give me a blanket to wrestle with and some Ghirardelli white chocolate powder to add to my coffee and it doesn't get much better.

That's what it's like listening to A Twist Of The Wit, the newest release from wordsmith Dylan Brody. He's a captivating storyteller with an amazing grasp of language. He doesn't just "say words" but instead uses them the way a composer uses notes, chords, and the perfect instrumentation to construct a symphony. Brody uses stories instead of movements; alliteration and wordplay are his time signature changes and chord modulations.

Brody is an intellectual, of that there's no doubt, but he doesn't talk down to the audience. Instead, he reaches out a hand to lift us up to where he is, to see the world from his point of view, and to take it all in.

I've gotta be honest. It's nice up here.

In a world where it sometimes seems comedians aren't allowed to be the smartest guy in the room (Dance for us, monkey boy!), it's refreshing to spend time with someone who doesn't dismiss a heckler simply by presenting him with a few options of what he can go busy himself with, but instead opts for "What part of 'no extraneous conversation' did you not understand, sir?"

Brody, the self-proclaimed Purveyor of Fine Words and Phrases, doesn't get on stage and tell jokes. He gets on stage and tells stories. Sometimes it takes him a while to get to the story, offering a "deconstructionist introduction to a deconstructionist introduction" here, a tangent there, and soon enough he'll get to where he was headed. But we don't mind the delay because Brody is the epitome of the old adage that it's not the destination, but the journey that makes it worthwhile. We're not working for one big punchline at the end of each anecdote, but instead we're picking up on all of life's little nuances along the way.

There aren't really any "jokes" to be found here, but that's not to say Wit is devoid of humor. Quite the contrary. There's a difference between jokes and humor and the latter is exactly what Brody offers, and he's generous with it. Brody doesn't "do bits" but instead "performs pieces." Comedy is an art form and watching - or in this case listening to - Brody work is witnessing a true artist in peak form.

Whether he's talking about his two dogs and the new owner of "the poopy lawn," a romantic encounter at a supermarket, or a jewelry gift from Steve Allen, Brody has chosen each and every word carefully. Nothing is where it shouldn't be and it's a pristine display of poetic prose perfection.

"The Story of Jeff Spikkhersbrokken and the Man We Will Call Arthur Grey" is a 14-minute marvel. What starts off as a smile-inducing tale about his manager and the writing jobs he brings to the table takes a few twists and turns before morphing into a very sentimental tale about the people Brody has come to know in his life and how fortunate he is to have found them.

Brody has a knack for callbacks, ending his stories where they began. Perhaps it's because of his love of palindromes. Perhaps it's his adoration of structure. Going back to my musical analogy, he's like a composer using recurring musical themes to bring us back to a previous  and familiar phrase, a repeat bar-line for storytelling before bringing us to the coda.

A Twist of the Wit, not unlike a great work of music, can indeed be enjoyed in smaller segments, taking in one track at a time. But when you step back and experience it as a whole, really taking it in, you see it for what it is: a masterpiece.

***

Monday, March 28, 2011

Reggie Watts's "Live at Third Man Records"


Fans of Reggie Watts, the one-man improvisational music-looping genius, know what to expect when they go see him perform live. To put it simply, they expect everything and Watts never disappoints. Folks unfamiliar with his scattered off-the-wall-ness are in for an experience they won't soon forget and on his new EP recorded in Nashville, Live at Third Man Records, you get the sense that's exactly the people Watts is aiming for. It's easier to throw the audience for a loop - or in this case loops - when they don't know they're about to be thrown.

Watts opens the show in character, and for those who don't realize he is noted for his various spot-on dialects and accents, nothing seems amiss. After all, why wouldn't a black man with an afro that appears to be reaching for something across the room talk in barely-comprehensible urban slang? He sounds more like Ali G than someone raised in Montana. The joke, of course, is on the crowd and you can hear them "get it" as Watts morphs seamlessly from one character to another.

Watts keeps us entertained by doing nothing more than entertaining himself. It's not unlike watching a child at play, carrying on conversations - and doing all of the the voices - telling stories of dragons and a little boy's breakfast, of Nashville's thriving industrial factories, and stopping everything altogether right as he loses interest. He's a master of the improvisational riff and only his gift for the spontaneous could bring us the single most-hilarious Nabisco commercial ever conceived.

Watts is generally known for his music, free-styling with loop machines and voice changer-things (yes, that's the technical term), but on Live he focuses more on his storytelling, regaling the crowd with stories of Smurfs, iPad covers, and other fantastical stories narrated in his best Gandalf-type approach.

The songs that do appear on the EP are nothing less than musical masterpieces. Watts is his own sound man as he controls everything from the reverb, pitch, sustain, music, and other vocal effects, accompanying himself on the loop machine and piano. You know someone has talent when they can sing a song from two different characters' points of view and the entire thing is done entirely in gibberish. It isn't until you realize you can follow exactly where the song is going and what it's saying  despite not understanding a single word of his secret language that you're knocked over again by Watts's incredible talent.

Above all else, Watts makes comedy - and music - fun. The fact that this release is only available on vinyl - and only available through the Third Man Records store - means fans will actually have to put some work into getting their hands on it. But if there were ever an album worth the effort, Live at Third Man Records is it.

***

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Tommy Savitt's "Who Wants Me Now? (Director's Cut)"


Who Wants Me Now? Director's Cut is an updated re-release of the 2007 album by the same name - except for...you know...the whole "Director's Cut" thing. I freely admit I was completely unfamiliar with the original album, so I won't be able to contrast, compare, and tell you if this re-release is a good or a bad thing. And the fact that I have nothing to compare it to may also be a good or a bad thing. In an interview with...someone (it's never really made clear who the interviewer is) on the final track, Tommy Savitt explains this is basically a re-working of some of his older material, punched up a bit, expanded, and re-configured.

I will say this much: whatever it is Savitt tweaked, he did it well. Who Wants Me Now? is just what people look for in a comedy album: one-liners, mis-direction, a handful of groaners, and a lot of laughs. There are a lot of zingers packed inside and Savitt wastes no time getting to them. He begins by explaining he went to Brooklyn Law School - because it's the best acting school there is - and graduated in the top 1/3 of the bottom 1/3 of his class. From that point on, we start to understand why.

Savitt plays the role of the happy, confident fool perfectly ("Think about it! Use your placenta!"). His statements are completely preposterous and it's fun as he feigns utter incredulity when people don't agree with his point of view. ("I fight for you! I'm against the seat belt laws; they tell you it saves lives. If you're strapped in a Ford Focus, is your life worth living?...And the best part of being flung from your Focus? You may be hit by something nicer.")

Despite Savitt's tough exterior - he's almost a cross between Eddie Pepitone and the late Mike Destefano - it soon becomes obvious that all he needs is love. He explains this to the ladies in the audience, listing off reasons why they should go home with him. Of course, the more he talks - pleads, almost - the more it comes to light why an evening with him may not be the wisest choice. ("Some of these men will make love to you and then brag about it to their friends. I would never do that. I would show them the video.") After similar stories of why he is the "good guy," revealing one embarrassing attribute about himself after another, Savitt delivers his signature tagline: "Who wants me now?"

Savitt only shifts gears to encourage the audience to buy his CD, which he claims includes relationship-saving hints,  tips, and pseudo-questions of advice from the public, all of which begin with his other catchphrase, "Hey Tommy."  Savitt is proud to share some of the advice he's given in the past and once again the more he brags, the more he shouldn't. He has the audience under his full control and they respond exactly as they should; they're playing the exact role Savitt has orchestrated for them.

A lot of comedians cover a vast array of topics and cover a lot of pop culture ground in their act, but not Savitt. He doesn't need to. He's carved out a nice niche for himself, sticking mainly to relationships and gleefully putting himself down along the way. He's taken a smart approach to self-deprecation. We never pity or feel sorry for him. Because he's so confident, his shortcomings don't make him seem like less of a man. He states boldly his beliefs on women and what he thinks they want - and need - and basically ends up listing reasons why he finds himself alone. Savitt proudly portrays himself as a romantic idiot...and the way he does it is sheer genius.

***

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Louis Katz's "If These Balls Could Talk"


Upon first glance, If These Balls Could Talk may appear to be a puzzling title, but after listening to this hilarious new  project from Louis Katz, it all falls into place. If Katz's balls really could talk, this album is exactly what they would say; this is the album his balls would want to make. And, as it turns out, Louis Katz has hilarious balls.

Balls is a stellar collection of groan-inducing, face-reddening, did-he-just-say-that comedy and I mean that in the very best way possible. Katz has somehow managed to blend the laid-back relaxed feel of Mitch Hedberg with the in-your-face hip hop sexual swagger of Aziz Ansari while still remaining completely original.

The first track starts off innocently enough with Katz lamenting about losing his hair. At first you may think you've heard this before and you know where he's going, but then Katz explains why he can't cover up the fact he's balding by simply wearing a hat:  "I wear glasses. Can't wear a hat and glasses, that's a fake mustache away from being a disguise." It was at that very point I knew this was going to be a great ride. Katz has found a way to see things through a life lens that skews everything to the point where you can't see anything except for what's funny about it.

From there it's Game On and Katz jumps into the deep end of the pool without a second thought. From BBWs (and the correct pronunciation of their African-American counterparts) to vegans and pescatarians to close-talking men who invade your personal "V", Katz covers it all and each laugh is bigger than the last.

Crystals for deodorant. Jugglesticks and Dave Meowtthews. Didgeridoos and the real reason hippies love them. Just a couple of things Katz touches upon in a track about an ex-roommate that should be used and referenced in every "Great Comedy Bits" conversation that is ever held from this moment on. It's only a little over 4 minutes long, but Katz covers so much ground and so adeptly paints a mental picture of all that occurred, you'll feel like you were right there under the same roof with them.

When Katz tackles the weird phenomenon that is The Marching Band, he does it with such precision it's like he's a master surgeon doing a baboon-heart-into-a-human transplant. Katz has skills - or in his case, skillz - and he's not afraid to flaunt them.

Another favorite moment of mine came in a single, short bit that had Katz talking about what kids learn in school and why they're taught cursive handwriting. It's a line that was so good, I had to make it my Facebook status.

And then, there's the "dirty" stuff, which is pretty much every other cut on the album. Anyone can work blue. Anyone can get on stage and spew expletives or talk about sex. I've touched on this before. Bob Saget is famous for how foul he is. Unfortunately, he's not famous how funny he is. Jim Norton and Robin Williams both go off the deep end, but they also uphold their end of the bargain: They're funny while they do it.

In my opinion, though, Louis Katz does it best. Katz is somehow able to pull off blue material without it feeling very blue. I honestly don't know how he did it. When I listened to Jim Norton's Despicable I felt like I needed a shower afterward (and before the hate mail starts rolling in, I just want to clarify, I liked his album. See?). But Katz's comedy doesn't come with that "I feel dirty" dark cloud hovering over it.

Maybe the difference is the anger level. Norton seems irate when he talks - or screams - about sex. Katz, on the other hand, is quite happy. Where Norton seems to approach sex from an enraged "This is insane!!!!" point of view, Katz is simply proclaiming "This is awesome!!"

Often times when I talk to people about comedy I hear the same questions. Who's going to be the next big thing? What's good that's new? Who should I be keeping an eye on and who should I be on the lookout for? In this case, the answer to all of those questions is Louis Katz.

And I think his balls would agree with me.
***

Lee Camp's "Chaos for the Weary"


The new release from Lee Camp, Chaos For The Weary, is stand-up done right. Although it opens up with an introduction and stamp of approval from Kelly Carlin comparing Camp to her legendary father George, Camp is his own voice with a unique approach to the craft.

He begins the album with a passionate rant about people over 50 ("In the big bag of trail mix, they ate the peanuts and the M&Ms and left us with f***in' raisins") and he doesn't let up. Camp is angry, he's frustrated, and he's got a lot on his mind, but he says it all with a smile in his voice that lets you know he hasn't lost all hope. Although things in the world seem to be spiraling out of control, they're still kinda funny.

Like a well-seasoned boxer, Camp has learned that when you're in the ring, it's all about pacing. Each of the tracks on Chaos begins with a simple one-liner that comes from left field and tags the audience on the chin. It's not a knock-out punch, but it packs enough of a wallop to let us know he's running the show. It's fast and comes from nowhere and while the audience is staggering with laughter, Camp jumps in with a flurry of body blows as his delivery becomes more passionate, louder, and nearing manic levels. The pace becomes quicker, sentences run together, and the only break we get from the onslaught of funny is the quarter-second it takes Camp to take a breath. Camp is light on his feet, smoothly transitioning from Radio Shack - and wondering why it's still in business - to  Facebook to vintage T-shirts to Hallmark cards all within one hilarious minute. And then, just as you're about to feel your feet collapse from beneath you, the bell rings and it's back to your corner.

And then it starts over again. One-liner, laughter, BAM! jokesjokesjokesjokesjokesjokes, pause....one-liner, POW! funnyfunnyfunnyfunnyfunny. On and on, Camp has it all timed out perfectly. He knows just how long to go before he brings us down, letting us compose ourselves, before he starts in again. His comedy is like the inverse-bell curve chart Sean T uses on the infomercials for the Insanity workout program: 4 minutes intervals of intense comin-right-at-ya 100% comedy followed by a short rest period, and then....off we go for round 2.

Camp covers the gamut and is just as funny talking about the mundane (questioning the necessity of the rubber grips on a toothbrush handle) as he is when he tackles bigger issues (how he would protest if he were 80 and not allowed to pull the plug on his life support).

Unlike a championship fight, however, the action doesn't slow down as we approach the final round. There's no lumbering around, no excessive leaning on the ropes. Camp is just as on fire throughout the 15th track as he was in the first. If I didn't know any better, I'd think his corner man had spiked the water bottle with Red Bull and espresso shots.

Chaos is 57 minutes of comedy at its finest. When you see a good boxer in the ring, you see there's more to it than just hitting someone else. It's called The Sweet Science for a reason. Likewise, Camp proves there is much more to comedy than knock-knock jokes and tiptoeing around hecklers. Listening to Chaos makes you realize there is a process to it, a thought-out approach, and Camp elevates making people laugh to his own sweet science. Loud, angry, furious science.

***

Melinda Hill's "The Accidental Bisexual"


When I received Melinda Hill's The Accidental Bisexual for review, I was completely unfamiliar with her and her work and went in with a clean slate. It didn't take long for me to realize Bisexual isn't a stand up album per se, but instead eight written essays being read aloud by Hill.

Upon inspection of her website, I found a blurb that compared her to David Sedaris, except blonde and sexy.

Humorist/essayist David Sedaris' writing is funny enough on its own; when you listen to him read his works aloud in his own voice, they take on an entirely new level. Not so with Hill. For starters, when she reads out loud, it doesn't sound like the words are coming from her. There isn't a natural flow and - for lack of a better phrase - it sounds like she's reading out loud. She sounds a tad uncomfortable with the material, almost unfamiliar, as if it was written by a complete stranger and she didn't get a chance to skim the pages before stepping out onto the stage. Her tone, cadence, and regimented delivery sounds less like someone relating first-hand stories and more like an emcee at a local fashion show describing what's being worn on the runway.

And then there's the material.

To put it bluntly, I just didn't find it funny. At all. I can count how many times the album made me crack a smile on no hands. Whether she's talking - or more accurately reading - about appearing in a Creed music video, writing about a date that went wrong, another date that went wrong, or another date that went wrong, Hill manages to sift out everything that would be humorous about the situations and then leave those parts in the green room. A few of the essays are followed by a faux Cosmopolitan-style quiz that basically serves to recap the preceding essay. Seriously? You just read this story to me, do I really need a 2-minute re-cap?

After listening to the project I went online and found some clips of Hill performing "actual" stand-up. She was funny and energetic and the audience was obviously having a much better time. Why she decided to forego being funny for reading stories, I don't know.

We've all come across things we wrote when we were younger, papers or short stories or school projects; things that at the time we thought were amazing and our parents assured us were brilliant but in all honesty, were just kind of mediocre. Did Hill find a bunch of old essays in a box in her parents' garage that were written when she was in high school and think they were lost gems?

Whatever the story behind this game change, I find it a little misleading to categorize this album as stand-up comedy. Like David Sedaris' books on tape, this project qualifies more as Spoken Word, so I guess they do have something in common. Except for, you know, the whole "being funny" thing.

***

Monday, March 7, 2011

Jim Norton's "Despicable"


Dictionary.com defines the word "despicable" as "deserving to be despised." Don't let the artwork of Jim Norton's new CD by the same name fool you. Despite the red arrow underneath the album title pointing right at Norton's head, neither he nor this project is despicable. But that doesn't mean he hasn't come prepared with a laundry list of items that he feels are more than "deserving to be despised."

Despicable isn't a podium for Norton to point out life's silly little quirks; that would be putting it way too mildly. He's not doing standard "did you ever notice" material; that would be way too hacky. And he isn't standing back with amused befuddlement at things that "get his goat"; that would just be way too passive.

Norton is on the offensive here and he's issued a full-forced attack on pretty much everything around him. These aren't the ravings of a lunatic, mind you. Norton's assaults are well-written, cleverly crafted slings and arrows that never miss their mark. The spirited passion behind his words conveys he's not just spinning his wheels, here. He's put some thought into this and by God there are some things that need to be said. He's an extremely gifted speaker with such a persuasive and commanding presence, you'll soon find yourself agreeing with Norton's heated fervor. You know, he's right! That fat lady who got stuck to her couch really does suck! Penguins are idiots! TV poker players really should be gambling with their own cash! And your baby's fat, featureless face really is begging to be mistaken for the wrong gender.

Listening to Norton try to keep his rage in check - and sometimes failing - as his temper bubbles under the surface while addressing Heather Mills, Laura Bush's secret service agents, women who tell workplace anecdotes, and - again - those dumbass penguins is what makes Despicable so much fun. It's a little like watching security footage of a guy going off the deep end, destroying his office cubicle and everything within a 10-yard radius because the "P" on his keyboard stopped working. The reaction is so out of proportion, you can't help but laugh.

A lot of comedians save their "blue" material for the last portion of their comedy set, and Norton is no exception. Norton goes blue and then some. It's fair to say Norton goes beyond blue. His descriptions are so graphic as he brags/confesses about his sexual exploits, I think it's fair to say that Norton goes indigo.  The track listing of the second half of the album contains more asterisks than a Barry Bonds/Mark McGwire home run derby.

Personally, I think if a comedian is going to be explicit, then they need to make sure they don't lose sight of being funny. That's one of the reasons Bob Saget drives me up a post. He thinks he's funny because he drops the F-bomb. "Oh, look at me being bad and saying dirty words! Look how funny I am!" That's not it. Jim Norton has mastered the precarious art of being funny while dropping the F-bomb. And the C-bomb. And every other lettered bomb out there.

Perhaps to some people, that's despicable. For Jim Norton, it's an art.

***

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Daniel Tosh's "Happy Thoughts"


As a kid growing up in northern Indiana, there were basically three types of comedy albums (or, more accurately, cassette tapes) I listened to:
  • the ones I could  play while my dad was in the room (Bill Cosby, "Weird Al" Yankovic, Steven Wright)
  • the ones I could play while my dad was in the room and shake my head in exaggerated I-Can't-Believe-He-Said-That disgust every time something "dirty" was talked about or the occasional f-bomb was dropped (Billy Crystal, Dennis Miller, Steve Martin)
  • and there was Eddie Murphy and Robin Williams.

I remember listening to these tapes late at night when my parents thought I was asleep, my ear jammed against my cassette player's speaker with the volume set barely above zero, snickering silently and hitting "pause" every time the audience burst into laughter for fear that the crowd's loud response would drown out the sound of my mom or dad walking down the hall toward my room. I was raised to think that guys who talked like Eddie and Robin - guys who talked about the things that Eddie and Robin talked about - were bad people. People this Christian honor student should never have anything to do with. But like the secretly rebellious teenager I was, I continued to listen. And I continued to laugh.

Listening to Eddie Murphy got you into a secret club in my small Hoosier high school. All you had to do was say one of the many passwords: "ice cream," "psyche" or "put a little tiny man in your butt" and there was a sense of "Ah....you've heard it, too. Come along and join our Society Of Good Kids Who've Heard The Tape."

After listening to Daniel Tosh's new album Happy Thoughts, I couldn't help but be taken back to my junior high Covert Comedy-listening sessions and I smiled knowing this project will send "good kids" across America scrambling to pop in their headphones and, when asked what they're laughing at, force them to lie and say "Brian Regan." Just like my comedy heroes from the past, Tosh thrives in saying things he shouldn't. Yea, we shouldn't encourage the kid in Sunday School who sits in the back and makes sarcastic comments by laughing at his off-handed remarks, but when he's as funny as Daniel Tosh is, keeping a straight face is much easier said than done.

My expectations going in to Happy Thoughts were pretty high, I'll admit it. I'm a big fan of Tosh's past two releases as well as his TV show, Tosh.0. I tried not to get myself too hyped up about this new project, as I felt I was setting myself up for disappointment. I knew there was no way it could be as funny as I wished it would be.

I was wrong.

As high as my expectations were, Tosh blew them away.

Happy Thoughts was recorded in San Francisco. We're all aware of what San Fran is known for, and that's immediately where Tosh starts. From that point on, it's full speed ahead and Tosh isn't waiting around for you to catch up. He grabs the listener by the hand and takes you to a special place, a place where jokes make you go "Oohhhhhh" because you know we shouldn't be laughing at that. It's a place where Tosh doesn't give you time to recover from your "Oohhhhh" before he sucker-punches you in the gut with one tag after another, building a teetering Jenga tower of jokes, observations, and off-handed remarks that society and parents and teachers and PETA activists and news reporters and youth leaders and guidance counselors and our grandparents and Oprah and everyone else with a voice tells us we shouldn't laugh at, but we do anyhow. And then, with the manic glee of a child after too much Juicy Juice, Tosh takes both hands and swipes the Jenga blocks from the table with a triumphant, devilish laugh. Sometimes it's done by talking about the baby everyone wants to violate (AKA Pittkham) and sometimes all he has to do is reveal that the name of the joke you just laughed so hard at is "Hispanics Are Criminals."

And then Tosh follows up your feigned disgust with disclaimers like : "Go ahead, dumb people, be offended by a joke that doesn't have a plausible premise" and "Hang in there, it gets worse." From there Tosh gives a friendly warning ("Heads up, Mormons, this joke's gonna sting") and we're off once again.

Tosh's musings don't just raise important social questions. He gives us answers.
  • Why do we have the Winter Olympics? (So white people feel relevant in sports)
  • What is the real message of The Blind Side? (Kidnapping can be profitable.)
  • Did Chris Brown really beat up Rihanna or did she just get too close to him while he was dancing? (Not sure. Wasn't there.)

Whether it's wild fires, the Katrina disaster, Michael Phelps, rape whistles, being a bad test-taker or a kid being beheaded by the Batman ride at Six Flags (true story), Daniel Tosh has once again done just what we needed him to do. He looked at the information, processed it, and said, "How can I make this funny?"

It's been 25 years since I was that 15-year-old kid afraid that my parents would find out what I was listening to and I no longer feel the need to hide what's making me laugh under a bushel. That's right, mom and dad. I listened to Daniel Tosh's Happy Thoughts and it made me laugh. Out loud. I listened to it a lot, and I'm going to listen to it again.

There. I said it.

True, the fact that neither one of my parents read my blogs made it easier to say, but that's beside the point. I laughed, and you will, too. Whether or not you decide to tell your parents is up to you.

***