Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Amy Schumer's "Cutting"

Once upon a time a local theme park was having a music day where they brought in a bunch of bands to play in the park's various amphitheaters throughout the day. I was asked to emcee one of the stages and in a flash of improvised Only Ed Thinks This Is Funny brilliance, I introduced one of the bands like this,

"All right you guys, I know you all know this next band...they are truly a band who needs no introduction."

And then, heeding my own words, I turned and walked off the stage. As I headed into the wings, I was met with looks of confusion by the band and backstage crew, the crowd's bewildered silence filling the house. For some reason they didn't find it as hilarious as I did.

Judging by the similar way Amy Schumer's new CD Cutting ends, I believe I may have found my kindred spirit. Except, I'm pleased to say, Schumer knows how to do the gag and make it funny. That's why she's the professional here and I'm not.

Cutting is a wonderfully solid project by a comedian who knows how to use the power of misdirection and a well-placed tag. She's confident, brazen, and unapologetic and why should she be anything but? Schumer has a solid 45 minutes that seems to fly by. Nothing lags here. The cover of her CD perfectly reflects the comedy to be found inside: Bright, cheerful, and playfully innocent upon first glance but a closer examination reveals there may be something darker lurking behind it all. From the very first joke about her finally hooking up with her high school sweetheart - and revealing that it is a literal high schooler she's talking about - we know Schumer is going to keep us on our toes and nothing will appear as it first seems.

This is a comedian who likes to have fun. Maybe sometimes too much fun as she explains why nothing good ever comes from blacking out ("I've never woken up and been like, "What is this Pilates mat doing out?!"). But don't let that give you a bad impression of her. After all, she explains she's only had sex with four different guys. And then goes on to add that was a wild night.

Schumer's off-the-cuff interactions with the crowd are just as brilliant as the material she came prepared with. Whether she's lamenting the random "We love you!" screamed by a female in the audience or entertaining the crowd with a hilarious back-and-forth with the ill-named Don Diego, she proves she's able to stand her ground and nothing is going to throw her for a loop. Not Swedes who are "sort of" circumcised. Not the woman in the parking lot who tried to convert her away from Judaism. And definitely not her dirty, dirty college roommate Denise who signed an affidavit allowing Schumer to explain to the world she probably has AIDS.

All of this, of course, is done with a wink and a smile and Schumer keeps the crowd stitched up the entire time. My only beef with the project is not with Schumer, but with the weird gay ghost who magically appears in the audience about halfway through the project. There's a guy in the crowd with a very distinct laugh - and that's putting it lightly - who really starts to let go about halfway through the album and it started to get on my nerves. He sounds like a young Paul Lynde trying to scare a house full of unsuspecting teenagers.

But hey, that's a testament to Schumer's humor. Not only did she keep the crowd rolling, providing non-stop laughs from everyone, she also managed to be so funny that she summoned up The Gayest Ghost in the Netherworld.

And when your humor makes people on both sides of the grave laugh, you know you're doing your job.


Monday, April 18, 2011

Brad Williams's "Coming Up Short"

There are a few things Brad Williams would like you to know:
  1. He's not Wee Man.
  2. We should all be a little more willing to laugh at ourselves (and each other).
  3. He loves being the person to bring that laughter.
  4. Forget what you've heard from the PC Patrol. As far as he's concerned, the correct term is midget.

I could go on (he hates being picked up, there's a reason he doesn't swim, he's sticking with midget sex), but you get the point. When it comes to giving us an education on the life of a dwarf - sorry...midget - Williams's new CD Coming Up Short more than delivers.

Williams is a guy who isn't afraid to make himself the butt of the joke, and his approach to comedy is a smart one. As someone who may be prone to heckles or jibes because of his size, he cuts those remarks off at the pass by being the first one to say them. Don't even bother trying to come up with an Oompa Loompa comment, a leprechaun joke, or a Lord of the Rings comparison to try to throw him off. Williams has beaten everyone to the punch and I'm willing to bet his observations are much wittier.

Whether he's lamenting the fact that he doesn't have any clever, rhyming pick-up lines, telling you which reality shows he loves and which ones he hates, or giving the ultimate proof of why his arms really are short, Williams is a passionate comedian with some truly funny observations whose spark is fueled by what he witnesses around him.

By that same token, his surroundings are also what gives him the drive to keep doing what he does. His passion for helping everyone see the laughter in the world around us is sincere and when he explains how embracing humor can make us all better people, we're on his side.

Of course, one of the things that may stand out is Williams's willingness to throw out "The M Word" without giving it a second thought. Personally, I've never understood why "midget" is more offensive than "dwarf" or "little person" but always just figured I'd never fully understand it and shrugged it off with a "Well, who am I to say". Williams is in the exact same boat. He talks about confronting a group of protesters after one of his shows and it makes for a great story, which can be encapsulated by a simple three-word quote: "I hate midgets."

When Williams takes on the deaf community, he comes at them with both barrels loaded. He's upset with them and, as it turns out, he may have good reason. This particular track on the CD was a little frustrating for me as a listener, since the majority of the material deals with sign language and the less-than-flattering ASL signs for words such as "dwarf" and "retarded." Audio mediums aren't very forgiving to sight gags and much of my time was spent wondering what was happening. When Williams gives a frustrated example of what the sign is for certain words and what the sign should be for others, the set-up is followed by a few moments of silence, followed by laughter, and I was left wishing I knew what I was missing out on.

Finally, for those of you who have wondered what sex is like for - and with - a dwarf, well...Williams is more than happy to talk about that, too. And he doesn't just talk about it; he takes you there in all of its glory. He has examples, stories, tips, suggestions, and warnings. He tells you what's good, what works, and caps it all off with a rousing climax (in every sense of the word) that leaves the audience howling.

By all accounts, Williams has accomplished what he set out to do. For 50 minutes he made the world a better place by making us laugh. He united a room full of strangers by telling jokes about himself...and us. He let us know that it's OK to laugh at the things in life that strike us as funny.

In fact, it seems the only thing Brad Williams didn't do on Coming Up Short...was come up short.


Mike Birbiglia's "Sleepwalk with Me Live"

The latest project from Mike Birbiglia, Sleepwalk With Me Live isn't just another great stand-up comedy CD from one of the most-consistent comics working today. Sure, at first listen it sounds like stand-up, but what you're listening to is actually a recording of his one-man show by the same name. And if you pay attention, you'll notice there is a subtle difference. This isn't just a standard collection of jokes, moving from one topic to another. Step back and take another look. There's real storytelling going on here. There is structure, a plotline, and form. There are no throwaway vignettes or rabbit trails here. Everything serves a common purpose: to defy his father's advice of not telling anyone anything and reveal to the world his struggle with relationships, family ties, and a rare sleeping disorder that sent him crashing Hulk-style through a second-story hotel window.

Of course, no one is as funny when he's in an awkward situation as Mike Birbiglia and in his life there's been no shortage of experiences to pull from. His highly-guarded father who demands that, regardless of what he is going through, "don't tell anyone". That harrowing trip to the doctor that would keep him from seeking medical attention for years to come. Dreams of bears and then meeting them face to face. Winning - or at least placing in - the Dustbuster Olympics. The scary jackal. And of course, his disorder that makes your best sleepwalking stories pale in comparison.

A series of seemingly random and unconnected stories help paint the big picture. Birbiglia takes each piece of the puzzle, turning it over in his hands, studying it, before he places it exactly where it goes. Birbiglia starts off at the end of his story and ends where he began. He tells us the climactic and harrowing account of the night he dreamt a guided missile was aimed directly at him, sending him leaping out of bed and crashing through a window. And then he digresses to give us all of the necessary backstory. He tells us what led him to that fateful La Quinta Inn in Walla Walla and leaves no stone unturned, often times taking us to what must be uncomfortable territory to re-visit, but at the same time is quite necessary in order to help us understand. By the time he gets to the end, we're back at the La Quinta Inn, only now we see it from a different perspective.

Birbiglia's show is perfectly crafted, and although he starts off with the window-crashing story - that's right, he starts his show with the climax - he gives nothing away. The show contains a number of surprising twists. You think you know how things are going to end, but you don't. Some of the revelations are inspiring. Some are "aw"-inducing. I won't give any of them away in this review so they unfold the way Birbiglia intended, but it's safe to say they all leave you with a smile and Birbiglia finds a silver lining - or at least a humorous one - in each and every situation.

The humor in Sleepwalk is just as important as the storytelling itself. In some aspects, it's the only way Birbiglia can safely convey what it is he needs to get across. It's a coping mechanism, although sometimes it's for his benefit and sometimes, it's for ours. Birbiglia knows just when to infuse a big laugh and when a small chuckle will suffice.

Is this stand-up comedy? Is it a one-man show? Is it a comedic drama or a dramatic comedy? Is it a monologue? Is it poetry? Is it a play? Is it better suited for a comedy club or an off-Broadway theater? Is it a hybrid of all of these things, or something new? The answer to all of these questions is yes.

Regardless of how people classify or describe it, one thing is for sure: Birbiglia has created nothing less than a beautiful piece of comedic art. I don't mean to disrespect his father by deliberately going against his mantra, but I can't help it.

Tell everyone.


Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Mike Baldwin's "Bees Can Taste with Their Feet"

The name of the new CD from Mike Baldwin is Bees Can Taste With Their Feet. It is named as such, I assume, because toward the end of the album Baldwin explains that he doesn't just tell jokes. He also shares facts.

Following that same idea, I won't just review his CD, I will also share facts with you.

FACT: Mike Baldwin is funny.

FACT: Bees needs to be added to your comedy library right now.

It may take a minute or two to familiarize yourself with Baldwin's slightly-skewed approach to comedy and laid -back timing, but once you're dialed in to his wavelength, you're in for a fun ride. He has a great bit about why ninjas probably aren't fans of autumn that serves as "a tester joke."  Baldwin explains, "The people that get it, totally get it. The people that don't are like 'He's dumb. I don't like him already.'" He then adds, "Well, that's pretty much how all of these are gonna go, so..."

Fortunately, we get it.

Baldwin tells his stories with a childlike enthusiasm, almost as if he's impersonating the way a 9-year-old talks about what happened to him on the bus on the way home from school. He shares his stories with us like he's talking to his best friend and he knows he can be totally honest. He tells us of his idea for a new mustard/ketchup/relish hybrid with an innocent zeal and doesn't mind taking Alan Jackson to task for not understanding how time zones operate ("If it's half-past anything, it's not five o'clock anywhere.")

On track 3, "Superpowers," Baldwin explains why he would love the power of flight - but only Superman-style, not like a bird - and he talks about having the ability to freeze time. I won't explain any more about this track lest I give something away (part of Baldwin's comedy strong suit is the unexpectedness of what unfolds, and I don't want to take that from him), but to suffice it to say Baldwin would put that power to some amazing use. "Superpowers" made me laugh so much, the cat left the room.

During one of his transitional pauses, Baldwin is heckled with one of the most random heckles I've heard: "Rest in peace, Mitch Hedberg!" Baldwin's response is not only brilliant but also a fine example of how quick he is on his feet.

Toward the very end of the album, Baldwin seems to lose a bit of steam. The material seems to have a few kinks that need worked through, the laughs are fewer, and, given the strength of the project up to the point, I was a little surprised to find him allowing the audience to slip away. Fortunately, Baldwin is able to regain his footing and bring us all back around with the aforementioned facts he enjoys passing on.

By the time he is thanking the crowd and wishing us a good night, Baldwin is back on top. The rough patch he was able to work through is more of a small mis-step than a deal breaker and at the end of his set, I found myself truly happy to have stumbled upon Bees.

One final note: The first time I listened to this CD, I was home sick suffering from kidney stones. As you may - or may not - have heard, they can be pretty painful. I almost put off listening to this project for a later time because the pain was so intense, I didn't want it to distract from my listening; I wanted to give the CD my full attention. As it turned out, though, the opposite happened. Baldwin had me laughing so hard, even through the intense pain I was experiencing, I knew I was listening to something special. If something could make me laugh as much as I did while it felt like my stomach was going to explode, I knew it must be pretty funny. Later, upon listening to the CD a few more times after the pain had gone away, I was happy to discover I wasn't delusional. This CD is indeed amazing.

FACT: Bees can taste with their feet.

FACT: Mike Baldwin is stronger than kidney stones.


Sunday, April 3, 2011

Lisa Lampanelli's "Tough Love"

Lisa Lampanelli is back, and if you're looking for more of the famous insults and zingers that's given her the moniker The Queen of Mean, then you won't be disappointed. If, however, you're looking for something a little different than what Lampanelli's brought to the table her last couple of times at bat, well...Tough Love may leave you wanting more.

When Lampanelli first came onto the comedy scene a few years ago, she kicked in the door with her in-your-face, Rickles-was-a-puss jibes. She didn't give a crap and took no prisoners. Political correctness was out the window, as was racial sensitivity, public eitiquette, and sexual discreetness. Lampanelli shocked us into laughter with her abrasive honesty and no one in the audience was safe. If you sat anywhere near the front of the room, odds were Lampanelli would seek you out and unleash a fireball of putdowns. She was like nothing we'd seen in a long time and with her comedy came a no-holds-barred, anything-can-happen feeling of comedic suspense.

Now, however, something seems missing. We know what to expect from her, and she's managed to desensitize us to her own comedic style: Black jokes, Hispanic jokes, Jewish jokes, gay jokes, and old guy jokes. Lampanelli methodically checks them off one by one, only now her attempts seem forced. Her metaphors seem stretched and her pop culture references are a little dated (Really? A "Ted Kennedy is a bad driver" joke?).

Tough Love is virtually identical to her debut album..and every album she's released since. I listened to Tough Love three times before sitting down to write this review, and nothing stands out as fresh or new. In fact, there were a couple of times where she re-used material from her Comedy Central Roast appearances and even recycled jokes I've  already heard in countless email forwards. Michael Jackson likes Wal-Mart because he heard boys pants are half off? Seriously? I think it's safe to say we've all heard that joke already, and when Lampanelli tries to pass it off as new (and her own), the audience balks; their sudden silence only makes it more obvious. I'm honestly surprised that wasn't edited out of the final product.

Lampanelli has turned her show into something similar to a Gallagher or Carrot Top act, making herself a one-trick show.  Once you've seen - or heard - her, she doesn't give you any reason to come back. Someone as outspoken and brash as Lampanelli shouldn't leave you with a sense of "Oh, I've seen that before," but it's happened. She's like a fast-food chain that only serves cheeseburgers. No fries, no drinks, nothing else. Just cheeseburgers. Sure, they may taste good, but after a while....meh.

Lampanelli seems to be in the same spot that Jeff Foxworthy was in a few years ago. When his "redneck" jokes blew up, they became the focal point of his act and he became stale. I'm still not a fan, but I do appreciate the fact that he has now relegated them to the encore portion of his shows. He recognized he needed to move on, and I only hope Lampanelli comes to the same realization. She doesn't need to stop doing what made her famous, but I wish she would bring something new to the mix.

I like Lisa Lampanelli. I just think she's better than this. I want her to grow as a comic and get past this point of her career. Maybe this project is just what she needs. Sometimes all it takes to move on and move into the next phase is a little Tough Love.


Friday, April 1, 2011

Mike Merryfield's "Cupcakes & Potpourri"

Mike Merryfield is a comedic ninja, a highly-trained humorous assassin who never lets on how deadly he is until he pounces. And when he does, everyone better be on their toes. Actually, I take that back. The guys are totally fine; they're not in any danger at all. It's the women who'd better be on their guard.

His new album, Cupcakes and Potpourri, starts off innocently enough, with some solid material about Vicodin and how he got his hands on his own little stash and the audience is none the wiser about what they've gotten themselves into.

Especially the women.

Merryfield garners a few more laughs, casually circling, feeling out the crowd.

The women suspect nothing.

He trades some fun conversation with members of the audience and it's already proving to be another great night at the comedy club.

God save the women.

And then, out of nowhere, Merryfield pounces.

"I'm so tired of your stupid vaginas, can I just say that?"

The audience, men and women both, are caught off-guard and a stunned laughter fills the room. Merryfield takes advantage of the opportunity and is off and running. For the next 30 minutes, Merryfield unleashes both barrels and the ladies never knew what hit them. Merryfield doesn't let up and there are no lobs here. Each zinger is a fastball, hurtling from the stage at 98 MPH and each one is aimed at the head.

Comedians doing material about the differences between men and women is nothing new. It's been done ever since the first caveman stepped in front of a faux-brick wall and talked about women not being able to control their newest discovery, the wheel. What's important to note, though, is that for years and years male comics have been able to talk trash about women on stage and get away with it because, after a few minutes of giving them a hard time, they then focus on their own gender. Everyone from Cosby to Carlin, Seinfeld to Sinbad, gives both sexes equal time, pointing out the goofy little idiosyncrasies in all of us.

Merryfield has decided to take the law into his own hands. There will be no man-bashing here. He still talks about the same things as other comics: marriage, relationships, dating, the big dumb sunglasses girls wear, even circumcision.  He just does it from a "it's all your fault" point of view.

And yet, he pulls it off.

Regardless of how hard he hits and how many tirades he spews, the audience - both male and female - is laughing with him the entire time. And how could they not? Like it or not, what Merryfield says is funny.

There's only one point where Merryfield cuts a little too close and he is almost drowned out by the raging sea of "BOO's" that come flooding toward the stage. Instead of being overwhelmed, Merryfield simply takes in that energy, swallows it,  and comes back even stronger than before, a human hydra of hilarity.

But this is comedy, and the crowd understands that. There are no hard feelings. It's a smart crowd Merryfield is working with and they're in on the jokes and along for the ride. The women are consistently the loudest ones laughing - and often the ones laughing the longest, too - and the fact that they can take it all in stride is commendable.

After some time, Merryfield rewards the women by letting them off the hook and he focuses his sites elsewhere: being a father (there's a great anecdote about his infant son peeing in his own face) and what it's like to tell a Nascar joke in Alabama.

But hey, we've come this far...why not end everything where it all started? Merryfield gets in a few last zingers at the ladies' expense before he's done for the evening and, again, the crowd is with him the entire time. Sure, Merryfield can be a bit of a misogynist at times. Other times, he is straight up sexist. But without a doubt, the one thing he is throughout the duration of Cupcakes is funny.

And in the end, no one can take offense to that.


Natasha Leggero's "Coke Money"

Take a deep breath. Hold it for a sec. Ok, now, release. Smell that? That, my friend, is the scent of fresh new comedy from Natasha Leggero and it's good. Invigorating and rejuvenating. Of course, if I were going to keep with the theme of her new album Coke Money, instead of asking you to breathe deeply I'd just request you snort a few lines, but that's beside the point.

Leggero's new album contains a lot of fun surprises, and if you only know her from her stint as a judge on Last Comic Standing (where it appeared her only job was to cackle insanely at everything that was uttered by anyone) then you're in for a real treat. She is a highly-skilled comic whose material you'll soon find yourself quoting to your friends.

Observing the world around her and commenting on it with a touch of being appalled by what she sees is Leggero's strongest point. She regards what the rest of the world is gushing about with a "so what" shrug of the shoulders, whether it's home paternity tests, meathead guys telling tales in Vegas ("Bragging that you had sex with a prostitute is like bragging that you got some Doritos from a vending machine"), "toilet babies," or her own adventures on a reality talent show ("Tonight, the bottom two decide which six will join the final five.").

Like many comedians with an edge, Leggero is at her best when the claws come out, taking swipes at those who deserve it most: hip hop artists who loop classic songs, the cast of "Jersey Shore", and girls who never knew they were pregnant. In a hilarious track called "Girl, You Ain't Got No Arms," Leggero explains why she (and most of us who have moved away from small Midwestern towns) have no interest in returning home.

Coke Money is a mostly-solid project; its only weakness being the first track. The album begins with Leggero taking on a rich, white, Thurston Howell-esque persona that gets old pretty quickly and doesn't garner the big laughs like the rest of her time on stage. She also takes this time to unleash all of her filthy material, so it's a bit of a red herring. Because she starts off working so blue, one might assume that's what is in store for the rest of the project. The overtly-explicit material isn't really her forte but Leggero gets it out of her system after a couple of minutes, she loses the rich, "dah-ling" accent, and that's when the big laughs roll in.

After all is said and done, Leggero accomplished what she set out to do: she made me laugh.  Coke Money is an album that gets more enjoyable with each listen and I'm excited to see what she has in store next.