Monday, May 30, 2011

Joe List's "So Far No Good"

The title of the new album from Joe List, So Far No Good , could not be more of a misnomer. Perhaps he just didn't want to raise expectations too high, or maybe it would have been considered tacky to go with, "Are You Kidding Me, This CD Friggin' Rocks." No matter what the case, you can rest assured that with List, you're in for a good time.

List has managed to transport the listener at home right into the comedy club, something very few comedians before him have been able to accomplish. One of the reasons behind that is the fact List is a real pro at interacting with the crowd. With everything that can - and often will - go wrong  while performing in front of a group of people where the alcohol is flowing, List never gets rattled for a moment. There's no heckle too clever for him, no weird creepy laugh  or hacking cough that slips past him, and no group of unresponsive front-row audience members goes unnoticed.

There's no doubt that List is in control of the room and his interactions with the audience never once detract from the business at hand. As much as I loathe hecklers and wish bad things upon them, with List on stage they never manage to slow down the pace. He's able to incorporate them into the action with none of the awkward air that often hangs in the room when a comic is interrupted by someone who has suddenly decided they're clever.

And sometimes it goes the other way and List's material gets absolutely no response, something that I found quite surprising. I honestly wondered if the crowd joint-OD'd on sleeping pills because List's bits are much, much better than the lackluster reaction it sometimes garners. That being said, List remains confident. He knows his material is solid and he's working his ass off. When the reluctant-to-react crowd fails to reciprocate List doesn't hesitate to let them know they're out of line - and he does it with hilarious results.

Of course, to focus only on the improvised and his excellent crowd work wouldn't be fair to List's prepared material, which is second-to-none. He's great at mis-direction and has come with an entire case of red herrings. His approach initially comes across as Woody Allen-esque self-deprication and insecurity and that's the genius of his craft. Just when you've let down your defenses he goes in for the kill with a tag or punch  from the furthest reaches of left field.

I loved "Braces", a track about List's orthodontic experience as a kid and how their  unexpected side effects have followed him into adulthood. "Dirty Actions" recounts a hilarious tryst with a woman who was a little more adventurous in the bedroom than List was willing to be. "Cosmo" is next, where a magazine is called out for the horrible advice they give to women. "I didn't read the article," List notes, "'cuz I was shitting blood from laughing too hard."

The album wraps up with a great couple of bits, "Cops" and "Mugged." The humor is heightened by the fact there is a cop sitting in the audience. You can feel the nervous tension in the room as the rest of the crowd hesitates to laugh but it isn't long before List has them all letting go and a sea of laughter fills the room. "Mugged" is the true story of the time List was held up in New York City and it's the perfect button to an already stellar set.

And that's why I feel the album title is misleading.

"So Far No Good ?" Whatever. So far...freakin' awesome.


Saturday, May 28, 2011

Spencer Dobson's "Used Up"

Spencer Dobson's Used Up is a bit of a comedic mixed bag. There are moments that really come together nicely, making for some genuine laughs. There are also moments that are still in need of a lot of work. There doesn't seem to be much middle ground, though. Dobson is either killing it or seemingly struggling to maintain his footing. After listening to the project multiple times, it left me with a dizzying sense of schizophrenia. Is it funny or not? Depending on what point you are in the album, the answer is yes.

It doesn't take long (only about 40 seconds to be exact) before Dobson has to deal with a heckler. In this instance, I believe the heckler wins as Dobson is forced onto his heels and actually starts his first joke all over again. When he finally gets to the punchline he taunts the heckler with "Way funnier than yours. Way funnier." While it's technically true that Dobson's material was funnier than the heckler's, I'm still not certain it was way funnier.

That first interaction is an example of the trap Dobson's material often falls into: His setups have a tendency to be long-winded and the punchline doesn't always pack a laugh proportionate to the time it took getting there. Don't get me wrong; I don't have anything against lengthy anecdotes or setups. Comedians like Bill Cosby and Dylan Brody are great examples of people who excel in the storytelling process by keeping us laughing throughout the entire journey. Dobson's approach lacks the laughs to keep us hooked throughout the entire narrative.

The track "The Hooker Story" is one example of how risky it is to put all of your comedic eggs in one basket. There are a few smiles along the way but it basically serves as  a two-and-a-half-minute  setup to a joke that falls flat; so flat that Dobson follows up the awkward silence with "Seems like that joke should end a lot bigger". And he's right. It should.

Another aspect that really stood out to me was the poor production value. The recording quality is less than ideal and the stunted editing only hurts Dobson's transitions from one topic to the next. It may have been a technical glitch, but one track ends in the middle of a bit and immediately goes into the next, which seems to start in the middle of a setup. I also blame the editing for the fact that the same joke appears twice on the album (a throwaway line about his hillbilly hometown).

All of that being said, there are some genuine laughs to be found. I enjoyed Dobson's explanation of why the music in clubs is always so loud ("Strippers hate the sound of their own thoughts") and his story of trying to pee in sub-zero North Dakotan temperatures cracked me up. Another good bit includes  Dobson moving back in with his mother (despite the less-than-funny reason for his return) that includes a little-known less-than-convenient side effect of stress.

"Crappy Jobs" starts off with Dobson recounting his time as a telemarketer and includes the promise of "the greatest sentence ever uttered in the history of telemarketing." And with that guarantee, Dobson manages to sabotage his own bit. He's raised our expectations so high, there's almost no way he can live up to his self-created hype. And he doesn't. You don't have to start off by saying, "This is gonna be funny." Just be funny.

He does make up for it, though, at the end of the same track when he visits the set of an adult film. It is here that we get the best line on the album as he tells about the lackluster Craft Services table provided: "I have always felt that if a young lady has spent her day being sodomized, she deserves chicken."

Compared to most comedy albums, this one is relatively short, clocking in at just over 30 minutes. I'd say 15 of those are good, solid comedy and the other 15 are still in need of some revisiting. The unfortunate thing is Dobson has burned 15 minutes of great material on a project that doesn't consistently perform to match. Suddenly the title Used Up has an entirely new - and unintended - meaning.


Friday, May 27, 2011

Collin Moulton's "Chicken Stupid"

Collin Moulton's Chicken Stupid is one of the reasons I love writing comedy reviews. In talking with people about writing these pieces, I'm often surprised by the number of people who assume I love writing a negative review. They (falsely) think I take pleasure in expressing my lack of love for a project, but they couldn't be more wrong. As someone who genuinely loves the world of comedy, I sincerely want every album out there to be stellar. When a project falls short, it's not an exaggeration to say it hurts my heart.

One of the joys I get from writing reviews is (hopefully) introducing people to comics and comedy they might not otherwise have stumbled upon. Every time I get an email from someone expressing the purchased a comedy album based on what they read here, I feel sincerely honored to have helped spread the word.

Which brings me back to my original point. I went into Chicken Stupid not knowing what to expect and by the end of the first track I was already thrilled to be along for the ride. This CD is exactly what I hope every album will be when I sit down to listen: Comedy done just right.

There's not a thing I don't love about this project. Moulton has assembled every comedian's wish: one of the most-solid 45-minute sets you'll come across. There are 24 tracks on the project and I am more than pleased to say there isn't a weak spot in the bunch.

Moulton is off to a solid start with the tale of an inadvertent garage sale trip and the comedy consistently ramps up from there and never falters.

Although he could be classified as an observational comic, Moulton's perspective on life's details sets him apart from the pack. There are no stories of airline food, the differences between the sexes, or examples of how white guys can't dance. Moulton instead breathes life into a fresh laundry list of topics such as throwaway "I love you's" and trying to explain to a youngster why the post office and email continue to co-exist.

On "Fowl" Moulton brilliantly captures the only three words chickens are smart enough to learn and "Wife's Yawn Cry" is a hilarious take on the sun and how it affects certain bodily functions.

Moulton doesn't rely on overly-contrived premises to bring in the laughs. The reason his material resonates as strongly as it does is because what he is saying is the truth: If we all treated puppies the way we treat fish, PETA would go nuts. But for some reason these finicky animal activists are absolutely fine with the fact we can slam a fish against a rock and rip off it's lips. As Moulton points out, that's what they get for not blinking.

When he's not tackling the hard-hitting topics like racism (in pets), drugs (with Mom), and growing up with divorced parents, Moulton also finds humor in explaining why deaf people probably hate Muppets and the frightening secret lurking in Indiana Wal-Marts.

Despite the already-huge laughs in the first 23 tracks, Moulton manages to top himself on the final cut with a riotous bit on a handicapped police officer who meets his perfect foible. It's exactly the finale a solid piece of work like this deserves.

If you aren't familiar with Collin Moulton, he's done his part by recording a brilliant work of comedy and I've done what I can do by spreading the word. The rest is on you. There's a whole bunch of funny here waiting for you to discover. To sit by idly and let this one pass you by, quite frankly, is plain Chicken Stupid.


Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Andy Ritchie's "King Ding-A-Ling"

King Ding-A-Ling is everything a comedy album should be. In fact, it's almost too much. There are so many great laughs to be found, it's hard to focus on just one without it leading to another and another and another. And another.

We've all been there: You buy a comedy CD and are disappointed with the severe shortage of laughter. There's nothing more disheartening than a comedian talking for 45 minutes and only bringing one or two good moments. This project, my friends, is the answer to that dilemma. Andy Ritchie has jam-packed each track on the CD with so much comedy, I almost felt like I was ripping him off.

Ritchie gets things off to a great start with a bit about shower heads and the less-than-soothing  "massage" setting. His take on everyday items elevates the seemingly mundane to the heights of hilarity. He started off setting the bar for himself pretty high and he doesn't falter once. This isn't a guy who has a strong opener, a solid closer, and a mushy so-so middle. If this were a musical project, there would be no ballads to slow down the pace;  it's just one captivating party jam after another. Even his off-handed asides and transitions between stories had me laughing out loud. I mean, come on, you won't hear a better beginning to a story than, "Here's the thing about me and pooping..."

As I listened to the album, I jotted down phrases and key words on a Post-It note to serve as reminders of what struck a chord with me. One Post-It turned to two, then three, and soon my desk was littered with a series of yellow squares with phrases like "Yogurt in the hot sun", "PT Cruiser = Dick Tracy if he were a single mom", and "Goth guys falling down the stairs" scrawled all over them. To most people, these would appear to be the random thoughts of a madman. In the hands of Andy Ritchie, they are the seeds of comedy brilliance.

Whether he's comparing the bombing of Canada to the act of punching a blind baby or noting that we rate peoples' level of retardation the same way we rate hot sauce, Ritchie has found a way of pulling the curtain back and revealing the seemingly ordinary for what it actually is: Completely jacked.

Ritchie is also quite skilled at misdirection. I won't explain too much here, as the point of misdirection is to make you unsuspecting of what's coming up around the corner, but suffice it to say he particularly shines when he's trying to teach us something, whether it's the Greenland/Iceland naming switcheroo or the real story behind the Huey Lewis/Ray Parker Jr spat.

When it comes to plotting gags, there's no shortage of ideas here. From the moment Ritchie explained the cell phone candy dispenser, I haven't been able to stop wondering if I could pull it off and have it be as funny in real life as it is when he explains it. The same goes for the funeral "Checkmate" trick. I know I would never have the guts to go through with it, but now that the idea has been planted in my brain, I can't help but wonder what would happen if. Kudos to Ritchie for pulling off the seemingly impossible feat of transitioning from a funereal practical joke to injured corporate peanut spokesmen. I know, they have nothing in common, but they blend surprisingly well. It's so smooth, you don't even realize he did it.

As good as the beginning and middle are, the ending of the CD couldn't have been any better. Ritchie dovetails a bit on ghosts, hauntings, and unfinished business into a wonderfully-crafted finale that wraps everything up with gut-busting simplicity. For those looking for an example of how comedy should be done - and a peek into the secret ingredient of shrimp-flavored ramen noodles - I believe I have found the answer.

All hail the King Ding-A-Ling.


Monday, May 16, 2011

Nick Cannon's "Mr. Showbiz"

I'll be honest. I have a bad attitude about this album.

From the moment I heard Nick Cannon was releasing a comedy album, I had a bad attitude.

The feeling I had was reminiscent of how I felt when Michael Jordan decided he was going to play professional baseball for the White Sox. He worked all of his life to become the best at basketball, and it showed. It's what he devoted his life to and we all know the tales of how he put in countless hours growing up while the rest of his friends and classmates were off doing whatever his other friends were doing. Basketball was his life's passion; he lived and breathed the sport.  What he brought to the court was like nothing anyone had seen before and it's not an understatement to say he changed the game. He revolutionized how people play and became a huge signpost in the historic timeline of athletics.

But when he announced he was going to transition to Major League Baseball - and we all saw how mediocre he was compared to the others who had dedicated their life to this sport - it felt like a bit of a cheat. We all learned that just because he is a phenom at this thing over here doesn't necessarily mean everything he touches will turn to gold. As it turned out, Michael Jordan was human after all. It's always been my belief that if he had gone through the baseball machine like everyone else who put in their hours on the diamond, he never would have gotten the chance to play for the big leagues; he never would have made the cut. But because he was Michael Jordan, he got in, and I couldn't help thinking about - and feeling sorry for - the guy who lost his spot on the bench because he wasn't famous like Michael Jordan.

Which is why I sort of have a bad attitude about Mr. Showbiz, the new release from Nick Cannon. Although he dabbled in stand-up when he was much younger, all of his time and effort went into music and acting. And now that he's achieved some notoriety (and yes, I understand that comparing him to Michael Jordan in this analogy is being very generous) he's decided he wants to do comedy. Again, I call foul. Maybe I'm being a bit of a comedy snob, but I can't help feeling there's a sincere lack of dues-paying going on here. No one-offs in Boise. He never spent years "middling," wondering if he's ever gonna get bumped up to headliner. No poorly-promoted, lightly-attended comedy shows or bookings at a fair at 2 in the afternoon. Not for Nick Cannon, who gets to cut in front of everyone else and move straight to the head of the class. Sorry, Other Comedians Who Put In Your Time. Mr. Mariah Carey is here.

And that's where I was and why I went into this album with a less-then-objective mindset. In that regard, I'm coming clean. I didn't want to have this pre-conceived opinion before I gave it a listen, but I was bound and determined it wouldn't stop me from having a good time. It was a little hard to do, seeing as how the first track is really just a pre-produced pre-show package that is nothing more than Cannon trying to justify this project, explaining that from a young age, he knew comedy is what he wanted to do with his life (Really? Because the following 15 years of your career kinda suggests otherwise). He includes clips of himself performing comedy as a teenager as if that proves he is a comedian. Oddly enough, it was during this intro that garnered the biggest laugh of the entire album from me. There's a line Cannon says in all sincerity that made me guffaw. He brags about the material we're about to see that he's been "cultivatin' for the last year" as if that's supposed to be impressive. Wow. You worked on it for a whole year? I don't mean to step on any toes, but I think it's safe to say that most comics who are good at what they do and have a solid 45-minute set have been working on it for at least that long. But because he's Nick Cannon, this is instant comedy street cred via narration rather than actually putting in the work.

He also talks about the fact that he's always wanted to do a comedy special and now he can check it off his list, which is near-infuriating to me. It grinds my gears when people regard comedy as something so easy to do they can do it just because it's on their Celebrity Bucket List. As far as I'm concerned, a comedian does what he does because he has to do it. There's nothing else they'd rather do, no matter how hard a life it can be at times. It's in their blood and making people laugh is part of what they are. To me, Nick Cannon doing comedy is like Larry King doing comedy. It's know...something to do on the weekend. Looks like fun, what the heck, then I'll go back to what I really wanna do. Part of me wonders if they even realize what a slap in the face it is to the comedians of the world who bust their asses week in and week out.

All of that to say, my review of this album could be summed up in one word:


To be honest, Mr. Showbiz turns out to be the perfect title for this project. Cannon isn't a comedian so much as he is an entertainer. He's a great speaker with a magnetic stage presence. He knows how to get a crowd riled up and has all of the comedy buzz words down. He's obviously studied the best; name any popular black comic and you'll see flashes of their influence throughout the album. But despite all of these great qualities, it seems empty and hollow. The material itself is nothing groundbreaking and Cannon doesn't really do anything to set himself apart as an original comedic voice. You almost get the feeling that he's playing the role of a comedian rather than being one. It's obvious he's been through the Hollywood machine where they often focus on formula versus freshness. A + B + C (where C = the N word) = Comedy.

Nick Cannon definitely has a future ahead of him and no matter how this album performs, he's going to be fine. And maybe that's just it. There's nothing riding on this; no sense of danger. He doesn't have to kill and can afford to be OK with being safe. Comedy is often compared to a highwire act but with Cannon there's no real risk. He's not only working with a net, but there's also a series of large inflatable balloons beneath the net. And he's also wearing a safety harness with wires to keep him from falling.

I'm sure Cannon dreams of being compared to Chris Rock, Eddie Murphy, and Richard Pryor, but what he delivered here is Michael Jordan.

White Sox Michael Jordan.


Saturday, May 7, 2011

The Lonely Island's "Turtleneck & Chain"

Ever since my review of Louis C.K.'s Hilarious, I've tried to be mindful of how often I throw around that adjective. Louis was right: Our society throws around "hilarious" like we did the word "awesome" in the 80s. We call everything hilarious, whether or not it is remotely humorous. Since then I've stopped myself a number of times in every day conversation. Someone would tell me a mundane detail of their day ("Today I saw a car just like mine on the road") and I caught myself almost responding with a "That's hilarious". It was quite the eye opener when I realized I was one of the people C.K. was talking about.

With the release of Turtleneck & Chain, the latest project from The Lonely Island (made up of Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer, and Jorma Taccone), "hilarious" is now allowed to re-enter the vernacular.

This album is truly and completely the definition of "hilarious."

Once again, the tracks are composed of in-your-face over-the-top rap songs whose production quality easily matches - and maybe surpasses - anything being released to radio today. In fact, you wouldn't realize these songs are on the cutting edge of comedy albums until you gave the lyrics a listen.  The first cut, "We're Back!", gets things going and there are no apologies. The Lonely Island is determined to let you know they have returned with full-force braggadocio, boasting about their malfunctioning junk. And when I say "junk," I mean...well....this is The Lonely Island. You know what I mean.

The album is being released on May 10, just a couple of days after Mother's Day. Appropriately - or probably inappropriately - there are two songs dedicated to mothers. "Motherlover" made its debut on Saturday Night Live last year and it's nearly impossible to listen to the song and not picture Samberg and Justin Timberlake strutting in their horrible 80s-inspired outfits. "Mama" takes the standard Ode-To-Mom tribute and turns it on its ear with - I'll say it again - hilarious results.

Like any music project, there are some tracks that I will more than likely skip when they pop up in iTunes in the future (the title track "Turtleneck & Chain" and "Trouble On Dookie Island" are pretty good at skewering the current hip hop sound, but lyrically didn't do much for me. "Shy Ronnie 2: Ronnie & Clyde" is basically just a re-hash of the first time Rihanna popped up in a Digital Short). Most of the tracks, though, demand multiple listens if for no other reason than to catch the lyrics missed the first time around because you were laughing so hard. It is interesting to note that one of my favorite Digital Shorts of all time, "Threw It On The Ground," isn't nearly as enjoyable as an audio-only track. Without the slo-mo shots of cake and phones smashing onto the pavement, the song just sort of sits there.

The guest appearances on the album are impressive. The afore-mentioned Timberlake and Rihanna as well as Snoop Dogg, Akon, Beck, Nicki Minaj, John Waters, Santigold, and Michael Bolton, whose performance on "Jack Sparrow" surprised me by being my favorite on the entire album. The groundwork for the song's joke is laid within the first 15 seconds and just when you think you've figured out what the song is all about, Bolton's cinephile tendencies take over.

Other highlights of the project include "Rocky", a fun old school Beastie Boys meets old school Fresh Prince with a touch of James Brown funk story reminiscent of their previous song "Punch You In The Jeans", and "Japan," a nose-thumbing romp written for the sole purpose of breaking the bank at Universal Music Group.

The Lonely Island has done what few musical acts have done by releasing a second album that is not overshadowed by their impressive debut and stands solidly on its own. They've also done what few comedy albums have done by releasing an album that demands multiple listens. I think it's safe to say my morning commute will soon be accompanied by these hilarious bass-pumping jams blasting out of the speakers of my Ford Focus. My sense of humor - and sincere lack of street cred - is grateful.


David Huntsberger's "Humanitis"

David Huntsberger doesn't do impressions. He isn't crazy-sarcastic and he doesn't use puppets. He doesn't accompany himself with an instrument and he doesn't work himself up into a manic frenzy, screaming at the top of his lungs. And he doesn't have to. To put it simply, David Huntsberger is funny on his own.

On his brilliant new album Humanitis, Huntsberger proves you don't need a gimmick to get huge laughs. He's like a professor of comedy, standing in front of the class with one of those huge wooden pointer sticks, only instead of using it to point out parts of a map or areas of the human skeleton, Huntsberger simply points at life with a  "Hey, look at that" delivery. And he kills.

It begins when Huntsberger asks the audience if there are any sober drivers in the house. When only a smattering of people respond, Huntsberger reacts with a subtle yet straight-forward, "Three? All right. That's a good number. That's a good ratio." I admit it doesn't hit in writing as well as it does when you hear it, so re-read it again as if it were Jason Schwartzman saying it in a Wes Anderson movie.

Huntsberger then goes into a hilarious bit on how drunk drivers could elude policemen if they really set their mind to it and why backseat windows' safety features were not designed for hauling around intoxicated adults. From there it's on to blacking out  - or at least people who claim they blacked out - and being called out for partying and there isn't a dull moment. It's one big laugh after another and this is still just the first track of the CD.

Huntsberger isn't making any fantastic claims or conjuring up one outrageous premise after another. His humor is down-to-earth and can often times be summed up (or started) with a simple idea: Every guy is a metrosexual from a different time period. People who work in "noble" careers may not be what they seem. Some people deserve to be judged based on looks. Humans smell. People aren't as different from ants as we may think. Some people never admit they're wrong; others are too quick to change their minds. Littering is good. Having a child should be as complicated as building a robot. Weasels can really screw up the process of being reincarnated.

All of those (and many more) serve as launching pads into some of the best, well-written comedy pieces you'll find. The next time a child asks you where babies come from, I humbly recommend you share with them Huntsberger's version of the miracle of reproduction.

You know you're listening to a great comedian when certain phrases jump out at you that will later serve as secret inside jokes between you and your friends. A few of them that stood out to me while listening to Humanitis - and will probably make no sense until you've heard the album for yourself - include:

  • "Fake pretty is better than real ugly."
  • "Teaching Special Ed is a sweet teaching gig if you don't like teaching."
  • "Beep beep. Right. Money and card."
  • "If you sell a someone a van, especially if they have a mustache, you may as well just throw in a free bag of candy."
  • "You can't undo a robot."

While he is able to find humor in the little things in life, Huntsberger also takes the time to step back and look at the big picture. The really big picture. He almost tricks us into going deeper and looking at life from a new perspective. Sometimes things work out and sometimes you just wanna say, "Ah, bring on the weasels."
In the case of Humanitis, I'm glad to say it works out. Save the weasels for another day.


Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Erik Allen's "This is All I Have Right Now"

The new release from Erik Allen clocks in at just over 14 minutes, so the title This Is All I Have Right Now makes sense. During this performance, Allen is serving as the host and emcee for the comedy club, so not only does he provide jokes and warm up the crowd, he also lets us know where the bathrooms can be found.

The CD (which, I guess, could be more accurately described as an EP)  is a nice debut from an up-and-coming comedian. He's still finding his voice (he begins by telling the crowd how insecure he is and in the next joke has become a suave ladies man) but he's got some great material to start off with: His story about the time he locked his keys out of his car is well done, there's a really nice bit about the comparison of dunk humans and drunk monkeys and I enjoyed the terminology for groups of mythical creatures Allen has come up with.

As strong as those bits are, it's the filler in between that could use a bit of tweaking and tightening. A couple of the premises are a bit hack-y (i.e. guys being tasered and lactating as a result,  filling up at the gas station and accidentally putting the gas in the window instead of the gas tank) but Allen is still honing his craft and more than likely his act will evolve and morph from what's on this recording.

Sure, this project seems short in comparison to most comedy CDs being released today, but Allen makes the most of his time and is able to get in a lot of good laughs.

The only thing I found puzzling was where the recording of the project ended. Allen says his time is up and thanks the crowd, who gives him a huge round of applause.  But instead of fading out the sound at this point, the audio continues with Allen telling the audience about the restrooms and then beginning his introduction of the headlining comic. "Are you ready to see your featured act this evening? Are you ready?" And then the audio fades out.

Fortunately, the confusing exit doesn't tale away from the fact that Allen is well on his way. He's been given his 15 minutes and he used it wisely. I'm looking forward to seeing what he will do when he's given 45 minutes of fame.


Monday, May 2, 2011

Doug Stanhope's "Oslo - Burning the Bridge to Nowhere"

Being a fan of someone comes with a fair share of risks, one of them being you want every project they release to be as good as your favorite.

I'm a huge Steve Martin fan and have been ever since he first grappled with a huge balloon animal on The Muppet Show. For years I was always the first in line when he released a new film. Sometimes you got comedy classics like Planes, Trains and Automobiles and Three Amigos. And sometimes...well...sometimes you got Mixed Nuts.

I wanted to like Mixed Nuts. I tried to laugh at all the parts where Steve was doing something "funny." But at the end of the day, I had to be honest with myself and confess my laughter felt forced. I had to admit that as much as I didn't want to say it, I just didn't think it was very funny. Part of me felt I was betraying one of my comedic idols by not loving everything with his name on it but as I got older, I came to the realization that not everything is going to click with me, and that's OK. There is no definition of what's funny and what isn't. I'm sure there's someone out there who calls Mixed Nuts their favorite film* and I'm committing comedy heresy by admitting I just didn't get it. All I can do is reassure that person that I tried to like it. I really, really did. I wanted to like it. I didn't want to admit my hero made a bad judgment call.

But he did.

Which is why it pains me so much to write this review.

I was really looking forward to hearing Oslo: Burning The Bridge To Nowhere , the latest CD/DVD release from Doug Stanhope. I've been a fan of his for some time now and couldn't wait to hear what he had to say.

But something on this project just

Perhaps it's the fact that the CD is a recording of a show he did in Oslo. It seemed a little odd that he would choose a performance done in a place where English is their second language for his latest release. Don't get me wrong, I have complete respect for him that he would even consider doing comedy, taped or not, in a country where the language barrier (and even the cultural barrier) would seem so insurmountable. The guy has juevos. His cadence is slower than usual, I assume to make sure the audience is following him, and maybe that's part of it. His timing seems to suffer a bit as a result.

Another thing that permeates this record is a seemingly utter lack of enjoyment on Stanhope's part. He's taking the role of the disgruntled, angry comic but you get the sincere impression this isn't just an onstage persona. He just seems pissed to be here. Not that angry can't be funny. Lewis Black screams in frustration. Joe DeRosa is fueled by an exasperated fire. George Carlin gnashed his teeth at the world around him. But underneath it all, you can sense their love for making people laugh at their bitter tirades. Stanhope just seems done with it all. He even addresses this onstage, complaining about how much he hates recording CDs and DVDs. And I believed him.

Stanhope barks his thoughts at the crowd with seemingly little care of whether or not his rants are humorous. It seems he just has a few things on his mind he wants to get out there, funny or no. And I guess that's another thing that surprised me about the CD: Considering that it's over an hour long, there wasn't much there that struck me as particularly humorous. There are a couple of premises I wished he would have explored a little deeper; I felt there was something there below the surface if only he would go for it.

He complains that he used to be a huge comedy star and now look at him...this is what his life has come to. And that struck me as a little odd. I think Stanhope is well-liked and respected in comedy circles and among stand-up fans, but he never really attained the mainstream success and notoriety like he claims. And who knows, maybe that's part of the joke and I just didn't get it. The problem is, I don't know if I'm the only one who was lost.

The crowd offers polite laughter throughout, but sometimes at the oddest places. Again, it made me wonder if this audience was the best fit for Stanhope's comedy. At one point at the start of the show, he demands they stop clapping at everything he says, admitting he hasn't even said anything funny. And again...I had to agree.

Unfortunately, this release that I was so excited to review didn't illicit a single laugh from me. Nor a chuckle. Just a foreboding sense of "Come on, Doug, be funnier. I know you can." As each track clicked by, I was let down again and again. As I mentioned earlier, there is no set definition of what is funny, but in this case I wish I had better news to report.

I know there will be some people who love this project - most of them already fans of Stanhope - who will vehemently disagree with what I'm saying and that's fine. I don't claim that my opinion should be the be-all end-all. I'm just a guy who loves comedy and doesn't want someone else to be let down. I would recommend the CD for anyone who's already a fan of Stanhope's - you've probably already pre-ordered it by now anyhow - but if you're unfamiliar with his work, you may want to hold off.

The project is a CD/DVD release and after I listened to the CD a few times, I decided to watch the DVD and it begins with a rather unsettling message from Stanhope that seems to back up my claims that the laughs are disappointingly few. He prefaces the DVD with a special message that tries to justify why the audience doesn't seem to be laughing very much throughout his show. Basically, he explains that every other comedy DVD you've seen has been tampered by The Man and is laced with canned laughter. I'm not naive; I realize there are things done in the editing room to punch up comedy specials but I find it a little too Conspiracy Theory to believe that's the only reason fans think they're funny. We've all been brainwashed to think that everyone else's Comedy Central specials are funny when in reality they're not.

He goes on to explain that this CD/DVD has no canned laughter added whatsoever, and that, my friends, is why no one seems to be laughing.

I'm not sure if that makes any sense or not. To be honest, I'm still trying to figure it out for myself. All I know for sure is I didn't laugh very much.

But I really, really wanted to.



*But probably not.