Monday, August 29, 2011

Doug Benson's "Potty Mouth"


You probably think you know who Doug Benson is. Heralded for projects like Super High Me and "Marijuana-Logues," it's understandable why one might pigeonhole Benson as just That Guy Who Talks About Pot. If you think Benson is a bit of a stoner, you'd be right. If you assume a lot of Benson's material will be rooted in that very topic, you'd also be right. But if you think that's all Benson is...you would be very, very wrong.


On his new album Potty Mouth, Benson proves that although it's true he's down with the green stuff, he is first and foremost an accomplished comedian.This is no one-trick pony and Benson shatters any pre-conceived notions you may have held by displaying an amazing knack for bringing huge laughs with material both scripted and off-the-cuff. The prepared material he has scrawled in his notebook proves to be just as funny as his crowd work -- and vice versa. Whether he's reading Tweets written by his fans (and himself), responding to unsolicited audience participation, or marveling at the jokes he hastily scribbled on a Post-It note, Benson thrives. Although his stage persona is one of a relaxed, "whatever dude" kinda guy, don't let it fool you. Benson is no slacker. Quite the opposite, he's a comedy machine, cranking out one huge laugh after another.

One of the first things that stood out to me was the fact that Benson doesn't get to a written joke until the third track. Where most comedians will open up with a throwaway hello and jump right in, Benson spends the first ten (count 'em, ten!) minutes interacting with the crowd, riffing on the venue's name and location, and checking his Twitter feed to see what people in the audience are saying about the show so far. Benson tries to downplay the fact he's getting so many big laughs by posing the question, "Did we just pay money to just watch you read tweets from your phone?" but the fact of the matter is, it's killing. This guy could be reading an episode summary of Six Feet Under from tv.com and he'd still turn it into great material. It's not what he's doing that's funny (yes, as a matter of fact he is just reading tweets from his phone) but it's because it's Benson who's doing it that makes it so much fun. His initial reactions and responses to each tweet are proof positive that he is as good at improvisation as anyone on the circuit.

And then, of course, we get to the material he has come prepared with. When Benson says he wrote down everything he wanted to talk about, he meant it. At the top of the first page it says, "Hey everybody" and the bottom of the last page says - SPOILER ALERT! - "Thank you, good night." Benson has some great stories stolen from real-life experiences and although many of them have to do with being a little less-than clear-headed, his stories aren't just for pot smokers. His comedy is broad enough to include everyone in the room and no one feels left out.

Which brings up a good point. Listening back to the recording, you can hear that it's not just people in the first few rows laughing. Benson has the entire room in stitches and a lot of it has to do with the fact that he's so friggin' likable. Whatever your stance is on marijuana, astrology, or bacon sundaes, you'll find yourself on Benson's side. He's not unlike Mitch Hedberg in that respect. Everyone knew he was blitzed most of the time, but doggonit, everyone couldn't help but love him. The difference between Hedberg and Benson in the party of life is a simple one: While Hedberg would be off to the side of the room next to the fireplace mumbling his sharp insight to a small group of people huddled around him, Benson is the guy greeting you at the door with a big hug and a smile. He takes your coat and yells to the room, "Hey everybody! Look who's here!" Benson is the guy at the party that instantly makes you glad you decided to go to the party.

He has a great bit about his trip to a grocery store and the response he gave when asked if he wanted a bag for his items. The tale of some guys who wanted to show Benson hospitality after a show by smoking with him out in the middle of nowhere is a riot and when he talks about marijuana turning his brain into mush on a CNN appearance ("What?"), I absolutely lost it when orphans and Pauly Shore ended up in the mix.

For many reviewers, this would be the part of the write-up where I try to think of something I didn't like about the project. For me, though, this is the part where I admit there's nothing about this I would change. I'm not so vain to think I could have done any better or that there's something Benson should have done differently. The bottom line is, this CD is funny. It's non-stop funny and Benson deserves sincere congratulations on a job well done.

I guess that's why this blog is called "Comedy Reviews" and not "Comedy Critiques." There's really nothing here to critique. I've got nothing but good things to say about this one and I couldn't be happier about it. I guess that's what happens when someone as talented and skilled as Benson takes to the stage.

Or maybe it's just what happens when someone has a Potty Mouth.

***

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Chris White's "I Take Requests"

As if it wasn't already hard enough for a comic to write an hour's worth of material that keeps an audience engaged and laughing, Chris White has decided to challenge himself even more. The name of his new album, I Take Requests, is not a fluke. He takes requests. Literally. He took to his website and asked his fans to give him a topic, any topic, and he would write his entire set based solely on those suggestions. Although it sounds like a premise for bad improv, the resulting project is surprisingly seamless and if you didn't know how the subjects White talks about came about, you'd be none the wiser. White quite skillfully delves into each theme as if it came naturally and I admit I went into this fearing there would be a "gimmicky" feeling about it. I'm happy to report, there isn't. In fact, it's quite the opposite.


Requests avoids coming across as a parlor trick and manages to stand on its own as a solid comedy project that brings laughs. White is an eager comedian who is excited to be sharing with the crowd some great anecdotes; he talks with the enthusiasm of a kid who just got back from summer vacation and can't wait to tell you all of the new and exciting things he experienced while he was away.

Although White was faced with writing bits based on suggestions ranging from to Belgium to quadratic equations, he successfully makes them his own and he transitions from topic to topic with an impressive smoothness. The real proof of White's skill isn't just that he is able to jump from one seemingly unrelated subject to another; it's that he doesn't move on to the next talking point until he has thoroughly examined the current issue and squeezed every possible laugh from it. He approaches from one angle, takes a few steps to the side, and then enthusiastically goes at it again from a new point of view.

Of course, to focus solely on the fact that White is performing "requested" themes would take away from the fact that White is a great comedian who's very good at what he does. He tells stories with an infectious fervor that draws us in and he doesn't mind making himself look less-than-perfect to go to where the laughter is.

White also doesn't shy away from cringe-inducing material. He wisely knows there are laughs to be found beneath each cringe and he dives in head first to find them. It always pays off and he resurfaces with buried treasure. Humor can be found anywhere and White invites us to enjoy the lighter side of swine flu, fart nostalgia, and yes...eating babies.

Crafting a joke can be tricky. Some comics excel in the basic setup-punch process, some are better with the out-of-nowhere left hooks that you never see coming. There's also the bait-and-switch, where you think you know what's coming and suddenly find your face smashed against the passenger seat window as the harsh left turn leaves you reeling. White has mastered all of these approaches and, because he so adeptly jumps from one style to the other, he keeps you on your toes. It's impossible to predict where White is going and he takes full advantage of being two-steps ahead. Even when you know there's a punchline coming, as in the story of his grandfather answering life's more puzzling mysteries, White still manages to maintain the element of surprise.

The element of surprise.

Some would say that's the root of all comedy. Not knowing what's coming - even thinking you know what's coming - and then being totally surprised. Chris White has done it, not only with each joke, each theme, or each story, but with this entire project. Going into the album, knowing the story behind the title, you may think you know what's about to unfold.

But you don't.

By the end of the project, with White describing his funeral and encouraging the audience to splurge on theirs, he's taught us a valuable lesson: Laugh through life. It makes it so much more enjoyable.

And, when possible, take requests.

***

Ramon Rivas II's "High Brow"


The new CD by Ramon Rivas II, High Brow, boasts 23 tracks but don't let that fool you. It only clocks in at 21 minutes long so, needless to say, they come and go pretty quickly. On the night of this particular recording Rivas isn't the headliner of the evening's entertainment; he and his abbreviated set are there to serve as crowd warm-up for a sketch group (I know, I know, it sounds like a bit, and at first I thought it was a joke when it's mentioned in Rivas's introduction).

Rivas is likable and relaxed and the crowd warms up to him quickly. His comedy spans topics like being a Puerto Rican/Mexican mix, white people, and white people dealing with him being Hispanic. He also takes on being from a large family (he's got a lot of fodder to work with), living with his sister and dealing with her horrible niece (Rivas' interaction with her brings the first big laugh of the project), and animal appendages (i.e. dogs with no front legs and cats with robot feet).

Although this album isn't jam-packed with huge laugh-out-loud-applause-breaks, Rivas does maintain a consistent pace and keeps the audience laughing throughout his set. That's not to say that there aren't any big laughs and when Rivas does hit, he hits hard. Likewise, a couple of bits -  specifically his new slogans for JoAnn Fabrics - don't  always kill, but Rivas is onto something. It may not have served as the best closing material, but Rivas doesn't let the anticlimactic finale throw him.

The final track is Rivas promoting the comedy shows he produces in the Cleveland area and then introducing the next act ("Are you guys ready for some sketch comedy?!") and it seems to be an awkward note to end on. I've listened to a few albums this year that end with the comedian introducing someone else, and I still haven't quite figured out why those introductions are left in the final mix instead of simply fading out audience applause.

High Brow is a decent introduction to a new comic and the fact that Rivas has it available for download on a name-your-own-price basis makes it easier to take a chance on buying an album from someone you may not be familiar with.

***

High Brow is available for purchase online.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Lavell Crawford's "Can A Brother Get Some Love?"


Let's not beat around the bush here: The new album from Lavell Crawford, Can A Brother Get Some Love?, had me laughing out loud. A lot. Non-stop. From start to finish. I laughed and laughed and laughed and then I laughed some more.

This is one of those albums that actually leaves you feeling better for listening to it; one that guarantees whether you put it on and listen to it with a group of friends or by yourself, you'll have a good time. Crawford's material isn't particularly groundbreaking (game shows, black parents vs white parents, and President Obama) but Crawford himself is a true original and his approach and delivery are what makes this album such a success.

You don't have to see Crawford to know he's a big guy. He sounds heavy, and if you've ever heard Patton Oswalt's "Fat" bit where he talks about "B-word fat...the kind of fat where people can tell that you're fat if they just hear you talking", then you know just what I mean. At times it's a bit hard to understand what Crawford is saying - even his first name sounds more like "ew-ah-ew" than "Lavell" - but he's aware of it and often uses his under-annunciation for dead-on comedic effect.

That being said, Crawford earns kudos for not using his size as the main focus of his material. He mentions it briefly at the very onset but then wisely moves on. He could very easily fall into the same one-trick rut as other plus-sized comedians (yes, I'm looking at you, Gabriel Iglesias. And John Pinette) but Crawford doesn't have to rely on easy jokes to get a laugh. He's better than that.

Much, much better.

Take, for example, his stint on Last Comic Standing. Forget that he didn't win the grand prize. Crawford jumps into what would have happened if he did win, who he would have called from his past, and what he would have told them and it's off to the races from there. Crawford works himself up into a condescending frenzy as he goes down the list of people who wronged him, and each imaginary revenge phone call gets funnier and funnier.

Yes, Crawford is black and yes, it seems the majority of the audience in the theater during the taping of this show is, too, but don't let that for a second classify Crawford as a "black comic." To do so would suggest that Crawford and his material could only be appreciated by African-Americans and there couldn't be an assumption further from the truth. Crawford talks about issues all of us can relate to, from watching "Thundercats" as a kid to how we would really react if it turned out our house was haunted. Even when Crawford does touch on race, it's not done with an approach of exclusivity. Crawford invites everyone in and even if we can't relate first-hand, the material is still made relevant and approachable.

After listening to the album all week, I caught Crawford's special on Comedy Central. If you caught the show, you know already how funny he is. If you only see the show, though, and don't pick up the album, you're denying yourself some of the funniest bits on the project. It's understandable that some things had to go for the sake of time, but at the same time it's a shame what didn't make the final cut. I suppose that's what happens when you're this funny. No matter what gets cut, it's going to be something good. I don't envy the editor who had to cut that special down to from 57 to some 40-odd minutes.

One bit that is especially clever, mostly because he does the entire thing twice in a row, is about a mother giving her son a stern warning of how he needs to behave once they enter a grocery store. She breaks it all down for him: what he needs to do, what he definitely needs to not do, and exactly what will happen to him if he dares to do what he has been told not to do.

After a hilarious portrayal of the frazzled mom giving these directions, Crawford then switches sides and embodies the child, who has been told to repeat what was just told to him in order to ensure he was listening. What happens next is pure comedy gold as Crawford re-tells every last instruction, only this time in the unsure, nervous, deep-voiced persona of the youngster. It's comedy characterization at it's very finest and Crawford plays up every subtle nuance like a pro.

The title of this project asks the question, "Can a brother get some love?" After people spend some time with Lavell Crawford, I don't think that's gonna be a problem.

***

Dan Levy's "Congrats On Your Success"


On his new album Congrats On Your Success , Dan Levy wastes no time in getting straight to the point. There are some things that need to be discussed and some people who need to be taken down a peg or two and doggonit, Dan Levy is the man for the job. He starts in with his terrible cell phone service provider (Levy has T-Mobile because Verizon is too expensive and Sprint ... well ... come on ...he's not homeless) and he continues down the line in rapid-fire succession. No one is safe (including his wife) and no punches are pulled, even when Levy shifts his focus onto himself.

That's one of the reasons Levy gets away with his point-blank attacks so easily; he's not dressed in full combat attire, running around firing an automatic weapon into a crowd of innocent citizens. Levy takes special care to remind us he's just as vulnerable. If nothing else, he's running naked through the streets tossing hand grenades into the air like a chaotic Easter Bunny in a very twisted alternate universe. The fact that he comes away unscathed only proves he's done this before, and he's got some skills.

It takes a guy with real juevos to name one of the tracks on his CD "My Wife Is Not A Bitch" and then proceed to explain why she is (or, more accurately, why she can be seen as bitch-y). Of course, it helps that he counters that with the admission that she is way out of his league. She's hot. He's a "Jewish troll." As he explains people's reactions when they realize who his wife is married to, he's performed a slick sleight-of-hand: By taking a bit that started off poking at his wife and eventually making himself the butt of the joke, he's made us feel comfortable to laugh, regardless of who he goes after, because we know in the end Levy is going to end up looking the worst. It's self-deprecation without feeling like self-deprecation and it's something Levy works well. This guy is good. He's plotted this out Ocean's 11-style, and Terry Benedict is about to get taken again.

Like many skilled comedians, Levy thrives when he finds himself painted in a corner with no obvious escape route. Whether he's dealing with a stripper who's drawn a line for what may very well be the wrong reason, trying to pick up a nurse at an STD clinic, or coping with a roommate who accidentally ate his doctor-prescribed pot cookies, Levy always knows which reaction will garner the most laughs. Sometimes he reacts with a condescending "Really? Are you serious?" approach and sometimes he can't do anything but laugh and throw fuel onto the fire. Regardless of how he decides to react to the situation, the audience can be assured it will be funny.

The album's title track is a particular highlight as Levy relays the time he met an international pop superstar at a shoe store. Not only does Levy paint the perfect example of why he shouldn't be allowed to interact with celebrities, he also brings us a fun impression to share with your friends. More than likely, if someone compliments you on your footwear in the near future, you'll find yourself acknowledging their compliment with a high-pitched, soft-spoken, "Oh dawg, they're my 'whatever whatever' shoes."

Levy closes out the album with a great story about his same-named doppelgänger who has incurred the wrath of Twilight fans everywhere. It's a strong ending to a solid, consistent piece of work that deserves a listen. Dan Levy, job well done.

And, of course, congrats on your success.

***

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Ryan Conner's "Chinese Secrets"


Ryan Conner's new comedy DVD Chinese Secrets is exactly the kind of project you look for from a comedian. I was going to say "new comedian" but the truth is Conner's been kicking around the comedy circuit for quite a while. But, as is life in the world of stand-up, there is no such thing as an overnight success, and one never becomes a skilled comic without first putting in the hours. So although he may be new to you and me, Conner isn't new to the game and this DVD proves it.  Conner is smart, witty, incisive and approachable and he has the crowd on his side from the first moment he takes the stage. He is relaxed and comfortable and with him in the driver's seat, we feel safe. There's no need to check Google Maps or bring along the Tomtom; Conner knows exactly where he's going and he knows the best routes to the punchline like the back of his hand.

Conner walks through this world with his BS-detector set on "high." He isn't afraid to call people out on their ridiculousness, whether it's a Chinese tea scam, an anti-Foreign Language class Southerner, or his girlfriend (whom he assures us isn't retarded.) Even as a child watching his grandmother trying to grasp the process of teaching English to his Vietnamese-born adopted brother, Conner knew there were some things in the world that just didn't jive and fortunately for the rest of us, he hasn't lost that ability to pick up on - and share - those blips in the matrix.

At the same time, Conner doesn't paint himself as completely innocent and he's just as willing to put his own shortcomings under the microscope. He calls himself out for his less-than-stellar attempt at learning a foreign language, accidentally "coming out" on Facebook, his embarrassing Laser Tag PTSD condition, and the cringe-inducing toast he gave at his brother's wedding.

There are a lot of topics covered throughout the hour, but my favorite moments are the longer narratives that come in the final quarter of the project; the tale of his attempt at trash talking during a Fantasy Football season with the help of a random Mike Tyson quote is a particular highlight. Not only does Conner find the funny in the moment itself, but he also fills us in with important backstory that provides just as many laughs. Conner explains why his website address isn't what you would assume it is and then brings down the house with the so-ridiculous-it-has-to-be-true tale of his encounter with a Live Action Role Playing nerd. If you've ever wondered what would happen when modern-day weaponry meets medieval swordplay, your time has come, and this is a battle more epic than anything you've ever seen on Spike's "Deadliest Warrior."

My only real criticism has nothing to do with Conner or his material, but with the recording quality of the project. The audio levels and EQ aren't always optimal, and at times it's a little hard to understand what's being said. Overall, though, it's a minor concern and no reason to pass this one over.

In the end, Chinese Secrets has done exactly what it was meant to do. It showcases Conner and his humor and introduces us to a talented comedian. It also makes me excited for what's to come from Conner in the future. If he continues to bring us comedy like what can be found here, he won't be a secret for long.

***

Chinese Secrets is available at Ryan Conner's website or at any of his live appearances

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Johnny Beehner's "Tiny Wiener"


On his new album, Tiny Wiener, Johnny Beehner shares a few stories about his childhood and how he was laughed at, mostly because his last name is ripe for adolescent rhymes (and also because of a most unfortunate Halloween costume choice. Thanks, Mom). Over the last week, I've found myself laughing at Johnny Beehner as well. Out loud. A lot. Not because of his I-Know-How-It-Sounds,-Mexicans moniker, but because Johnny Beehner is nothing short of hilarious.

Ever since Louis C.K. came out with his album "Hilarious" - and bit - by the same name, I've become very aware of how often I use that word. People tend to overuse it, often times in situations totally devoid of humor, and I've pretty much entirely removed it from my vernacular. In this case, though, the word more than deserves its triumphant return.

Johnny Beehner is hilarious.

Beehner's delivery is original; his authoritative and confident voice booms like an ad executive from Larry Tate's office and gives weight to his stories. Often times, though, what he's talking about is the complete polar opposite of board room professionalism. Imagine Don Draper in an important pitch meeting recounting a Taco Bell drive-thru prank or trying to cope with a hard-to-reach pimple and you'll have an idea of what's going on here.

I know I'm making a bold statement here, but I think it's safe to say there's something on this album - if not, a lot of things - that will have you - or anyone else who listens - laughing out loud. Whether it's the image of him playing T-Ball as a child, big batter's helmet askew on his head, and getting a walk or the description of his day on jury duty and what he did to keep himself occupied, our cat was freaked out by my constant outbursts of laughter. Speaking of cats, you won't want to miss Beehner's impression of the wake-up call he received from his pet feline. I've heard comedians talk about cats and hairballs before, but I've never heard anything quite like this, and I had to press pause on my iPod for a moment or two to recover. By the end of the bit, Beehner receives a very well-deserved applause break.

Beehner's relationship with his wife is also rich in comedic fodder as he spills the beans on her foot massage-getting technique and then explains why he would never be able to adapt the same approach. Disagreements in relationships are only natural and it's fun to hear the Beehners squabble over the little things just like the rest of us, such as choosing which movie to rent and playing the "What if" game that never ends well.

That being said, life outside the house isn't necessarily Beehner-proof, either. It's a lot of fun watching him struggle with friends who refuse to allow him to use his GPS and strangers he encounters in the most awkward of ways in an Olive Garden restroom (a restaurant, it should be noted, that Beehner likes a lot. I mean...he really, REALLY likes the Olive Garden a lot). When he takes a job as a substitute teacher, we aren't disappointed with the tales he has to tell outside of school.

All in all, there isn't anything Beehner encounters that he isn't able to wring big laughs from. His stories are sincerely funny and the way they are constructed is spot on. I'm sure when the kids on the playground were singing phrases like "Johnny Beehner has a tiny wiener," they couldn't imagine how they could possibly get more laughs out of this guy. They probably thought they were the funniest, most clever people on the planet. It may have taken a few years, but Johnny Beehner has proved otherwise. Oh, we're still laughing at him, but now it's on his own terms, and he's overthrown them all.

The playground has a new king.

***

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Marc Maron's "This Has To Be Funny"


Although Marc Maron has been knocking around the comedy world for some time now, I admit I only first stumbled upon his comedy fairly recently. In August of 2010 I was browsing through comedy podcasts and stumbled upon his masterful WTF Podcast. Who was this man who spoke his mind and so freely - and eagerly - confessed his shortcomings and struggles, all while conducting incredible interviews with some amazing comedic minds? I was intrigued and instantly hooked.

Just like you wouldn't (or at least, shouldn't) start in on a TV show you've never seen by picking up in Season 3, I downloaded the entire WTF library and began my Maron appreciation with Episode 1. By that time, WTF had already been chugging along for nearly a year, which meant I was already running 97 episodes behind. According to iTunes, that's about 4.1 days' worth of material. A daunting task sure, but I couldn't get enough of Maron, his guests, his interview style, his insights, and what I felt were conversations with me (albeit very, very one-sided conversations).

Since then, I've been listening whenever I can to try to catch up: at work while videos rendered, in the car, at home, walking to and from the coffee shop, in the coffee shop, on airplanes, even during downtime at music festivals. And I'm still running behind. I'm gaining ground slowly - very slowly - but I am indeed making progress. I started off about 11 months late and I've narrowed that gap down to three.

When I received my copy of Maron's new comedy album, This Has to Be Funny, instead of sighing with an exasperated, "More?" as one might assume would be my reaction, I wasted no time in giving it a listen.  I can't get enough of this guy. What can I say? I'm a fan. Although the title of the CD is This Has to Be Funny, I went into it with the mindset of "This is going to be funny."

And I was right.

There are few things as satisfying as going into something with high expectations and having every one of them met (and even exceeded). My first listen also alleviated any fears I - or other WTF-ers - may have had about material being recycled from his podcast and being presented here as "new." Although Maron touches on topics that will be familiar to his fans (his cats, his parents, his relationships with women) he saved some of his best observations and anecdotes for this album. His WTF podcast once featured an entire episode based on his visit to The Creation Museum outside of Cincinnati. Despite the fact that the longest track on this album is based on that trip, Maron has mined new comedy from that experience and there's no sense of "Oh man, I already heard this."

What I'm trying to say is, there's no excuse to not pick up this album.

As a self-proclaimed writer, one of the things I love most about Maron's comedy is also the thing that intimidates me most: his wonderfully unique use of the English language. He has concocted some amazing phrases that I have already stolen and added to my own Stephenie Meyer-level repertoire. My cat used to sit on my belly and "knead my stomach." Not anymore. Now she's "makin' muffins." A hipster in a fedora with a handlebar mustache used to be described simply as "a dork." Now he "looks like he was interrupted during a shave in the mid-1850s and had to dress quickly as he ran through a time tunnel."

Man, I love that.

I also love it when Maron invites us into his psyche, a virtual behind-the-scenes tour of the factory where his issues are made. There's a lot going on in here but our tour guide is more than familiar with the intricate inner workings (he's spent a generous amount of time inside) and we're in good hands. Sure, it gets loud in here once in a while (Maron's inner rant aimed at a woman on the subway carrying an ice cream maker is classic) but because he's taken the time to explain the process of what we're witnessing, we don't mind. If nothing else, we grow to welcome...to accept...and even look forward to the cacophony of the busyness.

Take the incident of mistaken identity on an airplane. To many comics, it would only be regarded as a 20-second throwaway bit, but Maron takes us beyond that. On the surface it's merely a case of racial profiling but Maron lets himself go deeper. Actually, it's not that he lets himself go deeper, it's more like he's pushed. His mind opens the cellar door and shoves him down the stairs, accusations and insinuations snowballing out of control as he tumbles, self-hatred and loathing for where he's allowing his mind to take him shooting out like sparks from a car that's lost a tire. The real struggle, and where the comedy ultimately is found, is in his sincere and earnest attempt to not let on outwardly to the other passengers and flight crew the chaotic situation that is spiraling out of control inside his head.

Of course, as heady as he may be - an adjective Maron takes issue with - there's real fun to be had when everyday bumps in the road are approached through his analytic processors. His love and concern for his cats (not yours), the responsibilities of a homeowner, and his dad's preference for mustard slacks over his grandchildren: all are approached with identical gravity and caution. Sure, they may not appear to be major life-altering situations upon first glance, but here in the Factory of Maron's Mind you just never know. Safety first. Those hard hats were given to us for a reason.

The album ends with Maron re-enacting a heated argument with his girlfriend (a stalker who won). Just as the conflict reaches its heated apex, we are confronted with an unexpected, sentimental visit from a neighbor. The audience greets this encounter with a hushed, awed expectancy of the unknown. Maron's less-than-impressed initial reaction? "I get it...you're some kind of weird angel."

This has to be funny.

And with Marc Maron, it's nothing but.

***

Michael Ian Black's "Very Famous"


Michael Ian Black. Very Famous.


The album title says a lot.

The persona Black has chosen for his latest stand-up album is one of smug, arrogant, confidence. He stands tall and proud as if surveying his kingdom and looks down upon the rest of us with a knowing smirk. After all, we can only dream to be the person he is, but to dream that dream is an act of futility. He is, after all, very famous.

But, alas and alack, things don't always go the way Black has planned, and therein lies the humor and genius of his comedy. He has found a pedestal to perch upon that is so high and so precariously constructed, much to our delight when he inevitably falls, he doesn't go down gracefully.

Simply put, Black has found away to do slapstick with words.

Black ensures we delight in his folly whether he is unsuccessfully trying to be funny while ordering a make-your-own pizza, unsuccessfully encouraging his children to be creative with their choice of Halloween costumes, or (very) unsuccessfully trying to maintain his reputation of not being a pussy while skydiving. It all builds up to an embarrassingly candid recount of a trip he took to the doctor's office after making an alarming discovery in the bathroom.

There is more here, however, than just tales of misfortune from a man who may have been asking for it. He's a great storyteller who doesn't skimp on details; details that round out his stories and flesh them out into a complete picture. He has an amazing way of keeping himself entertained on an airplane and when he demonstrates the perfectly-named Banana Noises, the theater falls completely silent as the audience watches in rapt attention.

Black revels in his ability to control what the audience feels. He can make them laugh, pause, cringe, or moan upon command and he flexes his ventriloquist muscles with the maniacal glee of a mad doctor. He knows precisely what buttons to push, and when the audience gasps in response to his admittedly-feminine drink of choice or his introduction of Diet Dr. Pepper into the bedroom or his revenge on an ill-mannered kitten in a no-kill shelter, Black feigns surprise at their shocked reaction.

There's a lot going on here, but you'd be remiss to overlook Black's writing and how he constructs his humor. He has perfected the punchline bait-and-switch. He's even bold enough at times to let you know when the punch is coming and still he manages to pull the rug out from underneath your feet when it's least expected. Through inflection and timing he gives you a quick peek at the cards he is holding, almost daring you to get to the punchline before he does. Trust me, it won't happen.

He intentionally leads you down a well-lit street to give you a feeling of security and familiarity and then pelts you with paint-filled balloons from the rooftops overhead when you least expect it. If he were to make you a salad, your choices for dressing would be French, Italian, and an ottoman.

Despite all of the snarky self-assuredness, Black never comes across as unlikable, another testament to his writing and stage presence. We all know he's in on the joke and as a result, we enjoy spending time with him. When our time with him comes to an end, it's all too soon.

As if you weren't already impressed with how skilled he is as a writer and performer, he wraps up the show with the ultimate callback. When done properly, you never see a callback coming and Black is a master of camouflage. He's Arnold covered in mud waiting to pounce on the Predator.

"Very famous?" Black cites a few examples of why that may or may not be true.

But "very funny?" This album speaks for itself, and the answer is a resounding "yes."

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