Monday, September 26, 2011

Lewis Black's "The Prophet"


Lewis Black's The Prophet is undoubtedly the most unusual project I've reviewed since Comedy Reviews first popped online. Although it is technically a "new release" the material was recorded wayyyyyy back in 1990. Researchers and archivists have delved deep into the annals of comedy and unearthed this treasure trove of never-before-released material from one of the great comedians working today.

This album is a must-have for comedy fans, as it gives us a rare glimpse at Black as a young(er) comic, still working out the kinks and finding his voice. It's an amazing study of stand-up, as we can see what aspects of his comedy he chose to keep and perfect and what he decided to leave behind. If nothing else, this project serves as further proof of Black's ear for comedy and what clicks with the crowd.

As a guy who's spent more than his fair amount of time listening to the director's commentary on more than his fair share of DVDs, one thing I've grown to admire about good directors is their ability to recognize scenes of a film that don't help move the story along and end up on the cutting room floor. A lot of those excised scenes share a common thread: They were really hard to say goodbye to. Often times it's a scene that was one of the director's personal favorite pieces of the movie and they had to come to the sobering realization that, as much as they love it as a stand-alone moment, ultimately it had to go.

Likewise, Black has made similar decisions with his approach to the craft of comedy. I can't speak for him and say it broke his heart to leave certain things behind, many of them bits that garnered respectable laughs, but I certainly commend him for his ability to step back and take a big-picture look at where we was at and assess whether or not it was where he wanted to be.

Which is why this review won't have any real "critiques" to offer. Let's be honest: There really wouldn't be any point to it because Black has already made the necessary alterations to his act that needed to be made in order for him to be the successful and highly-regarded comic he is today. The album serves as one of the best educational resources a new comic could get his hands on.

The CD starts off with a Black I wasn't familiar with and hardly recognized. His delivery was less frazzled and manic and more standard observational comic. At times his timing and inflection reminded me of Paul Reiser (of all people) and it was definitely interesting to hear Black speaking in such a different voice.

As Black covered standard comedy topics like crazy people in New York City, NyQuil, and being unable to smoke on planes, at times it's almost impossible to see Black for the comedian he would ultimately become over time. In fact, early on in his set the only glimpse of his trademark Furious Anger is in his crowd work. When he's cut off by an over-enthusiastic audience member, Black's switch is flipped -- and flipped big time -- and he unleashes both barrels on the poor guy with such a white-hot intensity, it seems to take the crowd a few moments to recover.

But when Black finally comes to his bread and butter -- politics, government, and the corruption found therein -- he shines. This is who he was meant to be. He finds his happy medium between hardly-angry and way too angry and the laughs really start to roll in. Black has shifted his laser sites from the audience to The Man and he finds he gets the biggest reactions when he asks the crowd to join his side rather than draw a line in the dirt and square off against them. He's found that Don't talk back to me! doesn't work nearly as well as Can you believe what these guys over here are telling us?!

Not only is this project an illuminating look at one comic's evolution, it's also an incredible study of humanity. Of all the amazing discoveries that came with listening, the one that stood out and most struck a chord with me is just how much history truly repeats itself. Comedy fans aren't the only ones who will appreciate this release. Students of government, sociology, political science, and economics will also marvel at the hot-button issues Black addressed then that are still with us today.

A few of the parallels that leapt out include:
  • An oil spill (the Exxon Valdez) and the laughable response from the oil company
  • President Bush (then George Sr.) and his lack of reaction to an ecological disaster
  • A high-ranking government official and a "conflict of interest" (or claimed lack thereof) regarding his current position and previous employer
  • Frustration with our inability to track down and capture one of our 'most wanted' (Manuel Noriega here)

Wow. Any of those stories sound like anything you've heard in the last few years? It was mind-boggling to listen and come to the realization that, yep...we really do make the same mistakes over and over again if we don't bother to learn from them the first time around.

Going into this project, I was curious to hear what Black sounded like 20 years ago, with 20 years less experience, and with the news of 20 years ago as the fuel to his fire. Sure, it was fun to hear the small differences in his act from then to now, but I was also impressed to see what was still the same.  What Black excelled at then -- pointing out the insanity swirling around The Powers That Be -- is still his strongest suit today.

And, if we as a society continue on the path we're on -- and apparently have been for the last couple of decades -- Black will have more than enough material to work with for the next 20 years.

It's a real eye-opener to see just how deeply we may be stuck in a rut, but as long as Black is here to be the guy prodding us to take a different path, it's a comfort knowing that at the very least we've got 20 more years of solid laughter to look forward to.

***

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Hal Sparks's "Escape From Halcatraz"


If Bobby Slayton is "The Pitbull of Comedy" then I think it's fair to call Hal Sparks "The Pomeranian of Punchlines." I admit that may not sound like the most flattering of comparisons, but it's not meant to be a criticism or putdown. Where Slayton is rough, gruff, and comes right at you, on his new album Escape From Halcatraz Sparks is full of happy energy with a manic desire to please. He desperately wants to entertain and he pours everything he has into telling a story, his excitedness turning into yippy fits that wreak havoc on his throat (I can imagine vocal coaches everywhere cringing as they listen to Sparks destroy his voice with his uncontrolled-yet-strained shrieks, wails, and attempts at an operatic falsetto).

The album begins with a grinding guitar riff that gets the audience riled up and ready for a comedy rock and roll show. Sparks is out to capture the essence of an anything-can-happen Dane Cook-esque extravaganza and he goes all in; his physicality and penchant for voices and imitating sound effects such as explosions and rapid-fire paintball guns only add to the high octane level of the performance.

It doesn't take much to get Sparks going. Something as minute as baseball players' uniforms, plastic bags in the road, or the names of TV reality programs can set him off like one of those fireworks you nail to a board and watch spin crazily out of control, bright sparks shooting out in all directions. Digressing back to the Pomeranian analogy, when Sparks digs his teeth into something, he doesn't let go. He holds on with all of his might and shakes the hell out of it, growling the whole time with the fervor of a canine guarding his favorite chew toy.

On ESPN broadcasting poker tournaments: Rrrrawwwarrrrrrr!!

People who yell "Get a job!" at bums: GrrrrrrrrrrrrrARRRggghhh!

Tiny little bugs that fly around for no reason: Arrgggh!!! Rarrrrgh argggghhhH!!!

Of course, most of the fun comes from watching Sparks whip himself into a frenzy. At times he seems to lose track of where he is as his ravings appear to spiral out of his control (we get it, you love doing an impression of a dinosaur), but that's just part of what is actually cleverly-organized pre-programmed chaos and Sparks is always able to tie everything together and get back around to his original story.

That's not to imply that Sparks isn't able to  focus on the task at hand. In fact, my favorite moments of the album come when he digs in and goes into his lengthier pieces. His bit on his Kentucky accent (or lack thereof) and the South in general and all it encompasses is very funny. Sparks is able to breathe new life into such topics as NASCAR, tornado alley, and tackling an automated phone service such as 411 armed only with a backwoods drawl.

I think it's safe to say everyone knows there are trends in pretty much all branches of entertainment. One successful volcano movie sparks another and for each popular throwback to a bygone era like Mad Men comes The Playboy Club and PanAm. Stand-up comedy is not immune to trending and two little words  -- airline food -- are a perfect example. Right now, for whatever reason and of all things, the opening movement to composer Carl Orff's "Carmina Burana" (I. O Fortuna") seems to be popping up all over the place. Sparks's take on it, however, sets itself apart from the others I've heard recently and, as funny as it is as part of his opener, when it pops up again later in the CD the callback is a well-executed hit.

The last track, about Sparks's adventure on a paintball course and how it transformed him into someone mad with power ("I hate guns, I've always hated guns, but after playing paintball for 10 minutes I was like, "I don't even need my dick anymore!!"). Sparks excels at recreating the tensions of war as he walks us through his vengeful capture the flag mission. As the final minutes of the game tick away, the suspense mounts and we cling to his every word. By dialing back a bit, the crowd naturally leans forward to take in each detail. We're there with him and before long we want Sparks to emerge victorious just as much as he does.

Before listening to this project, I was familiar with Sparks's work as an actor and performer through various TV appearances but not as a stand-up comedian. After listening, I think it's a fair statement to say stand-up comedy is where I feel he belongs. It lets him be just who he needs to be and doesn't confine him; Sparks thrives the most when he is left to his own devices. Sure, Pitbulls are fun because they're dangerous; you never know when they're going to suddenly snap and bite your face off.

But there's also something to be said for a Pomeranian. They're spontaneous and cute and they let you hold them in your arms.

And that's when they snap and bite your face off.

Cue: "I. O Fortuna."

FADE TO BLACK.

**

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Tommy Ryman's "Bath Time with Tommy Ryman"


If you aren't familiar with comedian Tommy Ryman, then by all means it's time to hop in the tub.

Bath Time with Tommy Ryman is a fun project from a comedian whose zealous energy and eager optimism make for solid laughs. Ryman looks -- and sounds -- much younger than his age (he tells us he's 26) and he approaches comedy knowing full well he's a book who's going to be judged based on the cover. Ryman knows he doesn't look his age and the choices he makes on approaching the topic are all smart ones. He could have played against type a la Roger Rabbit's adorable-yet-gruff cigar-smoking Baby Herman but that probably would have been a little predictable. Instead, Ryman plays right along with our first impression of him as he confesses he still goes to the park dressed in a Little League baseball outfit and asks people if they've seen his dad ("Have you seen him? He said 4:00.").

Ryman's friendly outlook and positive demeanor almost immediately endears him to the crowd. His tone is wide-eyed and hopeful and he relates stories with the enthusiasm of a young child telling you all about his vacation to New York City. At times his delivery is reminiscent of a young David Spade if David Spade wasn't bitter, snarky, and fed up with everyone. Instead, Ryman holds out his hand to the listener with a big smile as if to playfully say, "Come on, you guys, I wanna show you somethin'!"

Of course, we follow Ryman as he goes bounding through the forest, pointing out all sorts of cool things he's discovered along his journey thus far. And yes, the things he has to show us are well worth the occasional vine or tree branch that may snag your foot and momentarily trip you up along the way.

His parents' divorce, being dumped by his girlfriend at the zoo, and being attacked by pirates; heavy topics that might otherwise bring the mood down and send the comic into a spiral of self-pity and depression. Not Ryman. It'll take more than this to get him down, mostly because the events -- as overwhelming as they can be -- are also accompanied by a silver lining. There's still plenty of cereal, the pirates have on life jackets, and at least the monkeys look like they're having fun.

There are a couple of spots on the album that are still a little rough around the edges. Ryman has a few bits that are close to being there, he's just about got it, but he's not quite there just yet. For example, the story about his mother coming out of the closet is great and Ryman gets big laughs with it, but the final moments of the bit drop off and fizzle out. Things get quiet for a couple of moments but Ryman does what any good comedian does, and he carries on. Although he slips up and loses his footing for a few seconds, it doesn't faze him in the least and he's recovered and back on track in no time.

One thing I really liked about this album is how light it is. There are some comedians whose work I enjoy but afterward, I feel like I need to take a nap. Ryman doesn't mess with politics, religion, and other subjects you shy away from when the in-laws are around. He keeps it simple and breezy, and I appreciate that. This may not sound like a compliment but when I say I like that I can listen to Ryman without having to think, I mean it in the best possible way. It's not a bad thing at all and I get into and appreciate the lighter comics just as much as the intellectual heady guy next door. I enjoy PBS's Masterpiece Mystery series, but sometimes I prefer Community. I've gotten a few good nuggets out of C.S. Lewis's writings but it's usually with more than a bit of effort and when I just want to relax and unwind, I have nothing against re-reading my favorite Stephen King novel.

Likewise, I love - love - listening to comedians who make me think. Guys like Lewis Black, Dennis Miller, and Marc Maron bring up some valid points about important issues but sometimes...sometimes you just wanna light a few candles,  turn off the phone, and get away.

And what better way to spend that down time than by having a little Bath Time with Tommy Ryman.

***

Monday, September 19, 2011

Patton Oswalt's "Finest Hour"


With his latest release, Finest Hour, Patton Oswalt has pretty much pigeonholed himself (I promise that's not nearly as dirty as it sounds). But I suppose if someone consistently releases one amazing album after another, that's bound to happen.

And I'm not complaining.

There are comedians whose work I enjoy and, with each new project they put out there, I find myself hoping it's as good as I believe it will be. With Oswalt, he has changed "I hope" to "I know it will be." Even before I listened to the first track, I knew I was going to spend the next 60+ minutes laughing uncontrollably and Oswalt didn't prove me wrong. Stand-up comedy is indeed a true art form and that's made all the more apparent when a true artiste (he deserves the fancy extra "e" spelling and pronunciation) takes the stage.

As Oswalt is introduced he is greeted with a thunderous applause that seems to take him aback. He humbly responds with, "Nothing I'm going to say will live up to that," but nothing could be further from the truth. Oswalt is such a master craftsman of comedy that pretty much everything he says is deserving of illiciting such a response from the audience.

Albums like this are especially difficult to review, but in a good way. Every one of the 23 tracks found here are so good, it's hard to single any of them out. But, in order to keep this review to a reasonable length, I'll try. There are so many laugh-out-loud moments here, many of them coming out of nowhere and catching you off-guard, that it's almost not fair to other comics.

I love Oswalt's comedy because his humor is one that lingers. I found myself laughing once when I would hear Oswalt mutter phrases like "I want all the ham" and then a second, third, fourth, and even fifth time as I replayed it over and over in my head. This is definitely an album that requires repeated listenings so you can go back and hear what you missed while you were laughing your head off (At the very least, it will require constant pause/rewind combinations).

Oswalt is a comedian whose comedy thrives in the mundane. It doesn't take much to get the funny rolling and in fact some of the best moments are ones we've all encountered: sweat pants in public, vowing to get in shape (this time for real!), and the things we say out loud when we're alone in our cars. Oswalt's re-creation of nonsense that spews from his mouth while he's driving alone will reduce you to tears, more than partly because we've all been guilty of making the same random sound effects and we've all penned more than a few songs that are nothing short of utter ridiculousness.

Of course, Oswalt also has a knack for finding himself in situations that could/would only happen to him. Perhaps it's the comedy gods' way of keeping him steeped in fodder for more side-splitting bits. After all, who else but Oswalt would encounter the man whose super power is the Zorro-like ability to use a vomit bag? Who else wants to be the first-and-only non-ironic visitor to the Spam Museum and only Oswalt would find himself darting through a grocery store in order to stifle his laughter after witnessing a man whose meat order consists only of five words; Five words that, when spoken in Oswalt's obese-guy voice, are the five funniest words you may have ever heard strung together.

Whether he is marveling at the mysterious power of cursive writing (and how it makes your signature say EwwwwwOOOOOOOoooooo!), explaining how dreams work (and the effect of Ambien on that process), or recounting the time his brother turned Jerry Maguire into the funniest movie ever made, Oswalt relays each story with masterful precision. He's perfected every nuance of each of his stories: the wording, his inflection, his timing, the order in which he divulges information pertinent to the story, and it's all done with the most comedic impact possible.

No one hits like Oswalt. He's like an MMA fighter out for the ultimate revenge and he doesn't pull a single punch. He hits us with one comedy wallop after another and he does so without any sign of fatigue (despite his story about becoming winded from impromptu dance parties with his daughter).

Just when we think we've made it out unscathed, when we've had a chance to catch our breath and regain our footing, comes the encore and whatever Oswalt may have had left over in his arsenal in unleashed at point-blank range. If you've ever wondered what it would be like to be shot in the face with a missile launcher packed full of killer comedy, this is it.

Oswalt re-visits his famous KFC "failure pile in a sadness bowl" bit and relays to us the aftermath of having it blow up and take on a life of its own. It's the perfect cap to an already-flawless performance and Oswalt deserves the encore of applause and cheers that began the project over an hour ago.

Despite the fact all of Oswalt's previous CDs have been nothing short of amazing (His album My Weakness Is Strong deservedly landed itself on my Top 10 List of 2009), the title of this newest outing could not be any more appropriate. Each Oswalt CD has been the epitome of what stand-up comedy can -- and should -- be but this time around is it.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is indeed Patton Oswalt's Finest Hour.

*

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Deacon Gray's "Revival (Of The Fittest)"


I feel bad for Deacon Gray. He's a comedian who also happens to be a Christian. Some people refer to him as a "Christian comedian" which I guess is technically correct, but it's also a bit misleading. For some reason we feel compelled to put comics who also profess to be Christians in that "Christian Comedian" box, yet you never really hear other comics referred to as Bob "The Agnostic Comic" or Frank "The Greek Orthodox Funny Guy." One of the reasons I'm wary of such labels is because there is a difference between a comedian who is a Christian and "Christian comedy."

A huge difference.

As someone who grew up as both a Christian and a comedy nut, it didn't take me long to differentiate between the two. Comedians who are also Christians are just like any other comics: Some are funny, some not so much. Regardless of someone's religious affiliation (or lack thereof), if a comic is funny, they're funny. If they're not so funny, then they're not so funny. It's not about their preferred religious label. When it comes down to it, did they make me laugh?

"Christian comedy" is something entirely different. If there's one thing growing up in the church taught me about comedy, it's that you don't really have to be that funny as long you speak loudly, you've got a Southern accent, and you have frosted tips (this rule applies to both sexes). For guys, it's a bonus if you have a goatee and wear a shell necklace. How ironic that Christian comedy is more about the image than the content.

Which all brings me back to my original point (did you think I'd ever make it back?). I feel bad for Deacon Gray because I think it's pretty accurate when I say that when someone hears "Christian" in the comedy world, they automatically think "Christian comedy." On his new album Revival (of the Fittest) , Deacon Gray proves why making such an assumption makes an ass out of you and Balaam.

It's obvious Gray has spent his fair amount of time in the church and his familiarity has given him a fresh outlook for his arsenal of wry observations. His comedy doesn't come at the church institution but rather emerges from the inside out. The interstitial sketches between his live comedy take the aspects of organized religion that so need to be addressed -- mega churches with directories more complicated than the Mall of America, homophobia, Christian radio, and yes, Christian comedy -- and gives them exactly what they have coming.

It should be noted, though, that Gray's comedy is neither mean-spirited nor hateful. He's not attacking the church as much as he's just sitting them down and saying, "Seriously, you guys? Do you even realize what this looks like?"

Not all of the in-between bits are as solid as his stand-up, but they serve as nice palette cleansers and take us on a journey about Gray who, having realized he's been mistaken for a "Christian comedian," tries to figure out how to deal with the fact he's been booked at a church and the navigation of the publicity stops that go with it.

As a stand-up comedian Gray is very friendly and approachable. It doesn't take one long to see that Gray hasn't come to the party with ulterior motives. All he wants to do is make people laugh and the crowd immediately latches on to his every word. Three of Gray's brothers are preachers (something that, because the album appears to be culled from different performances, we're told no less than three times -- one for each brother!) and this is perfect fodder for Gray's comedic sensibilities. Whether he's snickering at the pop-culture misinformation he's feeding them or explaining why he hasn't had hot turkey in years (think about it), Gray is the perfect foible for his sanctified siblings.

For me, the real highlights of the CD came not when he was doing material on/about the church but when he shared a couple of correspondences he received. The first is a holiday letter written to him by his mother and as he reads it aloud, he can't help but titter at the unintentionally funny things she's decided to share. Gray wisely saves the other communique, arguably his strongest bit, as the closer of his show. It's a list he received from a client of words he cannot say while onstage at an upcoming corporate event for fear of insulting the employees. As the words -- identified only by their first letter -- continue to be listed off, it got so ridiculous I nearly laughed my F-ing A off and P-ed my pants.

One track in particular stood out to me. It's a pre-produced piece done more in the vein of NPR than stand-up. It tells the story of a family vacation Gray and his family took when he was younger and its poignancy is nothing less than beautiful storytelling at its finest. And, as a guy who's spent the last 12 years in radio, I can't not mention how much I love Gray's This American Life/Book On Tape-like voice. Please tell me he's also doing voiceover work and making millions of dollars at it.

Revival (of the Fittest)  is a fun album that should break Deacon Gray out of the "Christian comedian" box and land him directly where he belongs: With monikers and descriptors that are much more fitting, like
  • Storyteller.
  • Funny guy.
  • Friendly.
  • Welcoming.
  • Insightful.
  • Witty.
  • Christian.
  • Comedian.

***

Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Sklar Brothers' "Hendersons and Daughters"


After my first listen to the new album from The Sklar Brothers, Hendersons and Daughters, I felt compelled to write an email to their record label requesting a warning sticker be added to the CD. Maybe something along the lines of:
WARNING!!
Listening to this album in the gym
while on the treadmill
may cause you to lose your footing
and almost fall off multiple times
making you look like an idiot
in front of strangers. 

It's true. 

The back-and-forth between the brothers Sklar is so hilarious and cleverly-timed, each of them volleying back and forth with one killer aside after another, that on three separate occasions I just about bit it.

The Sklars work perfectly together, their rapid-fire exchange flows like a finely-tuned precision machine. They have perfected the craft of being able to talk over one another without taking away from what the other is saying. Their conversations aren't unlike something you'd find on Curb Your Enthusiasm or It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Although there are moments when everyone is speaking at the same time, you're still able to hear and process everything that's being said. And everything everyone is saying is funny. It's almost comedy overload, but in a good way.

True, there are only two Sklars at work here, but they so seamlessly move in and out of various personalities, first explaining the premise and then acting it out, it's like you're listening to a full-on cast. The Sklars' ability to slip in and out of re-enactments so quickly can be a bit jarring at first, especially on an audio project, as the timbre of their voices is so similar it can take a second or two for you to pick up on which of them is talking - or that they've slipped into characters at all.

The only other aspect that may take a few minutes to get used to is they speak in plural possessive. Instead of "Here's what I saw" or "I was playing with my kid" one of the brothers will begin the setup with "Here's what we saw" or "We were playing with our kids."

Don't worry though. Those aren't even criticisms, just minor adjustments you'll get used to that comes with the territory of listening to a comedy team rather than a single person on stage. The bonus is the fact that because these are two really funny guys working together, we're pretty much guaranteed to hear fresh approaches to every topic they tackle. Other comics can do quick re-enactments of a situation, but not the way the Sklars can. Having two guys on stage allows them to have an actual conversation, overlap sentences, and - when called for - speak in unison to hammer a point home.

The show begins with a great bit on Google and the disturbingly violent tendencies of its search engine powers and immediately you can see how well these two work off of one another. They work so well together (they're twins, so it's almost cheating) I couldn't help but think of the last time I heard a comic duo gel like this. Sure, there have been some great comedy teams over the years like Cheech & Chong and Brooks & Reiner's 2000 Year-Old Man, but if you want to find a pairing who bring as many consistent laughs as The Sklar Brothers, who flows the way they do, who makes conversation sound like actual conversation, and who branch off into simultaneous rants yet still manage to converge and meet back on the same word in a way that would make David Addison and Maddie Hayes take notice, you'd have to go all the way back to Abbott & Costello.

As iconic and (still) hilarious as Abbott & Costello are (were?), The Sklar Brothers have one thing in their arsenal that sets them apart and beyond. They will take something as simple as a nursery rhyme - in this case, "Five Little Monkeys" - and marvel at how popular it is. After they've set the stage and gotten some good laughs out of it, they will then become the characters (in this case, the doctor on the phone who is inundated with calls about jumping monkeys) and explain how insane the idea of it is by acting it out as if it actually happened in the real world. (This bit, by the way, is one of the bits that almost caused me to experience true treadmill fail.)

This same approach kills every time, whether they're taking the roles of Hoarder & Hoarder Psychologist, Arnold Schwarzenegger & Off-Camera Film Crew, or Snow White & Her Princely Husband not living happily ever after. The Sklars have managed to take the subtle nuances that occur between two people, regardless of their relationship to one another, and shine a spotlight on them; they're the little quirks we all recognize but probably never consciously made note of. Until now.

The Sklars don't only bring big funny when they're in the skin of other characters. They also take on topics as themselves with the skill of a well-seasoned news team, albeit a team that prefers to report on Margaret Cho as Mr. Miyagi in a Karate Kid remake or what racist hats would look like.

Simply put, Hendersons and Daughters is an amazing project packed with tons of laughs. There are no "Let's skip this one" tracks to be found and the humor doesn't diminish an iota with repeated listenings.

In closing, the only negative aspect I could come up with about the Sklars being a brother/comedy team is the fact that there are two of them instead of one. That means they have to split the profits they make from their record sales, and that bums me out. So much funny for half the money? Dude(s), that sucks.

Fortunately, I've come up with a solution, and it's a pretty simple one: Buy the album twice.

***

Jamie Kilstein's "Libel, Slander & Sedition"


I'm a fan of George Carlin.

To put it more precisely, I'm a fan of his early to mid-career comedy. After that, he kind of dropped off for me. As he got older his comedy got angrier and the angrier he was, the less I laughed. Carlin would shout and yell and scream himself into a frenzy and I would walk away feeling like I just got shouted at and yelled at and screamed at for an hour.

It's not that I don't like "angry" comedy. Some of my favorite comics working today are known for their furiously hilarious anger (Joe DeRosa, Auggie Smith, or Lewis Black come to mind). I also don't write someone off simply because their ideals don't match mine. If someone makes me laugh, then they make me laugh. I don't agree with everything Bill Maher says but he can make me laugh. The same goes with comics like Marc Maron and Bill Burr. There are some topics on which I couldn't disagree with them more, but they still crack me up and it's safe to say they're two of my favorites comics out there today. Funny is funny.

What I'm trying to do here is to re-iterate the fact that just because I don't see eye-to-eye with someone, that doesn't mean I can't appreciate and enjoy their humor. Jumping back to George Carlin for a second, he never really changed what he talked about throughout his career. His stance on drugs, God, religion, the government, the media, and people in general never really wavered. But it was how he got his point across as he got older that caused me to drift. Through the years his rage seemed to lose its comedic slant and the more sincerely angry he became, the less I cared.

Which (finally, I know) brings me to the task at hand: Jamie Kilstein's Libel, Slander & Sedition. I've heard others compare him to Maron or Louis CK, but I propose he's more in the Carlin camp.

Mostly because of all of the yelling.

Kilstein starts off the recording by asking, "Who likes masturbation?" and from that point on he makes it his mission to see how many people he can get to walk out (and yes, a few do. You'd never know it, as they slip out quietly and without incident - for the most part - but Kilstein draws attention to it each time, his voice almost cackling with an evil satisfaction as he taunts and teases them, screaming about the "wave of hate" they're spreading throughout the room). 

Toward the beginning of his set, Kilstein has a few bits I enjoyed that were genuinely funny. There's a clever bit on Wal-Mart, its impact on local communities, and the best way to "thank" them for all they've done for the small business owner. There's also a really clever analyzation of one person's claim that Barack Obama is the best president ever.

Up until this point, it's been a fun time and we're in the early-George Carlin phase of the show.

And then...then the screaming really begins.

Apparently Kilstein hates Christians.

In honor of Kilstein and his delivery throughout the entire rest of the album - 54 minutes - I will finish this review typing in all caps. Annoying? Maybe. But perhaps it'll give you a bit of a taste of what it's like at a Kilstein show.

WHERE WAS I?

OH YEA, THAT'S RIGHT! KILSTEIN HATES CHRISTIANS! HE HATES CHRISTIANS AND RELIGION AND GOD AND CHRISTIANS SO MUCH, HE CAN'T HELP BUT WORK HIMSELF UP INTO A FUROR, WHICH IS KIND OF IRONIC CONSIDERING THAT HE TAKES A PAGE OR TWO OUT OF THE TV PREACHER HANDBOOK AND BEGINS TO TALK SO FAST, BARELY STOPPING FOR BREATHS, AND IN SUCH A FRENZY, THAT THE AUDIENCE CAN'T HELP BUT BE WORKED UP JUST LIKE THOSE PREACHERS DO ON TV THAT KILSTEIN HATES SO MUCH. AND THE MORE THE AUDIENCE GETS WORKED UP, THE FASTER KILSTEIN TALKS, AND THE LOUDER HE SHOUTS, THE HOARSER AND HOARSER HIS VOICE BECOMES AND BY THE WAY, HE HATES CHRISTIANS!! WHAT A BUNCH OF DUMMIES!!

OH LOOK!! THERE'S MORE PEOPLE WALKING OUT OF MY SHOW! THEY MUST NOT BE ABLE TO TAKE IT!! HA! YOU GUYS THAT STUCK AROUND ARE THE COOL PEOPLE, THOSE OTHER PEOPLE CAN'T HANDLE THESE TRUTH BOMBS I'M DROPPING!!!! AND, HEY, MAYBE IF I TALK FAST ENOUGH AND USE ENOUGH "IF/THEN" COMPARISONS AND CONVINCE YOU THAT MY INTERPRETATION OF THINGS IS FACT, THEN MAYBE YOU'LL GET EVEN MORE RILED UP AND CHEER LOUDER FOR ME THE NEXT TIME I PAUSE TO TAKE A BREATH WHICH WON'T BE FOR A LITTLE WHILE YET BUT JUST WAIT FOR IT BECAUSE WHEN I DO YOU GUYS ARE GONNA CHEER SO SO LOUD AND BE ON MY SIDE BECAUSE I'M SCREAMING, I'M REALLY SCREAMING HERE, AND IF I'M SCREAMING THIS LOUDLY, THEN I MUST BE RIGHT, AM I RIGHT???!!!!!

OK. I'm gonna stop now. I'm starting to annoy myself.

But did you notice how, as I typed in all caps, I kinda lost control of this review? It stopped becoming a review as much as it just kind of became a pointless rant about nothing. That's what I took away from Kilstein. The louder (and longer) he shouted, the less comedy I heard. It became less about the laughs and more about the crusade.

I fInd it interesting that the louder someone shouts, the less interested I become in what they say. Maybe it's just me. Maybe it's just an "Ed" thing. But it's almost like the crazy guys on the street corner in Manhattan screaming about everyone going to hell. The more red-faced and manic they become, the less credence I give them and soon, despite the volume of their caterwauling, they just kind of fade into the background.

It took George Carlin his entire career to go from hilarious razor-sharp observer to crazy old guy screaming. Jamie Kilstein got there in an hour. I guess maybe I should be impressed, but I don't know. I kinda lost interest. Anyone who screams loud enough will find people to listen to them. They're bound to find people who agree and are like-minded and that's fine.

Me? I'll be over here snickering at the crazy screaming dude on the corner.

***

Friday, September 9, 2011

T.J. Miller's "The Extended Play EP"


Can I be honest?

I mean, like, really really honest?

I guess I owe it to you to be honest, right? That's kinda the point of this blog. To listen to comedy and let you know what I liked and what I didn't; to give you my very humble opinion on what may be worth your hard-earned money and what might not.

And so it is with that mindset that I must let you know what I thought of The Extended Play EP, the new project from T.J. Miller.

Just a heads up before we go any further: If you're a friend or relative of Miller's, you might wanna skip this review.

The truth is, I didn't care for this album.

I really, really, really, genuinely, sincerely, and with all of my heart didn't care for this album.

I was looking forward to listening to this album, as I have enjoyed Miller's work in various movies and he made me genuinely laugh during Cloverfield as the guy holding the camera who gets funnier and funnier as the suspense escalates. I wasn't aware that Miller did stand-up and after perusing the press release that accompanied my copy of this project touting his various awards and accolades he's received as a comic, I was excited to give this a listen.

I suppose I just didn't "get" it. When I read that he was one of  "10 Comics to Watch" or made a "hot list" of comics to keep an eye on, I just assumed Miller would be performing stand-up on this project. Or...at the very least...comedy.

Instead what I was treated to was over an hour of really bad pseudo-rap music.

Just...just not good at all.

Miller isn't much of a lyricist - even for a rapper - and none of the songs had much in the way of hooks or catchy beats. But, again, maybe I just didn't get it. I'm not sure what he was going for. Was he trying to be bad? Is that where the humor was supposed to be? Or did he buy ProTools and spend a weekend goofing around in his home recording songs he thought were actually good songs?

The project had a real feeling of sincerity in that Miller was actually trying to make songs that might actually sound good but he came up short. That's one of the reasons why acts like The Lonely Island and Jon LaJoie succeed. Their songs sound like actual songs you would hear on the radio. That they also manage to be funny on top of sounding legit is the real coup. And even when, for example, The Lonely Island records songs that are intended to sound cheesy like their Guy #1/Guy #2 songs, it's done with tongue firmly in cheek.

That's not the case with this album. I don't think it's bad on purpose. I think....I think it's just bad.

During the course of the album, Miller makes a lot jokey references to the fact that he's white and he's not good at rapping, but it rings so true it loses all sense of humor. It's almost as if Miller feels he is supposed to say he's not good in order to get a laugh. But, deep down, I believe Miller thinks he's got actual talent as a rapper and songwriter.

I could be way off base but, I'll say it again, if that was his intention, I didn't get it.

There are a series of rap "battles" on the project whose premises are so hacky and formulaic, they never have a chance to rise to the occasion. ("Hey, I know, let's have a rap battle but instead of insulting you, I'll actually say nice things instead! Ha ha ha! And in the next one, how about you be really good at rap and then on my turn, I'll actually be really bad! Ha ha ha ha ha! This is hilarious!") 

On another song, Miller performs an-Owl City inspired tune. But...there are no jokes. Nothing funny at all about it. It's just a poorly-written song. If the gag was supposed to be the fact that Miller auto-tuned his voice...well...yea...I'm gonna need more than that. I wonder if maybe Miller doesn't really have ambitions to be a legitimate artist and, after playing this track back for his friends, they laughed at it and he had to play it off with an "Oh yea, I meant it to sound like that, heh heh heh...of  course I wasn't being serious! I'll just add a bit of goofy narration at the end to make sure to let people know I wasn't being serious when I recorded this, heh heh heh."

About four songs into the project, I felt myself wishing for Bo Burnham to pop up. Miller tried to be clever with his lyrics but...that's just it. You can feel him trying and he's really trying hard and that's just it. Bo Burnham flows. It's like he can't not speak in cleverly humorous rhymes. He doesn't need to try because he's a natural.

And then it happened. I got my wish.

Bo Burnham actually does appear on the album in two different tracks and it's almost too painful to listen to because he's so good. His appearance only reminded me of how good Miller isn't and it made me wish I was listening to Bo Burnham's album instead. As it is on every other song with a collaborator, Miller plays the part of the "Hey you be a good rapper and I'll pretend like I'm bad" guy and if the gag wasn't old the first time around, I guarantee it will be the fourth, fifth, 10th, 12th, and 33rd time he tries it.

I wish I were exaggerating, but no. There are over 30 songs on this album and if that's not proof of a vanity project by someone who doesn't know how to leave something on the cutting room floor, I don't know what is. Did he leave anything out?

Seriously. The album is over an hour long, and in this case, that's not a good thing. It drags on and on and on and after listening to so many sub-par songs in a row, I found myself in a helluva foul mood. Not really the effect you want your comedy to have on people, methinks.

If Miller does stand-up comedy, I really would be genuinely interested in watching him. I know he can be funny and I still enjoy his work as an actor and I'd be curious to see how he does on stage. I honestly believe he'd be pretty good at it.

But as a rapper/singer/songwriter? I don't know. I couldn't recommend this album to anyone and have a clear conscience about it.

But hey, could I interest you in this Bo Burnham CD instead?

***

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Wyatt Cenac's "Comedy Person"


The new CD from Wyatt Cenac, Comedy Person, begins with what may very well be the best introduction I've ever heard: An apologetic John Hodgman takes the stage explaining that Cenac is not able to appear due to an unforeseen scheduling conflict.  Although he's not even on for three minutes, Hodgman perfectly sets the tone for the comedy that is to come. It's an evening of humor grounded solidly on an off-kilter foundation.


Cenac is relaxed and confident and tells stories with an apparent love for the craft. His friendly demeanor reminds me of Will Smith. Not over-the-top "Aw, man, I gotta teach you white boys how to dance" Will Smith, but Will Smith at 10:30 on a Tuesday night, who's settled down and is much easier to take in large doses. Cenac is relatable and down-to-earth, and when he tells his stories he does so with an infectious enthusiasm; he's just as excited to share them as we are to hear how they unfold.

Another thing I love about Cenac's humor is his subtle sarcasm. There's no malice; he's just throwing out off-handed remarks and seeing if anyone picks up on them. Cenac likes to slip in his witticisms on the sly, almost as if he's trying to entertain himself more than he is anyone else (and who knows, that may very well be the case). He doesn't hit us over the head with humor and he doesn't have to. His comedy is constructed well enough to not need any unnecessary razzle dazzle.

It should come as a surprise to no one that Cenac, widely known for his work as a writer and correspondent on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, approaches humor with intelligence. It's not a snooty "La Di Dah I Know So Much More Than You Fools" kind of intelligence that makes one feel condescended to. Nor does Cenac's humor come solely from a politically-based mindset that polarizes the audience. The only agenda to be found here is to make us laugh. Cenac uses his craft to come at everyday topics from a new outlook that, afterwards, will make you wonder why you never thought of it that way before. His observations are funny not only because they're true,  but because they're so obviously true we've all managed to overlook them.

Cenac brings about the perfect response to the hipster snobs who look down on you for watching (or owning) a TV and calls them out for being fans of Top Chef. He dares to pull back the curtain and expose the Medieval Times restaurants for the perplexing entities they are and deconstructs the use of the N-word as an adjective for a cat in a YouTube video (he's also got a great bit deconstructing the phrase "the N-word" that he is able to interweave nicely).

Like any great thinker, Cenac doesn't just analyze and comment, but he also asks questions. He explains the food-themed nicknames different ethnicities have for members of their race who are accused of having lost their identity and then wonders what other nicknames might be used for people of other races who find themselves in the same situation. He wonders if highly-esteemed holidays will devolve the way St. Patrick's Day has and he really really really wants to know what's written on the propaganda material the guys in white sheets are passing out to passersby outside the Westminster Dog Show.

As I mentioned earlier, Cenac is a true storyteller. He doesn't simply make a point or ask a question, get a laugh, and then move on. Not when there's so much more to it that needs to be explored. Instead, he sits down and really takes the time to dig in and get to know each subject. He doesn't always agree with what he's dissecting, but the point isn't to agree or disagree. It's to enjoy the time spent delving in.

I especially enjoyed Cenac's encounter with his stuck-up hipster neighbor who not only proudly doesn't own a television and blasts NPR on her home stereo, but also happens to be really hot. I couldn't stop smirking as I watched Cenac battle the conflicting feelings that infiltrate his mind (She's such a snobby hipster but at the same time...have I mentioned she's really hot?). At the end of the story we find that the only solution is an impossible Möbius strip that turns back on itself and almost guarantees Cenac and this woman will never get together as the sitcom-crossed lovers she will never learn they are supposed to be.

By the end of the album, I walked away feeling satisfied. Not only because this is over an hour of smart and well thought-out laughs. Not only because I finally learned how the Tea Party demographic came to be and not because I can't get the whole Rosa-Parks-sitting-in-the-wrong-seat-on-an-airplane quandary out of my head. I felt satisfied simply because I went in looking forward to laugh and Cenac did not disappoint.

But honestly, what else did I expect? This isn't just anyone we're dealing with. This, ladies and gentleman, is Wyatt Cenac. And Wyatt Cenac is a Comedy Person.

**

Monday, September 5, 2011

Joe DeRosa's "Return of the Son of Depression Auction"


When I heard that Joe DeRosa was coming out with a new album, not even a year after the phenomenal The Depression Album was released, I was - for lack of a better word - stoked.


Not because DeRosa was the first comedian ever written about for this blog (although the sentimental part of me admits that may have been a small part of it), but because this guy cracks me up. He's hilarious, and to be given another album (a full hour!) of brand new material so soon after his last release is a more-than-generous gift from the comedy heavens.

With Return Of The Son Of Depression Auction, DeRosa is back in all of his Can-You-Friggin-Believe-This glory and it's a welcome return to the comedian who is funniest when he finds himself amid a whirl of unfathomable idiocy that can sometimes be this world we live in. And like his last album, DeRosa is just as willing to call BS on himself as he is those around him. With track titles like "I've Never Been In Shape" and "A Pussy, That's Me," DeRosa makes it clear that none of us - not even he - are going to make it out unscathed.

And, if you happen to be a homeless guy on the subway with DeRosa while he chokes on KFC...well...let's just say it's going to be a bad day to be a homeless guy.

This particular track ("I Eat Like Shit") begins with DeRosa's love for KFC, takes a quick detour to explain why fancy restaurants need to just stop it, does a quick Smoothie store drive-by, and comes back around to land on the worst thing that's ever happened to him. Ever.* It's so bad that it's funny, so unbelievable that is has to be true, and should come with a warning that you shouldn't eat while listening to this track lest you laugh so much you suffer the same chewed-up chicken fate as DeRosa.

DeRosa is an engaging storyteller and this is especially true when he tells us about the time he decided to join a mosh pit (and the laugh-out-loud way he brought it to a halt) and a crowd in Michigan who proved to be less-than-ideal. In both instances we relate to DeRosa and are pulling for him, despite the seemingly insurmountable challenges he faces. And, in both cases, the more DeRosa explores the situation, the more laughs he's able to bring.

When he's not struggling with the consequences of his own actions, he's taking aim at some well-deserving targets that have, for some reason, flown under the radar up to this point. Whether it's PBS and their ridiculously-priced donation thank-you packages or ill-behaved children who manage to compensate for "25-year-old hot chicks" by running into poles, DeRosa always presents an air-tight case. Once he's given his side, there really isn't much you can say to contradict him. If he were a prosecutor, after hearing DeRosa's opening statement, I wouldn't be surprised if the defending attorney simply threw his hands into the air and said to the judge, "He's right. I got nothin'."

It's because he's so good at getting his point across that he can tackle topics like choosing a skinny girl over her fat friend at a bar and the truth about Europeans with absolutely no fear. Regardless of where we stand when DeRosa starts in, we all end up on the same side, and we do so laughing all the way.
---

*Food-related Division

**Ed's Note: DeRosa uses a phrase on this CD that immediately jumped out at me as simultaneously hilarious and fodder to be stolen and used. I freely admit it. So, in the future, when I enter a kitchen and randomly exclaim, "I'm gonna eat all the egg sandwiches!!" and I laugh and you just look confused well...now you know where I got it.

**

Jim Tews's "Total Comedian"


The title of the new(est) album from Jim Tews, Total Comedian, says it all.


Tews is indeed the complete package. He's comfortable on stage and his demeanor is one of easy-going honesty. Tews isn't your stereotypical comedian as is often portrayed - quite incorrectly, I might add - on television and in the movies. He isn't the in-your-face wacky guy bouncing off the walls as part of a This-Is-Gonna-Get-Old-Fast persona. Quite the contrary, Tews's comedy is down-to-earth and approachable. He's not a guy on stage telling jokes, but someone you bumped into at the bar with some good stories to share.

One of the things I like about Tews is the fact that he isn't afraid to admit he's not perfect; he's just as flawed as the rest of us. There are some comedians who tend to float about on stage as if they are untouchable, safely cushioned by their millions of dollars from record and movie deals and aren't affected by anything this world has to dish out. Tews wisely avoids that approach and lets us know he's one of us. He feels the crunch of the economy. He knows what it's like to ask a woman if she wants to move things to the bed and then proceed to unfold the futon. He's been busted by his landlord for not paying rent (Facebook status updates ruin everything!) and he's written more than a few bad checks (But at least they come with an entertaining note in the "memo" section, like, "Hurry up and cash this, it's a race between you and the phone company!"). Tew's story of the time he went to the bank to dispute overdraft fees is one of my favorites on the album.

It's not just financial woes that serve as a catalyst for awkward moments with others. Tews manages to find all sorts of creative ways to wind up in uncomfortable situations. There's the time he ran into his ex-girlfriend in a store (or, more accurately, decided not to run into her after spying her purchase), his get-it-out-of-the-way moment with a roommate, and my personal favorite, the time he broke up with his British girlfriend (and the best time of year to do it).

Tews is very honest and open about his imperfections and shortcomings, each track providing yet another reason why he wouldn't make a someone a good boyfriend/husband/dad, yet he still doesn't come across as unlikable or victimized. Circumstances just happen to be the way they are and Tews has accepted it all in stride. His willingness to laugh at his blemishes with us only endears us to him more and you can't help rooting for Tews to come out on top in the end.

There are a couple of slow spots here and there and one time in particular when a joke didn't hit the way Tews intended and it felt like the wheels were going to fall off, if only for a moment. However, Tews manages to get it together and he never comes across as thrown off or in over his head.  If he ever felt like he was in trouble, he certainly didn't let on, and it wasn't long before he had the crowd with him once again and everything under control. Missteps like those are few, though, and certainly don't detract from the overall enjoyment of the album.

Clocking in at 35 minutes, Total Comedian is a nice introduction to a comedian you probably aren't familiar with.

Yet.

And if you're like me, you'll find yourself wondering why he hasn't broken.

Yet.

After all, he is a total comedian.

**