Monday, December 24, 2012

The Top 10 Comedy Albums of 2012




Every year as I compile my list of my favorite comedy albums, I find myself struggling with the order in which to present them. This year was no different. For those of you who may not be aware of it, 2012 was a really great year for comedy (despite Kathy Griffin and Margaret Cho both getting Grammy nominations) and it seemed every time I visited this list, the order changed a bit. I think that serves as a testament as to how amazing each of these albums are. 


Although there are only 10 albums listed here (and a handful of Honorable Mentions), don't think these are the only good comedy CDs to be released to the masses this year. In fact, you can see here my original list of candidates for this end-of-the-year post. All of them deserve a place in your library.



And so, here they are. I don't claim this to be the list of the best of 2012, but they are the ones I enjoyed the most. Your list might look a lot different and that's fine. The fact that you may even have a list means you're listening to and supporting comedy and I'm down with that.

As you browse, you can click on the name of the comedian to read my original review of the project. Click on the album title if you want to pick up a copy of your own. Thanks for reading. Enjoy the rest of your holiday and I'll see you back here in 2013.


10. JIM GAFFIGAN - MR UNIVERSE
Gaffigan has proved himself time and time again to be consistently funny as he pokes and prods at the nuances of life as only he can. There’s not a lot of new ground being tread (he still manages to wring some great comedy out of his standard topics like food, being lazy, his kids, food, and ad slogans) but that doesn’t mean there aren’t some big laughs here. This project is especially suited for those who already love Gaffigan’s comedy, as it’s exactly what you expect it to be: Gaffigan being hilarious.

9. TODD BARRY - SUPER CRAZY
Barry has taken the low-key observational comedy style of comedians like Steven Wright and amped it up (and, in my opinion, made it better) by daring to add personality to his wry commentary. Instead of a straight, monotone, less-than-energetic delivery that could best be described as flatlined, Barry’s approach is punched up with sarcasm, cynicism, and a distinct disposition. He dares to question the nonsensical minutiae of life that really should be questioned and he doesn’t mind poking fun at the answers he receives.

It’d been a few months since I last listened to this album and I had almost forgotten how much I enjoyed it (and it’s not just because I’m jonesing for all things “Community”). Glover is a great storyteller and his animated energy adds an extra jolt to each story he shares. Most of the album is a re-telling of childhood adventures and I couldn’t help but be reminded of a young Bill Cosby. Whether he’s trying to talk his mom into letting him have sugary cereal or dreading the trip to Home Depot, Glover’s memories jump to life and and easily transport us there with him. It's a journey you'll want to take.

7. MICHAEL J DOLAN - DRESS TO DEPRESS
Angry. Grumpy. Upset. Perturbed. Fed up. All of these are words and phrases that could be correctly used to describe Dolan, but you would be selling yourself - and especially Dolan - short if the first word that comes to mind isn’t simply “funny.” The acidic way he loathes those closest to him (including his friends and the woman he lives with) is especially amusing as he attacks these “energy burglars” with the same force he does strangers on the street. And really, if you can’t bring joy to others by hating on the ones you love the most, what have we become?

6. DYLAN BRODY - CHRONOLOGICAL DISORDER
Brody is one of those guys who is so good at putting words together, he’s a little intimidating to write about. Rather than try to match his good-word-putting-together-ness, I’ll focus instead on how much I enjoyed this album. You know when it’s December and not quite snow weather but still pretty bitter and you get that not-quite-sleet-but-not-quite-rain precipitation and as you walk from your car to your front door you step in a puddle and your socks are instantly drenched and you get inside, peel the socks off, and put on some hot water and you take off your sweater and by then the water is boiling and you make yourself the perfect pourover coffee with freshly-ground beans that were roasted locally only a few days ago and you sit down in your favorite chair and can finally relax and you take a sip of the coffee and it’s perfect and just what you needed? This album is that cup of coffee. 

With a devilish mix of mischievousness and innocence, Woodhull is an amazing comedic presence. The album is solid from start to finish. There are no lulls and each statement he makes is delivered with the confidence of someone who has no regrets. From the moment he hilariously described the rape of 3/5 of his college roommate’s sense, I knew I was in for a good time and as the CD progressed, Woodhull proved me quite correct.

4. DEMETRI MARTIN - STANDUP COMEDIAN
Like many of the comedians on this list, one of Martin’s strengths is his consistency. Going into this project, you had an expectation and a general idea of what you were going to get. Known for his bizarre way of looking at things through his Demetri prism and extracting blood from would-be topical stones, Martin once again delivers a solid album of random declaratives whose very existence would have you wondering “Where in the world did that come from?” if you weren’t so busy laughing.

3. GARY GULMAN - NO CAN DEFEND
To put it simply, there is not a bad track on this album. Every bit, every premise, every story is rock solid and if a comedian makes you laugh not by listening to his album but by thinking about it days later, you know you’re on to something good. Gulman mines one comedy gold nugget after another with stories on playing basketball at the JCC, The Karate Kid, the Top 5 Features of the Discman, and the “@” symbol, just to name a few. Of course, everything here is so funny because Gulman is 100% dead-on in what he’s saying. It’s a great album that is guaranteed to keep you laughing no matter how many times you’ve listened.

2. JOHN MULANEY - NEW IN TOWN
I’ve always loved an underdog and you’d be hard-pressed to find one more enjoyable to root for than Mulaney. Never one to shy away from criticizing his own actions or admitting just how incapable he is, Mulaney breathes new life into the whole idea of “Did I tell you about the time”-style storytelling. He’s not just a guy on stage talking to a group of strangers; you genuinely feel as if you’re hanging out at a bar swapping stories with a friend. And what stories they are. Part man-child who refuses to grow up as he laments the lack of quicksand in day-to-day life and part regular guy who probably should have been gay based on the way he talks and does things, Mulaney isn’t afraid of sharing stories that present himself - or Ice-T - in a less-than-flattering light.

1. CHAD DANIELS - YOU’RE THE BEST
Daniels was once nearly arrested for wishing AIDS on a cop. That bit alone is so funny, if it were the only thing on the album, it would still land on this list. Of course, he doesn’t just say he almost got arrested for wishing AIDS on a cop. He takes you through the entire timeline of events and as the story unfolds, it reveals laugh after laugh, each one bigger than the one before it. Every bit to be found here is just as funny, just as hilarious, and just as wrong. Whether it’s the guy with the cleft palate who takes reservations or his own beloved wife and kids, no one is safe from Daniels’s razor-sharp observations. It’s not just comedy done right, but to satisfying perfection. It’s true, Chad Daniels: You’re the best.


Friday, December 14, 2012

Bobby Joe Ebola and the Children MacNuggits's "Trainwreck to Narnia"



Trainwreck to Narnia,” the new album from Bobby Joe Ebola and the Children MacNuggits, is a bit tricky to encapsulate. It’s not a “comedy” album per se, but I laughed a lot. They don’t write “funny” lyrics, but there’s a lot of clever wit in their words. Despite the fact that BJE is a musical act, they don’t write silly songs like Weird Al or try to pass themselves off as comedians with street cred the way The Lonely Island guys do. They aren’t a novelty act but rather skilled performers who create art with a sense of humor and tongue firmly in cheek. They’re a band of really talented musicians who can write a catchy song (or, more accurately, a bunch of catchy songs), keeping my head bobbing and chuckling simultaneously. 

What I’m trying to say - and not doing a very good job at it - is I liked this project a lot. The songs here are relatively short, rarely clocking in at over three minutes. They’ve cut out everything that doesn’t drive the music or the humor (or both) and get right down to business. There are no filler refrains or needless repetitions just to make the song the standard three and half minutes in length. They go in, get the job done, and then get the hell out. Like a SWAT team of musicians, they remain focused and do what they need to do. 

And man, they do it well. 

Their style of music here varies from pub song sing-alongs (the enjoyable “Baked Beans & Whiskey” that is about exactly what the title says), rock ("Walk in the Crosswalk" urges safety first, especially since medical bills can be expensive), a nod to the roaring 20s (“My Darling Boo” is probably the best song you’ve ever heard about a mannequin), and head-banging metal that immediately put me in mind of the one and only time I played Dungeons & Dragons. I was in junior high school and, had “Bone Dagger” been out then, it’s definitely what I would have been singing in my head. One moment declaring the ominous power I would yield (“I will slay the fucking dragon!”) and the next admitting there are repercussions to my actions (“I will make a big ass mess!”). Somewhere Tenacious D and Brian Posehn are fist pumping along with the music.

At times, especially on “Vanilla American,” a tune that mixes great harmonies with fun tempo changes, BJE reminded me of Barenaked Ladies and They Might Be Giants. That’s not a bad thing, I’m a fan of both, but they all share a similar whimsical feel that makes it easy to listen to each track on the CD without skipping tracks. On the opening song, “After the Armadillo,” BJE says it all when they promise “Tonight is many things but boring ain’t one of ‘em.”

What’s especially fun is when the lyrics of the song are in direct opposition with the musicality. Where else will you find a grinding almost-screamo tune urging us to remove a particularly offensive word from our vernacular? And “Cop Kisser,” a love song to the boys in blue, is arranged and performed in a style that would make you assume the inverse.

It’s difficult to choose a favorite track because this CD is so solid, but if I had to I would choose “Blues Turn Brown,” the lament of a 34-year-old college educated guy down on his luck and willing to do anything to keep his internet on (“When the dog shit is piled high/ it blocks out the sky/ until your blues turn brown”). Because if you’re going to sing the blues, you might as well make other people smile in the process. Bobby Joe Ebola and the Children MacNuggits does just that.



Monday, December 10, 2012

Jim Norton's "No Baby For You"



When you’re as funny as Jim Norton, you’re always funny. Even though his new album, “No Baby For You,” was recorded five years ago everything about it still feels fresh. Besides a reference to the “offensive” cartoon of Mohammad (a bit that still holds up nicely) and a present-tense mention of comedian Patrice O’Neal, you’d never have an inkling that this performance has been sitting in the can for so long. Norton From Five Years Ago is just as funny as Norton From This Morning’s Opie & Anthony Show and this project is proof.

Those of you who are familiar with Norton and his comedy know you can’t come without expecting to hear some great rants about society and the people and situations that flip his switch. Sometimes all it takes is something as seemingly innocent as a buggy ride through Amish country to send Norton into the red. Sure, it may seem like he’s punching below the belt as he takes on targets like “invalids, retarded girls, and dead babies,” but nothing seems offensive or over the line when you’re laughing this hard.

Norton has his hand on the pulse of what irritates not just himself, but all of us, and when it comes to addressing pushy tourists, babies on planes, and those horrible “I’m gellin’” commercials, he sums up exactly what I feel in a way that brings out maximum humor. Hearing the audience lose it as Norton takes aim at these subjects is a pretty good sign that it’s not just him who’s fed up with horrible commercials, white guilt, and Muslims who, in all honesty, haven’t been handling things well.

Everything here is approached with the Norton-esque disgruntledness we’ve all come to expect and love, but it’s tempered a bit this time around with the presence of a woman in his life. His material on sex and everything related to it is just as explicitly blue as ever, but because he has someone to share his kinks with, it’s permeated with an air of - believe it or not - happiness. It’s different to hear Norton talk about her, genuinely happy in the relationship. It’s not a “bad” different, but interesting, and I think it makes him a bit more relatable.

Not that a girlfriend has softened him up or taken away the teeth of Norton’s comedy. Norton still likes it dirty and although he struggles with his self-image (from the waist up) and may not be the most sensuous person in bed (he compares sex with him to having a wisdom tooth pulled), he brings a trick or two to the table. True, they aren’t always successful, as evidenced by the move he learned from a masseuse who had a moniker that lands on the Sexy Name Scale between “Betty” and “leukemia.”

There are a few things that Norton’s girlfriend may not be crazy about him saying on stage about her (i.e. The soda can comparison of her previous boyfriend or details about her body) but it sounds like they’re having a good time. Since this was recorded five years ago I don’t know if Norton is still with the same girl, but regardless she brought out a fun side to his comedy that isn’t there with his bachelor-era comedy. It brings out another facet to Norton as a person and a comedian that one may not have seen before. This is another strong addition to your Jim Norton library and goes to show that when it’s good, there’s no expiration date on comedy.




Friday, December 7, 2012

Tom Shillue's "Big Room"



Part 2 of Tom Shillue’s “12 in 12” series is called “Big Room” and the theme of this chapter is Opening For Jim Gaffigan. There are two tracks on the album and, just like his previous release, each track is an entire mini-set. As explained in the opening moments of the first track, we are behind the scenes at a Jim Gaffigan concert with Shillue serving as the opening comedian. We travel with him as he takes the stage (after having to introduce himself) and witness his 15 minutes of fame in its entirety.

The second track takes place later that same night, as Shillue is prepping to do it all over again for the second show. Before going on stage, Shillue explains to us that the later crowds are usually livelier and more enthusiastic and, although he will try not to repeat any material, he makes no promises.  I don’t know if the later-show audience legend got him pumped up or if it was just the post-first show coffee kicking in, but Shillue also seems more energetic the second time around. I’m not saying his first set was bad, it’s a good set, but the second one is definitely better; he seems to have a spark and a bounce in his step that wasn’t present during the early show.

Both tracks begin with Shillue telling the crowd he hails from Massachusetts and that’s where the similarities end. In the early show he goes on to explain what it was like to grow up in a small town and why not living in a multi-cultural surrounding can be a good thing (Taco Nights are that much more exciting). In his later set, he veers off into a completely different direction, taking us to his high school reunion where the Big Men On Campus have seen a bit of a decline in their stock.

There are some nice bits in the early set, my favorite being the magical way anything can sound intimidating as long as it’s spoken in a whisper by an Italian. When compared side by side, though, the later crowd gets more bang for their buck as Shillue wheels out one great observation after another. There’s a difference between nerds and dorks (“A dork is just a nerd with a lot of confidence”) and the story of his correspondence with an old ex-girlfriend takes an unexpected turn thanks to the miracle (?) of technology and the way it has elbowed its way into our conversations (“Howser the ratio.” That’s all I’m saying).

After his last set of the night, Shillue takes us off the stage and out a side door where he reminisces about his (and Gaffigan’s) comedy journey. “Big Room” offers a nice insight into the life of an opening comic and paints a pretty cool picture of what it’s like before, during, and after the show. We’re only two chapters into it, but I’m really liking the “12 in 12” experience and am looking forward to seeing where Shillue takes us next (although apparently it’s going to be back in a comedy club)



Monday, December 3, 2012

Ian Bagg's "It Takes A Village"



The new album from Ian Bagg, “It Takes A Village” doesn’t just fly by. It flies by. It’s a wondrous 45 minutes of laughter, audience interaction (both invited and thrust upon him), and he-did-not-just-say-that asides that guarantee your cheeks will be sore from chuckling aloud.

There’s no filter on Bagg’s train of thought and as soon as an idea pops into his head, it’s on his lips and spoken aloud in no time. This results in one rapid-fire, so-quick-you-might-miss-it outburst after another, adding a genuinely fun sense of utter randomness. At one point Bagg hears someone in the audience carrying on a conversation of their own and instead of addressing it with a query like, “Is someone talking?” he responds by declaring, “Hey, who’sthatladyfuckinshutit.” I loved it.

Bagg has some really good material that he features here such as the declaration that babies born with three arms should spend most of their time on ceiling fans and his wonderfully blue comparison of pleasing a woman to eating a Caesar salad for the first time. Bagg says it all when he remarks with a snicker, “You should see some of your faces right now.”

The real fun kicks in, though, when Bagg works off-the-cuff, interacting with people in the audience. In attendance are “Beardy,” “Vesty,” “Stripes” and Audrey, the girl in the crowd who can’t keep her mouth shut and is rightfully diagnosed by Bagg as “a little retarded.”

After my first listen, I had real contempt for those in the audience. As someone who loathes hecklers and random-shout-outers, I couldn’t believe what Bagg had to deal with. And deal with them he does. Bagg deals with them so harshly (yet appropriately harsh), even he is a little surprised by how many women keep claiming they had given birth to the largest baby. Bagg is amazingly adept at doling out poetic justice to those (on this particular night, mostly drunk women) who think they have a clever comment to interject.

Upon repeated listening, I realized there are only a couple of instances where people yell something out unwarranted (to which Bagg simply replies at one point, “You’re very pretty, but talking’s not your strong suit”). For the most part, Bagg goes to the audience with questions and then lets loose as the answers he receives become more and more ridiculous. We discover there are a couple of parties in attendance, one a group of loudmouthed ladies on a “Girls Night Out” (insert eye roll here) and some employees from a local bank celebrating a Christmas party. 

Where most comedians would move on from there, Bagg decides to have a little fun at their expense and that’s when things really take off. Everyone is kept on their toes as he quickly jumps from one topic to another without batting an eye or giving any sort of indication that he’s about to take a hard left. One moment he’s asking someone what their favorite TV show is and the next, he’s asking a guy in the audience directly, “What’s your favorite part of a blow job, sir?” The unexpectedness  makes for some big laughs and an excited, nervous energy fills the room, no one knowing where Bagg will strike next.

For the most part, Bagg latches on to the group of bankers, refusing to move on to something else despite the pleas of “Mike,” the man in the group who is outed as the guy in charge. No matter how many times Bagg pleads with Mike to tell everyone which bank they work with, Mike refuses to give up the goods and a game of cat and mouse has officially begun. 

Bagg enjoys playing with the bankers, pitting Mike against Audrey, a co-worker who can’t keep her mouth shut and really, really should. At one point, the crowd turns on itself, heckling Mike about his penis size and Bagg giggles with delight to see the anarchy he has created. 

And before you know it, 45 minutes has flown by. Bagg ricochets back and forth between his prepared material on being a strong Catholic and the fight he had with an ex-girlfriend’s retarded brother to off the cuff remarks about Mike, the fact that he shouldn’t be appearing in any advertisements for the bank, and his inability to count.

The album is a great example of how funny someone can be who’s quick on their feet and unafraid to interact with the crowd. Despite how clever the audience thinks they are with their comments about anti-itch cream and guys who “tuck,” it’s Bagg who comes out on top. He finishes off his set with an impressive callback that incorporates pretty much everything that happened during his set, including people’s names and their stupid comments. He even gets Mike to admit which bank his group is from and it’s at that point the boxing match is over. 

Nice try, studio audience. You fought a valiant fight but when all is said and done, it’s Bagg who claims the victory with an 11th round (or 11th track) TKO. Good fight.



Friday, November 30, 2012

Kyle Kinane's "Whiskey Icarus"



When I think of guys who drink and party and occasionally get tossed in jail for a DUI, I usually imagine one of two extremes. The first is the Nicolas Cage “Leaving Las Vegas”-type who depresses/bores the heck out of me and gets Oscar nominations for no explainable reason. The other is the spirited, intensely dedicated, gotta-love-him character Zach Galifianakis usually ends up portraying, especially in the “Hangover” films. On his new album “Whiskey Icarus,” Kyle Kinane definitely reminds me of the latter. A bit off-kilter yet never afraid of expressing exactly what he’s thinking, you can be sure you’ll always know right where he stands. Although Kinane and the Alan character have their similarities (they can get away with a lot of bad behavior because they’re just so likable), there are also some big differences. 

I probably shouldn’t spend too much time comparing Kinane to a fictional creation because Kinane is very much his own unique voice and person. Yes, both men have a lonely slacker vibe about them, but Kinane isn’t a caricature. He’s intelligent and articulate and admits he’s a lonely guy (That abandoned “frozen dinner for 1” in the beer aisle at the 7-11? That was him). He describes his fashion style as that of a wise high school janitor and while he’s proud of himself for getting his own apartment, he’s also aware that he’s 35 years old and probably should be living on his own. And that there are 35-year-old astronauts. And that the real reason he got his own place is unsettlingly honest (hide your Twizzlers).

Kinane is a guy who knows how to have a good time (the CD’s track listing is identical to KISS’s “Destroyer” album) but he does his best to have a good time responsibly. Being too drunk to drive won’t stop him for hitting up the Wendy’s drive-thru even if that means he has to call a minivan taxicab to take him there. His re-telling of trying to complete the transaction from the backseat sliding door is a lot of fun and indeed the adventure Kinane promised the driver it would be.

If you ever see Kinane at the airport, follow him, because something good is going to happen. Kinane and airports are a perfect recipe for weird stories and it seems that he can’t have an ordinary flight experience to save his life. On one flight, he finds himself seated next to a man eating pancakes out of a shopping bag from Foot Locker and naturally it raises a lot of questions. Kinane doesn’t ask questions without supplying a few answers and if you are going to eat pancakes out of a shopping bag from Foot Locker on a plane, there’s a correct way to go about it. 

Of course, I’ll take the pancakes guy over the lovemaking Spanish couple any day of the week. Kinane chooses to look at it as an opportunity, though, and if they’re going to have fun then doggonit, he is, too. Thus begins his in-flight drinking binge that, I suppose when you backtrack far enough, is all the fault of Orbitz.

I like Kinane’s outlook on life. This is a man who looks at life’s hiccups as a series of opportunities to have an adventure. You gotta love that. Blank fortune cookies are much more than a mishap at the printer’s and there’s a darn good reason you don’t hear more from the Bigfoot front. Two black guys with a white baby are never just two black guys with a white baby and if you’re going to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge, go out with a question mark instead of a period.

Kinane has a wildly devoted and passionate fan base and it’s easy to see why. For a guy who claims his life is a series of documented low points he sure is able to catch a lot of the funny about it. He’s consistent in what he does and he presents us with an hour of solid laughs. At one point, he reveals how he strives for his comedy to be looked at as an art form but admits his observations about his “turd contractions” prevent that from happening. I’ve got news for you Kinane: While you were shaving the sharp edges off of racism and fueling your body the same way Doc Brown fuels the Delorean at the end of Back to the Future....it happened.

This album is indeed art and Kinane is indeed a comedy artist. 

Now let's go see what's up at the airport. We've got more art to find.



Monday, November 26, 2012

"It's OK To...Do Stuff"



The first time I heard about the new compilation album “It’s OK To...Do Stuff,” I was intrigued. Apparently it’s a send-up of a Marlo Thomas album that came out 40 years ago called “Free To Be...You and Me.” To be honest, I’d never heard of it. I looked it up online and checked it out and none of the songs rang a bell, so I started off this album at a bit of a disadvantage.

But then I read who appears on this new project and I got excited. Fred Willard! Eugene Mirman! Andy Richter, Wyatt Cenac, and Samantha Bee! Eddie Pepitone and Fred Stoller, holy crap! And Steven Page, a former lead singer of Barenaked Ladies! I was given a preview link where I could listen to one minute snippets of the songs and I was crazy stoked to hear more.

And then...I got the full album and realized those weren’t snippets I was listening to. Those were the tracks. Nine tracks clocking in at 11-1/2 minutes.

Really?

Only a minute and ten seconds of Fred Willard?

A mere forty-one seconds of Eddie Pepitone?

And two short lines from Andy Richter?

To say I was a bit crestfallen would be an understatement.

So much talent here and so poorly underused. 

As it turns out, you don’t have to know or be a fan of the original to get what’s going on here. It’s basically a collection of very short, mostly poorly-sung songs that are overly-politically correct (or not) for comedic purposes. Considering how much of a huge comedy fan I am, it’s ironic that my favorite track is the lead song featuring BNL’s Steven Page (well...not from BNL anymore). It’s the only cut the feels like a “real” song and because he doesn’t have to worry about staying on pitch or being off-key singing harmonies with himself like other songs here, you can focus on the goofiness of the lyrics and enjoy it for what it is: a silly song.

There's a fun skit featuring Eugene Merman playing the role he was born to play: a robot with a tendency to shout every observation - I loved it - and what may very well be the most random duet that’s ever been brought together when Kimmy Gatewood and Colin Hanks (yes, that Colin Hanks) team up to sing about the upside of divorce. Sort of. 

Despite the old adage, brevity is not the soul of wit when it comes to this album. In fact, brevity pretty much punches wit in the nuts. You get a taste of what could be, you feel Pepitone ramping up into something fun and you wonder when Willard is gonna really kick in and bring the funny and then....over.

The longest track here is a mere 1:40 and features six different performers. That only averages to about 20 seconds per person and the greedy fanboy in me wants more. Yes, as the album title says, it is indeed OK to do stuff. Next time, though, can you do it for a little longer?



Friday, November 23, 2012

Mark Ellis's "Get to the Castle"



On the new release “Get to the Castle(Am I the only one who finds it impossible to NOT say the title of this album in my worst Ah-nuld voice?), Mark Ellis is just what you have come to expect when you listen to a stand-up comedy record: He’s likable and confident on stage, he has a decent amount of men-and-women-are-different material, and he’s quick on his feet when he interacts with the crowd. He even tosses in an occasional groaner that he can’t help but laugh at when the reaction it gets is less-than-overwhelming (and deservedly so).

Ellis shines the most when he strays from the standard comedian’s fare and delves into his own unique territory. His take on the two genders and how they respond differently in similar situations is good enough, but the topic has become such a cliche that one really needs to come up with something groundbreaking within the stereotype to set himself apart. I did enjoy Ellis’s comparison of groups of women out on the town to the A-team but for the most part it was just all right and Ellis is better than just all right.

Thankfully, Ellis spends most of his time (which, it should be noted, flies by) forging new ground by dreaming of the day he can move into a retirement community (despite the ominous promise/threat of free golf for the rest of your life) and explaining why his daughter will not be dating Twilight monsters. Be sure to keep a heads up for his comparison of werewolves and women which garners a most enjoyable anticipatory crowd response.

The insights Ellis has to share are fun and fresh, pointing out that college kids and the elderly have the same schedule (wake up, take drugs, watch “The Price is Right”) and precisely comparing a 50-year-old woman’s apartment to the hallowed Yankee stadium. He freely admits that his list of “likes” on his online dating profile aren’t accurate in reflecting who he is as a person, but actually consists of a list of things he’s willing to do to get laid.

As much as I like Ellis’s material on the worst injury to happen to yourself (bad haircuts) and what makes a Marine’s uniform the coolest of all the armed services, my favorite bits were those that provided a sense of nostalgia. Ellis longs for Domino’s to return to it’s 30-minutes-or-less roots and the picture he paints of a guy’s first high school dance - and Hypercolor shirts - hits the nail right on the head. I’d almost forgotten about those magical heat-responding garments and how they did not flatter the wearer when physical activity was involved.

You can’t go wrong with Super Mario Bros and Ellis wisely saves his take on the classic video game for the last part of the set. It’s my favorite track on the CD and when he speculates as to why a king would send two single, Italian men to rescue his daughter I knew he was on to something good. He prefers the Nintendo classic to the new video games where he is easily lost in free-roam forests and is forced to be sociable with hobbits. Ellis (and I) long for a simpler time when you could only move in one direction and if something moved, you squished it. If you can relate, then I recommend getting Get to the Castle.


Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Darryl Lenox's "Blind Ambition"



I really enjoyed “Blind Ambition,” the new CD from comedian Darryl Lenox, and my favorite thing about it is the fact that it has a beginning, a middle, and an end. It’s a well-constructed and finely thought-out hour that tells one cohesive story instead of presenting us with a random assortment of unrelated jokes (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Lenox’s set has a true sense of narrative and his is the perfect voice to tell the tale (coming from a radio background I’m a big fan of people with great speaking voices and Lenox definitely falls into that category).

The album doesn’t explode out of the starting gate with one huge belly laugh after another. Instead, Lenox takes his time, setting the tone and the mood by giving us a bit of backstory on how a Canadian bar fight affected the rest of his life (and his vision). There are a lot of smiles and chuckles along the way but no huge guffaws and that’s OK. Lenox lets you warm up to him and his sense of humor and as you get to know him, you learn to appreciate his patient approach and soon the laughs begin to spill in. Slow at first, and then building up bigger and bigger as we go. In a world of Michael Bay-style stand-up comics who rely on explosions and CGI, it’s nice to find a Woody Allen who is more concerned with composition and character.

Lenox is an American living in Canada who doesn’t hide his preference for all things Canuck. He thinks the women are better (they don’t seem to have been influenced by the Real Housewives) and it’s obvious Canadians have a great healthcare plan as evidenced by their arrogant jaywalking. That’s not to say Canada doesn't have its quirks, though. He was once kicked out of the country for a year (Travel Tip: Don’t lie to the Border Agents) and a seemingly innocent bowl of porridge resulted in the most violent Canadian experience he’d ever been a part of.

The title of the CD refers to Lenox’s long-time battle with his vision and having to face the very real possibility that he would lose his vision not just in one eye (thanks to the aforementioned pub brawl) but in both. It’s a predicament many of us have pondered, but probably not as seriously as Lenox had to. Could he really, actually, go through the rest of his life with no vision? The dramatic part of him had vowed to kill himself if the medical procedure he had to undergo wasn’t successful. The comedian in him could only foresee the hilariously futile results of a blind person trying to commit suicide in a number of different scenarios. The mental picture he paints of his wife, eating M&M’s off of the floor that he mistook for life-ending pills, is original and clever.

Other bits on the project that are memorable include George W. Bush’s drunken YouTube address to America that is probably more honest than is recommended and the widely-understood but rarely-talked about rule that men should never, ever eat the last one of anything in the house. The longest track is nearly 12-1/2 minutes long and its main thrust is the old “men and women are different” gag. Although the topic itself has become a bit of a comedian stereotype, Lenox does quite well at maintaining a fresh perspective and avoids any common potholes that are generally present in such an oft-traveled road.

All of the main points Lenox has touched upon are brought back and wrapped up in the final chapter in a surprisingly genuine way that most comedians tend to shy away from. For the most part, if a comic dares to be sentimental or uplifting, they feel the need to burst the bubble for the sake of a laugh. Lenox does no such thing. Instead of leaving us with a huge bringing-down-the-house punchline, Lenox leaves us with inspiration, and I liked the change-up. It brought a nice sincerity to the evening and the ending felt just like what it was: an ending to a well-told story. A story with a lot of genuine heartbreak and laughs and a story I left feeling fortunate to have heard.


Friday, November 16, 2012

Rob Delaney's "Live at the Bowery Ballroom"



While listening to Rob Delaney’s “Live at the Bowery Ballroom” this week, there were a number of occasions when I had to stop and remind myself I wasn’t listening to Louis C.K. For those of you like myself who are fans of C.K., you’ll know that’s a pretty big compliment.

I’m not saying Delaney is imitating or copying anyone’s style; far from it. Delaney is completely original and has a knack for covering a huge variety of most decidedly adult material without making you feel dirty. That’s an accomplishment. The only downfall, of course, being the time you recommend the album to a Mennonite friend and then having to explain later, “Wow, I don’t remember it being that dirty” (the lesson, of course, is to not have Mennonite friends).

The pitch and timbre of Delaney’s voice, though, is remarkably similar to C.K.’s. I might not have noticed it as much if I saw Delaney in person or on a video since physically they look quite different, but when you’re just going by what you hear, it’s hard to not draw the connection. Pair that with the fact that Delaney is also hilarious and, well, you might see why I sometimes forgot who I was listening to.

There’s a great energy at work on this recording and once Delaney has the audience where he wants them (which he does right from the beginning as he announces his plan to make an egg salad sandwich for his favorite audience member after the show), they’re with him for the remainder of the hour.

One of the things I really like about Delaney’s style is the fact that you don’t know where he’s going. He managed to take me by surprise time after time and never once did he even let on there was a surprise waiting to be had. When he mentions he once had a bout of Hepatitis A, I never suspected what the source of the ailment would be. He makes a very strong case for favoring oceans over lakes and you may never wash your hands again in a public restroom without being reminded of why Delaney really, really, really prefers the current hand soap delivery system as compared to others in the past.

For every detail Delaney shares that shows how much of a good guy he is, he also lets something slip that might make you think twice about stopping by for a play date. He loves his wife, still finds her extremely sexy, and still wants to have sex with her, but he also wants to have sex with everyone in the audience, too. He’s a devoted Dad who adores his baby son. Never mind the fact that he loves him so much, he literally wants to eat the toddler and is jealous of his wife for having had the opportunity to carry him inside of her.

As funny as it is, the album wouldn’t be nearly as good as it is without the inclusion of a couple of anecdotes about odd situations in which Delaney found himself. There’s the time he went jogging and ended up having to construct an impromptu lean-to in which he could take care of a sudden urge to poop in front of an Hasidic Jewish woman’s house and the tale of his trip to a doctor in Beverly Hills and his subsequent parking garage venture really had me laughing. And, for those of you who wondered why Delaney doesn’t partake in sex with butts, well...that’s here, too. And it’s just as funny.

There are 14 tracks on this CD and each one of them comes packed with big laughs. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Delaney and hesitate at shelling out your hard-earned money on a comedian you don’t know, trust me on this one. An hour from now after you found yourself laughing at a day in the life of Delaney’s marriage and the fact that he uses other people’s kids to figure out how to raise his own, you’ll be glad you did.



Friday, November 9, 2012

Patrice O'Neal's "Better Than You"



I miss Patrice O’Neal.

When his previous album, "Mr. P", was released, there was a 20-minute bit that didn’t make the final cut due to time constraints. It was a segment that, according to his widow, he hated to cut from the project. He had plans release it as a bonus track...or something. “Better Than You” is that “something” and after the first few minutes you can tell why it was hard for him to let go. 

O’Neal was a master of saying things that political correctness has trained us to never say in public. The lesson to learn from the whole Tiger Woods affair was simple: if your man has never womanized, don’t marry him. He was fed up with women forcing him to create their identities, and if you’re honest with yourself, you know men are the better gender.

Of course, the real laughter comes when O’Neal explains himself, the utter ridiculousness of his firm stance only serving to feed the flames of humor. I especially love the new ranking system he has when it comes to judging how good a woman looks. Instead of the standard one-to-ten scale (because, let’s be honest, giving someone a “six” is still much closer to “ten” than they deserve), O’Neal used the one-to-thirty scale. Some real thought went into this and includes three separate subsets of hotness into which a woman can fall. We all realize it’s a completely juvenile and sexist practice, but as long as men are going to be handing out scores (and we are), we might as well improve the procedure.

There are a couple of instances where O’Neal goes to the audience to do a little crowd work and it’s fun to listen to him interview various black women and come away amazed with how all of them have decidedly white names. 

As I mentioned at the beginning of this review, this project is only 20 minutes long, but it’s 20 minutes I’m grateful weren't left on a shelf somewhere. Twenty minutes with Patrice is still 20 minutes with Patrice and he crams in an hour’s worth of laughs. When it comes to someone this funny, I’ll take anything I can get.



Monday, November 5, 2012

Tom Shillue's "Better Stronger Faster"



Better Stronger Faster” is the first installment of Tom Shillue’s new “12 in 12” series. Basically, Shillue will be releasing a new album, each with a different theme, once a month for the next 12 months. Zoinks. And you thought Louis C.K. cranked them out fast.

Upon hearing the announcement of such a bold undertaking one’s initial response may be that of skeptical disbelief. Sure, any comic can record a bunch of sets and put them out there for all to hear. The real question is: Will they be any good?

Judging by the first two chapters of this saga, not to mention the fact that Shillue has been at this for a while, I think it’s safe to say we’re all in for a good time. This project is divided into 3 tracks, each one a mini-set ranging from 6 to 17 minutes in length, and all of them dealing with growing up in the 70s. As someone who also grew up with dorky tendencies like The Six Million Dollar Man, school plays, and adventures in Lord of the Rings, I could relate to everything Shillue covered.

In fact, this album brought to mind a lot of memories I had completely forgotten about. I too found myself engrossed in Tolkien’s imaginary world as a boy, studying maps and memorizing poems about elves and characters with names like Tom Bombadil. I never got into the world of Dungeons & Dragons like Shillue did, but the goofy elven-themed adventures I had in the forest with my pal John, creating secret clubs and fighting for the honor of girls who would be horrified to know we were fighting for their honor, would surely put us into the annals of nerdy make-believe.

Shillue masterfully captures the stories of his younger days and infuses them with a sincere sense of nostalgia. Which boy who grew up in that era didn’t find themselves stuck as Oscar Goldman while their friend always got to be Steve Austin? I think we can all understand that weird feeling of transitional loss, saying goodbye to our youth as hobbits and Dungeon Masters are pushed aside to make room for girls, girls, and the chance of being with a girl. The picture Shillue paints of a chain link-patterned shadow, although evoking some nice laughs, is also quite beautiful in the way he captures a touchstone in his formative years.

The album transitions from the wonder of bionics into Shillue’s own less-than-ideal encounter with the medical world. His track record with doctors begs to be repeated on stage for laughs. He once found himself with a date with his doctor that was scheduled to include an evening of pasta and old movie posters and the odd drinking habits of his ear/nose/throat doctor was only slightly more disturbing than the way he coveted a good parking spot.

Approachable and easily relatable, Shillue is someone you enjoy spending time with. Considering we’re going to be hearing from him quite a bit in the next 12 months, that’s a good thing. He’s an engaging storyteller who knows how to keep us invested. He’s not obnoxious or over-the-top but a regular guy who has some really funny tales to share. There’s a great callback at the end of the album that, now that I think about it, I probably should have seen coming but I didn’t; I was too busy enjoying being in the moment. 



Friday, November 2, 2012

Josh Denny's "Social Hand Grenades"



Dear Ladies:

It’s time to step it up. The last time a woman has done anything substantial, it was Amelia Earhart and, if you want to stop seeing movies about her, please do something else to make yourselves seem useful.

Love, 

Josh Denny

That’s not an actual letter written by Denny, but based on a bit that appears on his new album “Social Hand Grenades” it wouldn't surprise me. If you find that kind of humor offensive or unfunny or uncalled for or highly misogynistic or definitely not something that should be laughed at, then I highly advise you move on to the next review. If, however, political correctness hasn’t stolen your soul and robbed you of a sense of humor, then stick around. You’re in for a good time.

In the spirit of comics like Doug Stanhope and George Carlin, Denny revels in seeing how far over the line he can go. He doesn’t just cross the line, though, he plays with it. He pushes it, moves it, and whips it around his head as he gleefully touches on topics like race, rape, and slavery.

I couldn’t help but think of those guys in the orange vests you see at football games moving the chains back and forth to indicate the line of scrimmage. Just as they go up and down the field, forward and back, changing where the line is, Denny does the same thing. If you thought the aforementioned topics were things you would never laugh at or should be joked about, Denny is about to open your eyes to a brand new you. As he pushes the boundaries (starting off his show by calling his mother an asshole for only offering 1-ply toilet paper in the guest bathroom), you soon realize that there is funny to be found in the most taboo of topics as long as it’s done right. 

Denny does it right.

There is a nice blend of truth-in-comedy and delivery that Denny employs. Yes, there are certain stereotypes about black people we’ve all heard, but Denny comes at them from a different direction, correcting them where they need corrected and creating all new ones to ponder. As he explains why a date shouldn’t include a hike in the woods, it's true he’s making some outrageous statements, but  at the same time he put me in mind of Charlie from “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.” He also comes up with some jacked up theories but you don’t get mad at him; you just laugh. Denny knows how wrong he is and assumes that since this is a comedy show, you won’t take him too seriously. Jokes is jokes, folks.

Don’t get me wrong, though. The album isn’t made up entirely of button-pushing material like his racist father, the similarities between homosexuality and pedophilia, and why black women never get abducted. There’s a great bit on weight loss and how you can lose 50 pounds and still be fat. Denny gives the “Live. Laugh. Love”-themed decor the treatment it deserves and there’s an amazing track on people who drop the G-bomb on redheads (For all of us of alternate hair coloring, please don’t refer to him as a “ginger.” It’s “gin-jah”).

The title of this album and the corresponding cover art couldn’t be more appropriate to Denny’s comedy. He’s got a social hand grenade between his teeth and the pin has been pulled. Don’t duck and cover, though, or turn and run. Just sit back and enjoy the explosion.



Monday, October 29, 2012

Derek Sheen's "Holy Drivel"



On the new album “Holy Drivel,” comedian Derek Sheen starts things off at a nice steady pace. He begins with a fun bit on the differences between Seattle and Portland to kind of ease us into the proceedings. Nothing too crazy. Ribbing Portland for their hippy-dippy all-vegan strip clubs and explaining why daylight ruins the strip club experience (including the names of strippers who don’t qualify to appear during peak nighttime hours, like “Bruisy,” “Clumpy,” and “Knuckles”), Sheen plays it cool while the audience gets comfortable.

And then, without warning, Sheen slams the pedal to the metal and we’re off like a shot. As he lays in on The South and their collection of the greatest fat people ever, the laughs suddenly go into overdrive and there’s no turning back. 

I’ve heard comics take on The South before but no one has taken them (and their biscuit-based economy) to the cleaners quite like Sheen. One moment he’s rattling off what sounds like a pretty tasty and totally legitimate recipe for perfect buttermilk biscuits and the next he’s listing the secret process for the accompanying gravy that I believe is just as equally accurate.

With Sheen, you never quite know what’s around the corner and that’s a good thing. He has a passion that is reminiscent of Lewis Black and his references, stretching from Frank Herbert’s “Dune” to Coachella all in one Paula Deen joke, will keep you on your toes.

Sheen’s observations and insights are right on the money: Gay men have great yard sales, lesbians do not (what do you do with a huge box of wolf t-shirts and dreamcatchers?). Chattanooga is the Detroit of The South. And yes, there is a way to correct things if you’re raising a crappy kid (grab your pillow). Sure, these aren’t all things you can say around the water cooler at your job tomorrow without catching a weird look or two, but that doesn’t take away from their truthyness (thank you, Stephen Colbert, for that word).

Like many of my favorite comedians, Sheen is more of a storyteller than a crafter of yuk-yuk one-liners. Particularly memorable is his tale of the small town Tennessee bar that comes to life on Fridays due to a mysterious and frightening phenomenon and you won't soon forget the nickname he came up with for his best friend’s new baby that even surprised Sheen with it’s complete inappropriateness. 

Not to be forgotten is the final track that begins with a simple desire to get away from the pressures of everyday life and ends with the idea of leaving Disneyland covered in child blood and enduring the parenting styles of lame fathers who don’t incur the wrath of the Portuguese Tack Hammer but instead opt for repeating their child’s name over and over again for five minutes. If your name happens to be “Micah,” prepare yourself, because from now on you will have a new way of being addressed by your friends.

I found myself enjoying this album so much, when it was over I couldn’t believe 45 minutes had passed. At first I was angry and thought, “What a rip-off! A 20-minute CD? I want more!” Then, after realizing how much time had actually passed, it made me happy. Forty-five minutes flew by and that’s always a good sign. And, even though I thought I might, I didn’t walk away with “It’s A Small World” stuck in my head. That’s always good, too.



Friday, October 26, 2012

Dan Cummins's "Hear This!"



I’m glad there are people out there like Dan Cummins if for no other reason than I am comforted by the fact that I’m not the only one who secretly harbors socially unacceptable thoughts about hipsters, how gays are like the TV show “True Blood,” and kicking babies. Cummins, of course, is able to put into words the same things I am thinking much better than I would be able to and without a doubt, much funnier. Much, much funnier. More likely than not if I were to try to express these same sentiments, they would be taken the wrong way. Cummins will, from now on, be my translator and the next time I’m trying to make a point, I’ll just play a track from his new album “Hear This!” and say, “THAT’s what I mean.” No longer will my infant-punting dreams be the reason for my social ineptitude.

It all begins when Cummins relays the tale of the hunchbacked, shifty-eyed hotel front desk clerk with a pencil-thin mustache and beard who tried to steal his credit card information. As the botched heist is described, Cummins takes a sinister glee in describing the perp’s less-than-cover model looks, right down to his pinkies-for-thumbs hands. As if that weren’t funny enough on its own, Cummins then begins to hypothesize how the creepy guy lost his original digits in the first place and it’s a good peek into the huge laughs that are waiting for you on the rest of the album.

Cummins’s honesty and transparency are both aspects of his comedy that I really enjoy. As politically incorrect as it may be to admit, he judges (and hates) people based on the way they look (especially if they’re smoking a pipe), he thinks America is the best country but doesn’t think it’s “great” (yes, it is possible to not be great and still be the best), and although he loves his kids equally, he does like one of them more than the other (and reveals which one that is). Cummins freely admits these - and other - thoughts run rampant inside his head and we can all relate. If you claim you’ve never wished death on someone completely innocent for the slightest infraction, then think back to last week when you were running late and there was someone in front of you in the fast lane driving the speed limit. See? You’re one of us now. Sit down and relax.

More a storyteller than a joke-teller (and I think I prefer it that way), Cummins comes armed with some fantastic tales from real-life experiences. They don’t always paint him in the best light as witnessed by the time he more than likely got a school employee fired for not wanting to get hit with spoons, but that’s not why we’re here. Cummins isn’t trying to make himself look like a model citizen, he’s here to make us laugh, and doggonit, he does it well. Yes, the scenario that plays out in his head when the guy at the smoothie shop won’t. Do. His. Job. Is probably a little over the top, but it’s also pretty darn hilarious, too.

When it comes to his kids, Cummins has an unending source of comedy. He admits that before having kids he didn’t like them and after having kids he hates them (except for his two. He loves his. Hates all others) and his two children couldn’t be further apart on the personality spectrum. His son is the goofy carefree one who wants to grow up to be a dwarf so he can still crawl through logs. His daughter is The Dark One, so cunning and sinister she makes Stewie Griffin look like the E*Trade baby. It’s like she knows what he’s saying about her on stage in front of strangers and is making him pay for it at home. For real.

I can’t finish this review without giving props to the creative team who designed the cover art for the CD. Although a seemingly simple premise at first glance (Cummins at a smoothie shop), it is filled with funny details that serve as callbacks to big laughs on the album. Read the descriptions of the smoothies on the chalk board. Pay special attention to how the kids are dressed. Even the price of the smoothies ($6) points to a great bit on toll bridges that demand cash only. 

A lot of care and time when into making this album, in every aspect, and it shows. It’s a great project from a very funny comedian and I can’t recommend it enough. Hear this. Hear this now.



Monday, October 22, 2012

Cowboy and Indian's "In Case of Emergency"



If there’s one thing that's more difficult than recording a stand up comedy album, it just might be recording a sketch comedy album. I don’t know that for a fact but am just hypothesizing based on the fact that, with stand up, you instantly know how well a joke goes over. The audience is usually more than willing to let you know what they thought of a joke by laughing, groaning, or staring blankly back at you without making a sound. With sketch, unless you happen to live in a large city such as New York with clubs that cater to those comedians and performers, you might not have an outlet with which to test your craft and, as a result, not have any idea how it’s going to play. In that regard, I would imagine it’s a bit like skydiving at night and I must say I respect those who give it a go.

For me, sketch comedy is tricky because I’ve never heard a sketch comedy album where I’ve liked every track. Even my favorite sketch albums like Monty Python or Adam Sandler have a few tracks that I usually skip. For every track that makes me laugh out loud, there’s often one that just leaves me a bit confused and uninterested. I think that’s a good thing, though. In general, sketch writers and performers tend to take a lot of chances and risks and aren’t afraid to try something out regardless of how off the wall and bizarre it might feel. For every SNL sketch that caught fire and exploded over the pop culture scene, there were countless others that aired in the last half hour, never to be included in a “Best Of” collection that were placed in the last half hour for a reason. But at least they tried it out.

The reason for such a long intro to my review of Cowboy & Indian’s “In Case of Emergency” is to assure you that, just because I didn’t love every single track included here, that doesn’t mean it’s not good and I didn’t enjoy myself. On the contrary, this is a solid entry into the Sketch Comedy genre and very probably the best one I’ve heard since Sandler’s last entry. It’s nice to see (or hear, rather) that there are good sketch writers out there doing their thing and, even more impressive, writing material that translates well to a non-visual format.

The writing on the album is solid and covers a nice variety of subjects. Even better, for the most part, they are approached from a different angle than you have probably heard before. Sure, you may have seen a couple of terrorists devising a plan in other sketch programs before, but you’d be hard pressed to find a series of scenes written this smartly and with such originality. Because their take on it was so fresh, it genuinely felt as if this was the first time I’d experienced the premise. 

There’s a fun running gag that features a friendly yet sexually disturbing mythological creature and when their mad scientist decides to create a new spin on laboratory creations, the results are just what he should have expected...but didn’t. My favorite track comes early on and confirms the fears of parents everywhere who listen to their kids singing along to Katy Perry and Ke$ha songs they hear on the radio.

As it often goes with sketch collections, for every track that featured Game Night with a mood-killing dark knight or a fun take on Doctor Who that, quite honestly, I’m surprised I never thought about before, there are tracks that made me scratch my head and will probably be skipped over in the future (like SNL, these are positioned near the end of the project and feature a salad that confounds Japanese businessmen and a series of voicemails that were a bit predictable). The members of Cowboy & Indian do a fine job as long as they aren’t trying to do European accents. There are a couple of sketches (the aforementioned Doctor Who sketch and a BBC play-by-play porno commentary) where the actors struggle to keep from drifting from a British accent to Australian to Scottish. A conversation between Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels shifts from a conversation between Germans to Russians and....yes...at times, what seems to be French. The inconsistency of the accents was a bit distracting and, had they gone for no accent at all, I would have given them a pass and been able to focus more on the humor.

All in all, though, this is a fun project and one that deserves a place in your iTunes playlist (especially if you’re a fan of sketch comedy). The production value is impressive (although they should probably invest in a new “slap” sound effect) and there are some really clever laughs waiting to be discovered. If Cowboy & Indian is the future of sketch comedy, then the future of sketch comedy is in good hands.