Monday, January 30, 2012

Chris Killian's "The Not Black Album"

On paper, comedians like Daniel Tosh and Lisa Lampanelli say some pretty horrible things. They get away with it on stage, though, because we all know they're doing it to get a laugh. And, because they are genuinely funny as they go about it. The tricky part comes when you tweak the motive behind it. It's a very fine line to walk. Unfortunately, The Not Black Album  by Chris Killian is an example of how things can go wrong.

The feeling I took away from this album is that Killian isn't trying to say controversial things to get a laugh but instead to get a reaction. There may seem to be a minor difference between the two,  but in reality it's pretty huge. Instead of coming across as shock comedy, it just comes across as mean-spirited and it takes away from the fun.

There are a number of times when Killian stuns the audience into shocked silence; their refusal to laugh serving as a signal to Killian (which he either ignores or just doesn't pick up on it, I'm not sure which) that you can't just say mean things into a microphone and automatically get laughter. You sort of have to be funny, too.

To me, the writing here is where Killian falls short. His jokes aren't particularly insightful or cleverly constructed. They're just...well...easy. He explains how he makes fun of his Asian girlfriend for being Asian because ... "who wouldn't, right?" The crowd's response is so lukewarm, Killian is forced to address it. One example of his clever jibes he gives is when he's out with her in public and sees an elderly Asian woman. He'll point to her and ask his girlfriend, "Hey, is that your mom?"

Insert awkward pause here.

As Killian works through his set, it becomes obvious who his comedic influences are and each time he comes up short when he tries to emulate them. Don't have an ending for a bit? Then just say something in an Aziz Ansari-esque razz-a-ma-tazz delivery. It won't get you much of a laugh, but at least you can move on.

When Killian announced he was going to change things up by singing some original songs, I became hopeful. I thought perhaps he's one of those guys whose stand-up isn't that good but makes up for it with this other thing they do. Unfortunately that's not the case. Killian's singing and songwriting are just as good as his joke writing and that's not a compliment.

The song structure and phrasing are clunky and the melodies feel forced and unnatural; Killian's rhyme scheme is fairly predictable and, not to sound too much like Randy Jackson, his singing is pitchy. He sings above the note when he's projecting and when he lowers his volume, the notes are flat. I imagine he had people like Stephen Lynch and Bo Burnham in mind when he sat down and decided to be a bad boy singing comedian but again the motive behind it feels "off."

Besides being clever lyricists, both Lynch and Burnham are genuinely good composers and (especially Lynch) talented singers. Killian doesn't seem to be especially concerned with musical ability but if eight tracks on your album are going to be songs, that's probably not a good idea.

Once again, Killian isn't looking to entertain or make people laugh, he's out to shock and appall. It's not about the writing, and it really should be. Just because you say/sort-of sing harsh things while strumming a guitar, that doesn't automatically make you a comedian. That just makes you a bully with a guitar.

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