Friday, June 29, 2012

Don Friesen's "Ask Your Mom"

When I was growing up in Indiana and attending Youth Group on a regular basis like a good Christian boy, I knew even then that I was into comedians, stand up, and humor in general. I just didn't realize I was a bit of a comedy snob. Occasionally there would be get-togethers at the church or at the house of one of the members of the congregation and a parent or youth leader would inevitably say, "Hey, let's pop in a video tape, this guy's really funny!" 

And I knew what would happen next.

Everyone would gather around the TV and we would sit and watch as a comedian I never heard of - but was pre-approved by the grownups - would take the stage. The comic was usually in a massive venue and it wasn't long before the crowd - both the live studio audience as well as those surrounding me in the living room - would erupt in wild laughter. I would watch as the other kids in the youth group would laugh and laugh and laugh and I often wondered to myself why I wasn't laughing, too. The youth leaders and adults would be doubled over, tears of laughter streaming from their eyes as the family-friendly comedian with golden highlights in his hair and a shell necklace around his neck (to show us how hip he was), dressed in sensible sweaters or a silly tie (to show our parents how non-threatening he was) yukked it up.

I recall pretending to laugh when the others did but the ruse only lasted a short while. Even as a youngster I didn't have the energy to fake having fun. I remember wishing I had my Bill Cosby cassettes or Steve Martin records on hand. I'd show those guys what funny really was. I knew the adults would probably frown upon the Eddie Murphy tapes I had stashed in my room, but I bet even they would crack up at the way Eddie called - screamed, even - for the ice cream man. But this... what we were watching...  I couldn't grasp why I was the only one in the room who didn't get it. Or maybe it was the other way around.

Years later I feel like I'm finally able to put it into words. A comedian doesn't have to swear or be racy or talk about off-color material  in order for me to be entertained. My fondness for comics like Cosby, Brian Regan, Jim Gaffigan, and Jerry Seinfeld  are perfect examples of guys who generally shy away from blue material and still garner huge laughs. What's interesting, though, is I don't label the aforementioned as "clean comics." They're just...comics. 

But I've found those who promote themselves as "clean" usually have the same effect on me as those Christian comedians from years past and now I understand why. It's not the "clean" aspect that turns me off. It's when "clean" morphs into "safe" that I find the humor tends to get lost. I have nothing against comedians who work clean or even Christian comedians (although I can't recall the last time I recommended one to a friend)'s that moment they veer into "safety" that loses me.

Which brings me (I know, finally) to Don Friesen and his album Ask Your Mom. Each time I listened to this project I was brought back to my junior high years, looking down on the people laughing around me.  I didn't see the Showtime broadcast of this project, but judging by the audio version, the crowd loves him. They eat up everything he says and the number of huge applause breaks he garners would make any comic envious (if not a bit confused).

Then it hit me: This project isn't for me. In fact, considering how safe Friesen's material is, I'm shocked it aired on the same channel as Dexter, Weeds, and Homeland. This isn't a project for die-hard comedy fans as much as it is for grownups who like to laugh without having their convictions prodded.

Friesen paints himself as a lovable loser, an "aw, shucks" adorable doofus much like Regan or Christopher Titus. In this case, though, he lacks the teeth of Titus and Regan's explosive inanity. There are moments when his material feels stale, especially when he tackles topics like the toys kids have today ("Now we have Nintendo," he says. Really? Now we have Nintendo?) and cutting-edge technology like... Instant Messenger ("I'm starting to get instant messages. Have you guys tried that, IM?") that again put me in mind of those Christian comics who were always five to ten years behind the mainstream. When Friesen pulled out his George W. Bush material, especially his line about how he can't pronounce the word "nuclear," it made me wonder if this wasn't actually recorded 12 years ago.

But again, the crowd loved it. They loved it like they hadn't heard that same joke countless times on Late Night TV. When Friesen did standard gags on owing creditors and how marriage emasculated him, they rang with unoriginality. And the audience howled. When he teased someone for being behind the times with the latest electronic gadgets, he whipped out the standard overused phrase, "What are you, Amish?"

And the crowd lost. Their. Shit.

And that's when I threw in the towel. This album isn't for me. You don't have to be a genius to hear the roar of laughter on the CD and know there are people who click with this style of humor. I'm just not one of them and it turns out after all these years, I still don't have the energy to fake having fun.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Danny Bevins's "Inappropriate"

Trying to capture the new CD from Danny Bevins, Inappropriate, in a simple review may prove to be a bit difficult for my limited skills, so bear with me. He operates quickly, is always on his toes, and is a bit all over the place. There's an old saying about how hard it is to hit describe a moving target, but I won't quote that here. When it comes to describing Bevins's approach, broad descriptive strokes are ineffective. Although his material is original and all his own, at times his inflections and mannerisms bear a striking resemblance to other comedians. There were times, albeit just a handful, where it sounded like he was channeling Brian Regan, Sam Kinison, Bill Burr, or TJ Miller. 

I remember the first time someone told me they didn't care for Jim Gaffigan. I still recall exactly where I was (inside the box office at the National Comedy Theatre in Manhattan) because up to that point, I always assumed everyone was a fan (myself included). When he explained to me how Gaffigan's soft-spoken, high-pitched Voice Of The Audience was too repetitive for his taste, it was like a light bulb went on. Although the falsetto never bothered me personally, I understood how it might not be someone else's cup of comedy tea. [It's only fair to note that Gaffigan has cut back on that aspect of his comedy considerably since then.]

Bevins uses a similar technique. The differences here are two-fold:
  1. Instead of a breathy, nearly feminine, Gaffigan-esque tone, Bevins uses one that sounds remarkable like Barney Fife. I don't know whether or not it's an intentional Don Knotts impression, but it's pretty dead on.
  2. Where Gaffigan uses The Voice to play the role of a disgruntled, critical audience member, Bevins uses his Fife Tone to play the role of everyone. Whoever he happens to be talking about just also happens to sound like the single-bulleted deputy.
Whether or not you tire of this tactic will vary depending on your outlook. I bounced back and forth and actually warmed up to it as I got deeper into the album. There were a few occasions where the gimmick supplied the biggest laugh of the story.

At the onset of the album Bevins speaks in a quiet and almost timid whisper and then ramps himself up into a frenetic ball of energy. He spends the rest of the time anywhere between that vast spectrum of extremes, sometimes exploding from hushed to screaming with no hint of what's to come (you've been warned, headphone users).

Overall I enjoyed the second half of the album over the first. I preferred his conversation with the homophobic Texas cowboy more than his confrontation with the table of loud women at a bar during happy hour. His bit on Occupy Wall Street-ers and the secret power of wearing a suit brought more smiles to me than his grandfather's model work ethic or Bevins's explanation of why he is pro-choice despite the fact he was an unplanned baby. I can't pinpoint the reason why the first six tracks didn't do as much for me as the final seven. Bevins isn't doing anything better or worse, I think it just happened to be that some bits struck a chord with me more than others; you may very well have a different response.

My favorite track is Scotland and White People and showcases Bevins's unique outlook on the subject of race. His insights are not only witty (if you wanna live around only white people, you'll have to put up with crap weather) but also funny in their dead-on accuracy (he wants enough white people in his neighborhood that police will respond to an emergency but not so many that he needs permission to paint his house). As he goes from explaining why Koreans make the best doctors to noting that Native Americans love having Caucasian friends (they never learn), Bevins cleverly covers all of the bases. 

The album ends with Bevins describing how he wants his funeral to be a party of randomness that initially put me in mind of a similar bit from Nick Swardson's first special on Comedy Central. Bevins distances himself by going much further into detail, including a 21 Gun Salute consisting entirely of rifle-toting rednecks and the second of two appearances on the CD by a naked clown (which made me a bit wary of what is bubbling deep in his psyche). As Bevins explains, it's all about having fun, not taking things too seriously, and, whenever possible, being inappropriate.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Jesse Popp's "You Stink"

If comedy is an art form (and I believe it is) and if comedians are artists (and I believe they are) then it's no small coincidence that Jesse Popp shares initials with the master of the splatter technique, Jackson Pollock. On his album You Stink, Popp's comedy, frenetic in theme but not delivery, is all over the place and, with a slew of off-the-wall observations on his palette with which to paint, you never quite know what to expect (that's not a bad thing). His tone is low-keyed and sly, sort of a Todd Barry/Jack Nicholson hybrid. There's a smirk in his voice as if he's well aware that the place he's going next is somewhere we least expect.

There are a few moments where I felt his absurdity missed the mark, such as his bit on breaking apart Derek Jeter's apartment to sell it in pieces and his material on Thomas Edison's last breath that seemed to play a bit flat, but for the most part I enjoyed the ride. In fact, many times as he related a story, my favorite moments were those occasions when he strayed from the main narrative and treated us to a random aside. For instance, as he told us about eating Christmas ornament-making dough in pre-school despite his teacher's warning, I lost it as he rushed out of the bathroom after throwing up and muttered weakly, "I ate the dough." 

Similarly, despite the fact his tale of being awkwardly solicited in Central Park is a bit I genuinely enjoyed, my favorite detail was when he explained why he likes going to the park: "One time I saw a squirrel eat a whole piece of pizza." It's moments like those, along with "shoe bags" and the "Cancun Fixy-People Place," that kept me on my toes, chuckling (not literally, although that is a fun mental picture)

Even when Popp approaches what could be seen as standard comedy material (working in an office, applying for a gym membership), his style is unique and there's no feeling of Been There, Done That. Not only does he comment on the quirks of everyday life, he seems genuinely intrigued by them. He is captivated by people who brag about what they would do in hypothetical situations that will never come to fruition and he claims that even if the conspiracy theorists who purport Elvis faked his death were correct, The King is probably gone by now. "That guy died in the woods in 1985. That's a best-case scenario."

Popp's material consists largely of concepts that make you wonder "How did he come up with that?" His impression of Every Person Who Buys A Used Bookstore is spot on and his other character, A Person Who Doesn't Understand The Rules To Scrabble, brings down the house. I love it when he compares die-hard Star Wars fans to people who stuff their dead pets and when he postulates that the Bourne Identity books  are probably nothing like the movies, he does so with side-splitting results: "'Where's Bourne? Get me Bourne,' said everyone in the room that was typing."

One of my favorite moments comes relatively early in the project, when his boss at work promises an Ice Cream Day if the staff increases production by 15%. Popp is unimpressed. "Ice Cream Day. Not Money Day...I'm a grown man. I can buy ice cream until I shit my pants and I wouldn't even get in trouble."

Another highlight occurs later in the album when he wonders what happened to a childhood friend whose parents never let him watch the end of La Bamba. Popp pictures him in a record store, wondering why there are no new Ritchie Valens releases and angrily muttering, "That flash-in-the-pan piece of shit."

Although at times a bit uneven, this CD clicks along at a nice pace and even if there's something that doesn't strike your funny bone in the right spot it's safe to say the next anecdote will. And hey, look out for those occasional out-of-nowhere nuggets of skewed randomness. They'll get you every time, guaranteed.*

*His word is bond.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Chad Daniels's "You're the Best"

The title of the new album from Chad Daniels, You're the Best, is derived from his response to a man who criticized his non pickle-eating habit at a Detroit airport. When the man spies Daniels removing the green slices from his sandwich, he brags that he just asks them to hold the pickles. Daniels's delivery as he responds to this unsolicited interjection with those three words is the perfect retort and just one of many examples why I loved this CD so much.

Daniels is the voice in your head you wish was there every time someone said or did something ridiculous and you found yourself with nothing to say. He's the Robin Hood of Reaction, doling out appropriately sarcastic replies to those who deserve it most: Kids, grumpy airplane passengers, and people who justify using the N-word by using other offensive phrases. Daniels puts them all into place so quickly (if only in his head) and with such ease you'll find yourself pausing and rewinding to catch what you missed while you were laughing so hard.

And yes, you are encouraged to laugh. Those who cover their mouths when they laugh will not be tolerated. Nor will "Meow-Brained" people.

As Daniels so wonderfully explains, there are two different types of people: Those with Clap Brains (they hear something funny, something they agree with, or something that clicks with them and their initial response is to applaud. Clap Brains are highly esteemed) and those with Meow Brains (those who, instead of reacting to a joke or one-liner positively, simply sit back and emit a smug, disapproving "mrah-mrah" noise like Edward G Robinson crossed with Garfield). Clap Brains are awesome. Meow Brains suck at life.

Meow-Brained people get what they have coming to them and none are safe. That includes pompous environmentalists who catch you at the store without your eco-friendly reusable bag, people with cleft palates who accuse others with the same affliction of mocking them, and Daniels's own racist grandmother.

This CD isn't all Daniels blasting one Meow Brain after another (although if it was, I wouldn't complain. You'll be hard-pressed to find someone funnier at saying what I wish I was clever enough to come up with on my own). He is just as entertaining when he shares tales of misfortune from his own household. Canoe partners who don't pull (or paddle) their own weight and trying to explain the birds and the bees to his son (and what women and lawn mowers have in common) are just a couple of glimpses into life with his wife and kids.

Being a dad naturally comes with the task of answering a multitude of queries, both reasonable and far-fetched, and I love his idea of setting aside some specified time each day for a family press conference where he can field questions about the mystery of refrigerator magnets. His daughter is an unintentional gold mine of material, especially when it comes to bedtime discoveries and being unable to pronounce the name of a certain female rapper.

The way Daniels tells a story is both engaging and laugh-inducing (he describes the scary section of the lower United States as "the part of the South where they end their sentences with "g'doo goo") and it doesn't get much better than when he relays the story of the time he nearly got arrested simply for wishing. Granted, I'm sure the officer didn't appreciate it when Daniels said he hoped the cop in question got AIDS (and not the good one Magic Johnson got) but holy crap did I laugh.

Going into this album, I was unfamiliar with Daniels and his work but after just a few minutes into it I was an instant fan. And the CD only gets better from there. He's an amazing comedian with a real sense of what's funny and a genuine knack for taking that something funny and making it even funnier. This is one you won't want to miss.

Chad Daniels, your CD title speaks the truth. You're the best.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Gary Gulman's "No Can Defend"

I've been a fan of Gary Gulman's for some time now and his new album No Can Defend perfectly encapsulates everything I love about his comedy. First of all, he's funny. Really funny. Not just chuckle-to-yourself funny but Interrupting-your-wife-while-she-choreographs-Zumba-routines-so-you-can-play-a-track-for-her funny.

Gulman covers a wide array of topics, many of them subjects that sparkle with nostalgic recognizability. Whether it's the Discman, The Karate Kid, or the Scholastic book club, Gulman beautifully recaptures the highlights we loved about childhood while at the same time pointing out what was so ridiculous about them. True, the books we ordered took a little while to arrive and he also has a point when he postulates on the inanity of Noriyuki "Pat" Morita (the guy who played Mr. Miyagi) and the fact that his nickname is "Pat." But when Gulman hones in on the Discman, particularly his take on the fictional program "VH1's Top 3 Features of the Discman," he really hits a grand slam. As he cycles through options like Bass Boost and Anti-Shock (I won't reveal the #1 feature. You'll just have to tune in for yourself to find out what it is), the laughs are frequent and the laughs are huge.

I love Gulman's phrasing. His structure is fun and unique and begs to be quoted. When he describes Jews as cautious, he declares, "We have every right to be. We've been in a couple of pickles over the years." When he found a movie on TV he explains, "The original Karate Kid is On Demand this month. And Monday night I demanded it."

It doesn't take much to get Gulman going and that's what makes his comedy so fun. I love hearing him become completely unravelled by life's smallest inconveniences. As he comes undone by a water filter he notes, "With a Brita you are always just an hour away from six ounces of lukewarm water" and I lost it when he takes Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz to task for telling the Scarecrow she'll miss him most of all right in front of Lion and Tin Man ("Why don't you get back in line and ask the Wizard for some manners, you twat!")

Sometimes it begins with a simple statement like "I didn't know there was going to be so much typing," Gulman's regret for not paying attention in typing class, especially since we spend most of our day at a keyboard. And speaking of keyboards, well, let's just say none of those symbols are safe as he makes his way down the row, calling out one ridiculous key after another. Who would have known there was so much great comedy to be found in ampersands, semi-colons, and @ signs?

This CD not only treats us to big laughs but also helps us save money in these tough economic times. Whether you're off to buy groceries, catch a movie, or stop to pick up a prescription, Gulman has some valuable money-saving tips to pass your way. And while we're on the topic of petty theft, there's a great story where Gulman recounts the first time he stole something. As his muffin crime escalates into Ocean's 11 proportions, the stakes - and humor - are raised.

Defend is bookended by a couple of tracks that, although equally hilarious, couldn't be further apart thematically. The project begins with a young Gulman trying to process why in the world the Jewish Community Center felt the need to install breakaway basketball rims. When it comes to the number of kids who have shattered a backboard, he simply says, "More 10-year-old Jewish kids have played Chunk in The Goonies." He closes his set with a bit on role playing and shows that, with Gulman, role playing is much more detailed and involved than one might anticipate and it can be a real work of art as long as you don't let eroticism or sex get in the way.

What we have here is a great album I can't recommend highly enough. Or, to put it in a way that will surely infuriate the gods of puns, when it comes to this project I "No Can Recommend.... Highly Enough."

I know. I hate myself, too.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Nato Green's "The Nato Green Party"

There are two different facets to Nato Green and, as a result, his album The Nato Green Party. He begins as a wry comedian and midway through morphs into a union organizer. Green sometimes refers to himself as a political comedian but for the most part he operates strictly in either Comic Mode or Activist Mode. When the two operating systems intersect, the big laughs are hard to find.

That very point was my biggest stumbling block with this CD. When Green is playing the role of the comedian, his humor is solid and he keeps the crowd captivated. As he clicks over into activism the humor dips and Green's energy seems to suffer the same fate. As the agenda of his message took precedence over his desire to make people laugh I found myself tuning out. I don't think I was the only one whose interest waned as his audience also became notably quieter, big laughs and rounds of applause being exchanged for smatterings of whoops and the occasional handful of people clapping in support of the cause.

The first six tracks of the CD are enjoyable enough. That's not to say there are no humorous anecdotes in the latter half of the album, but the focus definitely shifts away from laughs as we get further and further in. His story about encountering another's symbol of good luck makes for a great tale of stereotypical Left Coast self-involvement and his ability to justify overeating is pretty impressive. 

For me, though, the comedy portion of the show ends too soon as Green slips on his Union Organizer hat. It's interesting to note that as he speaks on something he's very passionate about, his level of energy and enthusiasm fades. I did enjoy his bit on why it makes sense to use Nazis as the poster children for not following through but the overall vibe ends up playing less like a stand up comedian and more like a CSPAN talking head who throws in a witty observation here and there.

Not that there's anything wrong with that. It just so happens that I'm not Green's target audience. I don't have anything against political humor but what's happening here can probably be more accurately described as political activist humor. 

At one point Green states, "Some of these are jokes, some are tips for revolution." He couldn't have summed it up better and that being the case lands me directly outside of his core demographic. I'm not looking for a revolution and I'm not interested in making a sign. When it comes to comedy, I just wanna laugh.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Jimmy Fallon's "Blow Your Pants Off"

Those YouTube videos you've been getting forwarded from your friends featuring clips from "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon?" You know, those same clips that made you laugh out loud and then you posted them on your Facebook wall for others to enjoy? Well, the best of those clips have been gathered together and compiled into a collection called Blow Your Pants Off and it's nothing short of a truly great time.

Nearly every track on the album features one of Jimmy's celebrity pals who are anxious to jump in with both feet and poke fun at pop culture (and themselves). Fallon is backed by The Roots and you won't find a cooler house band working on television. They sound great and as they slip from playing one genre into another (The Doors, hip hop, Rebecca Black) their versatility is nicely showcased.

I enjoyed this album much more than Fallon's debut (and previous) album, The Bathroom Wall, mostly because it spotlights my favorite aspect of his comedy (Fallon's songs) and completely bypasses the tracks I found myself skipping over the last time around (Fallon's stand up). When you listen to his songs together in one collection you're reminded of just how good he is at impersonating the likes of Jim Morrison and Neil Young and at crafting a catchy original hook of his own (I defy anyone to not sing along to "Balls In Your Mouth").

The main thrust of the album is Fallon tackling the headlines of today and giving them a fun musical interpretation. The Jeremy Lin media hype gets a Pearl Jam-inspired take on "Linsanity," David Bowie takes on Tim Tebow ("Tebowie") and Brian Williams (AKA Bri-Bri Will Wills) gets his own slow-jam newscast ("Slow Jam the News"). It's not all current events, though, as there are also nuggets for fans of old-school beats ("History of Rap") and 80s television ("Neil Young Sings 'Fresh Prince of Bel Air,'", "Bob Dylan Sings 'Charles in Charge'").

Of course, the random choice of songs and the celebrities who sing them is what really amps up the humor. I have no idea how Fallon came up with the idea of Jim Morrison singing the theme from "Reading Rainbow" or Neil Young covering Willow Smith but the juxtaposition is too funny to spend time trying to figure out rhyme or reason. The addition of Bruce Springsteen growling "Whip my hairrrrrrr" and Paul McCartney breathing new life into a classic song ("Scrambled Eggs") makes everything that much more enjoyable.

The fact that I'd already seen most of the songs offered here on YouTube in no way took away from my listening enjoyment. If nothing else it took me back to that first time I heard them and once again I found myself grinning like an idiot from ear to ear (and, once again, I found myself wondering if Taylor Hicks was really the only guest singer they could find to make a cameo appearance. Stephen Colbert and "Friday" deserve so much more).

Clocking in at just under 35 minutes, this project zips by pretty quickly. Or maybe it's just that time really does fly when you're having fun. Either way, as soon as I finished my first listen I found myself immediately returning for seconds. And thirds. Granted, Fallon isn't the greatest singer in the world but he doesn't claim to be, and considering the singers he so skillfully impersonates he doesn't have to be. His impressions are spot on and as he tries to keep up with the modulations in the final track ("Let Us Play With Your Look") the fact that he isn't able to hit the high notes are part of the fun. And really, the fun is why we're here. If you came for vocal prowess you'd be reading a review of last night's Michael Bolton concert live from the Parthenon.

This CD does exactly what it came to do. It captures the light-hearted party feel of a late-night program banging on all cylinders. Consider my pants officially blown off.