Friday, February 24, 2012

Bryan Bruner's "Welcome to Djibouti"


If life is a highway, then Bryan Bruner is a pretty safe driver. On his album Welcome to Djibouti, he steers us through life's little road bumps cautiously, his hands firmly on the wheel at 10 and 2 (mostly because he's trying to compensate for the fact he's probably amid a marijuana high). The real question, though, is whether or not this is the sort of ride you prefer.

If you prefer your comedy reckless and pulse-pounding with hairpin curves taken on two wheels, Bruner probably isn't the comedian for you. There are a few turns here and there, but Bruner turns on his blinker well before we get there, signaling the change in direction and taking away any real element of surprise.

The album starts off promisingly enough with a humorous explanation of why single people in bars are like clothes from factory outlet malls and what it would be like to party with NFL players. After that, though, the album seems to plateau and continue from there at the same level.

There are plenty of interesting launch points from which Bruner could take off (working for the FDNY, touring with a little person, and his sincere love of the aforementioned cannibas plant), but for the most part they simply remain as nice premises without a real punch. His bit on the midget has a funny visual near the end, but it's a 7-minute cut, and the laughter is definitely not proportionate to the time it takes to get there.

Bruner talks about being a pothead with pride and I fear his love for weed may have dulled his comedic sensibilities. Instead of emulating someone like Doug Benson, arguably one of the funniest and most famous pro-weed comedians working today, his stories end up being just that: Stories. They're interesting enough but there's not much payoff when it comes to big laughs.

There are a few times when Bruner displays passion, but to be honest it's hard to empathize with him because the things that set him off...well...probably shouldn't. When he sends a Facebook friend request to a guy who shares the same name, the alternate Bryan Bruner responds with an understandable response to a complete stranger: "Who is this?" Comedian Bryan Bruner flips out. I'm still not sure why. When he overdraws his bank account and is hit with late fees, he starts a Twitter campaign railing against Bank of America claiming they are responsible for the AIDS virus. I'm still not sure why. And when he made the obligatory "it's dudes catching crabs" Deadliest Catch joke, I didn't wonder why, I just wanted something that had a little more effort behind it.

For the most part, this album seemed to be comedy done via the safest route. It's the difference between a leisurely drive through the Indiana countryside and tooling along the winding, ever-shifting road on the cliffs of Palos Verdes. Bruner's humor is more of the former than the latter. It's a pleasurable enough ride, but there's no risk. No cliffs, just corn.

***

Monday, February 20, 2012

Dylan Brody's "Chronological Disorder"


There are a few moments in my life that, for whatever reason, have been burned into my brain and will stick with me for as long as I live. I don't know what it was about those particular experiences (company, circumstances, or a mix of the two) that came together to make for what was nothing less than a truly magical time. I won't soon forget the time my buddy Paul and I did way too many espresso shots at the coffee house on the Santa Monica pier. There was the time I stayed up all night with my pals Tim, Ethan, and Aubry discussing life and its intricacies around a Pennsylvania campfire. I won't soon forget the time my wife Sarah and our friends Alyssa and Ashlea spent a late night strolling through the Irish town of Adare after drinks and dinner at the Tom Collins Pub. And, of course, there was the night during an Indiana thunderstorm where Sarah and I shared a kiss, our drenched clothes the very least of our concern.

Each of those memories is tinted with a magical feeling as I look back upon them and without sounding too dramatic, Chronological Disorder by Dylan Brody manages to capture the essence and feel of one of those special evenings. Even though he spends over an hour sharing stories, laughs, and moments of revelation, I wished it would last just a little longer. I'm very grateful to be able to recognize when I'm experiencing one of those Special Moments and the one thing that makes listening to this album different from those other occasions is, when it's all done, you can press PLAY and re-live the exact same experience all over again.

This project was recorded in a very intimate setting and the close-quarters feel really adds to the experience. Rather than listening in to a recording of what happened in a comedy club once upon a time, you're drawn in and become a part. It's like you're sitting there while everything unfolds for the first time (even when it's your third time listening), a small gathering of close friends and fellow admirers of fine words and phrases. You can almost hear the fireplace crackling and smell the freshly-uncorked wine as Brody invites us to settle in for an evening of intricately-worded and perfectly-sculpted works of spoken art.

Because that's what this is, really. Although I truly believe stand up comedy is an art form, this is something different. It's not stand up comedy as much as it is the humorous portraiture of life events.

All right, I just realized I'm already a few hundred words into this review and I haven't really spoken about the album's material as much as I have the feeling one walks away with after having experienced it. That's OK, though. With Brody, there's not really any such thing as "getting right to it." That's just part of the journey. Brody leaves himself plenty of freedom to stray from the story at hand because he knows it will all come back around in the end and, as far as he may seem to stray (he doesn't officially "begin" until 18 minutes into the proceedings), it always serves to enhance the experience. I sincerely believe it would be selling Brody short if I left out the tone and mood that we come away with. We're left with a real sense of wonder.

In that regard, Brody reminds me a lot of Steven Spielberg. Do you remember how you felt after the first time you saw E.T., Saving Private Ryan, Raiders of the Lost Ark, or Jurassic Park in the movie theater? All very different movies with very different flavors but they all left you (or at least, me) walking back to the car amid a swirling cloud of "Wow." Although there are no dinosaurs or tombs full of asps in this project, you still walk away with the feeling that you just experienced something...significant.

When Brody tells a story, he really tells a story. He takes full advantage of his vast grasp of the power of language. When he's relating a tale events don't just "deteriorate" or "decline." Instead, they "spiral downward like Larry Flynt at the Guggenheim." I love that. Despite his broad arsenal of references, there is no intellectual pomposity here and everyone is invited to enter in and come along. Nothing portrays that better than this simple introduction to one of his pieces:

"This is a funny story. I hope."


Of course, Brody's hope comes fully to fruition, as his stories are indeed funny. Whether he's explaining how quickly a girl can go from "hot prospect" to "golden ticket" or taking issue with someone claiming to play the role of Devil's Advocate ("The devil doesn't need an advocate. He's the devil...Once you acknowledge that you are advocating the point of view of Beelzebub, you give up the right to claim the moral high ground"). There isn't a tale told that doesn't fail to hit the mark and despite the fact that a number of the tracks clock in at well over 10 minutes, there are no lulls; Brody not only knows what he's doing but he knows how to do it well.

Although each story here is filled with humor and sincere laughter abounds, the focus is on the way the story is conveyed as much as it is on the reaction it will garner. Brody's poor fashion choices result in a unique encounter with a street gang. A rough weekend in Atlantic City dovetails into a poignant moment with his wife and his newly-crafted ancient Zen parable helps put things into perspective for those languishing moments in life when we feel we are being unjustly punished.

As I not-so-subtly hinted at in a previous post, I loved this album. I loved how it made me feel while I was listening and I loved the sense of wonder it left me with when it was over. If Brody has indeed been diagnosed with "Chronological Disorder," I hope they never find a cure.

***

Jake Sharon's "JAke's First Purge"


As explained on the first track of this project, comedian Jake Sharon has been a comic for ten years and he has some material he's grown tired of doing. So, as comedians do, he's decided to round up all of that material, record it, and purge it from his set list, freeing him to move on to new and uncharted territory. Hence the name, JAke's First Purge.

Throughout my listens to the album, I came to understand why Sharon has held on to this material for so long. To put it plainly, it's funny stuff. Whether traditional stand up comedy, audience-including improvisation (his Positive/Negative game is a lot of fun), or excerpts from his podcast(s), Sharon excels and brings with him a real feel of levity.

And really, that's what makes this CD so much fun. It's not the material (although I do like Sharon's writing. On two fat chicks fighting: "They're all punching each other...It sounded like Tupperware closing") as much as it is Sharon himself. He is having a ball, genuinely enjoying what he's doing, and that can't help but spill out into the crowd. When someone is having such a good time it's easy to get sucked in and become a part of the fun.

Sharon is friendly and inviting. His greeting ("Hi. I'm Jake.") is simple, sincere, and welcoming. With those three words we're made to feel safe and at home. It's easy to get comfortable and let your guard down when you know you aren't going to be attacked (unless, of course, you have a turkey laugh. But that's a given). It's apparent that Sharon is comfortable working on the fly and his interactions with the crowd are simultaneously relaxed and entertaining.

The topics covered here span everything from educational children's songs (I'll never again confuse my cake hole with my corn hole) to more adult topics (I love the running kiss-and-tell gag where Sharon reveals people with whom he's made out...and then shares what it tasted like). Sharon has a special knack for talking about "blue" subject matter in a way that doesn't come with that heavy "dirty" feeling hovering over it. I found this surprisingly refreshing and, again, I attribute it to Sharon's lighthearted approach.

Sprinkled throughout the album are introductions to some of the tracks where Sharon breaks the fourth wall and offers a bit of insight and background. He uses these short bumpers to explain that a particular cut was recorded back when he had long hair or when MySpace was still relevant. Although these little asides aren't essential, they are enjoyable and Sharon accentuates each of them with a fun little homemade soundtrack I have since found myself recreating while I perform various tasks throughout my day such as loading the dishwasher or walking to the coffee shop. If you'd like to sing along, it goes a little something like, "La la la, la-la la-la la la...."

Another aspect I really liked about this project is the fact that Sharon left in the imperfections. There are a couple of times where a joke falls flat. There's really no other way to put it. The punch is delivered and Sharon is greeted with a big ol' room-filling silence. And Sharon laughs. It's a real, genuine reaction with which he acknowledges he just blew it, and I liked it. I liked the honesty of the moment and I loved that Sharon embraces it and then carries on.

I hope it's not another ten years before we get another release from Sharon. This project is over an hour long (35 tracks!) and well worth the investment. "JAke's Second Purge: The Re-Purging" is an album I'm already anxious to hear.

***

Friday, February 17, 2012

Marc Unger's "Dirty Truth"


The new album Dirty Truth is a little tough for me to review. With many projects, after listening I have some sort of emotional connection and/or reaction. Maybe I liked it, maybe I didn't. Maybe I loved it and maybe I found it abhorrent. After listening to this new project from Marc Unger, I didn't have any reaction. At all. I didn't go nuts over it and I didn't think it was terrible. It just kind of...was.

My lack of reaction wasn't just a post-listening thing. Throughout the numerous times I played the album I didn't have much of a reaction. I didn't laugh or groan, smile or wince. And I guess that's what stood out to me most: This project didn't illicit any reaction at all.

The main reason for my lukewarm response is because there isn't a lot of groundbreaking comedy to be found here. Unger visits a lot of cliched topics that have been talked about from a stage countless times before and he doesn't explore them in a particularly new or refreshing way.

That's not to say he's bad at what he does, he's just...OK. Unger could easily perform at any comedy club in the nation, but he's not really they type to headline on a Friday or Saturday night. Unger's standard writing is more suited to a Sunday or Tuesday night slot. Sure, you'll have a nice time while you're there, but you won't be blown away or find yourself scouring YouTube later that night to get more. Unger says everything you'd expect from a seasoned road comic, which I guess is OK. On the other hand, Unger says everything you'd expect from a seasoned road comic. There just aren't a lot of surprises. It's like petting a lion with no teeth. It looks cool and makes for a nice photo op, but without the fangs, the fun that comes with the thrill of possibly getting bitten is all but eliminated.

I'm not just criticizing for the sake of criticizing. Here are a few examples of the been there, done that topics that are featured:

  • There sure is a lot of porn on the Internet!
  • Did you know that guys jack off a lot?
  • Reality shows are lame!
  • Sex in real life isn't anything like sex in the movies!
My main beef isn't with the topics themselves, as tired as they may be. It's just that Unger doesn't breathe any new life into them and as a result we're left with standard comedy. There are no stand-out benchmark moments and we come away with a set that's forgettably average.

If Unger is performing at a club near you, I'm sure you and your friends will have a nice time out. You'll laugh, have a few beers, and maybe - if you're lucky - the chicken fingers from the club's kitchen will be somewhat edible. But a week later when someone asks you how the comedian was, you'll say, "Yea, he was good. We had a fun time."

And the conversation will move on from there.

As I said before, that's what I got from the album. Not good. Not bad. Just...meh.

[Insert shoulder shrug here]


***

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Story Time with My Wife and Dylan Brody

This afternoon I asked my wife Sarah, “Hey, do you have a few minutes? Wanna hear a story?”

She nodded her head with a smile and said, “Sure!”

After pouring us each a cup of her world-famous white mochas, we settled in on the couch. I have spent the last couple of days listening to an album for this website and I played for her a track from the forthcoming project from comedian/storyteller Dylan Brody, “Chronological Disorder.”

It’s a track called “Bad Deal,” and we sat on the couch listening to his story about poker, his grandfather, his wife, and an Atlantic City hotel parking garage. With our mugs of coffee close at hand, we laughed, smiled, and allowed ourselves to be transported for a few minutes to a place where we could not be harmed. The recording itself is intimate and close and it didn't take long before we felt like we were there, in person, listening to his tale among friends and fellow fans of “fine words and phrases.”

After the story was finished, Sarah and I looked at each other and smiled. We shared a hug and a kiss and a feeling of warm fuzzies filled the room. It was nice.

Needless to say — spoiler alert if you read my reviews — I love this album. I can’t wait to tell you more about it.


Monday, February 13, 2012

Mo Mandel's "The M Word"

Whenever you watch a TV show or movie where the good guys are chasing a serial killer, there's always a scene where the lead detective is trying to piece together clues, staring at an over-sized bulletin board plastered full of newspaper clippings, photographs, index cards, and other assorted bits of information. I imagine that wall is what it looks like inside of Mo Mandel's head. There's an overwhelming number of topics he wants to touch on during his stand up set, and on his album The M Word, he manages to do just that. Without it ever coming across as information overload, Mandel smoothly moves from one topic to the next. He's a moving target, never staying in one place long enough to give you time to feel disenchanted.

If you prefer your comedians to play offense rather than defense, then Mandel is the comic for you. He comes at the crowd, delivering his material with energetic confidence. As he projects, his gruff voice is reminiscent of a Dana Gould character. Rest assured, Mandel is no fictionalization. He's straight forward and up-front, describing himself as "kind of in between a Jew and a guy who drives by in a truck and yells "Jew."" His heritage is the source for a lot of his material, but Gentiles can rest assured he does not alienate. There's no Jackie Mason-esque kvetching here. Mandel is humorous and relatable and never exclusive.

There's not a hot-button issue Mandel is afraid to touch and he is unapologetic of his outlook, whether it's on the race issue ("Jews were slaves 2,000 years before blacks were slaves. I mean I get it, you guys are late to things..."), relationships ("I'm a little tired...I just started dating this girl...and I am worn out...from acting fake"), and immigration ("I feel like Mexican people have a right to come to this country...I just do not think they should be allowed to bring their music with them").

As much as I enjoyed some of the bits here (my favorites included tales about meth labs in his hometown and his childhood struggle with bed-wetting), there were others I didn't connect with as strongly. When you're covering the amount of territory Mandel does, that's probably to be expected. Because he moves quickly from one topic to the next, the lulls aren't lulls for very long before things are up and moving once again.

Mandel enjoys pushing the envelope and he does it in a way where you don't feel like you're being pushed. He's edgy and sometimes confrontational without coming across as too in-your-face or offensively mean-spirited. He's honest and open, and that gives him license to speak freely.

Although I didn't find this project to be wall-to-wall belly laughs, I did enjoy my time spent with Mandel and there are some genuinely funny moments waiting to be discovered. The M Word is a nice representation of Mandel and, when all is said and done, is still pretty "mm mm good."

***

Friday, February 10, 2012

Rob Fee's "Grape Stomp"

In the movie Up, an elderly man takes flight in his house by simply attaching a bunch of helium balloons to it. A pretty big premise to swallow, even for an animated film, and when I first started seeing previews for it a few years ago I predicted the guys at Pixar had finally ended their impressive streak of amazing films. I was wrong. Not only was Up a project I absolutely fell in love with, but I had no idea Cars 2 would be the one to fulfill that whole legacy-ending prophecy in 2011.

In someone else's hands, Up might not have taken flight. Forget the whole flying-house-with-balloons thing. You've also got the weight of a beloved character dying in the first five minutes to add a few extra pounds of depression that hang over our main character throughout the rest of the film. There's something special behind the walls of Pixar, though, and they were still able to lift the story and set our spirits soaring.

Rob Fee's Grape Stomp is like the Stand Up Comedy version of Up except here we get to see how it would turn out if it weren't in Pixar's capable hands. To put it simply: It never gets off the ground.

In my humble opinion there are three major obstacles here (one of them with three sub-points), three really super-heavy obstacles, that no amount of helium balloons would ever be able to budge. The first?
  1. Fee's Voice.
    It's low, gravelly, and void of all emotion, which is odd since he spends a good amount of time yelling. His voice is like the house in Up: It's the main centerpiece, always constant, always present, and it's big, heavy, and lumbering. It sounds like Vin Diesel if he screamed at the top of his lungs for hours on end, shredding his poor vocal cords. The timbre hampers Fee's delivery, granting little to no levity in his words. No matter how animated he gets, the tone of his speaking voice is like a wet blanket that adds an unintended -- yet weighty -- somber vibe to everything.
    If Fee's voice is the house in this cinematic allegory, then

  2. The Writingcould be likened to the balloons, desperately trying to lift the heaviness of the project. In the movie it required an unreal amount of balloons. Fee's jokes don't provide nearly the amount of lift needed to get things moving. Despite a handful of promising premises, Fee is unable to flesh them out into anything that really takes hold. He doesn't seem to construct punchlines as much as he says words with the inflection as if he was saying a punchline. At other times, he is stretching his idea so much, trying to force it to fit the joke he has in mind, that he strips all the funny out of it. He goes through a recap of the movie The Human Centipede just so he can muse about his desire to recast the film just so he can put composer Randy Newman into the film as part of the human centipede just so he can tell us how funny it would be if he had him sing "You've Got A Friend In Me." That's a long way to go and a whole lot of set-up to sit through to get to...well...not something very funny.
    The final thing weighing down the project and the one that I just couldn't get past was

  3. The Laugh TrackYep. That's right. A laugh track. An obvious, obvious laugh track. OK, I admit it, I have no written proof or first-hand evidence that canned laughter was used but to my ears it sticks out so obviously and is so poorly edited and executed, the recording itself is all the evidence I need.

    1. For starters, they (whoever "they" is. Fee? The producer? A friend with a sound FX CD?) only seemed to use three different canned laughter clips (one is actually canned clapping) with which to "sweeten" the entire album and they're such distinct snippets I was actually kind of insulted that they thought people wouldn't recognize the same crowd of females laughing looped over and over and over again.

    2. This one is sort of important, so listen up Future Sound Engineers of America: You can't have the laughter start before we reach the vicinity of the end of a joke. Instead, the laugh track is pretty much running constantly throughout the album. Constantly. Through the punch, through the pauses, and through the setup of the next joke. And lemme tell ya, nothing sounds more blatantly fake than a theater full of people laughing hysterically at phrases like, "The other day I had to run some errands..."

    3. Finally, if you are going to use canned laughter and you want it to stop, may I suggest either fading it out or waiting until the laughter ends to hit PAUSE. If you want to make it sound like you're adding laughter to a room full of people who aren't laughing, then by all means have them all stop at the exact same time, in the middle of a big laugh.
      To give you a taste of how annoying that can be, instead of wrapping up this review with a cl

***

Grape Stomp is available on iTunes.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Ryan Stout's "Touché"

Ryan Stout is one of those comedians that dabbles in a variety of approaches to the art (one-liners, shock comedy, amped-up bravado) and his new album Touché is proof positive that he excels in each one. His on-stage persona is one of confident elevation. He has an air about him that is reminiscent of Michael Ian Black wherein both comics seem to be coming from a station of higher status than the audience, gracing us with their presence. This works for both comics but in my opinion Stout does it better. Where Black seems to be rooted in arrogance first with humor added as a secondary ingredient, Stout comes at us working with jokes as his primary foundation.

Stout refers to the audience as "Crowd." Not the crowd, but simply Crowd, and it's a great ploy. Incorporating them into his act, even going so far as to making them a character in the proceedings, draws everyone in almost to the point where we feel like a part of the action, at times even working as Stout's partner. Not only does it give him someone to work with -- and off of -- but it also conveniently gives him someone to blame when things go awry. It's not just effective...it's also really, really funny.

Stout loves to jolt the audience into laughter by saying things that are clearly politically incorrect but he knows he can come out looking like the good guy if he chastises us for laughing at the horrible things he says. Often times he'll scold us with a "Crowd! Crowd!" as if he's trying to settle an unruly mob of children and you can almost see him shaking his head like a disappointed parent. His reprimanding "Crowd!" brings more laughter each time.

His one-liners are clever and Stout has a great ability to deliver them resulting in major hang-time laughter. He'll say the joke...wait for it...and then you feel the audience (Crowd) finally figure it out. There's even a bit of residual hang-time laughter as a smaller wave follows closely behind the original as Crowd seems to be chuckling at themselves because of how long it took them to get to the funny. The hang-time laughter really is a cool thing to witness and Stout is able to replicate the phenomenon time and time again. Seeing his ability to pull off the stunt repeatedly and the way he makes it look so effortless is a real testament to his skill.

It's not just his one-liners that left me impressed -- and laughing. Stout's longer bits are smart, original, and very cleverly-constructed. If there's any doubt about his talent as a laughter-craftsman, he will be the first in line to verify the claim. After a certain bit has (seemingly) come to an end, Stout brags, "That's probably the cleanest anal sex joke you'll hear in your lives." He continues, "That was a joke about language and urban planning." And you know what? He's absolutely correct on both counts. And the fact that he draws attention to it actually makes it funnier than it already was (and trust me, it was already pretty funny).

Not only is he a talented comedian, Stout is also an upstanding citizen, as is displayed when he champions often-overlooked Special Olympics athletes, promotes an original diet and exercise regimen, and displays how attuned he is to the race issue (he reveals another word he refuses to say). Sure, each of the aforementioned topics might take a rabbit punch to the back of the head along the way, but rest assured Stout will be there with a "Crowd, please! Crooooowd!" to get us back in line.

This project is one that is definitely worth checking out, even if it means we are to blame for finding things funny that we probably shouldn't. That in itself is another credit to his genius. He says things that are just plain wrong and we're the ones at fault for laughing. Well played, Stout.

Touché indeed.

***

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Patrice O'Neal's "Mr. P"

The late Patrice O'Neal was a comedic powerhouse, a laugh-inducing force to be reckoned with, and Mr. P is over an hour's worth of material that proves it. This album displays just how innately hilarious O'Neal was, as some of the funniest moments come from his off-the-cuff interactions with the crowd. While some comics toil for hours to construct the perfect way to word a joke for maximum impact, O'Neal just is funny. His humor doesn't spring from the process of writing as much as it simply emanates from him naturally.

This is a man who genuinely enjoys people and interacting with them. He has learned that fewer things in life provide genuine fodder for humor than people and it doesn't take him long to find the funny in each of the people he interacts with. His love for humanity is evident in the fact that he doesn't start with an Opening Joke but instead kicks everything off by conversing with those in the crowd.

Sometimes his conversations are just that: purely conversational. He asks their ages and if they've ever dated anyone outside of their race. And sometimes his queries are downright intrusive, delving into sexual encounters and histories. Regardless of how much he does (or doesn't) pry into the personal lives of those he interacts with, one thing remains constant: O'Neal is drawn straight to the funny.

His approach to people -- and comedy -- could be described as reactionary. When he encounters something that he wasn't expecting or didn't see coming, he immediately bypasses any filters society may have tried to instill in him and just says the first thing that comes to mind. And every time it's the funniest thing you never expected him to say.

O'Neal's humor is grounded in honesty and a lot of the laughs come because what he is saying is the truth...even if it shouldn't be said out loud. The old adage "it's funny because it's true" couldn't be more appropriate than it is here, as is the phrase "the truth hurts." Bring the two of them together and what you'll get are a lot of statements that probably should offend a lot of people. That's not what happens, though. There's no time to be offended if you're too busy laughing.

Some of his bits that garner the biggest reactions include the difference between dating white and black women, comparing the fairer sex to an ungrateful dog who can't jump, and his rationale for being involved with more than one girl at a time. All of them are topics that, on paper, should send the females in the audience into an angry frenzy but if you listen closely, you'll hear they're the ones laughing loudest.

One reason it's so easy to see the humor in what's being said from stage is that the audience knows O'Neal is just being silly. On more than a few occasions it's as if O'Neal surprises even himself with the inane statements he makes and he has to stop and give in to laughing at the very ridiculousness of his own declarations. Hearing O'Neal get caught up in the moment like that was an unexpected highlight of the album for me.

My favorite track is simply called "Tolu" and it's a moment founded in true spontaneity. O'Neal asks a man in the audience for his name and it's obvious that "Tolu" is not the response he expected to hear. This sets off one of the finest -- and most hilarious -- moments of crowd work ever recorded and it had me in tears each time I listened.

The CD ends with O'Neal getting down and dirty. Literally. I probably couldn't even begin to describe the subject of the final couple of tracks without having to douse my keyboard with Purell but I'm also not so much of a prude to say that despite its raunchy content, it was pretty friggin' funny.

Despite the fact that O'Neal has been a consistently hilarious pillar in the world of comedy for a number of years, his time spent making us laugh still seems incredibly short. This album is a perfect send-off and captures exactly why he was loved and respected by so many in his own field. Regardless of what it was he had us laughing at, the bottom line is, he always had us laughing. Thanks to the release of this album, O'Neal is able to take us out for another go-around. Although the sadness of O'Neal's passing can't help but loom over this project, in the end we find that laughter does indeed trump all.

***

Friday, February 3, 2012

Rich Vos's "Still Empty Inside"

Each trip to a comedy club comes with a sense of excited expectation. You know what you hope will happen -- maybe one of your friends will get called out and put in his place, you'll hear solid jokes by a seasoned comic, and mostly, you'll laugh a lot -- but there's never a guarantee that's what you'll get.

Unless you're going to see Rich Vos.

In that case, it's pretty much a sure thing that you're in for a good time and his album Still Empty Inside  is no exception.

Vos is a no-nonsense comedian who has no time for run-of-the-mill niceties. Instead of starting off singing the praises of the two opening comics, he lists off people he just doesn't like and those two are at the top of the roster. Vos never gives a reason for how he feels, simply stating, "I don't like 'em" and the vagueness of his disdain only makes it funnier.

It's easy to feel relaxed around Vos. He delivers his material with the laid-back energy of a guy settled into a recliner watching The Golf Channel on a Sunday afternoon. Keep in mind, I'm not implying his comedy is slow-paced or boring. Quite the opposite. Vos keeps the crowd entertained and delivers one solid laugh after another.

His approach is one of easy confidence and his crowd work is impressive. Whether Vos is dealing with..well...not hecklers per se, but...over-enthusiastic audience members who don't understand they aren't there to add to the festivities or simply commenting on a haircut ("You look like a Roman nickel") or musing about the appropriateness of bringing one's unemotional 16-year-old to a comedy show, Vos remains in charge, never once losing his footing no matter how deep into the waters he ventures.

That very same truthful up-frontness (Don't look it up. You know what I mean) that works so well when Vos is mingling with the crowd is just as effective when he is working with his own material. He's easily sidetracked by himself, one story hilariously reminding him of another, but no matter how far he seems to stray he always finds his mark and picks up right where he left off. A one-liner about what his wife and Jackie Chan have in common leads into a heated interaction with the audience and ends up in Edmonton, Canada where Vos finds himself in a cow milk fight with his father-in-law gone awry. No mater where his stories may lead, there's always genuine laughter to be found.

When Vos is onstage, the hard truth is always prevalent. He's completely honest about his three daughters. Yes, he does have a favorite (the eldest) and a least favorite (the youngest) and when it comes to critiquing the artwork of his toddler, he doesn't mince words ("You're a scribbler.")

If Vos is willing to be so up-front with us about his family, then it would be foolish to assume he'd be any less frank when it comes to such PC lightning rods as the handicapped ("I'm a fan of the cripple"), racial relations (ratting out the reaction of the white people in the crowd after telling a black joke), and the mentally unstable (if you're going to commit suicide, at least have the courtesy to wait until your friends are present so Vos isn't blamed for murder).

Despite the fact Vos touches on these -- and other -- tough topics, it should be noted he isn't pushing the envelope merely for the sake of pushing the envelope. He's just passing on one story after another and no matter how frank he's being, he's also being brutally funny. From his rabbit fur hoodie to his loose basketball shorts exploits with the likes of characters named Dirk and Dickie, Vos offers up a full platter of consistent humor.

For a guy who claims to be so empty inside, he's got a real skill for leaving the rest of us feeling full with laughter.

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