Monday, March 26, 2012

Andy Hendrickson's "Underachiever"


As I listen to these albums for review, I usually keep my notebook on hand to jot down any moments that jump out at me which I want to be sure to mention in my final write-up. In general these notations are pretty brief, seven or eight short sentences that serve as milestones along the journey.

With Andy Hendrickson's Underachiever I filled an entire page.


And it's all good stuff. I probably won't be able to touch on all of them but suffice it to say there are a lot of great things going on here. Whether he's explaining how he "runs very expensively" or grows weary of the toddler seated next to him on a plane ("Hi! Hi! Hi!") or comparing relationships to books, Hendrickson is performing at the top of his game as he approaches a vast array of topics without abandon. He's a straight shooter who tells it like it is without coming across as bitter or jaded.

As a result, the crowd follows him willingly, laughing all the way as he navigates waters such as girls who wear low-cut shirts and cross necklaces simultaneously. His material is very relatable and we understand just where he's coming from. We've all been there and it's nice to have someone as funny as Hendrickson along for the ride to help us laugh at life's little hiccups. We've all gotten long-winded voice mails from our mothers and we've all experienced what it's like when our friends grow up and start having kids (Boo). Hendrickson takes such situations and injects them with his own unique style of humor. And he does it well.

What is just as entertaining are the insights Hendrickson clues us in on that we may not have picked up on before. Fire hydrants are like Facebook updates for dogs and living with a sleepwalking boxer who is prone to night terrors may not be the ideal roommate situation. Fortunately for us, his awkward living arrangement is our gain and the laugh count is solid and consistent.

Hendrickson has various ways of approaching the funny and he excels at each one of them. At one moment he may choose to go with storytelling (as he does when he talks about his interactions with his parents), later he opts for clever, insightful metaphor (his friend's relationship with his fiancee is likened to an old Tootsie Pop commercial. How many licks will it take to break down his soul?) and sometimes he chooses to simply fire from the hip. When it comes to living up to his older brother, a Navy Seal with a Master's in Business from Harvard, nothing sums it up quite like a simple, "Thanks a lot. Nice shadow, dick."

The rapport he has with his brother is interesting and when Hendrickson shares with us his sibling's secret to success (Hendrickson's response? "You just put me down, taught me a life lesson, and wrote me a joke all with one swing"), we realize witty straight talk may very well be an enviable Hendrickson family trait.

It's probably time I begin wrapping this up and there's still a lot I haven't touched on. I never got to the wine-loving girl who cleverly bookends the album. I didn't get to talk about the 15-pound baby whose arrival spurs both a party and a funeral. Oh yeah, and there's the one about the feature on a first-generation Kindle Hendrickson wishes his long-winded friends would develop. And his closer -- his killer closer! -- about the girl wearing glasses.

And then ... well ... you get the point. 

There's a lot on this album that's gonna make you laugh. Hendrickson brings to the table everything you hope to find on a great comedy album ... and then he gives you more.

Underachiever, my foot.

***


Friday, March 23, 2012

Eddie Gossling's "Fresh Brewed Eddie"


Although the title of the new release from Eddie Gossling, Fresh Brewed Eddie, refers to his state of mind when he's ready to kick butt and squirm his way out of a fight, it's also quite the spot-on descriptor for his comedy. Like a nice cup of coffee, this album is perfectly brewed and quite palatable. There's just the right amount of nuttiness and it's got a nice caffeinated kick to it.

To put it bluntly and without the barrage of coffee metaphors, this CD is a lot of fun. Gossling approaches comedy eagerly and with a sense of genuine fun. Maybe it's his voice, which he admits is a little different than the norm, his high-pitched delivery offering a flare of fun and whimsy.

That's not to imply his material is lightweight of fluffy. Gossling is a true original, his style a definite breath of fresh air and a nice break from the standard "Hey, didja ever notice" routine and he tackles each topic head-on.

Gossling's writing is clever (I'll leave it up to him to explain why he's on a steady diet of picture frames and candles) and if portions of his set list read like topics you've heard before ("Drugs," "The N Word," "Church"), I guarantee you've never heard them quite like this. With bits like "Spoons," "Aliens," and "Smoothies" sandwiched around them you're bound to have a one-of-a-kind comedy experience that will keep you laughing.

Unlike some comics who revel in their own cleverness, practically pausing for applause breaks at any clever piece of wordplay they concoct, Gossling plugs along and just ... talks. To go back to the coffee analogies, if your standard comedian is a run-of-the-mill cup of joe from the corner gas station, then Gossling is a pourover. There's no everyday-ness here but instead each line of every story is lovingly crafted for maximum effect. Where some people may be described as "clinically depressed," Gossling chooses to use a more colorful phrase with which to paint them. He simply explains, "His soul has a cold."

I love it.

Whether it's his baptism into the ways of the Catholic church (the phrase "Bread of Heaven" needs to be added to your vernacular, ASAP) or his plan to incorporate glitter the next time he quits a job in a huff, Gossling proves to be a captivating storyteller so skilled at what he does, it almost seems effortless (and speaking of storytelling, I loved the way he started off one bit with The Lord of the Rings and ended up at Pinocchio).

There really aren't any slow points to Gossling's set and he steadily infuses his quirky outlook along the way. In fact, my only complaint (and it's really more of a compliment than a complaint) is I wished some of the bits were longer. A few tracks clock in at under a minute and I enjoyed them so much, I wanted more.

One of my favorite tracks is Gossling's tale of traveling via Greyhound (or, as he calls it, "a retarded time machine"). His experience is one of frustrated plane envy. If he had more money he'd be flying the friendly skies but instead finds himself grounded alongside the likes of people who have boarded with a shoebox in tow (the bus equivalent of a laptop)

For me, though, "Math & NASA" is the ultimate track. Gossling kicks it off by confessing he's not good at math, an essential component if he wanted to realistically chase his dream of working for the program. From there he gives us a glimpse into what it would look like if the space agency decided to give him a job despite his lack of qualifications. The laughs come quickly as he struggles with trying to figure out how much fuel will be required to launch the shuttle into orbit ("...uh...multiply that times some type of root...").

No matter how much I write about Gossling, I won't be able to do him justice, as much of the comedy is found in his delivery. His tone, inflection, and vocalization are all tools in his arsenal he uses to perfection. 

Mmmm.... I gotta tell ya ... this Fresh Brewed Eddie is good.

***


Monday, March 19, 2012

Rick Shapiro's "Catalyst for Change"


Um...what?

To say this album went completely over my head would be a bit of an understatement. Although I was familiar with Rick Shapiro as a comic I had never heard his material (if that makes sense) and ... WOW ... Catalyst for Change was a helluvan introduction.

A more appropriate title for this project might be "Rick Shapiro Yells About Nothing While People Get Up And Walk Out." That's pretty much all I took away from it because Shapiro's rants, rapid-fire as they may be, don't really have a lot of substance. For a guy whose uses as many words-per-minute as he does, he isn't saying much. And for a guy whose point is somewhat vague and ... well ... missing ... he sure is passionate.

When Shapiro first took the stage he sounded a bit like Marc Maron doing an impression of George Carlin but as I listened, I thought to myself, "Oh wait ... no ... he's not anything like those guys." I was reminded of an angry alcoholic roommate I had when I was living in California. He would spend hours ranting and raving, distracting himself and wandering from his original point and by the time he finally passed out, I still had no idea what he was angry at. All I knew was he was angry about... um... something.

Such is the case with Shapiro. He starts off angry and yelling, a master of doublespeak, and pretty much stays at that pace the rest of the way through. His tirades are fast-paced and serpentine, winding back on itself and more often than not laced with contradictions (So wait...you DO like that? Because a minute ago you called people who liked that a bunch of faggots). His ravings are peppered with F-bombs that carry all the gravitas of a child who uses F-bombs because he doesn't have anything funny to say but thinks the other kids will gasp and laugh for the simple fact that he's screaming and dropping F-bombs on the playground.

The audience laughs but it's not the spontaneous laughter of a crowd responding to something hilarious that took them by surprise. It's the reserved nervous laughter you might hear on Thanksgiving Day if Dad showed up drunk holding a loaded pistol to your sister's neck. It's not "Hey, here are some jokes for you. Enjoy!" Instead, it's "You motherfuckers better laugh at everything I say or this bitch gets it!! Laugh, you sons of bitches, LAUGH!"

Frankly, I'm surprised more people didn't walk out. There are a number of times when Shapiro confesses things aren't going well. Instead of doing it apologetically or embarrassed, he nonchalantly admits with a shrug, "I forget how that one ends." When he says "I guess that one needs an ending" or "I really should add a punchline there" he does so as a careless aside that suggests, "What the hell do I care. I already got your money. Assholes."

I honestly believe Shapiro thinks he's saying something, but I'm still not quite sure what that something is. Looking back at the album's track listing is somewhat perplexing. "He talked about that?" I find myself saying to myself, "I don't remember him talking about anything." In fact, if you just scream the following words angrily as fast as you can, you'll have saved yourself the hour of actually having to sit through this aural assault.

  • Dammit!
  • Faggots!
  • Fuck! What the fuck?!
  • Bull shit!
  • Why aren't you laughing?
  • Faggots!
  • Fuck!
When all is said and done, if we wanted to see a crazy dude foaming at the mouth screaming about nothing, we could just go down to the corner where that dude with a megaphone screams at passersby. We would have gotten just as much out of it, and there's no two-drink minimum.


***


Friday, March 16, 2012

Alysia Wood's "Princess"


Once upon a time, there was a comedian named Whitney Cummings. Despite the fact she was very funny and edgy, she gave up trying to make people laugh and instead went away to star in a sitcom. 

And lo, a new voice was heard in the darkness. A voice that also had a bit of inspired reminiscence of the likes of Cheri Oteri and Paula Poundstone. And it came to pass the voice belonged to Alysia Wood, and she was more than willing to fill the void in the comedy arena, on that comedy throne. 

Just don't call her Princess.

OK, I admit I kind of exaggerated things there for effect but the basic gist still rings true. There's a new girl in town and although this project didn't exactly blow me out of the water with non-stop LOL moments, it did rock my boat a bit. And if you understand that metaphor, please get in touch and explain it to me, as I'm not quite sure I do.

Wood is a smart comedian who admits she drinks too much, smokes too much, and attends court-ordered anger management classes more often than she'd like. She's working through her issues straight-forwardly despite the fact she was recently self-diagnosed with A.D.D. As proof of the latter she hops from topic to topic without warning. You can't really tell someone their transitions need work of they don't have any transitions of which to speak, but this disjointed approach works for her and helps paint a broader picture of the off-kilter lens through which Wood views life.

At the core of Wood's dysfunction is the volatile relationship she has with her mother and her sister. As much as she hates it when her mom calls her "princess" (and Wood gives some great examples of why she's not a princess: "Princesses have self-esteem and ... things), she lives a life that has a bit of a Cinderella ring to it. She stays behind to scrub the floors as a stand up comic living out of her car while Mother and the beloved sister "Stabitha" enjoy their charmed life at the ball. They're dancing the night away at the palace while Wood is back in the real world trying to explain to a police officer why she brought a "Get Out of Jail Free" Monopoly card to her incarcerated brother.

One shouldn't pity or feel bad for Wood (she'd probably kick your ass if you did) because she's found a way to fight back and her weapon of choice is biting comedy. True, some of her material gets her "kicked out of Thanksgiving" but that's the risk one takes when there's nothing to lose. And considering her parents predicted she'd be dead or in jail before the age of 18, I'd say she's doing pretty well for herself.

The comparisons to Cummings shouldn't come as a surprise. Both comedians are brutally honest and proudly flawed. They say what's on their minds with little to no regard of whom they may offend and both do so with a twisted - yet enjoyable - sense of humor. And if Wood continues clicking along at this pace, our beloved, frowned-upon, not-married-to-a-doctor princess just might end up as queen.

***


Monday, March 12, 2012

Billy Wayne Davis's "Billy Wayne Davis"


I owe Billy Wayne Davis an apology. I humbly confess that the first time I listened to his self-titled album, I was quick to judge him based solely on his accent. As I listened to his opening material about being from The South, I prematurely lumped him in with yuksters like the Blue Collar Comedy Tour guys.

I couldn't have been more wrong.

I'm glad to report that it didn't take long before I realized the error of my ways. To jump to such a hasty conclusion was plain stupid of me and if Davis is reading this, I hope he accepts my apology.

This album is a lot of fun and if you, like me, have a tendency to shy away from Southern comedians, please don't make the same mistake I did. Jump in with both feet and you'll discover that Davis is about to shatter any preconceived blanket stereotypes you may have brought to the party.

Davis is a clever comedian and his style (not to mention his deep voice) reminded me a bit of Brian Posehn. Albeit a Brian Posehn from Tennessee. As the world around him swirls in a crazy tornado, Davis maintains a solid footing and offers up a calm commentary that manages to grab the debris caught up in the funnel cloud and makes sense sense of it all.

Even though I originally got the wrong impression of the comedy I was about to experience, Davis had me completely sold a mere three minutes in as he talked about his experience being married to -- and subsequently splitting up with -- a Puerto Rican woman. His list of pros and cons throughout the ordeal is original and each item on the list is just as funny as it is out of left field.

The approach Davis takes to his humor is one of laid back, casual observance as if he's sitting in a recliner watching a 16-car pileup take place right outside his window without so much as batting an eye. He's not quick to panic even when he finds himself in court before a judge wearing handcuffs that refuse to stay clasped (OK, maybe he pees a little, but he doesn't panic). When drug-sniffing dogs get him stopped at the Canadian border he takes it all in stride and when he accidentally drops his toddler son on his head, well...it's nothing a raspberry won't fix.

Even when the crowd tries to hijack the show, Davis remains unfazed and in complete control. A man who demands a joke about Tennessee is shut down with a simple "No" and a woman who decides to share her two cents is met with a reminder that, as a mother, she should have more of a grasp of the concept of manners.

There is a wide range of topics touched on here and each one of them is done so in a down-to-earth way that makes it easy to relate. "Rednecks and gay dudes hate each other," Davis casually declares. He then continues, "What I've noticed, though, is what they hate more than each other: Sleeves."

I never would have thought that the act of sex with a horse (Yes, sex. With a horse) could be so funny. Not only does Davis make it very laughable, he manages to say everything he wants to say about it without it coming across as extremely graphic or "blue." It's three minutes of the most amusing bestiality material you'll ever come across without having to pour disinfectant in your ears afterward. Yet another demonstration of just how good a writer and comic Davis is.

The album comes to a close with a finish that is strong and solid. Many times you can sense a comedian is in the middle of his final bit but this time around it sneaks up on you and the fact that you don't see it coming actually adds to the punch.

At the end of the day Davis has done exactly what we want a comic to do. He's given fans of comedy a satisfying 45-minute diversion from life that is laudable it its abundance of laughs. I initially got off on the wrong foot with this one, and the blame for that is totally on me. Don't make the same mistake I did. Check your preconceptions at the door and just accept this project for what it truly is: Nothing but funny.

***


Friday, March 9, 2012

Dobie Maxwell's "Hard Luck Jollies"



Dobie Maxwell is a human, grown-up Charlie Brown, a sad sack of a man with a rain cloud following above him every step of his day. On his album Hard Luck Jollies he seems to take an odd pride in the fact that bad things happen to him and his life is full of terrible things. Talking about how bad one's life is is an interesting way to begin a comedy album, as it inadvertently brings a rain cloud to his act, too, and it seems to loom throughout the rest of his set.

Maxwell is a fine storyteller, but as soon as we begin to enjoy ourselves and that dark cloud shows signs of dissipating, he brings it back upon us with an "Of course, guess what happens to me....Mr. Lucky" and you can almost hear the waw-waw of  a trombone behind him. The mood comes back down and the dark cloud regains its strength.

The act feels tailor-made for a merch table. Between his ironic "Mr. Lucky" nickname and his constant reference to himself (and the rest of us) as "dented cans," I can already see the T-shirts displayed on the table in the back. Of course, that's just conjecture on my part. I actually don't know if he has "I'm a dented can!" shirts for sale, but each time he uses the catchphrase, it just feels...for lack of a better word...slogan-y.

As I mentioned before, I enjoy Maxwell's stories as long as it feels like we're given permission to enjoy ourselves. His childhood tales of lunch room cafeteria shenanigans and "Who's 'It'" pre-game chants are relatable and capture the essence of being a carefree youth, but it's almost like Maxwell is afraid of letting himself -- or us -- enjoy a moment long before the mood dips again. "Well, you know me, Mr. Lucky" and we're reminded again of why he's actually not Mr. Lucky.

Womp, womp.

It's a little like comedy done through the eyes of Ziggy or Eeyore or any other cartoon character who is often depicted with a black squiggly line scribbled above their head. Sure, a lot of comedy is found in misfortune, but at least give us the opportunity to enjoy it.

***

Monday, March 5, 2012

Doug Stanhope's "Before Turning The Gun On Himself"


Fans of Doug Stanhope, rejoice. On his new album Before Turning the Gun on Himself, he returns to the stage in full effect, tackling his newest list of complaints and grievances with a fresh fervor that is nothing less than classic Stanhope. And believe me, that's a good thing.

For anyone who may not be familiar with Stanhope and his knack for being drawn to the darker side of humor, this is a perfect introduction. It doesn't take long before you get a sense of what you're about to experience. His dissection of the Mitch Hedberg memorial foundation is simultaneously cringe-inducing and laugh-out-loud funny. 

There are no subjects Stanhope shies away from and there's no such thing as a word that's "taboo" or "off limits." After all, they are just sounds you make with your mouth.

With this project Stanhope is really on top of his game. He approaches each and every topic with equal passion and energy, whether it's a guy asking if it's OK to bring his kids to a party (of course it's not, you idiot) or a Michigander with four kids complaining he doesn't have any money and can't figure out why (Hint: You live in Michigan. Bonus hint: You had four kids).

The latter story is a fine example of how Stanhope addresses issues. He breaks things down to the basics and reveals the real root of the problem (or at least what he perceives the root to be). He isn't quick to accept a sob story and is the first to call B.S. when no one else will. There's no room for self-victimization here and he doesn't hesitate to call someone out. With his gruff, honest tell-it-like-it-is approach I can't help but think he and Judge Judy would get along really well. There's a quirky humor found in the blatant truth.

Where society has come to naturally praise the efforts of people like Dr. Drew, celebrities in rehab, and Alcoholics Anonymous, Stanhope digs in and doesn't hold back from asking legitimate questions. He's not poking fun just for the sake of getting a laugh but sincerely wants to know how we plan to help others. It's this genuine desire to find out how things work (and why) that leads him to demand in exasperation, "Stop with the buzz words!!"

That sincerity, I believe, is what really brings this project to life. Stanhope is a man of conviction who sticks to his guns and stands up for what he believes. This isn't just a man with a laundry list of things he wants to get off his chest. He's talking to us, not at us, and at the same time you can tell he is truly enjoying himself and having fun on stage.

Stanhope's writing is clever and very well thought out. His way of displaying just how over-rated songwriters are is inspired. I won't ruin exactly how he does it, as the discovery of what is happening is a major part of his genius. That's another testament to his style, as he doesn't bring a case to court empty-handed. He has a folder stuffed full of evidence to support his claims and his proof leaves little wiggle room for rebuttal.

One of my favorite bits comes near the end of the album when he takes on The Arts. He goes down the list of various forms and expressions of art (i.e. painting, writing plays, etc.) and then begins to explain why they aren't necessary. Considering that Stanhope is an artist himself (or at least, I think he is) it's a practice in ironic self-condemnation that keeps a constant stream of laughs flowing.

Nothing here is treated lightly or thrown together haphazardly. Stanhope truly wants the crowd to enjoy themselves and he shares with us his struggle to construct the perfect way to close his show (an hour earlier, we laughed with him as he lamented about his less-than-satisfying opening) and it's safe to say he pulls it off.

He doesn't save all of the biggest laughs for the show's finale. This is one solid block of comedy done right and there are no low points. I truly enjoyed myself throughout the entire ride and at the end as Stanhope signs off he makes a promise to the applauding crowd. "I'll be back, " he declares, "I shall return."

This project is a lot of fun and a promise of more Stanhope in the future is a great way to bring this session to a close. We'll be back, too.

***