Friday, May 25, 2012

Aziz Ansari's "Dangerously Delicious"


Whether he's referring to his familiar Southern-drawl hip hop swagger or the taste of tasty, tasty racist biscuits, Aziz Ansari is back and Dangerously Delicious. On his second album (originally released on his website as a five-dollar audio/video combo a la Louis C.K.), Ansari returns to the material he knows best which includes frustration with girls, his chubby cousin Harris, sex with girls, R. Kelly, technology, and frustrating sex with girls.

Despite his confident demeanor, Ansari shows us more vulnerability this time around, especially when it comes to approaching the fairer sex at a night club. You can't help but feel sorry for him as he tries to put his best foot forward, only to have it stomped on by a stiletto. Ansari, being who he is, finds a way to tilt the scales back in his favor (anyone missing a really nice bag?).

People who only know Ansari from "Parks and Recreation" may be in for a bit of a jolt, as he loves to go blue, gleefully providing more details than you may be comfortable with as he gives you the rundown on a donut shop-based porno, the hazards of driving the bus on a Madonna tour, and finding out why tacos are a necessity for any successful Motley Crue tour. And if that's not enough, Ansari revels in teaching you how to say a phrase in ASL that would make any 6th-grade boy snicker.

At times it seems Ansari relies less on finding the right punchline and more on shocking the crowd into laughter by seeing just how detailed he can get with his NC-17-rated descriptions. It's one thing to wish someone the worst possible hippo-related death...It's another to be taken through it step by cringe-inducing step and after a while, I was ready to move on. Not because I was grossed out or disgusted...it just got old faster than he may have suspected. Ansari mentions the Saw movie franchise during his set and that's a good example of his comedy. Where the whole Torture Porn approach to scary movies may be more geared toward the 24-And-Under crowd (I prefer to get my suspense through dialogue and not showing me everything), that same demographic will probably eat up this special. Not that there's anything wrong with that; I'm just not the target audience this time around. There are a lot of genuine laughs but there are also times Ansari finds himself at the end of a bit greeted not with peals of laughter but instead an awkward, somewhat uncomfortable, Can-We-Get-To-The-Next-Joke silence.

On his first album, Ansari had so many solid bits that garnered huge laughs, you can't really blame him for going back to the same well for more. Unfortunately, the re-visits feel a bit forced, sort of the sensation you get when "Saturday Night Live" rolls out yet another entry into the recurring French Cafe Dancers. At first I was excited to hear he was going to keep us updated on Harris and find out what he's up to, but when it ultimately failed to live up to the huge laughs he got the first time around, it felt more like a crutch and even a bit of a cheat.

And that, I suppose, was my biggest letdown with this project. Ansari returns to a lot of the material that I loved the first time around and he's simply not able to capture the spark and magic this time. Instead of coming across as another chapter in a fun comedian's solid discography, it instead feels like a movie sequel that couldn't live up to the hype. We were promised something Dangerously Delicious but were left with little more than a hangover. As in Hangover 2.

***

Monday, May 21, 2012

Hannibal Buress's "Animal Furnace"


I like Hannibal Buress. I like him when he's annoyed, I like him when he's slightly offended, and I like him when he's a little perplexed. I like Enthused Hannibal, I like Defensive Hannibal, and I like Offensive Hannibal. I even like it when bad things happen to Hannibal. Not that I'm a sadist who wishes ill upon comedians, but when it comes to watching someone react to the circumstances around him, you'll be hard-pressed to find someone funnier. 

Witnessing Buress react to losing his debit card, questionable interviews he may have sabotaged, and the excessive number of policemen responding to a jaywalking charge with his subtle What the hell is going on here? approach garners big laughs and those are just a few of the encounters you'll bear witness to on his new album, Animal Furnace.

On his previous album Buress seemed to respond to situations with a passive incredulity, almost as if he was seated next to us, giving us a gentle elbow nudge to make sure we didn't miss what was going down on the other side of the room. This time around Buress is quicker to be the aggressor, his material having developed a little more bite. His fuse seems to be slightly shorter and his tolerance for ridiculousness a bit lower. Of course, watching him react is why we're all here and although the overall tone seems slightly darker, that doesn't mean that he's not as funny as ever.

Once you've been exposed to the people and characters Buress has encountered/put up with, it's not difficult to understand why he seems so quick to lose his cool. You'd also be a little miffed if your opening act shoved the microphone in inappropriate orifices or if your teenage cousin was constantly criticizing your work or if everyone you met felt free enough to comment on your weight gain. You can only take so much of Scottish people referring to cookies as "biscuits" or prospective dates regurgitating rape statistics to you before deciding, "OK, this is nuts, I've gotta say something." And, when it comes to carrying on a conversation with someone with a specific facial hair decision, Buress says it best: "It's cool if you wanna have a handlebar moustache but don't try to have a conversation with me like you don't have a handlebar moustache." In other words, no talk of music or politics. You've narrowed your credible small talk topics to Slinkys and kazoos.

Many comics find themselves in awkward situations through no one's fault but their own self-destructive choices. Not so in Buress's case. OK, maybe he is to blame for the time he got a speeding ticket in the Hoosier State ("Life is short, we're all gonna die soon, and I wanna minimize the time I spend on Indiana State Road 37"), but for the most part his conscience is clean. You can't blame a guy for taking up the offer to hold a bomb, even for a little bit, just for the experience of saying you've held a bomb. And if he gets caught by TSA agents at the airport with "bomb juice" on his hands, I mean come on, it's not like he brought the bomb with him to the terminal, so why is he suddenly the bad guy? You can't cite Buress for wanting to take advantage of a sale on apple juice (even though that isn't the real reason the old dude at the grocery store was giving him the stink eye) and if Megan Fox ruins the sketch you wrote for "Saturday Night Live" because she can't scat, well...that one is on her.

Again, it's not the situations but how Buress reacts to them that really brings things to life. To the aforementioned security guard who asks if he is in town for business or pleasure, Buress offers this retort: "I'm going to New York to talk about you in front of strangers." He has come up with a so-simple-it's-genius way to win a fight with a cab driver and has no time for monkeys who over-romanticize SNL's Belushi era. And when the crowd balks at the name he calls the woman who took his debit card and went on a shopping spree, they don't get off easy either ("Fix your face, don't look at me like that").

The album comes to a close with an inspirational "Believe In Yourself" speech that is inspired by his decision to not keep his dinner napkin in his lap. The self-confidence he encourages in others may very well be the secret ingredient that is present throughout the CD, possibly explaining why he's now quicker to take action. He's not gonna just on his laurels. Someone has to say something about children on airplanes, people who put trash cans on their heads, and the pointlessness of Pub Crawls For Cancer ("Basically getting one disease while fighting another"). When all is said and done, I'm glad Hannibal Buress is that someone.

***

Friday, May 18, 2012

Chris Maddock's "Point of Entry"


For any aspiring comedians who may be wondering how to keep an audience on the edge of their seats in rapt attention, I humbly offer up tightrope walker extraordinaire Chris Maddock and his new CD "Point of Entry" for study and analysis. As he maneuvers the wobbly wire of subjects many comics would consider too taboo or dangerous to approach, Maddock never loses his footing once, perilously dancing between funny and just plain wrong. Fortunately for all of us he has a great sense of balance and as things get wronger and wronger they also get funnier and funnier (i.e. Is there really a difference between a Korean baby and one born with Down Syndrome?). You hear the crowd gasp, the high wire shakes a bit...but it's all good. Maddock has obviously done this before.

There's a really fun sensation of exhilaration throughout the project as Maddock crosses the wire, back and forth, back and forth, almost daring the fates to bring their worst. As tricky as things get, though, he is not working without a net and in this metaphor the net is some really good, really solid, and really well-written material.

Maddock doesn't start off safe and wait until the final 15 minutes to ease the crowd into his edgier elements. In fact, Maddock starts right off with a fun bit about circumcision (there's a pun in there somewhere but I'm avoiding it on purpose). "We've gotta cut part of his dick off immediately," Maddock says, playing the part of a parent taking a gift from God for granted, "Quick. Before he has an opinion."

That, coupled with his suspicious awe of the abilities of medical science (Aaliyah's plane went down and all of a sudden Tina Turner has great legs) foreshadows the kind of oh-no-he-didn't humor we're in for and once Maddock has laid the groundwork and set the dinner table, he settles in and makes himself at home. And, because his tales and observations are so hilarious it isn't long before we're laughing -- hard -- even though society has told us time and time again we shouldn't. But honestly, the fact that we shouldn't be laughing is part of the fun. 

Listening to this album reminded me of the first time I saw There's Something About Mary. I was laughing my head off and at the same time muttering, "This is so wrong." The wrong-ness, though, lost out to the funny and with Maddock it's the same thing ("If you think I can't call a cat a retard, then you are mentally challenged").

Now that I've spent the first half of this review relaying how un-PC Maddock can be, I should point out that's not his main thrust. He's not solely a "shock comic" by any means and a good chunk of his material is funny not because he's saying things he shouldn't say but because what he's saying is just plain funny. He has a true gift for relating the state of affairs of a number of topics in a fresh way that is dead on. Here are some examples:

  • On cops who go for easy targets: "If you arrest Willie Nelson, you should have to write seven good songs. And if you can't, you have to give Willie back."
  • When his disapproving mother asks what his new tattoo will look like in 80 years: "Like shit, just like the rest of me. I'll be 80."
  • On Bon Jovi: "Nothing rocks like soft yearning...from an adult man...with a Jennifer Aniston haircut."
  • On the state of radio: "There are seven songs. We play four them. Here's this one again."
  • And, on The Almighty's reaction to the Christian tune "Our God Is An Awesome God": "THEN WHY DIDN'T YOU WRITE ME AN AWESOME SONG?!!"
Maddock has what appears to be an endless well of real-life experiences from which to draw his comedy. He used to have three sisters and now he only has two because, while in her late 20s, "Lynn" became "Linus." The grossest thing about his older sister becoming his older brother? That's right, it's going with the name..."Linus." 

This is a comedian who is against comedians pandering to the audience and who, when charged with Felony Ice Sculpture Destruction, nearly had his case tried by a judge who did not look as amazing as his name hinted. He wants to name his son after the two coolest things in the world and he's firm on his stance that people with hickeys probably aren't shopping for the good cheese at grocery stores.

The album concludes with Maddock addressing the advertising trend of "extreme" products and as he tailspins out of control and into a feverish rant, he sounds a little like Patton Oswalt and Brian Posehn yelling at each other about soup and the real damage it can do to one's hunger. Maddock's finish is like the grand finale of a fireworks display an an incredible closer to an already-incredible set. 

And there you have it, comedians-to-be. If you're looking for a great example of entertaining button-pushing with a passion that never reads as offensive or off-putting, this CD is a great place to start and Chris Maddock is a super...(wait for it)..."Point of Entry."


***

Monday, May 14, 2012

Andy Woodhull's "Lucy"


With the release of his new CD Lucy, Andy Woodhull makes a strong first impression. This isn't his first album but it was my first introduction to the Hoosier native (bonus points for that) and already I can't wait to hear even more. This project is an enjoyable journey through a land where frosting is served in shot glasses and one's favorite drink is a nice swig of hose water (mostly because of the warm, stagnant, rubbery taste you get before the cold water kicks in).

The laid-back cadence of Woodhull reminds me of Mike Birbiglia if Birbiglia had a bit more bite, talked more about sex, and had the brash confidence of Anthony Jeselnik. The crowd warms up to Woodhull quickly and rightfully so; he is likable and very funny (sorry, TBS, if I'm stepping on your slogan).

This CD is 18 tracks in length and Woodhull makes the most of his time, covering an impressive amount of territory. Woodhull has a unique perspective and it's a lot of fun seeing the world through his eyes. Whether it's something simple like his affinity for airports ("I hate to wait in lines but I love to slowly go through easy mazes.") or as mundane as why snow globes make horrible gifts (and the groan-inducing reason behind his suggestion of replacing the snow inside with red pepper flakes), nothing escapes Woodhull's watchful eye.

Woodhull does spend time making observations (my favorite being his amazing critique of the Twilight love story: "I get why the vampire wants to date the girl whose mind he cannot read because I could barely stand to listen to everything she decided to say out loud), but it would be hasty to label him as only an Observational Comic. The majority of his material consists of the re-telling of past experiences. I'm a sucker for a good story -- and storyteller -- and Woodhull has more than earned that descriptor. As a result, there are more laugh-inducing tales on the project than I will be able to touch on here, but that's a good thing. My personal favorites include his struggle to change a tire in the winter while wearing mittens (pronounced mitt-tens), his surprised/disappointed reaction to finding out the guy in the salon who's been cutting his hair for the last three months isn't gay, and the time at a party he teased a girl for being a brown belt in karate and ended up finding out what it means to get "choked out." The hard way.

Although his delivery is generally relaxed and easy-going, that doesn't mean he doesn't get excited. In fact, when he loses his cool it brings a nice intensity to his humor that amplifies the funny. Watching (or rather, hearing) him get bent out of shape because no one believes he saw a wolf makes for some solid laughs, and when he begins his tirade on cake balls, where they come from, and the bastard muffin offspring they produce (and the rug-ruining cranberry poop they leave behind), well...just get ready. There are big laughs waiting.

But that's not all. I haven't even touched on the time he forced his college roommate into a 60% rape of his senses (it's not as bad as it sounds. Or maybe it is) or how the grease-only dumpster behind his apartment inspired the creation of BBBBBLT sandwiches or the harrowing day he came home to find his dog Lucy had unwrapped -- and eaten -- 100 condoms (Woodhull perfectly captures the moment by describing it as looking like the football team broke into his apartment and had an incredibly responsible orgy)

I said all that to say that Woodhull has a lot of stories to share and I think it's safe to say you're gonna like 'em. I admit I may have a tinge of bias (us Hoosier transplants have to stick together) but then again, funny is funny no matter where you're from. And when Woodhull describes what a guy from Indiana might do when face-to-face with a wild mountain lion for the first time...it's pretty freakin' funny.  

To sum up my thoughts for this album, I have to quote the King of Babalu himself, Ricky Ricardo. I love Lucy.

***

Friday, May 11, 2012

Reggie Watts's "A Live At Central Park"


The phrase "feel-good album" is very rarely -- if ever -- attributed to a comedy CD but with the release of A Live at Central Park, Reggie Watts bucks the trend and presents us with what is undoubtedly the feel-good album of the summer (and yes, I know that technically it's still spring. Hush up). "But Ed," you may protest, "A summer feel-good album is one I can crank up in my car with the top down, groovy mellow beats and head bobbing-inducing rhythms bouncing off the cliffs of PCH." Yes, Guy In This Scenario Who Suddenly Became A Very Specific Demographic With A Convertible Who Is Within Driving Distance Of The Pacific Coast Highway, that's exactly what I'm talking about.

Once again Watts blew me away with his improvisational musical genius. Yes, that's right, these songs are completely composed and written on the spot. The fact that the music here is better than most written music being performed on most stages today is just the tip of the iceberg. You may be tempted to get lost in the beat while the lyrics flow past you unnoticed. Don't let that happen. The double whammy here is that what Watts is actually saying is some of the funniest, most clever wordplay to come out this year. And yes, just in case you were wondering, the words are improvised, too. 

Because of this, Watts should probably be loathed and resented by every working/struggling/living comedian and/or musician. Most of these artists toil over every word, every note, each phrasing, trying to construct the perfect punchline and catchy earworm-inducing hook. And then Watts comes on stage and this brilliance just falls out of his head. It's sickening, really.

And yet at the same time...it's beautiful. Because there is no set list, no agenda, no Google Maps driving directions telling him when to turn and where to merge, Watts is free to just...let what happens happen. And he does it all with just a loop machine, a keyboard, and a microphone. At one point he caters to the New York crowd, asking, "Is Brooklyn in the house?" What I love is that he doesn't ask with the frenzy-inducing gusto of most hype men (Is New York in the hooooouuuuse?!!!) but instead poses the question as if he were at a grocery store inquiring about the location of the olives (Oh...yes...excuse me...is Manhattan in the house?). It's these subtle, subtle changes and nuances about his performance that I really appreciate.

Of course, there's also the not-so-subtle approach as he morphs from persona to persona, one moment speaking in stereotypical thug-speak and in the next he's carrying on with the highbrow English accent of an Oxford professor. The personality shifts are wisely chosen, serving to add credence and believability to whatever it is he may be addressing in that particular moment.

One of my favorite moments is when Watts gives the crowd a phrase ("crab cakes") and then tells them that, when he says the phrase, everyone has to do a basic "laugh freeze" as if, while laughing out loud, they were turned into statues. The fun comes when Watts begins telling a story about a trip to Maine, going on and on and on, absolutely refusing to say "crab cakes." You can feel the anticipatory tension as the crowd waits for their cue. The more Watts strings them along, the more I (and the audience) laughed.

Yes, Watts's crowd work is great, his chatter is hilarious (like when he sets the record straight on silencers), but the music...oh, the beautiful, beautiful music.

Not only is Watts an accomplished musician but his talent as a singer is equally incredible. A couple of times he really lets loose, pouring his soul into it, and it drives the crowd wild. I admit I had goose bumps a few times and he really is an amazing talent to witness. With the help of his loop machine Watts is able to provide his own background vocals: bass, harmonies, falsetto runs...everything, and if he has a musical Achilles Heel, I didn't see it.

It's what Watts is singing that really provides the comedic teeth of his performance. He's got you tapping your feet to a smooth funky beat and then you realize he's recommending the movie Revenge of the Nerds or explaining why the band Oasis isn't as big as they used to be or why he's an idiot when it comes to remembering how chocolate works or revealing the embarrassing secret behind a dirty computer monitor or relaying why a good set of headphones just might make you love your favorite song even more than you already do. 

The final song is an ode to New York City and in my humble opinion it puts the overrated Jay-Z/Alicia Keys collaboration to shame. This is the song New Yorkers should lay claim to. And did I mention it's all improvised?

You can purchase this project in audio form or you can spring for the CD/DVD combo and I've gotta tell ya, the latter is definitely the way to go. You really don't want to miss anything. On the DVD you get to see Watts's physical nuances that heighten the laughter (i.e. his eye roll after he impersonates an eagle) and the concert is broken up by a series of interstitials that (sort of) explain how Watts found out he was performing in Central Park (Cen-TRALL pee-AIRK)

The audio version provides a much longer experience with songs not on the DVD and extended versions of the ones that are (which gave me a true appreciation for the DVD editors who seamlessly culled the best of the footage. I had no idea when I first watched that there had been any edits at all). There are moments on the CD that were cut out of the video -- most likely for time -- that really shouldn't be missed.

I went into this project already a fan of Watts and I walked away even moreso. The album will leave you with a smile on your face and -- at the risk of sounding too cheesy -- one in your heart. Convertibles and the PCH not necessarily required.


***


Monday, May 7, 2012

Jonah Ray's "Hello, Mr. Magic Plane Person, Hello"

The relatively short (only 25 minutes) yet more-than-satisfying new project from Jonah Ray, "Hello, Mr. Magic Plane Person, Hello" is a great example of what can be done in a half hour. Although it's not a full set (in this recording Ray is serving as an opener for the brilliant Anthony Jeselnik), we are served up as many laughs as if he was headlining.

From the moment he takes the stage ("Let's talk about drinkin'!") Ray has the crowd in the palm of his hand and never once releases them from his comedic grip. And speaking of...um..."grips"...the bulk of the comedy presented here has to do with alcohol -- and which selections are worth taking home for the night -- and his nearly-perfect plan to find some "personal time" while he was dating his ex. Although these adventures tend to go "blue," Ray takes care to not go so far as to alienate the crowd. Yes, he straddles the line but he also makes sure he stays on the funny side.

When he's not explaining how pets can most definitely sabotage one's carefully thought out plans, Ray takes delight in explaining why TJ Maxx is not the right choice for the name of a clothing chain and why everyone is in for a special treat if he's ever struck by lightning. While all of this is going on he also ensures the proceedings don't devolve into a full-blown Town Hall Meeting on Alien Nation (You had to be there).

The project concludes with the introduction of Jeselnik, who provides the perfect button. It's a great callback that reminds us how much laughter Ray gave us while simultaneously serving as a cutting commentary on his set. And he does it in just one sentence.  Ray and Jeselnik are a great double-billing and left me smiling. Well played, guys. Well played.

***


Friday, May 4, 2012

Cirque du So What's "Stupid Cowboy Thing Vol. 2"


When I was living in New York City I saw a lot of sketch comedy. Unfortunately, I didn't see a lot of good sketch comedy. For every brilliant production like The Chris and Paul Show, you have 50 troupes who aren't nearly as funny as they think they are. They have the drive and the dedication and the energy but what they lack is the humor. And for a sketch comedy troupe, that's not the best place to be. When it comes to writing, many of them often exchange funny for random, thinking it's the same thing. When they can't come up with a solid punchline or tag they instead go with something out of left field, hoping laughter will be found in the outrageousness of the situation. Can't find a good ending for a father/son sketch? What if the dad reveals he's actually a banana and the son commits suicide by overdosing on Post-It Notes? I'm sure there are some people who may find that amusing and more likely than not those who find that grab bag approach particularly gut-busting are probably the same people who adore the high humor found in Mad Libs.

Enter: Cirque du So What's Stupid Cowboy Thing Volume 2: Additional Squid. The title alone (Look how zany we are!) pretty much lets you know what you're in for and if that doesn't set the tone for you, the very first track will. It's a short, 30-second "sketch" that goes a little something like this:

To be read in an over-the-top silly voice.

MAN #1: Where are you going?
MAN #2: I'm a Republican, I'm off to buy a gun!
MAN #1: Neat! I'm a Democrat and I'm off to get an abortion!

Womp womp.

That's pretty much what you'll get throughout the rest of the album. Kuh-raaaaaaaaaazy situations (an open letter to a waffle iron!), waaaaaaaacky character names (a baseball team named The Dung Beetles and their star player named -- wait for it -- SNERD FLINGSTRING!), and lots and lots of sketches that are basically super-long setups for jokes without much payoff (Really? A six-minute bit that spends the first five setting up the Fair Artists Performance Act just so they can talk about people "FAP-ing?"). I can almost hear them snickering at their own cleverness from here.

The performers do a manageable job, although they really seem to think that the more something is overacted, they funnier it is. There is no such thing here as approaching the sketch with a sense of realism, something that is vital for comedy to play correctly. When it's time for someone to make a long speech it becomes quite apparent they're reading straight from the script and it drains the spontaneity from the scene.

Near the middle of the CD they decided to do celebrity impressions and I thought maybe perhaps I would finally hear something that, even if it didn't make me laugh, might at least be sort of impressive. Imagine my disappointment when they announced the celebs being lampooned included Bill Cosby, Fran Drescher, William Shatner, Christopher Walken, Pee Wee Herman, and -- of course -- Arnold Schwarzeneggar. In other words, they chose to impersonate celebrities that everyone in the world impersonates. What really struck me is that despite the fact that pretty much anyone can do the voice of any of the previously mentioned stars, the gang here more certainly cannot. Seriously. They're pretty bad.

All that being said, I can't help but get the feeling that the "So What" crew thinks they are super crazy funny and I'm sure their close friends and relatives do, too (or at least pretend to).If, however, you aren't a personal acquaintance or relative of one of the cast members, you shouldn't feel any guilt in passing this one over. Don't make eye contact, just...keep moving along.


***