Friday, July 27, 2012

Adam Norwest's "One Of A Kind"



One Of A Kind from Adam Norwest is a fun look at a young comedian who is actively and passionately carving out a niche for himself. Enthusiastic and confident, Norwest is also self-deprecating and honest about his own shortcomings. It's OK for him to poke fun at others because he's the first to admit he is just as goofed up as the rest of us. Living with his parents until recently, Norwest gets some good mileage out of his less-than-masculine appearance as he struggles not with being gay, but by being perceived as such.

On stage there's no question that Norwest is in control, rattling through one fun topic after another with the assured swagger of someone who is working well within his comfort zone. He has a vast array of sexy animal facts in his arsenal that work quite well and it's likely you'll never look at a stingray the same way again (and I probably shouldn't love his phrase "sting-raped" as much as I do).

One trick Norwest really has down is what I refer to as a "hangtime joke," a quip that, when first delivered, doesn't really garner much of a reaction until...wait for it...and there it is. There are a handful of such occasions included on the CD and each instance is enjoyable listening to as the audience finally "gets it." Sometimes the hangtime itself receives a reaction, which is equally cool.

There are a couple of groaners that don't get as big of a laugh as I'm sure he would like, but Norwest remains undaunted, pushing through as if it didn't happen, and the next bit always brings a nice laugh and the crowd is easily brought back around.

Another great source of material for Norwest, perhaps the one that clicks the most, is his outlook on/relationship with women. Whether he's pining about the desire to get involved with a single mom (so he can have sex with her and play video games with her kid) or explaining the real purpose of Spanx (what girls wear under their dresses when they wanna become liars), Norwest always gets a nice reaction, be it a big laugh or an audible wincing groan (like when he reveals why the age difference between him and his girlfriend is especially fitting)

When it all comes down to it, Norwest is just a regular guy who happens to like rap music, finds a tricked-out Ford Focus amusing, and dreams of the day when he is physically strong enough to get ice cream out of the container. Of course, it's his Red Bull-fueled approach and gently skewed reaction to those things that sets him apart form others.

He is still a young comic and at times it shows (that's not a bad thing). Norwest has really come along and it's fun to see him clicking along at such a nice trajectory. He has a nice rhythm and has found - and embraced - his voice as a comedian. For those not familiar with Norwest, this album serves as a nice introduction while at the same time providing him a sturdy jumping point from which to dive into whatever is around the corner for him. Adam Norwest is one of a kind indeed.


Monday, July 23, 2012

Todd Barry's "Super Crazy"



It's been four years since Todd Barry's last release and to say I was excited to see the return of the master of soft-spoken sarcasm would be an understatement. In past reviews, I've mentioned how anticipating projects from comics of whom I am a fan made me nervous, hoping against hope that my mile-high expectations wouldn't be let down. With Super Crazy, that wasn't the case. I've been following Barry for nearly ten years and he is the epitome of consistent hilarity. I wasn't concerned with whether or not this CD would be as funny as his past releases because, quite honestly, I knew it would be. Barry has always been able to make me laugh and this time around is certainly no exception.

With his low-energy onstage persona, Barry makes comedy look effortless (it isn't, but he makes it look like it is). That comfortable vibe shouldn't be dismissed or taken for granted. Like The Babe's swing or the way dialogue flows from Tarantino, the fact that it looks and feels so easy is a testament to the natural talent Barry possesses. If anyone has "it," it's Barry, and he doesn't feel the need to hit you over the head with it. Where some comics come at you with a bazooka or machine gun full of comedy, Barry is more of a sniper.

As horrible as it sounds to say, Barry is one of those comedians to whom I enjoy watching unfortunate things happen if for no other reason than I can't wait to see how he'll react. Even something as innocuous as ordering a two-ingredient drink or trying to install an update on his phone comes with booby traps lurking around every corner.

A common tactic in comedy is to focus on the little details of life and zero in on them, often times finding humor by making mountains out of molehills. Barry excels in a slightly different approach, instead setting his sites on others who are astounded and amazed by everyday minutiae: Apartment rental postings that boast about a bathroom with white tile (white tile!!) and the very existence of a message board devoted to giving feedback on deodorant. Barry loves how insistent we have become with ordering a water with lemon while dining out (or, at least, he loves commenting on it) and he pulls back the curtain on money-saving travel tips by calling them what they actually are: misdemeanor burglaries.

Although Barry's sarcasm is laced with a bit of devilish eyebrow-arching deviousness, he isn't mean-spirited or offensive. Instead of going off on nurses for telling him the world's worst joke or taking food snobs to task for bragging about their grandmother's pasta recipe, Barry does the decent thing and holds his tongue. And then he talks about them behind their back to a roomful of strangers for laughs. I can respect that approach.

Barry, a self-proclaimed lazy germophobe, is especially funny when he approaches subjects with nothing more that logical common sense. When confronted by Viagra ads imploring him to visit their website for tips on how to ask for a prescription, he offers his own outrageous suggestion that starts off with, "Hey doc...you still a doctor?" It's just one example of how Barry finds the biggest laughs in basic simplicity.

When it comes to innovative ideas and suggestions, Barry is a rich source, especially when improving the Kansas City airport's cell phone-friendly dining guide (you're welcome) and an incredibly genius practical joke that I won't even try to explain (or risk spoiling) here.

This project is, quite simply, a great one with lots of moments that made me laugh out loud and I'm hoping it's not another four years before his next album. To be fair, if I said this one wasn't worth the wait, well...that would be super crazy.



Friday, July 20, 2012

Johnny Walker's "A Really Intimate Experience"




A Really Intimate Experience by Johnny Walker is a great example of a comedian having fun on stage and witnessing that sheer love of the craft spilling out onto everyone within earshot. Walker doesn't have an agenda, an ulterior motive, or a politically-inspired call to action lurking beneath the humor. He's not here to incite, scold, or sway you to vote one way or another. Walker's only task at hand is to have a good time and make sure the audience does as well. 

He succeeds with flying colors.

Walker begins his set by insisting his moniker is not a stage name and offers up a few examples of what he and the famous scotch don't have in common (he's not dangerous, has never been "neat," and he's never ruined Christmas). I especially enjoyed that Walker doesn't take himself too seriously. In fact, he has what he refers to as a number of "Fresca" jokes. They're bubbly, not to be taken seriously, and usually groan-inducing. With Walker, though, that's just part of the fun. If you're going to do an eye-rolling joke, you might as well go for the full groan and then laugh at how "Fresca" it was.

Just because Walker has a light-hearted approach to comedy that doesn't mean he doesn't make some valid observations. When he proposes the drinking age be lowered by three years, it's hard to argue when he points out that fact that an 18-year-old can star in a porno film but can't have a beer. Walker is right. It does seem a little off-kilter.

Although online acronyms like LOL and ROFL are nothing new to comedians' material, Walker is able to breathe new life into the topics, giving a fresh outlook on what may otherwise be redundant in the hands of someone else. I really enjoyed his breakdown of the old 80s computer game Oregon Trail and I admit it never struck me that it came with a lot of grown-up stresses for a product geared toward 4th graders (have fun when you fjord the stream, as all of your children may die as a result of the action).

The stand-up portion of Walker's show is solid and if you're anything like me, you'll also relish his bits about sports teams named after Native Americans, the beer industry's choice to market their product as if they are courting children, and the fact that Walker always pronounces The Sooner State as if there's an exclamation point behind it.

For a few tracks,  Walker pulls out his guitar to regale us with song. There are some comedy purists who look down on comics who also do music, but in this case it's not a gimmick or a crutch. Instead of coming across as a Stephen Lynch or Bo Burnham, Walker put me in mind of Mike Birbiglia when he does his "Guitar Guy" bit. Walker isn't an especially good singer, but he doesn't pretend to be. The fact that he's not actually adds to the enjoyment and after one particular selection is over Walker laughs at himself and humbly remarks, "And that's the song...You don't have to applaud."

The songs are fun and inspired, even when you'd think they wouldn't be. If you told me ahead of time there were song parodies of "Rainbow Connection" and a Michael Jackson classic, I probably would have rolled my eyes and pre-judged. And I would have been wrong in doing so. Walker's lyrics are hilarious, especially when he mimics MJ's trademark "woohoo," giving it an entirely unforgettable new meaning. 

His original non-parody songs are equally amusing, especially when Walker throws music theory out the window, not even bothering to make the verses rhyme. His song about being comfortable - maybe too comfortable - with his wife is dead-on in its accuracy and his ode to the less-than-stellar beer Natural Light was a personal favorite ("If Bud's the king, Natty's the moat around the castle")

Walker is down-to-earth and engaging and I enjoyed every track on the CD. In a world of comedians whose acts are rooted in pompous, I'm-better-than-you arrogance, Walker's offering of a really intimate experience is a welcome alternative.


Monday, July 16, 2012

Matt Braunger's "Shovel Fighter"



They tell you it's not wise to judge a book by its cover but in the case of Matt Braunger, your judgment just might be right on the nose. He describes himself as looking like a giant toddler and his album Shovel Fighter contains everything you might expect from such an illustration: Awkwardness (Braunger is an awkward magnet), childlike and optimistic aspirations (he puts The Secret to the test by announcing to the universe that he would like a panda butler), and sudden outbursts (or, as he refers to them, "out-loud winces").

Braunger's delivery is entertaining and upbeat, each story told with a fun-loving bravado and a smile (except for the title track. But we'll get to that later). As he imagines what Willy Wonka's factory would be like if he had chosen a different food as his focus and finds himself in awe of the talent and mastery of a very specific tattoo artist, we find ourselves laughing not only at the excitement in Braunger's voice but also in the very goofy-ness of it all. 

A handful of tracks on the album clock in at around 60 seconds while others fly past the 5-minute mark. Although I did enjoy the shorter vignettes, I preferred the latter. When Braunger really digs in and explores a topic he unearths some very funny material. Who knew that a sound, best described as a gulp/sigh/swallow combination could inspire so many laughs and rich stories? In Braunger's hands, the laughs roll in as he relays some of the stories behind this sound and the Jäger-Hulks that are lurking around the corner should be respected. 

As Braunger moves on to his own drinking habits (he has cut down not for health reasons, but to improve the hangovers) he once again likens himself to a pre-schooler, trying to subdue the effects of alcohol by consuming food that is horrible for his body. Of course, giving your order to a waiter is easier said than done when your head is spinning. The result? An order of a tribe of Cheese Babies, a melancholy Hot Boy, and an armada of Ham Dancers.

By the time Braunger tackles bachelorette parties and strip clubs for ladies he's really humming along. As he explains the difference between the male and female versions of these occasions, from headgear to general etiquette, Braunger has the audience in stitches. I particularly enjoyed his take on the Chippendale dancers and the explanation he gives for their partial tuxedo outfits (that really was a sexy hurricane). On the same topic he recommends trying on a bow-tie without a shirt and utters my favorite line of the album: "That guy's ready for some formal volleyball."

For the most part, the album has a light, upbeat vibe about it. The only departure is the title track, which takes an unexpected hard left into very dark comedy. Tucked into the final third of the CD, it really stands out and the tone doesn't seem to gel with the rest of the album. And then, two minutes and 14 seconds later, just as suddenly as it disappeared the jovial feel returns and we're back on track again.

The CD ends with a pair of tracks that, although they both have alcohol as a main character, couldn't be further from each other. One is a real-life ghost story and the other is the sudden interruption of an impromptu clown-themed Chicago pub crawl. They're both great tales and Braunger once again evokes huge laughs from the audience. Whether he's describing the ultimate TV dinner Freudian slip or touting the coolest catchphrase you'll ever hear in an Italian restaurant ("Ess puh gehhh dee dime!"), Braunger brings humor and hilarity to the little nuances of life others might overlook. 

Not bad for a tall, awkward toddler.


Sunday, July 15, 2012

Darcy Michael's "One Skinny Bitch"


On his new release One Skinny Bitch, Darcy Michael is a fun-loving, friendly comedian whose deep, gravelly voice and penchant for flirting with a guy sitting in the front row of the audience makes him come across as Harvey Fierstein's kid brother.

Michael is a nervous ball of energy. I couldn't figure out if his jitters were part of his schtick or if he was just really super-excited about the recording of his set. The constant glances at his set list (right down to checking each one off with a pen as the bit was completed) made me wonder if it wasn't the latter. He referenced the fact he was baked numerous times and the incessant high-pitched stoner giggle was his "tell" that he was moving on to the next subject at hand.

The CD is only 32 minutes long, a little short compared to most comedy releases that hover around the 1-hour mark, but it's a good middle-ing set (for those who may not know, a "middle" is the comedian who is on after the emcee and before the headliner). Michael puts his time to good use and covers a nice variety of topics. He explains how he lost 100 pounds and relays his experiences with yoga and Wii Fit (both with similarly comical results). His bout with the patch as he tries to quit smoking leads into Phase II of his time on stage: Weed.

There's no doubt that Michael is a fan of the bud and he enjoys painting himself as a cool stoner dude. His encounter with the police during a severed foot investigation is amusing (I was unfamiliar with the foot story, although the audience seemed to be on board. The album was recorded in Canada and there were a few references to people, places, and events that were lost on this uninformed American)

From there Michael moves on to the final phase: Gay Darcy. As he explores being married to a man in a small town and the challenge of having a 13 year-old daughter, he finds some fun laughs along the way. 

In general there's not a lot of new ground being broken and Michael closes with the obligatory blue material (as is The Comedian's Law). Still, Michael is an approachable guy who enjoys what he does and the people in the crowd seemed to have enjoyed the ride. 

But, judging by his ever-present giggle/snicker, no one enjoyed it more than Michael himself. 

Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Lee Camp's "Pepper Spray the Tears Away"



Often times when a comedian combines social activism with humor, the laughs are sacrificed to make way for the message. Instead of enjoying an evening of stand-up we're left with the feeling we just got lectured at for an hour because we forgot to turn off the light in the bathroom. On his latest CD Pepper Spray The Tears Away, Lee Camp shows us (once again) how it's supposed to be done.

The passion Camp has for his stance on the inner workings of The Machine (and its tendency to misfire) isn't like the guy raving on the street corner with whom you try to avoid eye contact as you walk past. Camp's dissemination of information not only has real substance but is presented in a way that is engaging and approachable. We aren't being talked to in an "I can't believe you don't know this already" tone but instead are faced with someone who very sincerely and earnestly wants to be heard. And heeded.

So desperate is Camp to get us to lend him an ear, he works himself into a series of heated frenzies. His words come out quicker and quicker, louder and louder, and more and more furiously and I almost imagined a series of "motion lines" swirling around him à la the Tasmanian Devil. Each mini-explosion of thoughts and words is like a pressure-release system and Camp is able - if only for a moment - to collect himself, get orientated, and then start in once again.

Camp gets a lot of his fuel from the Occupy Wall Street movement and it serves as a rich source of energy that keeps him charged throughout the length of the project. For many people, myself included, when you hear those three words (OWS) you don't immediately think "comedy gold mine" but there's no one else out there like Camp and he has a unique knack (say that five times fast. It's fun) for spreading enlightenment and making us laugh simultaneously. In all honesty it's a brilliant strategy for getting people to remember what you're saying. If you're just angry and yelling, all that is remembered is the fact that we got yelled at. Conversely, if you make people laugh (like Camp does) not only do you put them at ease but you're also giving them an enjoyable experience that will be recollected and relived by telling others. As the jokes (and the information contained therein) are passed from person to person, the message is being shared and Camp's seeds of revolution are planted.

It's not all picket lines and protest marches, though. Camp's insights are just as poignant and comical when he's talking about grocery store bonus cards and crumbleberry snacks as they are when he's pulling back the curtain on Afghanistan, Eritrea, and happy people. 

From society's Antoine Dodson mentality to our declining interest in correctly spelling words (and the almost universal inability to differentiate between contractions and possessives), everything gets the same unbridled intensity that nearly seems to spiral out of control. There are a few times where it seems Camp may be losing his grasp on the topic at hand, but that's on purpose. Camp is always in total command but he smartly understands that sometimes the biggest laughs lie in the appearance of impending chaos.

This project can best be summed up by quoting a particular reaction Camp had to the audience. He loves to prod the crowd, nudging them out of their comfort zones, and on one occasion it appears he may have pushed too hard. He crosses a line that one never knows is there until it's been crossed (those are the worst kind). As some are shocked into silence by what is said, some moan. Some gasp and some laugh. Most of them do a combination. Camp's dismissive follow-up is classic: "You can't oh and laugh at the same time. You gotta pick an emotion."

I choose to laugh, and I think you will, too.


Monday, July 9, 2012

Michael J. Dolan's "Dress to Depress"



Michael J. Dolan is a bit disgruntled. 

He's easily agitated and there isn't much in this world that doesn't rub him the wrong way: Children, his live-in girlfriend, his cat... even his friends. He's fed up with pretty much all of it and he doesn't shy from using the word "hate." 

Grumpy. 

Angry. 

Upset. 

Pissed. 

They're all pretty accurate descriptors but if I had to choose only one word that encapsulates who Dolan is, that's easy. It'd be "hilarious" and I challenge anyone to listen to his album Dress to Depress and try to convince me otherwise.

This CD is excellent proof that contempt breeds laughter and misery loves company. Funny, funny company. The more miffed Dolan becomes, the more entertaining things get. If Karl Pilkington (who thrives in complaining about the mundane) was crossed with Lewis Black (whose furious rage is rooted in intelligentsia) then you might have an idea of where Dolan is coming from (comparing Dolan to others isn't completely fair, though, because he is very much his own unique voice).

Part of the reason I connected with Dolan so much is because I agree with him on each of his stances. I too have had it with militant vegetarians (When asked if he would still eat meat if he had to catch and kill the animal himself, Dolan answers, "No. And if I had to grow my own fuckin' veg I wouldn't eat that either"), soap operas ("What is the point of a story that never ends?"), and parents who refuse to spank their horrible, horrible children ("We've spent an entire generation now trying to raise kids without hitting them and it hasn't worked. At all"). Dolan doesn't want to be just another comic who complains about The Youth of Today ("It is still frowned upon in our society for a fully grown adult man to get into an actual fistfight with a 12-year-old boy and I think that's a shame") but to be honest, The Youth of Today sort of has it coming (thanks partly to the popularity of shows like Jersey Shore, 16 and Pregnant, and My Sweet Sixteen. Not to mention people who have "two different haircuts fighting for dominance on the same head").

Although it may be tempting to paint Dolan in broad strokes with words like "angry" or "mad" (I mean hey. I did it at the beginning of this review), there's actually much more to his comedy. His humor is rooted in a sincere desire to understand why people and things are the way they are, only to walk away with a frustrated confusion in failing to comprehend the mechanics of the world around us. He isn't a fan of vacationing ("You really think you're gonna hate yourself less if you're hotter") and it makes no sense that his prick of a friend who cheats on his girlfriend with a prostitute emerges blameless while Dolan is considered "bad boyfriend material" just because once - under duress - he admitted that if it's cooked right (and he trusted the chef) he'd eat a baby.

Dolan isn't pointing the finger at others while claiming to be perfect. He realizes he's just as bad as those who antagonize him. He isn't happy with himself and he's not proud that he has developed into a stereotypical chocolate-loving woman (Yea, you read that correctly). He's honest about his own shortcomings ("I don't know why people keep inviting me to things because I'm awful") and he is the first to confess he's not a model citizen (like the time a thief broke into his neighbor's flat and Dolan lied to the police regarding his alibi).

His honest openness about who he is - and the fact that he detests it - is refreshing in an era when superior greater-than-thou bravado seems to be a current trend with comedians. Dolan is a welcome change, his self-deprecation and self-loathing standing out nicely in a landscape filled with pompous Daniel Tosh wannabes. 

Still very much young at heart, Dolan finds himself living in an adult world desperately fighting against the expectation of being a grownup (he nearly wrecked his car in a fit of excitement when he thought he saw the Bat Signal). Even the slightest responsibilities thrust onto him, like having to take care of the cat, becomes fodder (his comparison of the feline in question to a homeless man is original and right on target).

To say I enjoyed this album is a vast understatement. There are so many moments that made me laugh out loud I couldn't keep up with them. While taking notes for this review, I had to give up on jotting down my favorite lines lest I end up transcribing everything he said.

The first track and the closing track both deal with "hate," a word Dolan uses pretty frequently. Hatred for his hometown, hatred for being called friendly, and hatred for bumping into acquaintances (AKA "energy burglars") while out and about.

And I loved every moment.

Prior to listening, I was unfamiliar with Dolan. Fast forward 45 minutes and I found myself his newest, biggest fan. I can't recommend this project enough and if he and his comedy are unknown to you I greatly encourage you to pick up a copy. One thing is certain: As much as I enjoyed Dolan and his humor and as much as he made me laugh, for the sake of his fans, I hope he doesn't cheer up any time soon.


Friday, July 6, 2012

Erin Judge's "So Many Choices"



As I listened to So Many Choices, the new album from the simultaneously sassy and sardonic comedian Erin Judge, one of the first things that stood out to me was the fact that she really had her work cut out for her. Recorded in a theater (no alcohol, sit up straight) as opposed to a comedy club (where alcohol and the general atmosphere can help the crowd relax and enjoy the show), Judge finds herself against an audience of folks who seem to have collectively made up their minds to not give up any easy laughs. They may have been nodding in agreement or smiling, but that doesn't translate well to the audio experience. They just sound dead.

As a result, the album comes off a little stilted and uneven. Although Judge sounds comfortable on stage, she doesn't sound relaxed and with this audience, she really can't. At the slightest lull or joke that falls flat (on the show Basketball Wives: "Not about people married to basketballs") they clam up and, like John Bunyan's Pilgrim who had to make his journey burdened by the massive pack on his back, Judge does her best to drag the audience along (although I have to admit I did enjoy it when Judge would comment on the lackluster response she was getting. You can almost feel her teeth gritting as she pseudo-gushes, "This is delightful" and later, "Oh my God you guys are soooo fun"). They do laugh but it's hardly a roar of a reaction and there are definitely times where they don't give up the laughter Judge deserves.

That being said, on some occasions the silences that fill the room are a warranted response. Judge's delivery is reminiscent of Wendy Liebman but not always as consistently effective. Judge has the timing down (Finish sentence. Wait a beat. Add two or three words that add a twist) but the material doesn't always hold up. When she talks about a nerdy IT guy, she describes being with him as "magic.... The Gathering." [Side note: When judge said he is "fluent in the language of love. He also speaks Klingon and JavaScript," was I the only Weird Al geek who immediately thought of the lyric from his 2009 White & Nerdy song that goes "I'm fluent in JavaScript as well as Klingon?" Probably.]

For every moment that made me smile (not excited to wear a Maid of Honor's dress because Judge would never choose to be that flammable and trying to book herself in a Texas comedy club) there was a misfire or, to be honest, something that just flat-out confused me (When speaking of her bisexuality she says, "I'm sure most of you are picturing me playing Dungeons & Dragons at the Renaissance Fair." Um... nope). When you're playing for a finicky crowd, being confusing can really work against you.

I felt one of Judge's biggest missteps was her approach to her sexual identity. I'm not passing judgment or saying she shouldn't have talked about it but I thought that, had she rearranged the order of some of her stories, they would have hit harder. 

Case in point: Judge talks about organizing a bachelorette party in Mexico and says she is "definitely bringing condoms!" This could have gotten a nice laugh, especially the way Judge delivers it, but it didn't. Her follow-up (needing the condoms because they won't be able to finish all of the cocaine while they're there) gets a respectable response but since she had started off the evening by talking about going to her ex-girlfriend's gay wedding (but not yet mentioning her own bisexuality), there is an awkward silence between the two punches as we all wonder why she would need to definitely bring condoms. Had this joke been placed earlier in her set, I propose she would have gotten two laughs instead of one, but she cut herself off at the pass. 

As I mentioned, Judge begins the CD by talking about her ex-girlfriend and then continues on through her set discussing her experience on a gay cruise, the gay bullying she went through in high school, and speculating on how gay she comes across. Although she talks about being bisexual, I think it still took longer than she anticipated for the crowd to adjust when, near the last quarter of the album, she talks about her strapping, valiant husband and why she was a bad bride. The crowd stays with her, but it's not always the smoothest of transitions when Judge shifts gears.

So, who's to blame for the audience's sometimes-unenthusiastic reaction? Does it fall on them, the surroundings, or Judge? In this case, it might be all of the above. Let it be noted, though, that it's not for Judge's lack of trying. She hangs in there and is determined to get a laugh. I just think she would do better in a club than in a theater and a little tweaking of her material could make for a smoother ride.  Sometimes that shift from second gear into third can be tricky.


Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Comedy Reviews

And now for something completely different...


Film student Nick Vitto chose to focus on Comedy Reviews for one of his class projects and here's the completed video. Great job, Nick!



Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Doug Benson's "Smug Life"



The concept behind Doug Benson's double-disc project Smug Life is one of the most interesting ideas behind an album since... well... ever. The plan was simple: Do two shows in one night, one of them while completely sober (Disc One, "Uncooked"), smoke a bunch of weed and chow on some edibles, and then try to do the exact same set for the second show (Disc Two, "Cooked"). Benson does it all as part of a comedic experiment to see which one is better. The results, I'm sure, are ripe for debate.

This will be less of a review per se and more of a commentary on Benson's experiment. For those of you who came looking for a review, all I can say is Benson is funny. He always has been and it's pretty much a given. His delivery is pretty laid back and comfortable (I know, surprise surprise, a laid back marijuana enthusiast) and his interactions with his fans - both in the crowd and in cyberspace - are always enjoyable. He is just as funny when he's working off the cuff as he is when he's working off of his prepared material and the fact that it's sometimes hard to differentiate between the two only goes to show how natural he is on stage.

What I found interesting (and a little bit surprising) is how similar the two discs are. Cooked or Uncooked, his style and approach is pretty much the same, his delivery is consistent and immune to the effects of the bud.

I have to admit that, in that regard, I was a little disappointed. Not that I was expecting - or hoping - Benson would fail but when I initially heard about this project part of me thought, "Oh man, this is gonna be nuts!" I don't know what I thought would happen on Disc 2 but in the spirit of full disclosure I confess that I was anticipating and had built up in my head more of a Benson Recovering From A Train Wreck experience. The truth is, Benson handles himself quite well and except for a few slurs and an occasional brain fart, you'd be hard pressed to know which disc was playing if you didn't know.

Both shows have their own unique moments and different highlights and that has less to do with the amount of marijuana in Benson's system and more to do with the fact he is just innately and naturally funny. When he explains to the first audience he is performing "uncooked," there's an initial reaction of disappointment, as if they won't get their money's worth from a sober Benson. Of course, they have nothing to worry about and are treated to an evening of solid laughs as he elaborates on strangers with suggestions for jokes (or riddles) and a term for a masseuse who doesn't go "top to toe" as advertised. It's a phrase that begs to be stolen and re-used on your pals.

One of the aspects of the Cooked CD I found especially intriguing was the number of times he got laughs simply because he was high. There are a few moments where he pauses or puts a unique emphasis on a word or just mumbles a phrase that the crowd assumes is an effect of his altered state when in actuality it's just part of his act. Those instances garner laughs from both shows but they are two very different laughs. It's an interesting phenomenon to witness. 

Having the two discs is a cool peek into Benson's act, not only to compare what's different from show to show, but also to marvel at his consistency. It's impressive to see how he makes each performance individual while at the same time giving audiences the same great show. It also helps to shed light on how tough it can be doing two shows in one night, trying to keep them straight and remembering which bits have already been done for each set.

Both discs are bookended by Benson's specialty: Checking tweets. From the stage he monitors his Twitter feed to see who is commenting on the show (or on other audience members). He also shares some of his own favorite posts that never fail to bring big laughs.

So, let's get back to the big question: Which disc is better? Cooked or Uncooked? During the recording of Uncooked, Benson claims it is the superior show but I'm not sure. In my opinion, both discs are equally funny, sometimes for very different reasons... but always very funny. It's an impressive display of how well Benson functions above and under the influence (but then again, this isn't his first time at the dance). Having both discs to compare and contrast is a great feature and they complement each other nicely. Appropriately recorded on 4/20, Benson shows that no matter what his state of mind when you go to see him live, you'll have a great time. I guess there's something to be said for being so funny and living the Smug Life.


Monday, July 2, 2012

Dave Williamson's "Thicker Than Water"




Dave Williamson is a comedian whose mellow, laid-back persona does not hold him back from serving up a fresh take on standard comedy touchstones that results in solid laughs. We've all heard comedy bits on fatherhood, technology (and the parents who dabble in it), and Oprah but with Williamson at the mic, there's absolutely no danger of feeling like you've heard it all before. 

Yes, on his album Thicker Than Water Williamson begins by talking about having two young children at home but instead of complaining about how they've wrecked his social life, he proudly boasts that the party invitations have actually picked up. Granted, they're usually parties that don't supply alcohol, but still.

From that point, it's smooth sailing and Williamson covers a lot of ground. He's a storyteller more than he is a joke teller and there are a nice number of laughs tucked away in the details. His commentary on the world around him is skewed just enough to point out the funny and not so much that you're concerned for anyone's safety. Not everyone would be able to get away with bits on how to prove the gullibility of children with the help of a CD of ice cream truck sounds or confess how badly he wants to put his new handgun to use but Williamson successfully maneuvers his way around them and slips through unscathed.

His tales of partying in college find him struggling with a couple of three-digit phone numbers, both of which are arguably necessary in an emergency. Williamson then smoothly transitions into the subject of joggers and why two inches of water on the beach dashed any Hasselhoff-ian aspirations he may have had. My favorite segway occurs about halfway through the album when he suddenly declares out of the blue, "Oprah quit." It's an abrupt, sharp turn that comes out of nowhere but his delivery is perfect and I loved it.

My favorite moments occurred when Williamson brought his family into the mix. The story of his mother navigating the seas of social media and haphazardly posting sympathy LOLs on her friends' Facebook pages was a riot and painted a nice picture of how the two of them interact.

Williamson's four-year-old son steals the show and it's really sweet to hear how affectionately he's spoken of. The bond between the two of them is evident and at times Williamson himself is unable to keep a straight face as he relates the early-morning battles between SportsCenter and Elmo and his son's childlike insightfulness in describing the mysteries of spontaneous body functions. 

I enjoyed this album and appreciate Williamson's willingness to offer up such a fresh perspective on geriatric Sex Ed teachers and how often you use cell phones (and where you keep them). And those little family stick figure decals people love to plaster on their vehicle's rear windows? Yea... let's just say they had it coming.