Friday, August 31, 2012

Robert Kelly's "Live"

Robert Kelly is an angry guy. I mean, really angry. On his new* album, “Live,” there are 38 tracks of him yelling and screaming about various topics and I’m still trying to figure out why he’s so upset. He doesn’t always explain what has him so wound up but instead ticks off each subject like he’s screaming a laundry list of things he hates. I hate dog shit! I hate playing video games with girls! I hate Osama Bin Laden! I hate being scared! 

By the time I finished listening to the album, I hadn't laughed out loud once but I did have a bit of a headache, so I guess that’s something. Where I felt Kelly fell short was he very rarely expanded on what it was he was screaming about. The average length of each track is barely over a minute, so he shouts what it is that makes him angry and then for the most part moves on to the next thing without really digging in to find the funny.

Although Kelly has a lot of energy on stage, when it comes to the actual writing of his material, I couldn’t help but feel he was slacking off a bit. It reminded me of being in school and not realizing a 3-page essay was due the next day. Sure, I can slap something together, but it’s not going to blow anyone way. I wondered if Kelly did the same thing, only instead of panicking about not realizing the CD was being recorded, he just said, “Ah, screw it, I’ll go up there, use some silly voices, make a bunch of fart sounds, and say “shit” a lot. And then I’ll use more silly voices and then more fart sounds and then scream “shit” a few times. They’ll laugh at anything.” 

I’m not falling for it.

Besides Kelly screaming at the drop of a hat, there’s not much here to set himself apart from every other comic working an open mike. With bits about New York being smelly, that rascally Osama Bin Laden (how come we can’t catch him?), and finding all sorts of reasons to force his “gay” voice into a bit, I can’t help but think I’ve heard it all before.

I knew we were in trouble when Kelly decided he wanted to talk about being in the cold and he smoothly transitioned into it by asking, “Have you ever been in the cold?” Really? Have you ever been in the cold? He did it with no sense of irony and it was at that moment I wondered if his heart was even still in the game. He seemed to be phoning it in with basic A + B = Comedy equations (where A = a Carlos Mencia voice and B = a Gabriel Iglesias voice).

*As pointed out in the comments below, I made an error in my review for not pointing out this isn't a "new" album, but a re-release of a 2003 recording. It does show how much Kelly has progressed as a comedian since then, but I'm not sure it merits a re-release. As far as I'm concerned, if you're going to release an old project, make sure it's still funny (see my 2011 review of Lewis Black's "The Prophet"). For a really good example of what to do with old material, stay tuned for my forthcoming review of Jim Florentine's "Awful Jokes From My First Comedy Notebook." 

Monday, August 20, 2012

Jim Gaffigan's "Mr. Universe"

Hey look, it’s another album from Jim Gaffigan and, oh, look at that, what a shock, it’s AMAZING. As much as I love this guy and as big a fan as I am, it’s starting to get a little old, Jim. One stellar album after another after another after another? I mean seriously, does everything you do have to be so freakin’ hilarious?

To call Mr. Universe a “new” album would be stretching it, as it was released earlier this year on Gaffigan’s website for only five bucks, so fans like myself have been laughing our heads off at his latest collection of hilarious stories for some time now. The album is now getting an “official” release and is being made available through outlets such as  Amazon, iTunes, and the like. If you haven’t yet picked it up, then seriously and earnestly I must inquire... exactly what is wrong with you?

Gaffigan has honed his craft to pretty much perfection. The high-pitched and often soft-spoken Voice Of The Audience that used to be one of the main thrusts of his act has taken a back seat and, besides a quick appearance in the very beginning of his set, is virtually non-existent. Not that I ever had an issue with it, but usually if anyone had any sort of gripe about his comedy (and that was a very rare thing), that was it. Now that Gaffigan has removed it there’s no reason for anyone not to be on board.

Most people still identify Gaffigan as the “Hot Pockets” guy and that makes me a little sad. Not because that wasn’t a funny bit (it still cracks me up to this day and I honestly lost count of how many times I’ve listened to it), but because it was one of his earliest bits and he’s come out with so many equally funny premises since (although, to be fair, I am starting to hear references to “Bacon!” now...and it only took 4 years for everyone to catch up)

If you know Gaffigan, then you know that he finds much of his comedy through his favorite subjects: food, body image, food, family, and the preparing of food. He didn’t change his approach this time around and it pays off. Where he had catchphrases like “Hoooot pockets” and “Bacon!” in earlier releases, he doesn’t really have one this time around (although he gets close with his take on the Subway slogan, “Eeeeeat fresh”). Again, that’s not a complaint or a critique, but just a notation of how he has gently tweaked his approach to the craft.

In general, observational comics excel in zeroing in on the little things; those mundane moments that all of us picked up on without realizing they’ve been picked up on until someone else points it out. Where Gaffigan really stands out is in his focus not on the details, but the details. He has a great bit on hotel rooms and the sense of entitlement that comes with staying in one, but he doesn’t just make a remark or two and then move on. It’s as if he stood in the middle of the hotel room with a notebook and slowly turned in a circle, writing down everything he saw and making a comment on it. Nothing goes unnoticed: wake up calls, the in-room adult TV channel, the temptation to steal anything and everything, the pool, and the wonderful scent of bleach that permeates the premises if the pool is indoors.

From the wonderful world of McDonald’s French fries (at least for the first seven minutes) to the not-so-fresh feeling at the previously mention sub sandwich shop (“Ah, the smell of bread that was just baked in a dirty dishwasher”) to the horrible atrocity that is the Domino’s pasta bread bowl where the only thing missing is a suicide note, Gaffigan does not disappoint when it comes to his simultaneous love and disgust for American eating trends. 

His routine on the gym, staying in shape, and bodybuilders is nothing less than brilliance as, just like he does with the hotel, he takes on every aspect of the fitness club experience. Nothing is safe, including personal trainers, treadmills with televisions on them, and the people who attend bodybuilding competitions (“Yayyyy, clap for the monster or he’ll tear off our arms!”). His detour into what the world’s first Stairmaster salesman sounded like is a spot-on caricature of what we all imagine it really would have been.

As Gaffigan tries his best to juggle raising four children, find the perfect shoe, and wrap his head around the concept of vitamins (“They may be expensive but at least there’s no proof they work”), he barely has time to sympathize with whales, wondering if they have less control over their blowholes as the age (yes, that’s right, it’s the classic whale-geography-diarrhea joke).

With a running time of well over an hour, trying to summarize everything about the album that I enjoyed in one sitting is pretty much impossible. In reality, you probably stopped reading this some time ago. You know who Jim Gaffigan is, and you know he makes you laugh. You’ve enjoyed his YouTube clips your friends sent you and then you passed them along to others. I know he’s funny. You know he’s funny. Everyone else knows he’s funny. Why are we still here? Especially when there’s that killer bit on speedwalkers we could be listening to.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Glenn Wool's "I'll Ask Her"

If you're one of those freaks who obsessively makes sure all of the soup can labels are facing the same way in the pantry, then Glenn Wool may not be the comedian for you. If, however, you get a kick out of watching someone sneak into the aforementioned pantry for the sole purpose of mixing up the order created, then yeah. You're gonna like Glenn Wool a lot.

With his shaky voice that makes it sound like he's teetering somewhere between losing his balance and losing his mind, Wool is a great comedian from whom you never know what's going to happen next and on his latest release, I'll Ask Her, you can't help but feel that's just the way he likes it.

When Wool is behind the wheel you're guaranteed to be in for a fun time. He likes taking the curves a little too quickly and he doesn't mind grinding the gears a bit when he's shifting from second to third. Despite the appearance of chaos, though, Wool takes you on a ride that's actually quite smooth and therein lies the trick. Because we know that Wool isn't going to let things get out of hand, we feel safe and in turn more willing to give in to the random inanity of the festivities. I don't know if that made any sense or not, but it does in my head, so I'm going with it.

It's hard to pinpoint one or two bits that especially made me laugh simply because there were so many of them. Wool hops from one topic to another with gleeful yet mischievous energy and if you blink, you might miss some really great moments. They come and go at a pretty rapid pace, making repeated listenings necessary and enjoyable.

Wool uses a handful of callbacks that are quite effective. He pulls them out when you least expect it but not so often that you get sick of them. What begins as one of the most properly-requested (and accepted) booty calls you'll ever hear becomes a running gag expertly woven through the album as Wool not-so-patiently wonders when his date is going to arrive. The other little aside that popped up a number of times can best be described as  "Hock. Ptui. Drink it." I'm sure that means nothing to you out of context but each time it came up ("Drink it!"), I laughed like an idiot.

Say what you will about Wool, when he has a point to make, he makes it well. Don't be fooled by the fact that his most prized possessions are a set of Smurfs he keeps atop his broken Xbox. If you thought such a character would be unable to make a valid, smartly thought out argument, you would be severely underestimating your competition. Wool takes on Al Qaeda and their claim of hating the West by pointing out they're so primitive, their hatred requires a flat Earth. He has quite a response ready for anyone who dares to ask why he doesn't have any kids and somewhere in London is a sad, racist cab driver who claimed he wasn't racist and became depressed when Wool pointed out exactly why he wasn't. Similarly, Wool explains that his bit on Chinese people and their struggle with the letters G, L, and R isn't a racist premise but instead is linguist. And then he reveals why it's not really that, either.

And I loved every word.

Wool is divorced and when he postulates what his weekends would be like if he and his ex actually had children, it makes you happy that Billy, the coke-snorting little scamp who is sometimes spat upon, never actually popped into existence. Despite his track record with them, Wool doesn't hold any real grudges against women and freely admits they've gotten into his head. Now that they're in there, let's just hope they don't mind all the monkey porn.

I'll Ask Her is a genuinely solid project and Wool sets himself apart as an original voice with a unique perspective on life. His style and humor may not be for everyone but it's definitely for those who like their comedy a little askew and from a nicely individual point of view. To quote Wool, you either like the show...or you're retarded.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Mark Poolos's "Unbridled Enthusiasm"

I love bonus features. In fact, when it comes to purchasing DVDs and Blu-Rays, it's fair to say my final decision on which ones I take home is based more on the extra footage contained on the disc than the movie itself. Needless to say, if there are no bonus features, I won't even bother. On the flip side...I love Pixar.

When it comes to audio projects, there's not really much to offer in the way of additional material. There never really has been. Once in a while a band will include an "exclusive" bonus video on the disc to entice undecided buyers (a video that you can probably find on YouTube, anyhow) or a special bonus fold-out poster that no one cares about (what am I, looking for material with which to decorate a high school locker?), but in general our expectations of extras are pretty low.

Mark Poolos has changed all of that with the release of Unbridled Enthusiasm. His stand-up material clocks in at just under an hour and then he includes 20 minutes of outtakes, alternate endings, and other goodies on top of that. Not too shabby.

Poolos's comedy is solid and funny and he's really a likable guy. He didn't have to include anything extra on the disc because he has a really good set that brings a steady stream of strong laughs. The fact that he gives us a second, third, and fourth helping of dessert at the end is just plain generous. He serves up an excellent recording and then he offers more. "Unbridled" is like the Special Edition Diamond Criteria Collection of comedy albums.

Even if Poolos didn't load up so many extras this would still be a great album to add to your collection. He's a very talented comedian whose material is approachable and welcoming even when he's talking about topics that may not scream, "Take me home to meet your mother." Not everyone could reminisce on sex talks with their grandfather or the bosomy waitress at IHOP or people who take pride on getting freaky in the bedroom (and then getting out-freaked) and still retain a sense of family friendliness but somehow Poolos pulls it off. 

I purport that he's able to do it simply because of who he is. He's friendly and he loves to laugh. There's no malice in his intentions and he seems to be just as shocked as we are when he finds out there's such a thing as eye herpes. Although he's probably shared these stories countless times before in a countless number of venues, Poolos really succeeds at making it all sound fresh. It genuinely sounds as if it's the first time these tales are being told and if you think about it, that's an impressive feat.

One thing I really liked about this CD was the large number of genuine laughs contained within. Poolos didn't just make me smile or chuckle but he got me to laugh out loud quite often. From the idiots always in attendance whenever there's a bonfire to the image of a flustered elderly couple trying to get money from a Redbox kiosk, there are some really great bits here that will have you laughing, too.

Poolos stands at 6'7" and weighs in at 350 pounds, which makes it all the funnier when you try to picture him Wii boxing, especially since the short cord connecting the remote to the nunchuck makes him feel less like a pugilistic champion and more like an agitated T-Rex ("Get in my threat area!"). He doesn't claim to be the best-looking guy with an online dating profile, but he does request that women try to be a little more forthright with the photos they upload onto (the feathered hair tends to shoot off a warning flare that the photo you're using may not be the most current/accurate option).

Another aspect of the project I really enjoyed is the two basic types of bits he performs: 
  • Those I liked (when Poolos spotted a man shopping in Wal-Mart while wearing a Snuggie, his first thought was, "Is that a wizard buying fiber bars?")
  • And those I really liked (an unfortunate side-effect of Ambien is diarrhea, so when some poor schmuck finally gets some shut-eye, he wakes up having paid a steep price)
There aren't any throwaway anecdotes and Poolos really makes the most of each story.

The title of this project works both ways. Poolos pours his unbridled enthusiasm into his craft and, as a result of his hard work, one walks away with unbridled enthusiasm for this album and Poolos's comedy. Sounds like a pretty good deal to me.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Comedy Juice All-Stars

Comedy Juice All-Stars is exactly what you hope to get from a compilation album. Each comedian to take the microphone is indeed an all-star and it's like a home run derby as one by one they step up to the plate and knock one out of the park. Quite simply, there's not a weak spot in the lineup.

First up is Sadiki Fuller, who gets some good mileage out of his unusual moniker and the many ways it's been pronounced incorrectly (most notably during school as a substitute teacher horribly maligns it during role call). Things also get funny as Fuller recounts his interactions with his girlfriend, including the unfortunate "polar bear arms" incident.

Mike Kosta is smooth and comfortable on stage (at least, I interpret his vibe as smooth and comfortable. His mom sees it as cocky). Kosta is knowledgeable on nicknames, be they state nicknames or the secret phrase used when referring to eldest siblings.

When Eddie Pepitone takes the spotlight he brings with him everything you love about an Eddie Pepitone appearance. You may know him from Marc Maron's live WTF podcasts or from his appearances on Conan as the angry guy in the crowd or, as he points out himself, from one of his two (two!) appearances on "The King of Queens." Pepitone is just as funny here as he addresses his stalker/only Twitter follower and reads him the riot act...even though he isn't 100% sure he's in the audience.

Hannibal Buress starts off with a great bit on Lil Wayne's interview by Katie Couric and the rest of his set is just as solid. Buress touches on the appeal of being a gangster (barbecues!), why adult peer pressure is no fun (let's go hiking!), and why it's just better to stay indoors (not getting slapped in the face!).

When it comes to racial relations, Kevin Shea and John Roy offer up a nice one-two combination. As a Korean adopted by white parents (AKA The Devil), Shea struggles to stay rooted in his heritage and Roy takes stereotypes head on, questioning why Mexicans are simultaneously accused of stealing jobs and being lazy.

Ben Gleib proves to be quite skilled at all facets of stand up. His prepared material (dudes being unable to drink fruity drinks and the sexual inappropriateness of a ghost-themed family movie soundtrack) is just as funny as his off-the-cuff crowd work where he encounters an audience member with impressive eyebrows who outranks Gleib in the computer field.

With a great story about super-secret restaurant lingo and his classic Facebook privacy bit, Pete Holmes is just as entertaining as he always is, followed up nicely by Butch Bradley who has a very well thought out set on scary movies.

The project ends with Dov Davidoff, whose mellow stage presence brings a nice tone to complement his advice on how to deal with crazy people. His comparison of pretty girls to swimming with dolphins is especially witty and humorous. 

This album contains something for everyone and is a nice representation of some of the great comedians working today. Some of the names on this CD were guys I was already familiar with (and a fan of), some I only recognized by name, and some were completely new to me. All of them, though, were very funny and brought big laughs. To paraphrase the patriarch of the Simpson clan: Mmmmmm, Comedy Juice.