Monday, December 24, 2012

The Top 10 Comedy Albums of 2012

Every year as I compile my list of my favorite comedy albums, I find myself struggling with the order in which to present them. This year was no different. For those of you who may not be aware of it, 2012 was a really great year for comedy (despite Kathy Griffin and Margaret Cho both getting Grammy nominations) and it seemed every time I visited this list, the order changed a bit. I think that serves as a testament as to how amazing each of these albums are. 

Although there are only 10 albums listed here (and a handful of Honorable Mentions), don't think these are the only good comedy CDs to be released to the masses this year. In fact, you can see here my original list of candidates for this end-of-the-year post. All of them deserve a place in your library.

And so, here they are. I don't claim this to be the list of the best of 2012, but they are the ones I enjoyed the most. Your list might look a lot different and that's fine. The fact that you may even have a list means you're listening to and supporting comedy and I'm down with that.

As you browse, you can click on the name of the comedian to read my original review of the project. Click on the album title if you want to pick up a copy of your own. Thanks for reading. Enjoy the rest of your holiday and I'll see you back here in 2013.

Gaffigan has proved himself time and time again to be consistently funny as he pokes and prods at the nuances of life as only he can. There’s not a lot of new ground being tread (he still manages to wring some great comedy out of his standard topics like food, being lazy, his kids, food, and ad slogans) but that doesn’t mean there aren’t some big laughs here. This project is especially suited for those who already love Gaffigan’s comedy, as it’s exactly what you expect it to be: Gaffigan being hilarious.

Barry has taken the low-key observational comedy style of comedians like Steven Wright and amped it up (and, in my opinion, made it better) by daring to add personality to his wry commentary. Instead of a straight, monotone, less-than-energetic delivery that could best be described as flatlined, Barry’s approach is punched up with sarcasm, cynicism, and a distinct disposition. He dares to question the nonsensical minutiae of life that really should be questioned and he doesn’t mind poking fun at the answers he receives.

It’d been a few months since I last listened to this album and I had almost forgotten how much I enjoyed it (and it’s not just because I’m jonesing for all things “Community”). Glover is a great storyteller and his animated energy adds an extra jolt to each story he shares. Most of the album is a re-telling of childhood adventures and I couldn’t help but be reminded of a young Bill Cosby. Whether he’s trying to talk his mom into letting him have sugary cereal or dreading the trip to Home Depot, Glover’s memories jump to life and and easily transport us there with him. It's a journey you'll want to take.

Angry. Grumpy. Upset. Perturbed. Fed up. All of these are words and phrases that could be correctly used to describe Dolan, but you would be selling yourself - and especially Dolan - short if the first word that comes to mind isn’t simply “funny.” The acidic way he loathes those closest to him (including his friends and the woman he lives with) is especially amusing as he attacks these “energy burglars” with the same force he does strangers on the street. And really, if you can’t bring joy to others by hating on the ones you love the most, what have we become?

Brody is one of those guys who is so good at putting words together, he’s a little intimidating to write about. Rather than try to match his good-word-putting-together-ness, I’ll focus instead on how much I enjoyed this album. You know when it’s December and not quite snow weather but still pretty bitter and you get that not-quite-sleet-but-not-quite-rain precipitation and as you walk from your car to your front door you step in a puddle and your socks are instantly drenched and you get inside, peel the socks off, and put on some hot water and you take off your sweater and by then the water is boiling and you make yourself the perfect pourover coffee with freshly-ground beans that were roasted locally only a few days ago and you sit down in your favorite chair and can finally relax and you take a sip of the coffee and it’s perfect and just what you needed? This album is that cup of coffee. 

With a devilish mix of mischievousness and innocence, Woodhull is an amazing comedic presence. The album is solid from start to finish. There are no lulls and each statement he makes is delivered with the confidence of someone who has no regrets. From the moment he hilariously described the rape of 3/5 of his college roommate’s sense, I knew I was in for a good time and as the CD progressed, Woodhull proved me quite correct.

Like many of the comedians on this list, one of Martin’s strengths is his consistency. Going into this project, you had an expectation and a general idea of what you were going to get. Known for his bizarre way of looking at things through his Demetri prism and extracting blood from would-be topical stones, Martin once again delivers a solid album of random declaratives whose very existence would have you wondering “Where in the world did that come from?” if you weren’t so busy laughing.

To put it simply, there is not a bad track on this album. Every bit, every premise, every story is rock solid and if a comedian makes you laugh not by listening to his album but by thinking about it days later, you know you’re on to something good. Gulman mines one comedy gold nugget after another with stories on playing basketball at the JCC, The Karate Kid, the Top 5 Features of the Discman, and the “@” symbol, just to name a few. Of course, everything here is so funny because Gulman is 100% dead-on in what he’s saying. It’s a great album that is guaranteed to keep you laughing no matter how many times you’ve listened.

I’ve always loved an underdog and you’d be hard-pressed to find one more enjoyable to root for than Mulaney. Never one to shy away from criticizing his own actions or admitting just how incapable he is, Mulaney breathes new life into the whole idea of “Did I tell you about the time”-style storytelling. He’s not just a guy on stage talking to a group of strangers; you genuinely feel as if you’re hanging out at a bar swapping stories with a friend. And what stories they are. Part man-child who refuses to grow up as he laments the lack of quicksand in day-to-day life and part regular guy who probably should have been gay based on the way he talks and does things, Mulaney isn’t afraid of sharing stories that present himself - or Ice-T - in a less-than-flattering light.

Daniels was once nearly arrested for wishing AIDS on a cop. That bit alone is so funny, if it were the only thing on the album, it would still land on this list. Of course, he doesn’t just say he almost got arrested for wishing AIDS on a cop. He takes you through the entire timeline of events and as the story unfolds, it reveals laugh after laugh, each one bigger than the one before it. Every bit to be found here is just as funny, just as hilarious, and just as wrong. Whether it’s the guy with the cleft palate who takes reservations or his own beloved wife and kids, no one is safe from Daniels’s razor-sharp observations. It’s not just comedy done right, but to satisfying perfection. It’s true, Chad Daniels: You’re the best.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Bobby Joe Ebola and the Children MacNuggits's "Trainwreck to Narnia"

Trainwreck to Narnia,” the new album from Bobby Joe Ebola and the Children MacNuggits, is a bit tricky to encapsulate. It’s not a “comedy” album per se, but I laughed a lot. They don’t write “funny” lyrics, but there’s a lot of clever wit in their words. Despite the fact that BJE is a musical act, they don’t write silly songs like Weird Al or try to pass themselves off as comedians with street cred the way The Lonely Island guys do. They aren’t a novelty act but rather skilled performers who create art with a sense of humor and tongue firmly in cheek. They’re a band of really talented musicians who can write a catchy song (or, more accurately, a bunch of catchy songs), keeping my head bobbing and chuckling simultaneously. 

What I’m trying to say - and not doing a very good job at it - is I liked this project a lot. The songs here are relatively short, rarely clocking in at over three minutes. They’ve cut out everything that doesn’t drive the music or the humor (or both) and get right down to business. There are no filler refrains or needless repetitions just to make the song the standard three and half minutes in length. They go in, get the job done, and then get the hell out. Like a SWAT team of musicians, they remain focused and do what they need to do. 

And man, they do it well. 

Their style of music here varies from pub song sing-alongs (the enjoyable “Baked Beans & Whiskey” that is about exactly what the title says), rock ("Walk in the Crosswalk" urges safety first, especially since medical bills can be expensive), a nod to the roaring 20s (“My Darling Boo” is probably the best song you’ve ever heard about a mannequin), and head-banging metal that immediately put me in mind of the one and only time I played Dungeons & Dragons. I was in junior high school and, had “Bone Dagger” been out then, it’s definitely what I would have been singing in my head. One moment declaring the ominous power I would yield (“I will slay the fucking dragon!”) and the next admitting there are repercussions to my actions (“I will make a big ass mess!”). Somewhere Tenacious D and Brian Posehn are fist pumping along with the music.

At times, especially on “Vanilla American,” a tune that mixes great harmonies with fun tempo changes, BJE reminded me of Barenaked Ladies and They Might Be Giants. That’s not a bad thing, I’m a fan of both, but they all share a similar whimsical feel that makes it easy to listen to each track on the CD without skipping tracks. On the opening song, “After the Armadillo,” BJE says it all when they promise “Tonight is many things but boring ain’t one of ‘em.”

What’s especially fun is when the lyrics of the song are in direct opposition with the musicality. Where else will you find a grinding almost-screamo tune urging us to remove a particularly offensive word from our vernacular? And “Cop Kisser,” a love song to the boys in blue, is arranged and performed in a style that would make you assume the inverse.

It’s difficult to choose a favorite track because this CD is so solid, but if I had to I would choose “Blues Turn Brown,” the lament of a 34-year-old college educated guy down on his luck and willing to do anything to keep his internet on (“When the dog shit is piled high/ it blocks out the sky/ until your blues turn brown”). Because if you’re going to sing the blues, you might as well make other people smile in the process. Bobby Joe Ebola and the Children MacNuggits does just that.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Jim Norton's "No Baby For You"

When you’re as funny as Jim Norton, you’re always funny. Even though his new album, “No Baby For You,” was recorded five years ago everything about it still feels fresh. Besides a reference to the “offensive” cartoon of Mohammad (a bit that still holds up nicely) and a present-tense mention of comedian Patrice O’Neal, you’d never have an inkling that this performance has been sitting in the can for so long. Norton From Five Years Ago is just as funny as Norton From This Morning’s Opie & Anthony Show and this project is proof.

Those of you who are familiar with Norton and his comedy know you can’t come without expecting to hear some great rants about society and the people and situations that flip his switch. Sometimes all it takes is something as seemingly innocent as a buggy ride through Amish country to send Norton into the red. Sure, it may seem like he’s punching below the belt as he takes on targets like “invalids, retarded girls, and dead babies,” but nothing seems offensive or over the line when you’re laughing this hard.

Norton has his hand on the pulse of what irritates not just himself, but all of us, and when it comes to addressing pushy tourists, babies on planes, and those horrible “I’m gellin’” commercials, he sums up exactly what I feel in a way that brings out maximum humor. Hearing the audience lose it as Norton takes aim at these subjects is a pretty good sign that it’s not just him who’s fed up with horrible commercials, white guilt, and Muslims who, in all honesty, haven’t been handling things well.

Everything here is approached with the Norton-esque disgruntledness we’ve all come to expect and love, but it’s tempered a bit this time around with the presence of a woman in his life. His material on sex and everything related to it is just as explicitly blue as ever, but because he has someone to share his kinks with, it’s permeated with an air of - believe it or not - happiness. It’s different to hear Norton talk about her, genuinely happy in the relationship. It’s not a “bad” different, but interesting, and I think it makes him a bit more relatable.

Not that a girlfriend has softened him up or taken away the teeth of Norton’s comedy. Norton still likes it dirty and although he struggles with his self-image (from the waist up) and may not be the most sensuous person in bed (he compares sex with him to having a wisdom tooth pulled), he brings a trick or two to the table. True, they aren’t always successful, as evidenced by the move he learned from a masseuse who had a moniker that lands on the Sexy Name Scale between “Betty” and “leukemia.”

There are a few things that Norton’s girlfriend may not be crazy about him saying on stage about her (i.e. The soda can comparison of her previous boyfriend or details about her body) but it sounds like they’re having a good time. Since this was recorded five years ago I don’t know if Norton is still with the same girl, but regardless she brought out a fun side to his comedy that isn’t there with his bachelor-era comedy. It brings out another facet to Norton as a person and a comedian that one may not have seen before. This is another strong addition to your Jim Norton library and goes to show that when it’s good, there’s no expiration date on comedy.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Tom Shillue's "Big Room"

Part 2 of Tom Shillue’s “12 in 12” series is called “Big Room” and the theme of this chapter is Opening For Jim Gaffigan. There are two tracks on the album and, just like his previous release, each track is an entire mini-set. As explained in the opening moments of the first track, we are behind the scenes at a Jim Gaffigan concert with Shillue serving as the opening comedian. We travel with him as he takes the stage (after having to introduce himself) and witness his 15 minutes of fame in its entirety.

The second track takes place later that same night, as Shillue is prepping to do it all over again for the second show. Before going on stage, Shillue explains to us that the later crowds are usually livelier and more enthusiastic and, although he will try not to repeat any material, he makes no promises.  I don’t know if the later-show audience legend got him pumped up or if it was just the post-first show coffee kicking in, but Shillue also seems more energetic the second time around. I’m not saying his first set was bad, it’s a good set, but the second one is definitely better; he seems to have a spark and a bounce in his step that wasn’t present during the early show.

Both tracks begin with Shillue telling the crowd he hails from Massachusetts and that’s where the similarities end. In the early show he goes on to explain what it was like to grow up in a small town and why not living in a multi-cultural surrounding can be a good thing (Taco Nights are that much more exciting). In his later set, he veers off into a completely different direction, taking us to his high school reunion where the Big Men On Campus have seen a bit of a decline in their stock.

There are some nice bits in the early set, my favorite being the magical way anything can sound intimidating as long as it’s spoken in a whisper by an Italian. When compared side by side, though, the later crowd gets more bang for their buck as Shillue wheels out one great observation after another. There’s a difference between nerds and dorks (“A dork is just a nerd with a lot of confidence”) and the story of his correspondence with an old ex-girlfriend takes an unexpected turn thanks to the miracle (?) of technology and the way it has elbowed its way into our conversations (“Howser the ratio.” That’s all I’m saying).

After his last set of the night, Shillue takes us off the stage and out a side door where he reminisces about his (and Gaffigan’s) comedy journey. “Big Room” offers a nice insight into the life of an opening comic and paints a pretty cool picture of what it’s like before, during, and after the show. We’re only two chapters into it, but I’m really liking the “12 in 12” experience and am looking forward to seeing where Shillue takes us next (although apparently it’s going to be back in a comedy club)

Monday, December 3, 2012

Ian Bagg's "It Takes A Village"

The new album from Ian Bagg, “It Takes A Village” doesn’t just fly by. It flies by. It’s a wondrous 45 minutes of laughter, audience interaction (both invited and thrust upon him), and he-did-not-just-say-that asides that guarantee your cheeks will be sore from chuckling aloud.

There’s no filter on Bagg’s train of thought and as soon as an idea pops into his head, it’s on his lips and spoken aloud in no time. This results in one rapid-fire, so-quick-you-might-miss-it outburst after another, adding a genuinely fun sense of utter randomness. At one point Bagg hears someone in the audience carrying on a conversation of their own and instead of addressing it with a query like, “Is someone talking?” he responds by declaring, “Hey, who’sthatladyfuckinshutit.” I loved it.

Bagg has some really good material that he features here such as the declaration that babies born with three arms should spend most of their time on ceiling fans and his wonderfully blue comparison of pleasing a woman to eating a Caesar salad for the first time. Bagg says it all when he remarks with a snicker, “You should see some of your faces right now.”

The real fun kicks in, though, when Bagg works off-the-cuff, interacting with people in the audience. In attendance are “Beardy,” “Vesty,” “Stripes” and Audrey, the girl in the crowd who can’t keep her mouth shut and is rightfully diagnosed by Bagg as “a little retarded.”

After my first listen, I had real contempt for those in the audience. As someone who loathes hecklers and random-shout-outers, I couldn’t believe what Bagg had to deal with. And deal with them he does. Bagg deals with them so harshly (yet appropriately harsh), even he is a little surprised by how many women keep claiming they had given birth to the largest baby. Bagg is amazingly adept at doling out poetic justice to those (on this particular night, mostly drunk women) who think they have a clever comment to interject.

Upon repeated listening, I realized there are only a couple of instances where people yell something out unwarranted (to which Bagg simply replies at one point, “You’re very pretty, but talking’s not your strong suit”). For the most part, Bagg goes to the audience with questions and then lets loose as the answers he receives become more and more ridiculous. We discover there are a couple of parties in attendance, one a group of loudmouthed ladies on a “Girls Night Out” (insert eye roll here) and some employees from a local bank celebrating a Christmas party. 

Where most comedians would move on from there, Bagg decides to have a little fun at their expense and that’s when things really take off. Everyone is kept on their toes as he quickly jumps from one topic to another without batting an eye or giving any sort of indication that he’s about to take a hard left. One moment he’s asking someone what their favorite TV show is and the next, he’s asking a guy in the audience directly, “What’s your favorite part of a blow job, sir?” The unexpectedness  makes for some big laughs and an excited, nervous energy fills the room, no one knowing where Bagg will strike next.

For the most part, Bagg latches on to the group of bankers, refusing to move on to something else despite the pleas of “Mike,” the man in the group who is outed as the guy in charge. No matter how many times Bagg pleads with Mike to tell everyone which bank they work with, Mike refuses to give up the goods and a game of cat and mouse has officially begun. 

Bagg enjoys playing with the bankers, pitting Mike against Audrey, a co-worker who can’t keep her mouth shut and really, really should. At one point, the crowd turns on itself, heckling Mike about his penis size and Bagg giggles with delight to see the anarchy he has created. 

And before you know it, 45 minutes has flown by. Bagg ricochets back and forth between his prepared material on being a strong Catholic and the fight he had with an ex-girlfriend’s retarded brother to off the cuff remarks about Mike, the fact that he shouldn’t be appearing in any advertisements for the bank, and his inability to count.

The album is a great example of how funny someone can be who’s quick on their feet and unafraid to interact with the crowd. Despite how clever the audience thinks they are with their comments about anti-itch cream and guys who “tuck,” it’s Bagg who comes out on top. He finishes off his set with an impressive callback that incorporates pretty much everything that happened during his set, including people’s names and their stupid comments. He even gets Mike to admit which bank his group is from and it’s at that point the boxing match is over. 

Nice try, studio audience. You fought a valiant fight but when all is said and done, it’s Bagg who claims the victory with an 11th round (or 11th track) TKO. Good fight.