Monday, August 26, 2013

Craig Ferguson's "I'm Here To Help"

Allow me to start things off by admitting I love Craig Ferguson, so this review may be a bit biased (What can I say? It's his own fault for consistently cracking me up). I watch his late night show with faithful regularity and there’s hardly a comment, aside, or mumble that is uttered that doesn’t strike me as hilarious. His brash confidence in not having a reason to be confident, his unrestrained self-deprecation, and his disdain not only for the Hollywood machine but for those who keep it going... I love it all. Even his intolerance for the audience itself, which one might assume would come across as off-putting or condescending, is funny. He’s mastered the art of sincere insincerity (or is it the other way around?) and I confess that, in my eyes, he can do no wrong. 

It therefore comes as no surprise that I thoroughly enjoyed his newest offering, “I’m Here to Help.” For someone who always wishes his opening monologue on TV would go longer, this CD is just what I was hoping it would be. The running time is a very generous 80 minutes (80 minutes!) and I loved every bit of it. 

I was talking with a friend of mine about Ferguson and although he also finds him funny,  he claims Ferguson’s use of profanity is a turn-off. All I could do was invite him to put on his big boy pants and get over it. Sure, it may be a little jolting at first if you’ve only seen him on TV where his slips of the tongue are dubbed over with foreign phrases like “Oo La La!” but I was too busy laughing at what was being said to worry about the words used to say it. 

Obviously influenced by the likes of Monty Python (a fact Ferguson himself touches on during the special), he approaches comedy with an air of gleeful abandon. Never afraid to commit to the bit and with no concern for looking too silly, Ferguson’s dedication to chasing the laugh is a wonderful thing to witness.

Those familiar with Ferguson’s comedy will not be surprised to find out he touches on topics like fatherhood, kids in general, and addiction. Those familiar with Ferguson’s comedy will also not be surprised to hear it’s still hilarious when he does. No one is safe from his sites and he doesn’t hold back a bit. People who say they have a chocolate addiction are stupid and so are people who claim they have “experimented” with drugs (No you didn’t. You’re not a scientist). And Angelina Jolie is a bitch (You’ll have to hear the bit for yourself to really get what he’s saying).

Interestingly, the sillier Ferguson gets, the more accurate his observations become. Tinky Winky isn’t gay, he’s drunk. The people on “Honey Boo-Boo” really do sound like they’re yodeling underwater. And yes, his impression of Hannibal Lecter is slowly morphing into Mick Jagger. 

What I found particularly genius about Ferguson’s set is it all starts - and ends - with a joke. He’s come for the sole purpose of telling us a joke. That’s right. A joke. He wants to tell us a joke passed on by his pal Drew Carey and then be on his way. But... well... speaking of Drew Carey....

Nearly an hour and a half later, we come full circle. Oh yea, that’s right, he wanted to tell us a joke he heard from Drew. And yes, in case you were wondering, when Ferguson finally gets around to telling us the joke, it is totally worth the wait. The CD begins with a joke and ends with the joke and everything in between is bonus. 

Paul Varghese's "Paul & Oates"

I like the new CD from Paul Varghese, “Paul and Oates.” I like it a lot, to be honest. In fact, I like it so much I could fill the rest of this review with just the phrase “I loved it!” over and over again and it would be true to how I feel, but that would be lazy. Or, at least, that’s what my wife tells me. 

It would also be unfair to Varghese. There are so many wonderful moments to be found here, it would be a huge disservice to not point them out to you. Not all of them, mind you, because if I did this wouldn’t be a review as much as it would be a word-for-word transcript of everything he says. So I’ll hit a few of my favorite moments and leave the others for you to discover and be surprised by on your own. 

Varghese begins the album with three tester jokes. He explains if you like them, you’ll like the rest of the night. If you don’t, well...well, let’s be honest. His comedy is so enjoyable, his delivery so smooth and relaxed, and his observations so humorous, if you don’t find them funny then may I direct your attention to the various cat videos that can be found on YouTube. 

After getting past his intro jokes (which again, trust me, you’re going to like), we’re off and running. He begins with a great bit on his Kia rental car (that, believe it or not, was an upgrade) and hums along at a steady pace for the next 50 minutes, never once showing any signs of slowing down. There’s no lull in the middle that is often found in comedy CDs where the bits that aren’t completely finished or perfected can sometimes be hidden. Instead, Varghese motors along and brings us with him, laughing the entire time.

Many comics in recent history seem to have a lot of material about their moms: Crazy moms, disturbed moms, concerned moms, supportive moms, absent moms, single moms, you name it, it’s been covered. Because of that, Varghese’s material about his dad comes as a nice change of pace. You don’t have to be raised in Texas from a father of Indian descent to relate. Whether he’s confusing the names of diseases with those conflicted with the illness, mistaking the Swine Flu with a visa application, explaining why he doesn’t have any photos of Varghese from the age twelve through twenty, or just plain refusing to admit he may be mistaken, we can all relate with a Dad operating in the Standard Ways Of The Dad.

A single guy who doesn’t have the income to “wine and dine” a woman (it’s much more affordable to take the “juice and seduce” breakfast path), it’s not that Varghese isn’t looking to settle down, it’s just that none of the ladies are looking back. When it comes to deciding between a life-saving phone call with a 9-1-1 operator and making small talk with a cutie, it’s really not much of a decision at all.  And it’s not that he doesn’t want to get married, he just wants to be able to meet the girl before the big day (much to his parents’ chagrin).

Varghese notices a lot of little details that have gone mostly unnoticed by other comedians. The inanity of putting school bus emergency exits in the ceiling, what it’s like to eat a birthday cake intended for someone else, the notion of non-toxic crayons as opposed to the alternative, and the horrible names Americans have given various foods and drinks, Varghese hits it all with just the right amount of oomph (and measuring oomph-ness is never an easy task)

And look at that. I’ve reached the end of the review without touching on even a fraction of the things I had taken note of upon listening. But that’s a good thing. Too much funny, too much goodness, too much laughter...that’s something I’ll never complain about and with this CD you won’t find me complaining a bit.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Jerry Rocha's "Take That, Real Dad"

On his new album “Take That, Real Dad,” Jerry Rocha proves to more than just his father that he really knows how to bring the funny. Anyone within earshot will find it hard to deny he is a comedic forced to be reckoned with. Raised by a single mom who had a lot of gay friends (no...that never happened) and an interesting explanation for what happens when God goes Number Two, Rocha was primed to be a comedian from his earliest years. 

Like most comics who are good at what they do, Rocha brings a fount of unique experiences to the table from which to springboard and knows exactly which points to hone in on to extract Maximum Humor. You don’t need to dream up a lot of absurd, far-fetched premises when you’ve encountered real-life adventures like letting a stranger on a bus borrow your phone or you've stumbled through the weirdest, shoe-flinging-est One Night Stand ever.

When it comes to original ideas and observations, though, Rocha has plenty. He has a good reason for wanting a Mexican in the White House (and it’s more than just rooting for la raza) and you’ll never view the jawas in Star Wars quite the same way again. He may be on to something...or he may just be paranoid from spending so much time around his very racist uncle. And yes, I would definitely watch BET’s version of a ghost hunting show if they promised it would be done just as Rocha supposes...even though each episode would only last a few minutes.

There are two especially strong bits that come at each end of the CD. The first one is Rocha’s material on his home state of Texas. He doesn’t paint the most flattering portrait in the world as he describes the rednecks’ zealous reaction to a magician and their fervent insistence on the proper pronunciation of “Humble.” Questionable rodeo announcers, the referee of a lesbian fight whose mantra could have saved thousands on 9/11, and Southern women who are dumb (but not really. But really) serve to round out a great section of his act.

The other high point comes when Rocha talks about his dealings with The Fairer Sex. Starting off with his evil ex (who, according to his impression of her, sounds like Marc Maron doing an impression of Mitzi Shore) and ending with his current relationship and  being a little too specific during the discussion of Future Kids, Rocha keeps the laughs coming.

I like that Rocha isn’t afraid to stray from his material and deal with the audience. Yet another highlight (have you picked up on the fact that there are a LOT of strong points on this album?) comes when he confronts what he initially perceives to be a heckler and turns out to be a woman choking on a cherry. That’s not a euphemism, although it sort of ends up being one.

As Rocha mentions, sometimes when we think we’re giving someone a compliment, it doesn’t really turn out to be much of one (I’m talking to you here, White People). So yes, this project is “super” but it’s also so much more than that. Pick one up for yourself and you won’t be disappointed. 

Friday, August 16, 2013

Maria Bamford's "Ask Me About My New God!"

There are a lot of words to describe the new Maria Bamford CD, “Ask Me About My New God!” And, with the exception of “unfunny” and “run-of-the-mill,” all of those words are probably spot on. Words like quirky, goofy, random, silly, funny, confounding, deep, smart, and - at times - intelligible. In other words, everything you’ve come to expect from a Maria Bamford CD. 

It’s no great secret that Bamford is a little off-kilter and she freely embraces it, taking time to point out she’s not schizophrenic (they hear voices, they don’t do voices). It would be harsh to say she has a screw loose. Not that she hasn’t disassembled the gears in her mind and put them back together with a total disregard for the instruction manual of society. But rest assured when she replaced the screws, she gritted her teeth and screwed them in as tightly as she could. I don’t know exactly what she did while she was tinkering around in there but by God, those screws aren’t going anywhere.

And so, with an arsenal of voices (making you wonder which one is really hers) she pushes forward, merrily slipping in and out of a number of public breakdowns, her inner dialogue occasionally slipping through in a burst of shouts that, coming from her soft voice, make for a humorous juxtaposition. At one point she happily skips along, proudly displaying her mastery of pretend-Spanish and pretend-Swahili. The next moment, she’s raging at those who don’t understand her pretend-tiger (You’re not supposed to understand it!) and it’s delightful.

Although it may be easy to dismiss Bamford as just someone who talks in silly voices, that would be a mistake. There’s a lot more going on here than just dead-on impressions of her mom, her sister, the average consumer, and every minivan-driving mother of two. Listen to what she’s saying and you’ll hear some of the smartest commentary on society that’s floating around out there. Bamford gets you to laugh at her favorite - and accurate - American phrases and although the audience initially groans at her comment on the plight of US veterans, once you digest and take in what it is she’s saying, you can almost almost hear an audible CLICK as the light bulb turns on.

Because of her ability to disappear into each character, most of my friends were shocked to realize she’s the same person from the annual Target holiday commercials, something she vaguely references in a way that doesn’t bite the hand that feeds her but is still very funny. Even though Bamford is good at so many voices, she’s not an impressionist per se. Her take on Paula Deen sounds more like Cookie Monster and still sounds right.

Skittery and alert, Bamford careful tiptoes through life like a cat being chased by a kid with a roll of duct tape. Her slowness to trust makes her wary of the new building in town that sounds suspiciously like church and hesitant to participate in family vacations. She stand in the background, sort-of silently whispering words of loathesomeness she’s too afraid to say at an audible volume. There are things she wants to say...but doesn’t necessarily want to be heard.

Secretly mentoring the neighborhood kids and playing a neverending game of phone tag with Chase Bank, Bamford isn’t here to take you by storm. But she will sit back and wish through gritted teeth for the storm to go, go, go faster, go faster! Get him! Get him, storm!!!

Good times.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Kumail Nanjiani's "Beta Male"

When it comes to describing “Beta Male,” the new CD from comedian Kumail Nanjiani, I’m going to steal a line from the man himself. “It’s a great show. Definitely worth the monkey torture.” True, that doesn’t sound like a line that would seem fitting in describing a comedy album but considering Nanjiani was talking about a children’s birthday party when he said it, I think I’m completely within my bounds. 

Nanjiani is a lot of fun on stage. He’s relaxed, comfortable, and doesn’t mind pausing for a few minutes to chat with the crowd. It’s a good thing he allows himself these little pauses, as some of the most enjoyable bits come from his ad libbed audience interactions. Had he not been brave enough to go off script, we never would have met the video gamer with the world’s worst gamertag or Nanjiani’s fellow Pakistani native with an unfortunate moniker.

That’s not to downplay the material Nanjiani came prepared with. Unlike the aforementioned birthday celebration that went from bad to temporarily amazing to suddenly horrible, the crowd is highly entertained throughout the duration of his set and there was no danger of snakebite (although both will leave you with the phrase “HAH-PEE BUDDAY, TANK YOU VERY MUCH”  stuck in your head).

As a gifted storyteller, Nanjiani shines in his longer bits (that sounds weird). There’s a really funny story about getting an adult tape stuck in the family VCR and you don’t have to be a subscriber to the Married to the Games podcast to enjoy his breakdown of “Heavy Rain,” a video game dealing with much heavier themes than jumping over barrels and trying to save a princess.

Nanjiani’s comedy is never mean-spirited and is more often than not simply incredulous.  Surely he’s not the only one who noticed the guy in the park stuffing pigeons in his pockets, right? And is he the only one who thinks showing an 8-year-old child The Elephant Man might have been a bad choice? And why are people so disappointed in Freddy Krueger when he makes a racist joke but not when he murders children with his “needle hands?” 

Listening to Nanjiani deliver his own version of observational humor is a breath of fresh air, ranting at the cyan color cartridge in his printer, smartly pointing out how to make Coney Island’s world-famous roller coaster even scarier, and pointing out that “cheese,” a new street drug that mixes heroin and Tylenol PM, may not really need the second ingredient.

The CD ends with Nanjiani relaying a real-life Scooby-Doo mystery as encountered by he and his roommates. You’ll find it hard to not laugh along as you picture our hero, decked out in his cleaver-wielding colander armor, creeping up to the attic to face the ghost(s) head on. If you splurge for the DVD version, in a shouldn’t-miss Q & A session you’ll get a fun little post-script to the story. Nanjiani may claim to be a beta male when it comes to facing the supernatural but when it comes to being funny, he’s full-on alpha.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Tom Shillue's "In Vogue"

The newest installment of Tom Shillue’s “12 in 12” series is here and, just like it promises on the CD cover, there are some really funny stories waiting to be discovered. “In Vogue” opens with a reading from one of my favorite sources of Shillue’s comedy: the diary he kept as a teenager. So intentional and serious at the time they were written, I’m sure Teenage Shillue would be shocked to find Adult Shillue mining his deep thoughts for comedy. What a goon.

Shillue moves on to share some of his high school adventure with his two pals Grover (the common thread between the two tracks found on the album) and Bob Martin. The Potsie and Ralph Malph to Shillue’s Richie Cunningham, they joined in on adventures both clothed and naked. In the moonlight. Singing three-part harmony. But totally not gay. Weird? Sort of. Funny? Yep.

Thus is a theme of sorts on “Soup Can,” the first of the two cuts on the CD. When Shillue and his pals weren’t (literally) fishing for an Andy Warhol autograph, they (excluding Shillue) found themselves on separate occasions on a series of dates with a strange French man named Jean Baptiste who promised en evening of fine wine, fine cuts of meat, and not having to pay for it. Again, not gay, but the wine and food were free, so why not. 

The second track of the album is called “Shoe Shine” and it is storytelling at it’s funniest. In fact, and I know this is a bold statement, it may be the single funniest track of Shillue’s entire “12 in 12” series so far. We start in Massachusetts with Shillue working for his Dad at the Dairy Barn (named as such so Mr. Shillue wouldn’t have to pay the 2.5% franchise fee to the DQ bigwigs), selling "DB Bars" and "Blizzids" along with a new staff of Chinese workers whose work ethic put the previous teenage employees to shame.

Shillue and his pal Grover (who wants to be an ah-tist!) decided to take a trip to New York City and it ended up being the weekend one could only dream about. From scoring alcohol despite being underage thanks to some very convincing European accents to attending a posh fashion gallery event to a night dancing with a model and inadvertently inventing a dance craze that swept the nation, Shillue, his overcoat, and fedora did indeed make a splash in the big city. 

And that’s not even the best part of the night. 

It’s a real whirlwind of a story and it’s hard to not share in Shillue’s excitement as the details unspool. I won’t spoil it by giving away all of the details - like which of the Duke boys was in attendance - but I can assure you you’ll enjoy hearing what went down that magical evening. Although Shillue assures us he was a dorky teenager, if his high school chums knew what happened that fateful night in the big city, they’d all have to agree he is just the opposite. That Shillue guy is definitely In Vogue.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Tom Shillue's "Dancing Alone"

I’m pretty bad at cleaning. Not because I refuse to do it or I don’t do a good job but because I’m so easily distracted. Even something as simple as picking up the clothes strewn about my side of the bedroom (I would apologize to my wife, but you should see her side), something that shouldn’t take a normal person more than a couple of minutes, may turn into a 3-hour project for me. I never know what I may stumble upon and find a sudden urge to explore. Whether it’s an old Entertainment Weekly I never got around to reading or a crossword book with unfinished puzzles or the sudden urge to make a pourover and on the way to the kitchen spying the iPad where I just know there’s a SongPop or Running with Friends challenge waiting to be accepted. It seems impossible for me to go from point A to point B without first stopping at points A.1-A.36. 

Even at my most distracted, though, I was never as productive as Tom Shillue. When he stumbles upon an old treasure - in this case, his old After 6 jacket - it spawns “Dancing Alone,” another installment in his “12 in 12” series. Memories of high school come flooding back to him and - with the help once again of his teenage diary - he shares with us some nuggets from his youth, this time centered around the high school prom. 

Shillue boasts about how many times he attended a prom, he and his beloved jacket always at the ready to assist someone who otherwise may have found themselves without a date. As long as they paid for the ticket, Shillue was there looking like a million bucks and ready to dance the night away, his The Lines cassette tucked carefully away in case the DJ needed help getting things going on the dance floor.

Once again Shillue shines as he takes us back in time, his sense of nostalgia contagious as he occasionally drifts away from the main storyline to re-visit a backpacking trip through Ireland, is forced to deal with a friend going through a nervous breakdown (and his teenage remedy of driving with the windows down), and recalls the ad slogan for a pair of hair clippers that stuck with him all these years later for no reason at all.

As we learned on previous projects, Shillue’s diary he kept as a teenager (at the time something that seemed so serious, genuine, and important) is an endless fountain of humor. I get a kick of how many times he refers to someone as a “goon.” He’s a melodramatic pulp detective from the 40s stuck in the body of an adolescent in the 80s and it never fails to bring smiles.

I’ve come to really look forward to my monthly visits with Shillue and this time around is no different. “Dancing Alone” successfully captures what it was like to grow up in the John Hughes era, where everything seemed monumentally important because it was happening to you and every decision and encounter was seen as a life changer. It brings back memories of my own (especially those “after 12”) and fits nicely within this year-long series. I’m glad Shillue has chosen to re-live his past experiences and share them with the world. No longer is he dancing alone.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Phil Mazo's "Indecent"

Indecent,” the new album from Phil Mazo, is a difficult CD to pin down mostly because Mazo turns on - and off - his likability quotient like someone flipping a switch to test a light bulb. At the outset he comes off a little abrasive, pushing buttons merely for the sake of pushing buttons, and there’s more than one occasion when his punchlines garner simultaneous laughs, groans, and hisses (We’re still hissing? Was there someone in the crowd from the 1880s?)

In the first twenty minutes or so, things just seemed to limp along as Mazo yuks it up with comedic basics like farting in the bathroom, suggestions for new sobriety tests, and the Comedian 101 gag about leaving a Somalian restaurant hungry. When he told the very contrived story about stumbling into a suicide support meeting in a casino just so he could rattle off a series of head-shakingly bad puns, I began to wonder if maybe I wasn’t missing something by not being there in person. Perhaps the joke was that the jokes were intentionally cheesy. 

Instead of coming across as a fun-loving comedian, Mazo often seems tired or bored and his lackluster delivery seemed to sap some of the energy. But then the switch was flipped and his Ritalin (which, as a side note, is the only kind of tablet he’d ever give a child) kicked in. Out of nowhere Mazo came to life. As soon as the puns were out of his system it was as if he’d shed his skin and was a brand new person. I heard it in his voice as an energy and enthusiasm came into his storytelling and it was genuinely as if I was listening to an entirely different project.

Indeed, when Mazo comes to life, so does his material. He loses the “I’m gonna be an edgy comic” persona and instead focuses on telling funny anecdotes. It works. For a shining moment, it really works. His bit on taking a black friend to a Cracker Barrel is a lot of fun as is his mistaking the word “Samoan” not as a nationality or race, but as a synonym for “obese.” Mazo has a bit on suggestions for new collective nouns for groups of people and it is truly inspired.

Inevitably, however, the Ritalin must run its course, and by the end of the CD we’re back to where we started. I don’t know what happened for that brief magical moment in the middle of his set that seemed to click everything into place, but if Mazo could have held onto that for just a bit longer, it would have put a whole new spin on the project. 

In the first half of the CD I noticed a woman in the crowd talking incessantly. It wasn’t clear if she was talking to her friends at her table or trying to comment back to Mazo, but her presence was very distracting. Perhaps she just happened to be close to an audience microphone and Mazo couldn’t hear her on the stage but I was surprised that he didn’t say something - anything - to get her to shut up. Her yammering prevented me from enjoying the experience as there were times I found it hard to concentrate on Mazo because I was so focused on how much I wanted her to choke on her chicken fingers. If you're curious about this CD and would like to try out a few of the tracks before jumping into the water, I highly recommend “Intolerant (Travel)” and “Indigenous (Stereotypes).”