Monday, April 28, 2014

Jim Gaffigan's "Obsessed"

“All he talks about is food.”

That’s a direct quote from a friend. She had asked me to suggest a few comedians to her and, after inquiring what she thought about the CD I recommended, that was the reason I was given for her not approving.

“All he talks about is food.”

My friend has no idea how badly I wanted to throw a hammer at her head. 

Yes, Jim Gaffigan talks about food a lot, both in the past and on his new album, “Obsessed.” He’s also funny as hell when he does it. As far as I’m concerned, if you make me laugh as hard - and as consistently - as Gaffigan does, you can talk about whatever you want. You can talk about a crack in the ground for four hours straight, if what you’re saying is funny, who cares? If you make me laugh, full-on belly laugh, how can I complain? George Carlin talked a lot about wordplay, Lewis Black talks a lot about politics, and Chris Rock talks a lot about race; they all have their “thing” but that doesn’t make them un-funny for returning to subjects that really click with them. “All he talks about is food” is an observation, not a reason that someone is or isn’t funny.

OK, Ed….breathe…

As you can probably tell from my mini-rant (And the way I reacted as if Gaffigan is a close personal friend of mine), I loved this new album and if ever you’ve laughed at anything Gaffigan has said or done, you’re in for another hour of classic Gaffigonian humor.

The reason, of course, that Gaffigan’s foodie humor works so well is because it’s true. Kobe beef and it’s oddball ritual of getting a cow drunk before giving it a massage is questionable. Chicken and waffles is pretty much gluttony at its apex (the same goes for biscuits and gravy) and we really are eating bugs of the sea - and charging a lot of money to do so.

Of course, just like every other Gaffigan project, he doesn’t talk only about food (it just seems that way because a lot of his food-related material has really taken hold and skyrocketed) and his bits on his family (you don’t have to tell him five kids is a lot) and Mt. Rushmore (yes, it’s still a “thing”) are just as solid. 

Gaffigan has always had a knack for pointing out the absurdity in everyday conventions the rest of us have accepted without question. Like he did in the past with holidays, this time around he puts the marriage ceremony ritual under the microscope, pointing out one incredible “what the heck” detail after another.

As a testament to Gaffigan’s comedy he has a bit on Cancer that is flat-out hilarious. I know how that sounds, but don’t let it put you off. How you make cancer funny without it ever being in poor taste or controversial is beyond me, but obviously he figured out how to do it.

Yes, Jim Gaffigan talks a lot about food. And yes, I laughed. A lot. So what’s the problem?

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Mike Vecchione's "Muscle Confusion"

I went into Mike Vecchione’s “Muscle Confusion” knowing I was going to have a good time. I didn’t just hope I was gonna have a good time; I knew it. Last year my wife and I went to New York City with her parents and we caught Iliza Shlesinger performing at the Gotham Comedy Club. Opening for Iliza was a soft-spoken guy who looked like he could bend steel with his bare hands and he killed it. 

Killed it. 

It was, of course, Vecchione. I made a point to commit his name to memory because I was pretty sure I’d be hearing from him again soon (I hadn’t heard of him before because I don’t watch Last Comic Standing. Long story)

Sure enough, Vecchione recently popped up in my iPod as a guest on a live episode of Marc Maron’s WTF podcast and, again, he had a great set. I knew it wouldn’t be long before I heard even more from him and sure enough “Muscle Confusion” made its way to my inbox last week for review. I confess I pre-judged the CD even before listening.

Turns out I was right. As always, Vecchione delivers a great set that’s fresh, relatable, and funny. Even though he has the looks of a dicky Staten Island cop (his words, not mine), he is a well-honed comedian who’s always in control and continues to click along at a steady pace. His delivery is one that almost forces you to listen; as he speaks in a gentle, mellow tone, the audience hangs on every word and is rewarded with some great observations about special racist muscles, the time Vecchione was glad his date wasn’t smarter than a fifth grader, and how you really know when you’ve lost a snowball fight.

There’s a subtle intensity in Vecchione’s voice that lends a certain gravitas to his material. He’s letting you know that, although what he says is funny, this is serious business. He firmly believes that just because he’s poor he shouldn’t have to be gay (You’ll have to hear the whole bit to catch the reasoning behind that one). He doesn’t shy away from repeating himself if he feels it’s necessary to get his point across because, again, this is important stuff we’re talking about. One of his favorite parts of the female anatomy really does sound like an Italian dessert and yes, let’s get this transvaginal mesh problem taken care of because he may indeed have a generous cash settlement coming his way. 

Vecchione blends nicely his knack for storytelling (His bit on sitting in an airplane Emergency Row is a great start to the project) and his skill with one-liners (Some people say women aren’t funny, but have you ever seen a woman parallel park?), showing he’s not just a one-trick pony. As a result, we’re kept on our toes, laughing at what comes at us unsuspectingly, reveling in never quite knowing exactly what’s coming next. That's my kind of "Muscle Confusion.”

Friday, April 25, 2014

Bengt Washburn's "Bengt Over in Europe"

I used to like “The Blacklist.” It’s a good show and my wife and I enjoyed sitting down together to watch it. I don’t know what happened, though. Somewhere along the line I started checking my laptop more and more often while it was on. Then I picked up a magazine or a book and found myself reading instead of paying attention to the screen. The same thing happened with “Person of Interest.” We were weekly viewers and then….I tuned out. I honestly believe they’re good shows and enjoyed them when I actually gave them my full attention. Nothing “happened” to make me say, “OK, this is ridiculous, I’ve had enough” (Like I did with “The Following”), I just…tuned out.

Unfortunately, the same thing happened each time I listened to “Bengt Over in Europe,” the new album from Bengt Washburn. I was sitting at home on the couch, started the album, and really got into it. He’s a likable guy with an interesting story: He’s a Mormon from Utah in the big world and he now lives in Germany with his military wife. It’s a premise rife with lots of material and Washburn uses every last bit of it. It’s a fun fish out of water tale that includes learning a foreign language (all he’s learned is how to speak American viss a German ak-zent), discovering where Europe keeps all of its trash (Italy), and the wonders of remaining seated on an airplane toilet while flushing.

Washburn has a great bit on IBS and his proposal to replace the word “irritable” with “psychotic” is not without reason. My favorite track comes early on when he tackles the challenge of learning the Chinese language. His line about the characters of their alphabet being more of a series of drawings of sheds killed me and I loved it when he explained that a smooshed spider (minus the body) more than likely spells out a phrase.

And then…I just sort of zoned out. As Washburn continued to talk about being a Mormon from Utah in the big world, my mind started to wander. I listened to the album twice more (once during a walk downtown and once in the car), and both times I found myself checking out right around the halfway point. I suspect the reason is that Washburn confesses he’s a Mormon from Utah in the big world.

It’s not because he’s a Mormon from Utah living in the big world that I checked out, but because he continued to go back to the “Mormon from Utah living in a big world” well over and over again and each time around, his stories began to lose their freshness. Not that I’m against someone staying on the same subject, but there needs to be just a little bit more oomph to justify hammering the "Mormon from Utah living in the big world" routine as repeatedly as Washburn does.

Even though I don’t watch anymore, I wouldn’t tell someone not to watch “The Blacklist” or “Person of Interest” because I genuinely think they’re really well done (and the ratings show people seem to enjoy them).  Likewise, I wouldn’t try to deter someone from picking up Washburn’s album. Yes, it's true, the entire project didn't keep me riveted, but I believe it's going to find an audience.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Patton Oswalt's "Tragedy Plus Comedy Equals Time"

I’m a fan of Patton Oswalt. I have been ever since I first listened to “Feelin’ Kinda Patton.” From there it’s been good times all the way and his subsequent albums never failed to live up to the comedy bar he had set for himself (and trust me, he set the bar pretty high). So, the question is, does his new project, “Tragedy Plus Comedy Equals Time,” live up to the rest of an already stellar discography? Let me answer the question I posed to myself with another question: Is Orudis Blampfortt a horrible name for a person? And flower?

Everything you’ve come to know and love about Oswalt’s comedy, I am happy to report, is still very much alive and kicking. When viewing Oswalt’s personal life from afar and how it feeds into his comedy, it’s a bit amusing to see how he’s evolved. If you were to tell 2004 Oswalt that 2014 Oswalt would be doing bits about raising his scooter-loving daughter while delicately balancing accidental sightings of The Wolfman with Schoolhouse Rock, he might cut you off, letting out a horrible scream before breaking into the gnashing of teeth. If, though, you were to assure 2004 Oswalt that 2014 Oswalt hasn’t lost a bit of his edge and his bite still….has bite…then I think he’d be OK (Just don’t tell 2004 Oswalt that 2014 Oswalt has come to accept all forms of music. I don’t know how to explain that away).

Don’t let that last paragraph make you think Oswalt’s material is now all playground adventures and dancing before bedtime. There’s an incredible story of his sort-of encounter with a prostitute that ends…well…not how you think it will end and his line about the only reason to visit Florida (I won’t spoil it by saying it here), is so simultaneously beautiful and groan-inducing…it was like an angel came down and touched my iPod. So be assured, Oswalt-ians (I have no idea what Oswalt fans call themselves, but from now on, they’re Oswalt-ians), your hero has not sold out. Well, he sort of has, and his 11-minute chunk on just how he did it is incredible. And sort of makes me want to figure out how to book myself at the Tulalip Resort Casino because if that’s selling out, then consider me sold.

While I listened to the CD my only complaint was the handful of visual punchlines that didn’t translate to an audio format. I wondered what the audience was laughing at and, no matter what I imagined in my head, nothing struck me quite as funny as what Oswalt seemed to be doing (That’s why he’s the one being booked at the Tulalip Resort Casino and not me). Truth be told, though, I really have no room to complain because this is a CD/DVD combo and after listening I watched the video and was able to enjoy the show in its entirety. And - just as I suspected - Oswalt’s reactions and expressions were much funnier than anything I envisioned.

If you’re a fan of Oswalt and you don’t already have this project in your collection, I’d like to encourage you to pick yours up. And if you’re unfamiliar with Oswalt and his comedy, then I would say to you, “Really?” And then I would encourage you to pick it up, too. 

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Jackie Kashian's "This Will Make An Excellent Horcrux"

A lot of comics feel like they need a gimmick. “I’m the comic with a puppet.” “I’m the comic who screams.” “I’m the comic who whispers.” “I’m the comic who used to be on Full House and isn’t nearly as funny as I think I am.” You know, that sort of thing. Not that there’s anything wrong with having a gimmick. Hey, if it works, it works. Sometimes, though, it’s a nice breath of fresh air to spend time with a comic like Jackie Kashian whose only gimmick is being funny (I know, go figure, right?)

You may not know Kashian by name, but you definitely know who she is. She’s been a doing comedy since the 80s and if you ever watched anything on TV that featured comedians, chances are you’ve seen her. Her new album, “This Will Make An Excellent Horcrux” is a fine example of why she’s still working today. 

Kashian is no-nonsense and addresses the standard “female comedian” issue right away. She takes the stage and simply states, “I am overweight. You may consider that addressed.” And that’s it. Let's move on. I love it. As someone who listens to a lot of comedy, can I just take a second to say how nice it is to hear a female comedian not do the standard “I’m a girl, I guess I have to talk about being overweight” routine? Kashian breaks the mold by simply being a comedian who makes people laugh. It seems a bit odd to praise Kashian as being revolutionary for simply doing what she does really well, but at the same time, it makes sense. 

There are people who crave attention, needing to be praised and coddled, jumping up and down, waving their hands, screaming a Horshack-ian “Ooo! Oo! Pick me! Pick me!!” Everyone’s heads turn and they give them the oohs, ahhs, and accolades that are being demanded. And while that’s going on, Kashian is in the club next door, no bells, whistles, or fireworks. Just... being funny. As a Midwesterner myself, that’s what I attribute her comedy work ethic to. Put your head down, work hard, and the rest will take care of itself. 

Kashian works at a steady pace, moving quickly - but not too fast - and before you know it, 45 minutes have flown by. She has a style all her own, accentuating the punch without hitting you over the head with it, and her on stage persona is confident and cool. She’s not afraid to say what’s on her mind (Don’t ask if she and her husband plan on having kids) and the title of the album comes as no surprise when you find out how much of a reader she is. 

Her stories and observations are easy to relate to, even when she’s talking about experiences many of us have never gone through. I have no idea what it’s like to be overseas with the troops or to be chased down by an attack dog (let alone both at the same time), but when living it through Kashian’s words, you get a good picture of how it is. 

If you prefer your comedy in bright, loud packaging with neon lights and flashing arrows blinking on and off, this may not be the project for you. If, however, you just want to sit down and have some good laughs, well… here ya go

Friday, April 4, 2014

Chad Daniels's "Natural Selection"

Having the ability to make a crowd groan is pretty easy; Go on stage and say something offensive. Having the ability to make a crowd groan and laugh is considerably harder. Anthony Jeselnik comes to mind as someone who really knows how to slug the audience in the gut and make them laugh at the same time. Chad Daniels, though, takes it one step further and pulls off the ultimate trifecta: He makes the audience groan, he makes them laugh, and he walks away with his image of the nicest guy in the world completely intact. 

To be honest, I don’t quite know how he does it. The things Daniels says on his new album, Natural Selection, are sometimes truly horrible. He calls his wife a twat, maintains that his recently-deceased high school football coach is still a dick (passing away doesn’t take away one’s dick status), and encourages you to let your stupid kids walk off of a cliff, yet he still comes across as a truly good guy. While the aforementioned-Jeselnik’s onstage persona is that of the ultimate douche, Daniels is the kind of guy you want to have as a neighbor, invite to the family barbecue, and vote for as school board president. 

Of course, being able to make people laugh can cover a multitude of transgressions and the fact that Daniels is one of the funniest comedians working today doesn’t hurt. While some comedians come across as truly angry, Daniels, although there are things that upset him, always has a light-hearted undertone in his voice that lets you know everything is said in the name of getting a laugh. And if you can make people laugh, you can get away with saying a lot.

Although the name of this CD is Natural Selection, the subtitle could very well be Please Don’t Let My Loved Ones Listen To This. No one in Daniels’s household is safe. I don’t know how much of this material his teenage son has heard - if any - but Daniels is in for an evening of “You told them that?!” when he does. Going through puberty is never easy and it’s impossible not to laugh as Daniels stands back and gleefully watches his son navigate this brave new world of nocturnal emissions and hairy penines* on his own. Considering his wife, father-in-law, and sister also get their fair share of pokes and jabs, I can’t think of another Christmas family gathering I’d rather eavesdrop upon.

It should be noted that Daniels is not what I would classify as a “shock comic.” Yes, at times what he says is shocking but that's not his final goal. Plain and simple, he’s out to make people laugh and he passes with flying colors. Sometimes he has to say harsh things to get his point across, but they’re always things that need to be said. His commentary on society is not done out of spite but of tough love. The track “InFATuation” is a prime example and it’s one of my favorites on the project. Daniels takes aim at, to put it bluntly, fat people and it’s a solid bit that had me laughing the entire 10-minute duration. Before you can even begin to protest that not everyone can help being overweight Daniels cuts off the argument at the pass and begins a tirade that is hilariously unforgiving.

If you like to laugh - at others and yourself - and you have your sense of humor securely intact, you’re going to love this album. If not, well…there’s a line of people over at this cliff the rest of us would like to invite you to join.

*Not a misspelling. I mean, it is, but not mine.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Todd Barry's "The Crowd Work Tour"

Seriously? Five bucks? That’s it? 

Sorry. I had to get that out of the way. Louis C.K., the Master of Releasing Amazing Comedy For Only Five Dollars, has done it again. He did it last year when he offered Tig Notaro’s incredibly heart-breakingly hilarious autobiographical special and he does it once again by bringing us this ingenious video offering from Todd Barry. 

Here’s the basic premise of The Crowd Work Tour: Todd Barry hits a handful of cities doing shows with no prepared material and instead spends his set time chatting with the crowd. As if being a stand-up isn’t hard enough already. And it works. It’s not unlike the guy who walked a tight rope across Niagara Falls, only Barry is doing it without the aid of the long balancing pole. And he’s doing it blindfolded. And while wearing roller blades. 

Of course, if you’re a fan of Todd Barry (I am), then this should come as no surprise. He’s always done well when it comes to interacting with the audience and this project is a fun way for him to really stretch his improvisational muscles. There are a million different ways a comedian could react to the guy in the crowd who makes dog collars for a living, the girl in Alaska who works way too many hours, and the comedian from another comedy club whose stage name instills cackles, but no one reacts to a situation quite like Barry. His low-key counterbalance is diametrically opposed to what one would expect from talking to a member of the instrumental-only band Avant Abstract (check 'em out on - that's right - MySpace) and the juxtaposition makes the interaction even funnier.

As Barry travels up the west coast, he meets an impressively amazing array of people from different backgrounds. What makes it all the more fascinating is that these are real people. They’re so good, they sometimes feel like plants or, as Barry puts it, people from Improv Everywhere out to prank him. Did that guy really drive that far to see the show? Did that guy really make a T-shirt for Barry and then leave it in the car? And what did it look like? And are people really that passionate about chicken eggs?

This mini-movie (It runs an hour and nine minutes) is so enjoyable, I wanted more, and my only critique of the project are the moments when Barry isn’t shown on stage doing his thing. There are vignettes between the performances in each city showing Barry in the car, in his hotel, and chatting with other comics and they’re fun. However, after I got my first taste of Barry and his crowd work, I found myself wanting more of that and just wanting to zip through the non-standup moments.

If you purchase this movie from C.K.’s website you get your choice of various download quality and streaming video options. I was a little disheartened to see there was no opportunity to download an MP3 file but for five dollars I really have no business complaining about anything (and it's a reasonably simply problem to work around). This really is a great, funny, and fun project. I mean seriously, for the price of a venti drink at Starbucks you get some amazing comedy moments from one of the best comics working today. Sounds like a good deal to me (Because it is).

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Hannibal Buress's "Live from Chicago"

I’ve gotten into the habit of not allowing myself to look forward to the things I enjoy. Don’t worry, I’m not as much of a depressing Debbie Downer as that statement makes it sound, I’ve just been burned too many times by things not living up to the amazing expectations they’ve built up for themselves. Indiana Jones 4, both Hangover sequels, the latest album from Justin Timberlake…All forms of entertainment I was looking forward to, only to be let down by my unrealistic expectations. That being said, there are a handful of things I’ve learned I can look forward to. Films by Pixar, the fourth season of "Arrested Development" and the fifth season of "Community" are all examples of things I am wary of building up too high only to have my expectations consistently blown away.

And now you can add to that list Hannibal Buress. 

When “Animal Furnace” came out, the follow-up to his hilarious “My Name is Hannibal” I was a bit nervous. How in the world could he possibly top that? Well, he did it by being funny (I know, go figure). So, when I saw “Live from Chicago” was coming down the pipeline, I felt a little more secure about looking forward to it. Yes, I was excited. Yes, I wanted to hear it. And yes, I was pretty sure he’d kill me with comedy once again.

He did.

Buress, with his biting comedy cleverly wrapped in relaxed delivery, confidently takes the stage and immediately wins over the crowd with his Windy City inside jokes. From that point on it’s smooth sailing as we are led through the seas of New Orleans (Seriously? A Parades Department, NOPD?), rappers trying to impress us with their not-so-hardcore drug of choice, and what Buress would do with an extra $5000, his bare hands, and an unsuspecting penguin.

The way Buress tells a story is engaging and I particularly enjoy how genuinely surprised he seems to be when the details take an odd turn. This isn't a guy coming at you with a look-how-funny-I-am approach or a you-won’t-believe-the-silly-thing-I-made-up braggadocio but instead sits down beside you and quietly asks, “This thing that happened to me. It’s kinda weird, right?”

There’s never a lull in the show and certainly no “skippable” tracks, as the CD rolls out one great bit after another. You’ll be glad to know that opening for Tracy Morgan is just as random as you would expect it to be, you’ll find out what it’s like to wait in line for the bathroom in front of Scarlett Johansson (and not let her jump ahead), and you’ll find out just why, when it comes to who Buress outlives, Will Smith needs to be the first to go.

So rest assured fellow lovers-of-Hannibal. This project is just as good as you hoped it would be. It’s just as funny as you wished it would be and Buress is just as skilled as you knew he would be. Keep keeping your expectations high and Buress will keep blowing them away.