Monday, May 26, 2014

Cy Amundson's "Lovesick in Toledo"

I lived in Chicago for a brief time and while I was there, I was dirt poor. Naturally, this led me to seek out bargains (thanks, Craigslist!) and some of the bargains I found were sneak previews of movies (thanks, Hollywood!). For those who aren’t fortunate enough to live in a metropolitan city where this happens on a regular basis, movie studios have free - free! - screenings of movies to gauge audience reactions, see what works, or maybe just get a little bit of buzz going. And so one July evening I found myself in a packed movie theater to watch a free screening of a movie most people weren’t familiar with at the time: Wedding Crashers.

There are few sounds like a packed theater full of people not just laughing, but stupid laughing. I attended the event alone but for a short time all of us there were connected. It was an incredible evening and I found myself telling everyone I knew about “this hilarious movie I just saw.” I told friends, family, and even a handful of strangers while I was waiting in line at the Farmer’s Market. I couldn’t help myself. People needed to know how funny this movie was.

I had a similar reaction after listening to Cy Amundson’s “Lovesick in Toledo.” I finished listening to 50 of the funniest minutes I’d heard in a long while and my immediate thought was, “I can’t wait to tell people about this one.” So maybe I should stop yammering about Wedding Crashers and get to it.

From the very first joke on the very first track, Amundson sets the tone for what’s to come: Things are going to be a little bit wrong (how baby-sitting his niece accidentally caused him to be creepy) but a lot of bit hilarious (he could say something to make it a lot worse for those around him)

Amundson seems to magnetically attract awkward situations which, of course, only makes things better for us. You’ll find yourself laughing through teeth that are clenched empathetically as he recounts the time he scalded his junk with hot tea and wondering how things could possible get worse as he tries to ease the tension in the room with a silly joke told to the wrong person.

‘Lovesick in Toledo” is one of those rare CDs that comes along every once in a while where every track is my favorite. Amundson’s theory about the mysterious attraction white trash people have for Looney Tunes characters couldn’t be more accurate and his younger brother being chosen as the Golden Child has prompted the writing of a most imaginative will with very specific parameters.

This wouldn’t be the first time Amundson has toyed around with official, supposed-to-be serious documentation. Take for example the time he pranked his nephew by taking it upon himself to rewrite his entrance application letter to Northwestern University. Amundson knows his way around a prank and just the fact that he knows taxidermist’s have a “throwaway pile” should be reason enough to make anyone think twice about getting on his bad side.

When his friend Zach declares he and his girlfriend are trying to have a baby, Amundson has just cause to be a little hesitant with his support (especially considering the couple’s recent track record with kittens). It sparks one of my favorite bits on the album, second only to Amundson’s riotous impression of every 4th-grade girls basketball game ever. It had me in tears each time I listened.

The track that inspires the album title is Amundson’s love letter to Toledo (and by “love letter” I mean “a series of reasons to never visit Toledo"). My dad is a boxing coach and when I was growing up in Indiana we would take frequent trips to boxing tournaments to the Ohio city, so I can vouch for all Amundson has to say. It’s very possible we ate at the same Waffle House and experienced the same cheery customer service. My favorite line in the bit comes when Amundson mentions how each state has a “state bird” and suggests one for Toledo if cities did the same thing: “A raccoon with ringworm all over its face.”

This project made me laugh and it made me laugh a lot. Just like the time I was in Chicago, I want everyone to laugh like I did. I want everyone to experience the same thing I did and for 50 minutes forget about everything around them and just laugh. Forget about what happened at work this week or what needs to happen at home and instead just focus on camouflage lingerie and the portion size of greasy spoon hash browns. Let go and let yourself get a little “Lovesick.”

Sunday, May 25, 2014

D.L. Hughley's "Clear"

In both real-life conversation and my online presence, I’m not really one to use the word “meh.” I see it on the interwebs all the time and I always judge people for using it. It’s like going dirty while performing improv; it’s just too easy. A cop-out, really. Rather than explain themselves or what they’re feeling, people resort to those three letters. 

And yet, in a gesture of being completely transparent with you, I confess that’s what I said after listening to the new project from D.L. Hughley, “Clear.” Yep, that’s right. When the final track came to an end, I literally said “meh” out loud to myself. I believe it’s the first time I’ve ever used the word, either audibly or typed into my laptop. 

It’s not that Hughley doesn’t have stage presence (he does) and it’s not that there aren’t a ton of people out there who find him funny (there are…and they’re all in the audience during the recording). Personally, I have to admit, I just don’t get him. 

I’m not saying I don’t understand what Hughley is saying, I’m just asking if there couldn’t be…more. This is, I believe, the fourth album I’ve reviewed in the last couple of months with a reference to marijuana being legalized and Twinkies being discontinued (not to mention the countless late-night jokes that were told on television). If you’re going to put your spin on something everyone else is talking about, then you really need to make it your own. Instead, Hughley merely mentions he can’t believe both events happened and leaves it at that. 

And the crowd goes wild.

I realize Hughley is an original King of Comedy but that shouldn’t mean he gets a free pass. Just because a King of Comedy says something, that doesn’t - or shouldn’t - automatically render it funny.  I mean come on, he didn’t even do a joke about it, he just mentioned that it happened, and people lost their minds. It reminded me of the time my wife and I went to see Man of Steel in the theater and, as the end credits rolled, people in the seats around us began to applaud. No, seriously, they applauded Man of Steel. When my wife stood up, turned around, and pled with them, “Haven’t you ever been to the movies before?” I loved her even more. 

I felt like she would have wondered something similar had she been in Hughley’s audience the night this CD was recorded. “You’re laughing at this? How do you react when something actually funny happens?”

If you’re already a fan of Hughley, then I doubt anything I say will change your mind. If jokes about black people liking grape drink are new, fresh, and cutting edge to you and you just can’t get enough of them, then you’re in for a treat. As for me, it all just seemed too easy. Too…meh.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Steve Byrne's "Champion"

Steve Byrne is back with the new album “Champion” and it’s a pretty fitting title. He’s at the top of his game - he has been for a while - and this project is another solid reason why. He’s always thrived at tackling controversial topics and it’s nice to see he hasn’t lost his bite. In fact, he may even have had his teeth sharpened. 

Back in 2010 his CD “The Byrne Identity” made my Best-of-the-Year list and I called his bit “Stereotypes to Music” the best track of the year. This time around Byrne combines racial quirks with gender generalizations on “Different Kinds of Women” and it’s another slam dunk. Byrne doesn’t punch you in the face with his comedy. He’s more of a sniper in that he goes in, makes the hit you never saw coming, and leaves the scene of the crime unscathed. It’s really quite impressive. He still gets occasional groans from the audience when his shots land below the belt, but you’re never left with that “dirty” feeling that often comes with material that pushes the line. Unlike the time Byrne was accosted by his hotel room plumbing fixtures, you won’t feel the need to take a shower afterward.

One of the reasons Byrne is able to pull off what he does so cleanly is that he’s not perpetuating stereotypes, he’s simply trying to explain and/or understand them. Yes, Asians do drive slowly, but then again if you were dropped off in the middle of Japan trying to make out directions on roadway markers that look like nothing more than “#” signs to you, you might not be Tokyo Drifting at top speed, either. 

Byrne is fearless, taking racial profiling by the horns. There’s no harm in stating black people are  fast…as long as we admit there are certain instances where they’re slow, too. Byrne has a pretty solid theory on the real reason cops tend to pull over black guys and as a bonus he suggests a plan on how they can walk away from the incident with no further hassle. If your  White Guilt Spidey Sense is tingling and you believe there’s no truth to stereotypes, Byrne offers a four-word counterpoint: “Pet the pit bull.”

Looking for some hilariously fresh material on the subject of women and relationships? Byrne is the comedian for you. He cleverly dances through the minefield of dating and marriage, actually triggering some of the pressure plates without receiving so much as a scratch. Nothing in his marriage seems off-limits as he gleefully exploits arguments, the fact that he hates dining out with his spouse, and the most emasculating thing that can happen when punching a wall during an argument. He offers unsolicited relationship predictions of people sitting in the audience and already has his revenge planned should his wife ever decide to cut off his penis while he sleeps. 

No one (or thing) is safe from Byrne’s gaze. He confidently states that he doesn’t care about the earth or the ocean and freely admits he would not come to your rescue if you were being accosted by an AIDS-ridden monkey. He makes judgments on what fat girls are doing in the bathroom and if the guy you’re with is being super chivalrous, there may be a less-than-noble reason for that (in the form of a Hawaii-shaped stain). Byrne explains that, although boys and girls both dream of getting a ring one day, they are two very different dreams and he exposes retirement communities for the pre-pearly gates spring breaks they really are. 

He does all of this - and more - and has us laughing the entire time. Not only does he do it well…he does it like a champion.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Marc Maron's "Thinky Pain"

There’s a point in the new Marc Maron project, “Thinky Pain,” where he tells the story of his sage-like Jewish doctor and the simple, four-word piece of advice he offers that is much deeper than it first appears. After Maron pours his heart out to him, talking to him more like his therapist than his physician, the doctor pauses, thinks, and shrugs before offering up this simple observation: “People make a mess.”

People make a mess. 

Nowhere is that truer than in the life of your favorite self-diagnosing psychoanalyst, Marc Maron. If you’re familiar with him, his comedy, his podcast, his TV show, or his many recent late-night appearances, you know as well as I how much he loves to break things down and really try to figure them out. He’s open, candid, and completely transparent in his earnest attempt to better himself. Sometimes he seems to make some ground, actually closing in on a solution and sometimes he’s just talking aloud, spinning his wheels trying to work it all out. Regardless of where he is in the process, I’m glad to be a fly on the wall listening in. 

Maron’s approach to comedy is laid back and relaxed. He’s proud in his refusal to prepare (What do you think he is, a coward?) and as a result the pauses that are present between his bits carry a deeper weight. They aren’t put in solely for timing or comedic effect but it’s more like a GPS re-routing after you’ve gone a little off course. Maron sits. Thinks. And re-routes. I like watching Maron on stage because his set is real and organic. This is happening, man, and we’re all gonna watch it go down together. He brings a couple of notebooks on stage and then, rather than use them for reference as he intended, decides instead to give himself a hard time for doing so, challenging himself to fly solo and just figure this shit out.

His father was a physician (hence Maron’s hypochondria) and his mother a professional anorexic (hence Maron’s struggle with self-image) so it’s no wonder he’s dealing not with baggage, but a complete matching set of baggage. His attempt to garner his father’s attention resulted in finding himself being finger-banged by a GP in an unannounced home visit and his mother’s loathing of his extra weight made every trip to Dairy Queen one riddled with guilt. 

I know, I know, this hardly sounds like a chuckle fest comedy album, but trust me when I assure you there are a lot of laughs to be found here. The CD runs a more-than-generous 95 minutes and you won’t find anyone else who makes introspection so entertaining. Whether he’s judging others (and their shorts) or having a powerful moment with a rooster (not what you’re thinking, North Carolina), for every minute Maron spends in the deep end of the pool, there are just as many light-hearted interactions that keep us from becoming completely submerged. One of my favorites is Maron’s impression of “Morning Zoo” radio using only grunts and gibberish.

There’s a great track on the album entitled “Why I Don’t Like Sports” that is just as good as any one-man show you’ll watch. It features 49-year-old Maron talking to Little League Maron, walking his younger self off the baseball field after a botched fly ball catch. He wants to reassure the little guy without candy-coating everything; he wants to comfort but doesn’t want it to be the false comfort of “everything’s gonna be OK.” Yes, this pain you feel now is something you’ll feel again. And again. Things will get worse. Things will get better. Things will get worse again. Cocaine will be involved at some point. You can almost see the two Maron incarnations slowly shuffling past the dugout and onto the gravel drive behind the chain link fence. You feel for Little League Maron. He has no idea what he’ll be up against in his future but 49-year-old Maron is proof he’ll get through it. It’s a truly beautiful moment.

Yes, people make a mess.

Maron takes that mess and makes people laugh.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Elon Gold's "Chosen and Taken"

With his new CD “Chosen and Taken,” the brilliant Elon Gold leaves me with quite a quandary. Sixty minutes, 22 tracks, and a buttload of big laughs on each one. Which brings me to my problem: Where in the world do I start? I could start off with his bit on giving Starbucks baristas a goofy name to write on your cup…or giving them your real Hebrew name. Or, there’s his bit on who he wanted to be when he grew up. He didn’t strive to be a super hero, he wanted to be a big black woman. Sure, he wouldn’t be able to fly, but he’d never have to worry about being shushed at a Barnes & Noble (It isn’t a library, people, it’s a store!). Or we could jump off with the fact the Gold just doesn’t get enough credit for not cheating on his wife. 

Or…well, you get the point. There’s a lot of funny going on here.

Gold’s humor is smart, but it’s smart done fun. He has an ear for language and the nuances of various accents and his examples prove the old “funny because it’s true” adage. Brits have a very peculiar relationship with the letter “T” (to pronounce or not pronounce) and Russians, who sound like they’re speaking backwards,  love to throw in the letter “Y” where it doesn’t belong. For Israelis it’s the letter “N” and those darn New Zealanders just sound happy regardless of what they’re talking about. And let’s not forget the sexiest accent of all: People from Spain. Take Javier Bardem for example: “The “J” in “Javier” is silent because I banged the sound out of it.” 

It only makes sense that Gold would have such a good sense of language because he’s obviously studied the speech patterns of others. He’s a dead-on impressionist and when he re-enacts a never-before-heard racist scene from Seinfeld, you realize what a pro you’re dealing with. His Jeff Goldblum is flawless and the other celebrities who read from a child’s potty training book are equally impressive. 

Can I just take a moment to pause here and go on the record to give Gold serious props for not making his impressions a showoff-y crutch? As good as he is it would be easy to do, but then he’d fall into the treacherous waters of Lake Kevin Pollak, AKA I Can Do A Good Christopher Walken Voice And Doggonit I’m Going To Shoehorn It Into Everything I Do Ever And Have I Mentioned I Do A Good Christopher Walken Voice? Also I Do A Good Christopher Walken Voice. Gold’s approach is much wiser. He gets in there, nails it, and then moves on. Of course, that’s easy to do when you have as much incredible material to get to as Gold does. 

There are times where you think you know where Gold’s going (Oh no, here comes his “Men and Women Are Different” material), but then he takes you somewhere you’ve never been. It’s not just the difference between men and women relationally. It’s the difference between men and women when they’re going in for surgery and the difference between men and women if a member of the opposite sex walked into their locker room. 

The same goes for Gold’s bits on his Jewish heritage. You may think you’ve been here before but Gold is way too smart for that. It really is the only religion that doesn’t try to convert others (but that doesn’t stop him from postulating what it would be like if they did). I’d never considered the similarities between Jews and Italians before and when you think about it, you really can tell the pyramids were built by Jewish slaves. So take the new racial slur for Gold’s people (Negotiators) and run with it. 

Toward the end of the project, Gold has a bit about his kids and the day they learned bad words. Not just bad words, but really bad words. The fact they knew these words that only very mean people use wasn’t what saddened Gold. That moment came when his children tried to spell those words to him. 

“Chosen and Taken” is packed with hilarious moments that begs to be listened to multiple times. People will often ask me “What’s new that’s good?” and this project is one that will make that list. Elon Gold: Choose him. Take him in. Laugh. Repeat as desired.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

The Sklar Brothers' "What Are We Talking About?"

Is there anything more beautiful than witnessing a performance where everything just clicks? Whether it’s watching your favorite pitcher throw a no-hitter, your favorite dancer nail every trick in their routine, or standing there slack-jawed as your buddy bowls a perfect 300, you can't help but walk away with a sensation of "Wow." And in most cases, it’s not just that they’re really good at what they do…they also make it look effortless. Of course, the easier they make it look to perform such feats is proof of the perfect storm of natural talent and hours they’ve spent working on their craft. 

Add to the list above Jason and Randy Sklar, AKA The Sklar Brothers, and their new album, “What Are We Talking About?” It’s no coincidence this project, complete with pre, post, and halftime shows from your favorite commentators, is sports-themed as the guys pull off a performance just as sweet as any you’ve seen in the Sweet Science. Their teamwork is flawless - I suspect it’s due to being twins and the supernatural telekinetic powers they possess as a result - and their timing is impeccable as their words overlap just enough to keep your brain engaged, forcing it to keep up with their rat-a-tat speed without it being overloaded.

Having another person to work off of onstage gives them a bit of an advantage when it comes to re-living conversations (like the most depressing chat with Lightning McQueen you’ll ever hear) and pulling off some pretty ingenious impressions (their comparison of Google to a guy at a party with inappropriate additions to a conversation is a great premise and their dueling Allen Iverson is eerily accurate).

Unlike most comedy duos, whose bits are comprised primarily of interacting with each other in various situations or straight guy/ridiculous guy scenarios, the Sklars instead work as a two-headed singular point of view coming at you in living stereo. Their rapid fire back-and-forth is an impressive display of timing and the occasional punchlines spoken in unison serve as audible forms of bold and italics (A great example of this is when they point out the Christmas song that begins with a threat: YOU BETTER WATCH OUT)

You could have the most impressive delivery in the world - and these guys definitely have that - but without the material to go along with it, you can only last so far on presentation alone. Fortunately the Sklars aren’t lacking on that front as they serve up the best place to build the Mullet Hall of Fame, absolutely kill it with an impression of Stephen A Smith, explain how Richard Simmons is bad for your wifi connection, and re-write jokes they wrote with children.

The title of the CD asks the question “What Are We Talking About?” and the Sklars provide an answer by talking about everything. From anthropomorphized products that shouldn’t have a Brooklyn accent to the comparison of Lance Armstrong’s life before and after the doping scandal to the best - and most accurate - Pepsi commercial ever, it’s not just what the Sklars are talking about that makes this album so fun, but how  they talk about it. Looks like it’s gonna be another good season for Team Sklar.