Andy Hendrickson’s “Underachiever”

As I listen to these albums for review, I usually keep my notebook on hand to jot down any moments that jump out at me which I want to be sure to mention in my final write-up. In general these notations are pretty brief, seven or eight short sentences that serve as milestones along the journey.
With Andy Hendrickson’s Underachiever I filled an entire page.

And it’s all good stuff. I probably won’t be able to touch on all of them but suffice it to say there are a lot of great things going on here. Whether he’s explaining how he “runs very expensively” or grows weary of the toddler seated next to him on a plane (“Hi! Hi! Hi!”) or comparing relationships to books, Hendrickson is performing at the top of his game as he approaches a vast array of topics without abandon. He’s a straight shooter who tells it like it is without coming across as bitter or jaded.
As a result, the crowd follows him willingly, laughing all the way as he navigates waters such as girls who wear low-cut shirts and cross necklaces simultaneously. His material is very relatable and we understand just where he’s coming from. We’ve all been there and it’s nice to have someone as funny as Hendrickson along for the ride to help us laugh at life’s little hiccups. We’ve all gotten long-winded voice mails from our mothers and we’ve all experienced what it’s like when our friends grow up and start having kids (Boo). Hendrickson takes such situations and injects them with his own unique style of humor. And he does it well.
What is just as entertaining are the insights Hendrickson clues us in on that we may not have picked up on before. Fire hydrants are like Facebook updates for dogs and living with a sleepwalking boxer who is prone to night terrors may not be the ideal roommate situation. Fortunately for us, his awkward living arrangement is our gain and the laugh count is solid and consistent.
Hendrickson has various ways of approaching the funny and he excels at each one of them. At one moment he may choose to go with storytelling (as he does when he talks about his interactions with his parents), later he opts for clever, insightful metaphor (his friend’s relationship with his fiancee is likened to an old Tootsie Pop commercial. How many licks will it take to break down his soul?) and sometimes he chooses to simply fire from the hip. When it comes to living up to his older brother, a Navy Seal with a Master’s in Business from Harvard, nothing sums it up quite like a simple, “Thanks a lot. Nice shadow, dick.
The rapport he has with his brother is interesting and when Hendrickson shares with us his sibling’s secret to success (Hendrickson’s response? “You just put me down, taught me a life lesson, and wrote me a joke all with one swing”),we realize witty straight talk may very well be an enviable Hendrickson family trait.
It’s probably time I begin wrapping this up and there’s still a lot I haven’t touched on. I never got to the wine-loving girl who cleverly bookends the album. I didn’t get to talk about the 15-pound baby whose arrival spurs both a party and a funeral. Oh yeah, and there’s the one about the feature on a first-generation Kindle Hendrickson wishes his long-winded friends would develop. And his closer — his killer closer! — about the girl wearing glasses.
And then … well … you get the point. 
There’s a lot on this album that’s gonna make you laugh. Hendrickson brings to the table everything you hope to find on a great comedy album … and then he gives you more.
Underachiever, my foot.
***

Bryan Bruner’s “Welcome to Djibouti”

If life is a highway, then Bryan Bruner is a pretty safe driver. On his album Welcome to Djibouti, he steers us through life’s little road bumps cautiously, his hands firmly on the wheel at 10 and 2 (mostly because he’s trying to compensate for the fact he’s probably amid a marijuana high). The real question, though, is whether or not this is the sort of ride you prefer.
If you prefer your comedy reckless and pulse-pounding with hairpin curves taken on two wheels, Bruner probably isn’t the comedian for you. There are a few turns here and there, but Bruner turns on his blinker well before we get there, signaling the change in direction and taking away any real element of surprise.
The album starts off promisingly enough with a humorous explanation of why single people in bars are like clothes from factory outlet malls and what it would be like to party with NFL players. After that, though, the album seems to plateau and continue from there at the same level.
There are plenty of interesting launch points from which Bruner could take off (working for the FDNY, touring with a little person, and his sincere love of the aforementioned cannibas plant), but for the most part they simply remain as nice premises without a real punch. His bit on the midget has a funny visual near the end, but it’s a 7-minute cut, and the laughter is definitely not proportionate to the time it takes to get there.
Bruner talks about being a pothead with pride and I fear his love for weed may have dulled his comedic sensibilities. Instead of emulating someone like Doug Benson, arguably one of the funniest and most famous pro-weed comedians working today, his stories end up being just that: Stories. They’re interesting enough but there’s not much payoff when it comes to big laughs.
There are a few times when Bruner displays passion, but to be honest it’s hard to empathize with him because the things that set him off…well…probably shouldn’t. When he sends a Facebook friend request to a guy who shares the same name, the alternate Bryan Bruner responds with an understandable response to a complete stranger: “Who is this?” Comedian Bryan Bruner flips out. I’m still not sure why. When he overdraws his bank account and is hit with late fees, he starts a Twitter campaign railing against Bank of America claiming they are responsible for the AIDS virus. I’m still not sure why. And when he made the obligatory “it’s dudes catching crabs” Deadliest Catch joke, I didn’t wonder why, I just wanted something that had a little more effort behind it.
For the most part, this album seemed to be comedy done via the safest route. It’s the difference between a leisurely drive through the Indiana countryside and tooling along the winding, ever-shifting road on the cliffs of Palos Verdes. Bruner’s humor is more of the former than the latter. It’s a pleasurable enough ride, but there’s no risk. No cliffs, just corn.
***

Chris Killian’s “The Not Black Album”

On paper, comedians like Daniel Tosh and Lisa Lampanelli say some pretty horrible things. They get away with it on stage, though, because we all know they’re doing it to get a laugh. And, because they are genuinely funny as they go about it. The tricky part comes when you tweak the motive behind it. It’s a very fine line to walk. Unfortunately, The Not Black Album  by Chris Killian is an example of how things can go wrong.
The feeling I took away from this album is that Killian isn’t trying to say controversial things to get a laugh but instead to get a reaction. There may seem to be a minor difference between the two,  but in reality it’s pretty huge. Instead of coming across as shock comedy, it just comes across as mean-spirited and it takes away from the fun.
There are a number of times when Killian stuns the audience into shocked silence; their refusal to laugh serving as a signal to Killian (which he either ignores or just doesn’t pick up on it, I’m not sure which) that you can’t just say mean things into a microphone and automatically get laughter. You sort of have to be funny, too.
To me, the writing here is where Killian falls short. His jokes aren’t particularly insightful or cleverly constructed. They’re just…well…easy. He explains how he makes fun of his Asian girlfriend for being Asian because … “who wouldn’t, right?” The crowd’s response is so lukewarm, Killian is forced to address it. One example of his clever jibes he gives is when he’s out with her in public and sees an elderly Asian woman. He’ll point to her and ask his girlfriend, “Hey, is that your mom?”
Insert awkward pause here.
As Killian works through his set, it becomes obvious who his comedic influences are and each time he comes up short when he tries to emulate them. Don’t have an ending for a bit? Then just say something in an Aziz Ansari-esque razz-a-ma-tazz delivery. It won’t get you much of a laugh, but at least you can move on.
When Killian announced he was going to change things up by singing some original songs, I became hopeful. I thought perhaps he’s one of those guys whose stand-up isn’t that good but makes up for it with this other thing they do. Unfortunately that’s not the case. Killian’s singing and songwriting are just as good as his joke writing and that’s not a compliment.
The song structure and phrasing are clunky and the melodies feel forced and unnatural; Killian’s rhyme scheme is fairly predictable and, not to sound too much like Randy Jackson, his singing is pitchy. He sings above the note when he’s projecting and when he lowers his volume, the notes are flat. I imagine he had people like Stephen Lynch and Bo Burnham in mind when he sat down and decided to be a bad boy singing comedian but again the motive behind it feels “off.”
Besides being clever lyricists, both Lynch and Burnham are genuinely good composers and (especially Lynch) talented singers. Killian doesn’t seem to be especially concerned with musical ability but if eight tracks on your album are going to be songs, that’s probably not a good idea.
Once again, Killian isn’t looking to entertain or make people laugh, he’s out to shock and appall. It’s not about the writing, and it really should be. Just because you say/sort-of sing harsh things while strumming a guitar, that doesn’t automatically make you a comedian. That just makes you a bully with a guitar.
***

Josh Gondelman’s “Everything’s The Best!”

Josh Gondelman opens his new CD Everything’s The Best! by declaring he’s going to do his best to try to be fun. I assume this is just some sort of ruse, because after listening to this hour-long project I don’t think it’d be possible for him not to be. He is such a pleasure to be around, it’s no surprise to find out he can keep any crowd of people entertained, whether it’s a comedy club full of adults or a brightly colored room of kids (he reveals he is a pre-school teacher who’s just put in his two weeks notice).
Sure, the fact that this guy who works with kids moonlights as a stand-up comic (or, more accurately, vice versa) initially comes across as a Can You Believe It premise but the truth is I can believe it. I’d trust this guy with my kids* and would feel safe knowing that they’ll be in good hands. Sure, they may come back with a brand new mash-up of children’s songs in their heads or learn the ins and outs of the legality of gay marriage but I can rest assured knowing they won’t be taught the lyrics to any Def Leppard songs (that’s the other guy at the pre-school).
The youthful energy of Gondelman carries over nicely to his comedy. His ruminations about child detectives (Encyclopedia Brown, Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys) and why we don’t hear from them as adults are paired together with his theory of why Han Solo isn’t nearly as cool as everyone seems to think he is.
The vast majority of his material is either culled from his own childhood experiences (opting to play the trombone in band class, how reading “The Catcher in the Rye” landed him in the principal’s office, why comic book readers are considered the jocks of the nerd community) or lifted straight from his encounters with the pre-schoolers (the recreation of a magic trick he learned from a student, the little Mexican boy who wants to be Batman, and how he was outsmarted by Jake, the little guy who has never seen a purple cow).
That being said, Gondelman is just as funny when he steps up his material to topics people face in their adult life. He is just as consistently funny whether he’s unveiling Boston’s racist tendencies (“”I’m not racist, but…” is actually secret code for “I am racist, and…””), explaining why he hopes his future daughter is a lesbian, or bringing to light the reason minor league baseball is the way to go.
The project draws to a close with the tale of how a one night stand blossomed into a full-fledged adventure in the pharmacy in search of a Plan B pill. Although the subject matter may not strike someone as the easiest, most-obvious, least-controversial choice for a series of light-hearted anecdotes, Gondelman navigates it with ease, never once crossing the line into Too Much or Too Dark. He manages to keep the tone light and humorous. Because of that, the laughs erupt just as easily and frequently as they did on the previous 19 tracks.
Another thing I really admire about Gondelman’s craft is his ability to seamlessly transition from one topic to the next without coming across as stilted or jumpy. There’s no whiplash here. His material flows really nicely and only when you look back at the track listing do you realize exactly how much territory was covered.
The title of this project really reflects not only Gondelman’s approach to comedy, but also his outlook on life. He never gets over-the-top angry and he doesn’t wallow in self-pity when he finds himself in a situation that may not be ideal. Instead, he looks at life through the eyes of an eternal comedic optimist. Instead of seeing the glass as half-empty or half-full, he opts to go for the laugh and pours the glass’s contents over his head. Then he’ll stand up, back away from the table with his arms stretched out to either side and declare, “Nothing in my hands!”
He’s right. Everything really is the best. And when you get to the point where you can look at life and believe that it’s true, well….if that’s not a great magic trick, I don’t know what is.
***

*For the sake of this review, let’s pretend I have kids.

***

Andrés du Bouchet’s “Naked Trampoline Hamlet”

Listening to the new project from Andrés du Bouchet reminded me of the first time I watched Pulp Fiction. I was living in the middle of the Mojave Desert in 1994 and had to drive over an hour to get to the nearest showing of Tarantino’s groundbreaking film. I went with my dad and afterward we were so blown away by what we had seen, we were rendered speechless on the entire drive home, both of us lost deep in thought as we replayed over and over in our heads what we had just been through. At the end of the night we found ourselves in a Denny’s, dissecting and discussing the events that had unfolded over a pot of coffee.
I was the first one in my circle of friends to see the film and I realized as I tried to express to them how good it was, I was having a hard time putting everything I experienced during the film into words. With its snappy dialogue, constant waves of building suspense, and its timeline-hopping lack of linear storytelling, it was unlike anything I had ever seen. And I loved every minute of it. As I answered (or attempted to answer) my friends’ queries of “How was it?” I found I wasn’t doing the film justice.
And that’s also what I felt after experiencing the incredibly brilliant Naked Trampoline Hamlet. I don’t know how I’m going to impress upon you how amazing it is, but I’m sure gonna try. I probably don’t need to say this project is unlike any comedy album I’ve ever heard and as someone who is constantly on the lookout for fresh, new, and unique approaches to the art of stand-up, to say du Bouchet is exactly what I was hoping to stumble upon without really knowing what it was I was hoping to stumble upon is a fair statement.
Because NTH throws away the outline of what a comedy album should be, prepare yourself to spend an hour with a guy who isn’t going to do anything you expect him to do. Gone are the simple set-up/punchline combinations, the obvious answers to old jokes, and the idea that a comedian can’t be his own warm-up act.
du Bouchet is a captivating performer, and a performer is exactly what he is. To refer to him only as a comic is to take away from everything that is happening on the stage. And trust me…there’s is a lot happening here.
The brilliance of what du Bouchet has constructed lies in the fact that he hasn’t merely written an evening’s worth of well-crafted jokes. It’s more accurate to say that what unfolds before our eyes (or ears, in this case) is a full-on six-act play. Each segment of the show has its own distinct style, feel, tone, and theme. du Bouchet tackles and embodies the various narrators of each track with the flawless, committed skill of a classically trained actor. Whether he’s playing the role of an eager comedian whose delivery is overtaken by the excited machismo of the ultimate alpha male specimen or rattling off one idea for a new reality show after another (And another. And another. And another), du Bouchet is the epitome of dedicating himself to a role and working hard to make it click.
The CD opens with the crowd being warmed up by Danny Yeahyeah, a du Bouchet creation that tests the patience of the audience (and the listener) to such extremes, the payoff comes in laughter that is equally proportional to the utter ridiculousness to which the audience is subjected. du Bouchet gives new definition to the phrase “crowd work” and literally makes the crowd work for their laughter.
Have you ever seen that clip from Family Guy where the mother (Lois) is lying in bed and baby Stewie approaches, craving attention? It’s a brilliant scene and for a minute straight, nothing in the frame moves except for Stewie’s mouth as he does nothing but call out her name. “Lois. Lois. Lois. Lois. Lois. Mom. Mom. Mom. Mommy. Mommy. Mommy. Mommy…” It’s the classic gag of humor through repetition. It’s funny, then the humor sort of wanes, and then by the sheer act of being perpetually repeated it becomes funny once again. du Bouchet takes that concept, scrunches it into a ball, and smashes Seth MacFarlane in the nuts with it. THIS is how it’s done. Have a seat and allow du Bouchet to introduce to you a little something called The Yeah Yeah Game. You ain’t seen nothing yet.
And, of course, just when you think you have it all figured out (“Oh, OK, du Bouchet is this kind of comic…”), the rug is pulled out from under your feet and you find yourself in the midst of a brand-new approach. You think you know who this guy is, and who he is going to be, but seriously…you don’t.
The second act is probably the closest du Bouchet comes to what you may expect from a stand-up comedian but although he begins with standard fare like lawyer and knock-knock jokes, there’s no way you could ever be prepared for the punchlines. Even when you start to feel comfortable and think you’ve got everything figured out…you guessed it. Ya don’t.
Even though you know — you know! — du Bouchet is going to present you with some of the oldest jokes and riddles in the book and swap out the punchlines for something crazy, you know he’s just going to say something random and off the wall, you still end up caught by surprise, trying to regain your footing by how off-balance and truly random things get.
On the album’s title track du Bouchet calls together a meeting of thespians for a very specific re-creation of a classic dramatic work. du Bouchet’s voice carries nicely, projecting with the stately resonance of a herald from Medieval Times mixed with the misguided pomposity of an enthusiast from your local Renaissance Fair.
As the album continues on, we really begin to see that not only does du Bouchet have a real knack for comedy, he’s also extremely gifted at picking and choosing his words, giving everything he says a feel of very real intentionality (I don’t know if that’s a word, but I think you know what I mean, and it’s exactly the word I’m looking for. So there). Never before has comedy felt so highbrow and sophisticated while at the same time infused with intentional mispronunciation, colorful metaphors, and the perfect poetic description regarding the unsettling distance between Maggie Gyllenhaal’s eyes.
With his recitation of some of the more notable non-fiction books on the mating habits of finches (nope, I’m not lying) and his recounting of a special evening he shared with David Hasselhoff in which it seems he’s challenged himself to see how off-topic he can get and still wrap things up, du Bouchet boldly leads you into a new realm of comedy. It’s a place where the laughs come not in the form of punchlines but in the structure of what it being shared. It’s a place where quitters are not tolerated, helium is regarded as the noblest of elements, and Joey Fatone never sleeps with anyone more than twice.
If you dare accept this invitation to such uncharted comedy territory you will be rewarded handsomely. That reward comes in the form of laughter, and du Bouchet is a very generous benefactor.
***

Lewis Black’s “The Prophet”

Lewis Black’s The Prophet is undoubtedly the most unusual project I’ve reviewed since Comedy Reviews first popped online. Although it is technically a “new release” the material was recorded wayyyyyy back in 1990. Researchers and archivists have delved deep into the annals of comedy and unearthed this treasure trove of never-before-released material from one of the great comedians working today.
This album is a must-have for comedy fans, as it gives us a rare glimpse at Black as a young(er) comic, still working out the kinks and finding his voice. It’s an amazing study of stand-up, as we can see what aspects of his comedy he chose to keep and perfect and what he decided to leave behind. If nothing else, this project serves as further proof of Black’s ear for comedy and what clicks with the crowd.
As a guy who’s spent more than his fair amount of time listening to the director’s commentary on more than his fair share of DVDs, one thing I’ve grown to admire about good directors is their ability to recognize scenes of a film that don’t help move the story along and end up on the cutting room floor. A lot of those excised scenes share a common thread: They were really hard to say goodbye to. Often times it’s a scene that was one of the director’s personal favorite pieces of the movie and they had to come to the sobering realization that, as much as they love it as a stand-alone moment, ultimately it had to go.
Likewise, Black has made similar decisions with his approach to the craft of comedy. I can’t speak for him and say it broke his heart to leave certain things behind, many of them bits that garnered respectable laughs, but I certainly commend him for his ability to step back and take a big-picture look at where we was at and assess whether or not it was where he wanted to be.
Which is why this review won’t have any real “critiques” to offer. Let’s be honest: There really wouldn’t be any point to it because Black has already made the necessary alterations to his act that needed to be made in order for him to be the successful and highly-regarded comic he is today. The album serves as one of the best educational resources a new comic could get his hands on.
The CD starts off with a Black I wasn’t familiar with and hardly recognized. His delivery was less frazzled and manic and more standard observational comic. At times his timing and inflection reminded me of Paul Reiser (of all people) and it was definitely interesting to hear Black speaking in such a different voice.
As Black covered standard comedy topics like crazy people in New York City, NyQuil, and being unable to smoke on planes, at times it’s almost impossible to see Black for the comedian he would ultimately become over time. In fact, early on in his set the only glimpse of his trademark Furious Anger is in his crowd work. When he’s cut off by an over-enthusiastic audience member, Black’s switch is flipped — and flipped big time — and he unleashes both barrels on the poor guy with such a white-hot intensity, it seems to take the crowd a few moments to recover.
But when Black finally comes to his bread and butter — politics, government, and the corruption found therein — he shines. This is who he was meant to be. He finds his happy medium between hardly-angry and way too angry and the laughs really start to roll in. Black has shifted his laser sites from the audience to The Man and he finds he gets the biggest reactions when he asks the crowd to join his side rather than draw a line in the dirt and square off against them. He’s found that Don’t talk back to me! doesn’t work nearly as well as Can you believe what these guys over here are telling us?!
Not only is this project an illuminating look at one comic’s evolution, it’s also an incredible study of humanity. Of all the amazing discoveries that came with listening, the one that stood out and most struck a chord with me is just how much history truly repeats itself. Comedy fans aren’t the only ones who will appreciate this release. Students of government, sociology, political science, and economics will also marvel at the hot-button issues Black addressed then that are still with us today.
A few of the parallels that leapt out include:

  • An oil spill (the Exxon Valdez) and the laughable response from the oil company
  • President Bush (then George Sr.) and his lack of reaction to an ecological disaster
  • A high-ranking government official and a “conflict of interest” (or claimed lack thereof) regarding his current position and previous employer
  • Frustration with our inability to track down and capture one of our ‘most wanted’ (Manuel Noriega here)

Wow. Any of those stories sound like anything you’ve heard in the last few years? It was mind-boggling to listen and come to the realization that, yep…we really do make the same mistakes over and over again if we don’t bother to learn from them the first time around.
Going into this project, I was curious to hear what Black sounded like 20 years ago, with 20 years less experience, and with the news of 20 years ago as the fuel to his fire. Sure, it was fun to hear the small differences in his act from then to now, but I was also impressed to see what was still the same.  What Black excelled at then — pointing out the insanity swirling around The Powers That Be — is still his strongest suit today.
And, if we as a society continue on the path we’re on — and apparently have been for the last couple of decades — Black will have more than enough material to work with for the next 20 years.
It’s a real eye-opener to see just how deeply we may be stuck in a rut, but as long as Black is here to be the guy prodding us to take a different path, it’s a comfort knowing that at the very least we’ve got 20 more years of solid laughter to look forward to.
***

Doug Benson’s “Potty Mouth”

You probably think you know who Doug Benson is. Heralded for projects like Super High Me and “Marijuana-Logues,” it’s understandable why one might pigeonhole Benson as just That Guy Who Talks About Pot. If you think Benson is a bit of a stoner, you’d be right. If you assume a lot of Benson’s material will be rooted in that very topic, you’d also be right. But if you think that’s all Benson is…you would be very, very wrong.

On his new album Potty Mouth, Benson proves that although it’s true he’s down with the green stuff, he is first and foremost an accomplished comedian.This is no one-trick pony and Benson shatters any pre-conceived notions you may have held by displaying an amazing knack for bringing huge laughs with material both scripted and off-the-cuff. The prepared material he has scrawled in his notebook proves to be just as funny as his crowd work — and vice versa. Whether he’s reading Tweets written by his fans (and himself), responding to unsolicited audience participation, or marveling at the jokes he hastily scribbled on a Post-It note, Benson thrives. Although his stage persona is one of a relaxed, “whatever dude” kinda guy, don’t let it fool you. Benson is no slacker. Quite the opposite, he’s a comedy machine, cranking out one huge laugh after another.
One of the first things that stood out to me was the fact that Benson doesn’t get to a written joke until the third track. Where most comedians will open up with a throwaway hello and jump right in, Benson spends the first ten (count ’em, ten!) minutes interacting with the crowd, riffing on the venue’s name and location, and checking his Twitter feed to see what people in the audience are saying about the show so far. Benson tries to downplay the fact he’s getting so many big laughs by posing the question, “Did we just pay money to just watch you read tweets from your phone?” but the fact of the matter is, it’s killing. This guy could be reading an episode summary of Six Feet Under from tv.com and he’d still turn it into great material. It’s not what he’s doing that’s funny (yes, as a matter of fact he is just reading tweets from his phone) but it’s because it’s Benson who’s doing it that makes it so much fun. His initial reactions and responses to each tweet are proof positive that he is as good at improvisation as anyone on the circuit.
And then, of course, we get to the material he has come prepared with. When Benson says he wrote down everything he wanted to talk about, he meant it. At the top of the first page it says, “Hey everybody” and the bottom of the last page says – SPOILER ALERT! – “Thank you, good night.” Benson has some great stories stolen from real-life experiences and although many of them have to do with being a little less-than clear-headed, his stories aren’t just for pot smokers. His comedy is broad enough to include everyone in the room and no one feels left out.
Which brings up a good point. Listening back to the recording, you can hear that it’s not just people in the first few rows laughing. Benson has the entire room in stitches and a lot of it has to do with the fact that he’s so friggin’ likable. Whatever your stance is on marijuana, astrology, or bacon sundaes, you’ll find yourself on Benson’s side. He’s not unlike Mitch Hedberg in that respect. Everyone knew he was blitzed most of the time, but doggonit, everyone couldn’t help but love him. The difference between Hedberg and Benson in the party of life is a simple one: While Hedberg would be off to the side of the room next to the fireplace mumbling his sharp insight to a small group of people huddled around him, Benson is the guy greeting you at the door with a big hug and a smile. He takes your coat and yells to the room, “Hey everybody! Look who’s here!” Benson is the guy at the party that instantly makes you glad you decided to go to the party.
He has a great bit about his trip to a grocery store and the response he gave when asked if he wanted a bag for his items. The tale of some guys who wanted to show Benson hospitality after a show by smoking with him out in the middle of nowhere is a riot and when he talks about marijuana turning his brain into mush on a CNN appearance (“What?”), I absolutely lost it when orphans and Pauly Shore ended up in the mix.
For many reviewers, this would be the part of the write-up where I try to think of something I didn’t like about the project. For me, though, this is the part where I admit there’s nothing about this I would change. I’m not so vain to think I could have done any better or that there’s something Benson should have done differently. The bottom line is, this CD is funny. It’s non-stop funny and Benson deserves sincere congratulations on a job well done.
I guess that’s why this blog is called “Comedy Reviews” and not “Comedy Critiques.” There’s really nothing here to critique. I’ve got nothing but good things to say about this one and I couldn’t be happier about it. I guess that’s what happens when someone as talented and skilled as Benson takes to the stage.
Or maybe it’s just what happens when someone has a Potty Mouth.
***

Adam Newman’s “Not for Horses”

For anyone striving to “make it” in the entertainment world, one of the trickiest things to do is hone your timing. Even though this blog deals with stand-up, in this instance I’m not referring to comedic timing. Instead, I’m talking about timing your move(s) in the industry. Like someone waiting to dive into a game of double dutch, you can’t just jump in without planning your move, making sure that you’re ready, and recognizing your open spot when you see it.
Despite how much you may want to get in there and take part in some super-complicated jump rope adventures, you can’t just hop in because you want to. You’ve got to make sure the time is right. You need to know what you’re doing and, as ready as you think you are, make sure the ropes are ready for you.
As someone who’s spent the better part of the last ten years in some aspect of the music industry, I’ve run into a few people who immediately want to know how they can get a record deal and want to know what I can do to pull some strings for them (the fact they think I wield that kind of power always makes me shake my head and smile in a “Tsk, tsk, you poor deluded child” kind of way). They’re always convinced if they could just get a label to sign them, everything from that point on would be cake. Never mind the fact that their songwriting stinks, they don’t play well as a band, none of them can sing, and they don’t have any original songs of their own. They just want a record deal and very rarely are they receptive to the idea that they may not be ready.
Likewise, I’ve listened to a few comedy albums this year from comedians who weren’t ready. They had some good ideas and starting points, but still… Just because someone has a buddy with an MP3 recorder doesn’t mean you should start in on artwork for your CD just yet. If you’re not ready, you’ll find yourself in the middle of the schoolyard with a tangle of jump rope around your feet.
But if you are ready…oh man, it’s a beautiful thing.
Which brings me to the topic at hand: Adam Newman’s album, Not for Horses.
To put it simply, Adam Newman was ready.
This is a guy who’s put in the time and work and the end result is a debut project that most definitely does not sound like someone’s debut project. Newman is an engaging, confident, smart storyteller who isn’t intimidated by the crowd. In fact, he’s so not intimidated by them, he starts off his set by giving them a hard time for enjoying the Billy Joel-parodying comic who opened for him. It’s a brilliant move, as he has immediately brought the crowd in on the joke, incorporated everyone in the room into his act – even got them to laugh at themselves – and as a result they are with him the entire rest of the show.
Of course, the fact that Newman is genuinely funny doesn’t hurt, either. His stories are ones that could have happened to any of us and nothing rings of being ridiculous, fabricated, or implausible. If there’s anything here that didn’t actually happen to him in real life, he’s done a remarkable job of hiding the seams.
Newman finds the humor in the ordinary and mundane. True, he’s not the first comedian to excel in the details of life’s routine, but he does it very well and that’s what counts. If you can mine big laughs out of working eight hours a day at an online medical journal updating email lists, then you’re on to something.
“Horses” is a CD that demands immediate repeated listenings because you want to re-live the joy of Newman’s tales and you want to do it as soon as possible. Whether it’s his re-telling of #69 on VH1’s list of Most Metal Moments, finding himself on the wrong end of a burrito gun, or getting fired on Casual Friday, don’t be surprised if you find yourself telling your friends about him even before you’ve finished your first listen-to. I was barely halfway through when I was emailing and Google+-ing, hyping him to my friends. Newman’s careful attention to the smallest details of an Ernest film and a room full of second-graders trying to do “The Worm” are just a couple of bits that spurred on this word-of-mouth chain reaction.
At first, it may be hard for you to believe the warning that appears on the side of economy-sized pickle buckets actually exists, but I can vouch for Newman. I’ve seen the same warning on 5-gallon buckets of paint and knowing it’s not something that was just made up for the sake of a bit actually makes Newman’s observations even funnier.
A strange man’s late-night grocery store purchase. T-shirts at truck stops. Dikembe Mutombo. Dealing with a dog who’s had an afternoon snack three out of four veterinarians would definitely not recommend. For most people, these would just be blips on the radar of life that come and go without a second thought. Fortunately for us, Newman isn’t so willing to let them go without commenting.
And just like that, Newman has jumped into the game. He’s obviously worked hard to make his craft the best it could be and waited for his perfect spot to jump into the ropes. He paused for just the right moment, saw his opening, and went for it. And now here he is, doing comedy double dutch like a mad man.
Needless to say, his timing couldn’t have been better.
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Christopher Titus’s “Neverlution!”

I always get a bit nervous when someone I’m a fan of comes out with a new project. I’m excited they’re coming out with new material, I’m always anxious to hear it, yet I always feel a tug of trepidation, as I am haunted by a nagging fear of being let down by someone whose work I really enjoy. I don’t want it to happen, but experience has taught me that sooner or later it’s bound to happen. Steve Martin had his Mixed Nuts, Steven Spielberg had his 1941, and Martin Short had everything he’s done since leaving Saturday Night Live (except for Three Amigos).
So, it was with a bit of a “Come onnnnnnnnnnn, dude” attitude that I approached the latest album for review.
As it turns out, I totally over-thought it. I had nothing to worry about. Nothing at all.
Christopher Titus is back again and he’s calling everyone to arms as only he can. There are a lot of things in our society that are unraveling and, with a total running time of nearly two hours, Titus pretty much touches on every last one of them. He’s not looking for someone to merely sign an online petition or stand by, nodding in agreement as he passionately implores the audience to action; to, as the title of his new CD explains, a Neverlution. This is a man who is not only willing to shine the spotlight on what needs to be fixed but comes prepared with a backpack stuffed full of solutions. True, they may not be the solutions you had in mind (extremely late-term abortions up to the age of 22 for kids who aren’t contributing, anyone?) but he offers them freely – and passionately – nonetheless.
Because the album has such a long running time, peaks and valleys are inevitable; Neverlution isn’t unlike a Judd Apatow film in that respect. There are a few spots here and there that could be snipped or shortened, but Titus always has full control of the reins and always manages to get the show back on course. Unlike an Apatow film, however, the slower spots don’t take away from the overall enjoyment. They’re almost a necessity, as he couldn’t physically maintain a level 10 performance throughout the entire show; he’d drop dead from exhaustion.
There are a handful of awkward moments but not through any fault of Titus’s. Instead it’s nothing more than a simple matter of bad timing, all thanks to the capture and death of Osama Bin Laden (he ruins everything!). Neverlution was recorded before that event had come to fruition and unfortunately it automatically nullifies a lot of what Titus has to say and his Bin Laden material already feels dated.
Despite that small hiccup, there’s more than plenty of good stuff to go around. Comedy fans are definitely getting their money’s worth and even if one bit doesn’t hit hard, you can rest assured there’s something that’ll get you laughing coming up around the next corner. His set is brilliantly written and executed and you’ll find yourself nodding along in agreement with much of what Titus has to say. We need to get our country back on track before it slips out of our hands, and that means accepting we’ve let ourselves go, taking responsibility, and smacking a few misbehaving kids upside the head along the way (It’s OK. They deserve it).
Granted, he says it a little better than I do, but that’s why he’s doing what he’s doing (creating consistent comedy with a conscience) and I am where I am (encouraging you to check it out).
Are you ready to step up to the plate and make a change? If you are (and, actually, even if you aren’t), then it’s time to hop on board with Christopher Titus and his Neverlution.
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Joe List’s “So Far No Good”

The title of the new album from Joe List, So Far No Good , could not be more of a misnomer. Perhaps he just didn’t want to raise expectations too high, or maybe it would have been considered tacky to go with, “Are You Kidding Me, This CD Friggin’ Rocks.” No matter what the case, you can rest assured that with List, you’re in for a good time.
List has managed to transport the listener at home right into the comedy club, something very few comedians before him have been able to accomplish. One of the reasons behind that is the fact List is a real pro at interacting with the crowd. With everything that can – and often will – go wrong  while performing in front of a group of people where the alcohol is flowing, List never gets rattled for a moment. There’s no heckle too clever for him, no weird creepy laugh  or hacking cough that slips past him, and no group of unresponsive front-row audience members goes unnoticed.
There’s no doubt that List is in control of the room and his interactions with the audience never once detract from the business at hand. As much as I loathe hecklers and wish bad things upon them, with List on stage they never manage to slow down the pace. He’s able to incorporate them into the action with none of the awkward air that often hangs in the room when a comic is interrupted by someone who has suddenly decided they’re clever.
And sometimes it goes the other way and List’s material gets absolutely no response, something that I found quite surprising. I honestly wondered if the crowd joint-OD’d on sleeping pills because List’s bits are much, much better than the lackluster reaction it sometimes garners. That being said, List remains confident. He knows his material is solid and he’s working his ass off. When the reluctant-to-react crowd fails to reciprocate List doesn’t hesitate to let them know they’re out of line – and he does it with hilarious results.
Of course, to focus only on the improvised and his excellent crowd work wouldn’t be fair to List’s prepared material, which is second-to-none. He’s great at mis-direction and has come with an entire case of red herrings. His approach initially comes across as Woody Allen-esque self-deprication and insecurity and that’s the genius of his craft. Just when you’ve let down your defenses he goes in for the kill with a tag or punch  from the furthest reaches of left field.
I loved “Braces”, a track about List’s orthodontic experience as a kid and how their  unexpected side effects have followed him into adulthood. “Dirty Actions” recounts a hilarious tryst with a woman who was a little more adventurous in the bedroom than List was willing to be. “Cosmo” is next, where a magazine is called out for the horrible advice they give to women. “I didn’t read the article,” List notes, “‘cuz I was shitting blood from laughing too hard.”
The album wraps up with a great couple of bits, “Cops” and “Mugged.” The humor is heightened by the fact there is a cop sitting in the audience. You can feel the nervous tension in the room as the rest of the crowd hesitates to laugh but it isn’t long before List has them all letting go and a sea of laughter fills the room. “Mugged” is the true story of the time List was held up in New York City and it’s the perfect button to an already stellar set.
And that’s why I feel the album title is misleading.
So Far No Good ?” Whatever. So far…freakin’ awesome.
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