When I was growing up in Indiana and attending Youth Group on a regular basis like a good Christian boy, I knew even then that I was into comedians, stand up, and humor in general. I just didn’t realize I was a bit of a comedy snob. Occasionally there would be get-togethers at the church or at the house of one of the members of the congregation and a parent or youth leader would inevitably say, “Hey, let’s pop in a video tape, this guy’s really funny!”
And I knew what would happen next.
Everyone would gather around the TV and we would sit and watch as a comedian I never heard of – but was pre-approved by the grownups – would take the stage. The comic was usually in a massive venue and it wasn’t long before the crowd – both the live studio audience as well as those surrounding me in the living room – would erupt in wild laughter. I would watch as the other kids in the youth group would laugh and laugh and laugh and I often wondered to myself why I wasn’t laughing, too. The youth leaders and adults would be doubled over, tears of laughter streaming from their eyes as the family-friendly comedian with golden highlights in his hair and a shell necklace around his neck (to show us how hip he was), dressed in sensible sweaters or a silly tie (to show our parents how non-threatening he was) yukked it up.
I recall pretending to laugh when the others did but the ruse only lasted a short while. Even as a youngster I didn’t have the energy to fake having fun. I remember wishing I had my Bill Cosby cassettes or Steve Martin records on hand. I’d show those guys what funny really was. I knew the adults would probably frown upon the Eddie Murphy tapes I had stashed in my room, but I bet even they would crack up at the way Eddie called – screamed, even – for the ice cream man. But this… what we were watching… I couldn’t grasp why I was the only one in the room who didn’t get it. Or maybe it was the other way around.
Years later I feel like I’m finally able to put it into words. A comedian doesn’t have to swear or be racy or talk about off-color material in order for me to be entertained. My fondness for comics like Cosby, Brian Regan, Jim Gaffigan, and Jerry Seinfeld are perfect examples of guys who generally shy away from blue material and still garner huge laughs. What’s interesting, though, is I don’t label the aforementioned as “clean comics.” They’re just…comics.
But I’ve found those who promote themselves as “clean” usually have the same effect on me as those Christian comedians from years past and now I understand why. It’s not the “clean” aspect that turns me off. It’s when “clean” morphs into “safe” that I find the humor tends to get lost. I have nothing against comedians who work clean or even Christian comedians (although I can’t recall the last time I recommended one to a friend)…it’s that moment they veer into “safety” that loses me.
Which brings me (I know, finally) to Don Friesen and his album Ask Your Mom. Each time I listened to this project I was brought back to my junior high years, looking down on the people laughing around me. I didn’t see the Showtime broadcast of this project, but judging by the audio version, the crowd loves him. They eat up everything he says and the number of huge applause breaks he garners would make any comic envious (if not a bit confused).
Then it hit me: This project isn’t for me. In fact, considering how safe Friesen’s material is, I’m shocked it aired on the same channel as Dexter, Weeds, and Homeland. This isn’t a project for die-hard comedy fans as much as it is for grownups who like to laugh without having their convictions prodded.
Friesen paints himself as a lovable loser, an “aw, shucks” adorable doofus much like Regan or Christopher Titus. In this case, though, he lacks the teeth of Titus and Regan’s explosive inanity. There are moments when his material feels stale, especially when he tackles topics like the toys kids have today (“Now we have Nintendo,” he says. Really? Now we have Nintendo?) and cutting-edge technology like… Instant Messenger (“I’m starting to get instant messages. Have you guys tried that, IM?”) that again put me in mind of those Christian comics who were always five to ten years behind the mainstream. When Friesen pulled out his George W. Bush material, especially his line about how he can’t pronounce the word “nuclear,” it made me wonder if this wasn’t actually recorded 12 years ago.
But again, the crowd loved it. They loved it like they hadn’t heard that same joke countless times on Late Night TV. When Friesen did standard gags on owing creditors and how marriage emasculated him, they rang with unoriginality. And the audience howled. When he teased someone for being behind the times with the latest electronic gadgets, he whipped out the standard overused phrase, “What are you, Amish?”
And the crowd lost. Their. Shit.
And that’s when I threw in the towel. This album isn’t for me. You don’t have to be a genius to hear the roar of laughter on the CD and know there are people who click with this style of humor. I’m just not one of them and it turns out after all these years, I still don’t have the energy to fake having fun.