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.
***

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.
****

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.
***

Amy Schumer’s “Cutting”

Once upon a time a local theme park was having a music day where they brought in a bunch of bands to play in the park’s various amphitheaters throughout the day. I was asked to emcee one of the stages and in a flash of improvised Only Ed Thinks This Is Funny brilliance, I introduced one of the bands like this,
“All right you guys, I know you all know this next band…they are truly a band who needs no introduction.”
And then, heeding my own words, I turned and walked off the stage. As I headed into the wings, I was met with looks of confusion by the band and backstage crew, the crowd’s bewildered silence filling the house. For some reason they didn’t find it as hilarious as I did.
Judging by the similar way Amy Schumer’s new CD Cutting ends, I believe I may have found my kindred spirit. Except, I’m pleased to say, Schumer knows how to do the gag and make it funny. That’s why she’s the professional here and I’m not.
Cutting is a wonderfully solid project by a comedian who knows how to use the power of misdirection and a well-placed tag. She’s confident, brazen, and unapologetic and why should she be anything but? Schumer has a solid 45 minutes that seems to fly by. Nothing lags here. The cover of her CD perfectly reflects the comedy to be found inside: Bright, cheerful, and playfully innocent upon first glance but a closer examination reveals there may be something darker lurking behind it all. From the very first joke about her finally hooking up with her high school sweetheart – and revealing that it is a literal high schooler she’s talking about – we know Schumer is going to keep us on our toes and nothing will appear as it first seems.
This is a comedian who likes to have fun. Maybe sometimes too much fun as she explains why nothing good ever comes from blacking out (“I’ve never woken up and been like, “What is this Pilates mat doing out?!”). But don’t let that give you a bad impression of her. After all, she explains she’s only had sex with four different guys. And then goes on to add that was a wild night.
Schumer’s off-the-cuff interactions with the crowd are just as brilliant as the material she came prepared with. Whether she’s lamenting the random “We love you!” screamed by a female in the audience or entertaining the crowd with a hilarious back-and-forth with the ill-named Don Diego, she proves she’s able to stand her ground and nothing is going to throw her for a loop. Not Swedes who are “sort of” circumcised. Not the woman in the parking lot who tried to convert her away from Judaism. And definitely not her dirty, dirty college roommate Denise who signed an affidavit allowing Schumer to explain to the world she probably has AIDS.
All of this, of course, is done with a wink and a smile and Schumer keeps the crowd stitched up the entire time. My only beef with the project is not with Schumer, but with the weird gay ghost who magically appears in the audience about halfway through the project. There’s a guy in the crowd with a very distinct laugh – and that’s putting it lightly – who really starts to let go about halfway through the album and it started to get on my nerves. He sounds like a young Paul Lynde trying to scare a house full of unsuspecting teenagers.
But hey, that’s a testament to Schumer’s humor. Not only did she keep the crowd rolling, providing non-stop laughs from everyone, she also managed to be so funny that she summoned up The Gayest Ghost in the Netherworld.
And when your humor makes people on both sides of the grave laugh, you know you’re doing your job.
***

Dylan Brody’s “A Twist of the Wit”

There are few things in the world I like as much as curling up with a good book on a cold, cold day. Whether it’s an elaborate novel or the latest jumbo collection of Dell word puzzles and brain teasers, give me a blanket to wrestle with and some Ghirardelli white chocolate powder to add to my coffee and it doesn’t get much better.
That’s what it’s like listening to A Twist Of The Wit, the newest release from wordsmith Dylan Brody. He’s a captivating storyteller with an amazing grasp of language. He doesn’t just “say words” but instead uses them the way a composer uses notes, chords, and the perfect instrumentation to construct a symphony. Brody uses stories instead of movements; alliteration and wordplay are his time signature changes and chord modulations.
Brody is an intellectual, of that there’s no doubt, but he doesn’t talk down to the audience. Instead, he reaches out a hand to lift us up to where he is, to see the world from his point of view, and to take it all in.
I’ve gotta be honest. It’s nice up here.
In a world where it sometimes seems comedians aren’t allowed to be the smartest guy in the room (Dance for us, monkey boy!), it’s refreshing to spend time with someone who doesn’t dismiss a heckler simply by presenting him with a few options of what he can go busy himself with, but instead opts for “What part of ‘no extraneous conversation’ did you not understand, sir?”
Brody, the self-proclaimed Purveyor of Fine Words and Phrases, doesn’t get on stage and tell jokes. He gets on stage and tells stories. Sometimes it takes him a while to get to the story, offering a “deconstructionist introduction to a deconstructionist introduction” here, a tangent there, and soon enough he’ll get to where he was headed. But we don’t mind the delay because Brody is the epitome of the old adage that it’s not the destination, but the journey that makes it worthwhile. We’re not working for one big punchline at the end of each anecdote, but instead we’re picking up on all of life’s little nuances along the way.
There aren’t really any “jokes” to be found here, but that’s not to say Wit is devoid of humor. Quite the contrary. There’s a difference between jokes and humor and the latter is exactlywhat Brody offers, and he’s generous with it. Brody doesn’t “do bits” but instead “performs pieces.” Comedy is an art form and watching – or in this case listening to – Brody work is witnessing a true artist in peak form.
Whether he’s talking about his two dogs and the new owner of “the poopy lawn,” a romantic encounter at a supermarket, or a jewelry gift from Steve Allen, Brody has chosen each and every word carefully. Nothing is where it shouldn’t be and it’s a pristine display of poetic prose perfection.
“The Story of Jeff Spikkhersbrokken and the Man We Will Call Arthur Grey” is a 14-minute marvel. What starts off as a smile-inducing tale about his manager and the writing jobs he brings to the table takes a few twists and turns before morphing into a very sentimental tale about the people Brody has come to know in his life and how fortunate he is to have found them.
Brody has a knack for callbacks, ending his stories where they began. Perhaps it’s because of his love of palindromes. Perhaps it’s his adoration of structure. Going back to my musical analogy, he’s like a composer using recurring musical themes to bring us back to a previous  and familiar phrase, a repeat bar-line for storytelling before bringing us to the coda.
A Twist of the Wit, not unlike a great work of music, can indeed be enjoyed in smaller segments, taking in one track at a time. But when you step back and experience it as a whole, really taking it in, you see it for what it is: a masterpiece.
***

Steve Hofstetter’s “Pick Your Battles”

How good is Pick Your Battles, the new CD from Steve Hofstetter? I sat down with my iPod and listened to it. And then I listened to it again. And then I listened to it again. That’s right. Three straight listens in a row without stopping and with no regard for the time. It felt like 20 minutes had gone by, not 141. Pick Your Battles is phenomenal.
Hofstetter’s press release tells me this is his fifth album, which made me feel a bit guilty, as I’m brand new to his comedy. My first gut reaction is to compare him to Daniel Tosh, but that’s not 100% accurate. I find Tosh very funny, don’t get me wrong, but he really works on stage. He expends a lot of energy to get the laugh (which is fine, I have nothing against it) and you can tell he’s working hard. Hofstetter, on the other hand just…well…for lack of a better word, he flows. He’s smooth. He’s obviously put a lot of time and effort into honing his craft, but it doesn’t feel like a chore. The laughs come easy. They come effortlessly and they come often. When you listen to Tosh, the comedy comes at you. With Hofstetter, he takes you with the comedy.
Hofstetter isn’t out to make any enemies, and he tells the audience that. He’s not out to make us angry or demand we agree with him. His goal isn’t to offend, it’s to make us laugh. He’s just talking, carrying on a conversation, and if you get offended by anything you hear, it’s not on him, it’s on you. It’s a genius approach because not only is it true, but it gives him license to talk about whatever is on his mind.
Everything about Pick Your Battles is perfectly planned out, right down to the track listing, where each one is titled “The War On…(insert topic here).” Most comedy albums begin with an over-the-top emcee screaming in your ear, “LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, THE NAME OF THE COMIC!!!!!!!!” Battles forgoes that and Hofstetter gets right into it. It’s a bold choice to start right in with abortion. A lot of comics have to get the crowd warmed up to them and ramp their way to the edgier topics, but Hofstetter sneaks in the side door with a new approach. Instead of going with the confrontational – and easier –  “You abortion protesters are crazy” approach, Hofstetter instead has a great anecdote about being stuck in line at Home Depot in front of a couple of guys who are late for a rally.
As you may have gathered from my opening paragraph, Battles is an album you can easily listen to multiple times and laugh out loud just as hard the third time as you did the first time at Hofstetter’s observations. A few of my favorites that come to mind:

  • On why mobile homes are terrifying, even to a guy who grew up in Queens: “How scary is it when a bad neighborhood can move?
  • On being in Winnipeg, Canada in January: “That is religious weather. ‘Cuz you walk outside, you say, “Oh my God!”, and then you die and you meet Him. Unless you’re an atheist. Then, you’re just cold.”
  • The noise Hofstetter makes when he imitates the sound of a Wal-Mart greeter greeting someone (Mah!).
  • Everything he says about Twilight.

As I finished my third listen to the album, I knew this would be a hard summary to write, because there is just so much about it I want to cover. Outside of writing a transcript of everything he says, there’s no way I can come close to capturing the full scope of what I want to say. There’s the man with the sideways face. There’s the one about the guy who got hit by a car while texting. There’s the one about the crazy tattoo the girl from Los Angeles had (and the tattoo she didn’t but would have been even weirder if she did).
The album ends with Hofstetter opening up a Q & A session with the audience that begins innocently enough and rapidly morphs into an all-out assault by the Louisville crowd on our hero, making fun of his glasses and his haircut. As he humorously faces off against them (“I said ask a question, I didn’t say f***in’ take a shot at me!”), it quickly becomes one of my favorite comedy tracks of all time.
Listening to Battles did something that more comedy albums should do: It made me happy. It gave me hope for the future of stand-up comedy. It made me happy that there are comedians out there like Hofstetter knockin’ ’em dead. Sure, it made me a little sad that I wasn’t familiar with his work earlier, but then it made me happy that now I am, and I have a new favorite to follow. Pick Your Battles. Steve Hofstetter did, and he came out out on top.

***

Nick Griffin’s “Bring Out the Monkey”

Nick Griffinis a comedian with a fun approach. Like many other comics out there, he’s tired of life’s ridiculous quirks. But Nick Griffin actually sounds worn out by the small details that drive him crazy. It’s a fine line he’s walking, but he pulls it off successfully. His comedy doesn’t drag or lull. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. His album Bring Out the Monkeyclicks forward at a nice pace and the laughs come strong. Griffin’s style is such that it sounds like he’s been up all night at the world’s weirdest party and we’ve caught up with him at Westway Diner at six the next morning. True, he’s had a long night and he’s a little tired, but he has some really cool stories he wants to share before he hops on the train and heads home.
Naturally, Griffin starts off where any memorable all-nighter begins: Alcohol. He puts it best with this line:“When a woman says no, alcohol says, ‘Ya Sure?'”
When alcohol comes into the picture you never know what’s going to happen next and the same can be said of this album. Although Griffin covers a wide variety of topics, from why rich people really do have it better than poor people (There’s only one guy who rides the bus with a blue tooth, and he doesn’t mean the communication device) to the fact guys shouldn’t cry (“What’s wrong, does your vagina hurt?”) to explaining why sleep is nothing more than temporary suicide to punching a cop, his transitions are to be commended. They’re smooth and seamless and it’s hard to pinpoint where one bit ends and the next begins.
Looking through the track listing might make someone think there’s nothing new here that hasn’t already been covered (smoking, technology, celebrities, divorce) but to judge this album by the track titles would be committing a major injustice. Just like you wouldn’t write off a Coen brothers movie just because you’ve “seen a movie where there’s a gun in it,” you shouldn’t judge Griffin’s comedy until you’ve heard his fresh approach on these universal themes.
One of my favorite tracks is “Technology,” where Griffin runs through all of the different things that are out there to distract us. He then very smartly declares, “Your kids don’t have A.D.D. They’re just trying to pay attention!”
This leads into another great bit about “Energy Drinks.” The next few tracks that follow keep up the strong pace and Griffin doesn’t let up on the LPM (Laughs Per Minute). Griffin does what every good comedian strives to do: Tells us the truth – a truth that we need to hear but otherwise may be a painful truth to process – and makes us laugh while he tells it to us.
Another highlight comes near the end of the project with the title track. I won’t try to re-capture it here, as I freely admit I won’t be able to do it justice. You just have to hear for yourself how he is able to compare naked women with a guy who owns a monkey. And why he is 100% dead-on.
Bring Out the Monkey is a must-have for any comedy fan. Or for anyone who doesn’t consider themselves a Comedy Fan but wants a good laugh. Or for anyone in a bad mood who doesn’t think they want a good laugh. Or for…look, just pick this one up. You’ll thank me later. Or, more precisely, you’ll thank me 19 tracks later.
***

The Top 10 Comedy Albums of 2010

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One of my favorite parts of compiling my “Best Of” list was spending this last week re-listening to some of my favorite releases (according to my iTunes, I spent 21.4 hours listening to some of the best of the best). To say 2010 was an excellent year is putting it lightly. I had my choices narrowed down to 24 albums (you can see that list here) and narrowing that list down to 10 was not easy. As much as I listened and re-listened, I just couldn’t bring myself to not include a few names so I’m taking the easy way out and also including 5 Honorable Mentions.
If your only knowledge of stand-up comedy is Robin Williams and The Blue Collar Comedy Tour, you’re really missing out. Not that they aren’t funny (OK, the Blue Collar guys aren’t, but I’m still a fan of Robin…even though his absence from my list this year would seem to prove otherwise) but there’s definitely more out there than most people may be aware of. Hopefully this will help point you in the direction of some very deserving comics who are out there working the clubs, popping up on TV (both in front of and behind the camera) and bringing some serious funny. Follow the links, explore, and support them by buying an album or DVD (or both). You deserve it. And they do, too.

TOP 10 COMEDY ALBUMS OF 2010
10. Janeane Garofalo, If You WillI’ll be honest: I went into this one with lowered expectations. I assumed this was going to be one long, angry political rant and after listening to the first few minutes I felt bad for pigeonholing Garofalo. I found myself really enjoying If You Will as she takes on Homeland Security, babies, and even her own public persona. Garofalo comes across as more relatable than ever and I’m hoping she keeps at least one foot firmly planted in her stand-up roots for a while.

9. David Cross, Bigger And BlackererNo one can point out our weird idiosyncrasies like David Cross. And no one can analyze those idiosyncrasies and dissect them, revealing the additional layers of idiosyncrasies hidden inside like David Cross. His breakdown of an actual British postcard/advertisement reaching out to date rape victims is nothing short of observational humor brilliance magnified to such a degree, if you deprive yourself of hearing it, you may regret it…or worse.
8. Joe DeRosaThe Depression Auction
Joe DeRosa is sick of it, and none of us are safe. He is more than willing to point out things in life that are so ridiculous, they need to be publicly called out and ridiculed. We all have guilty pleasures and DeRosa is a master at making us feel guilty for taking pleasure in them while laughing at ourselves the entire time. DeRosa isn’t perfect, either, and he doesn’t hesitate to take himself to task. As I listened to the album, I could almost picture him in front of a mirror yelling at himself, pointing a finger and wagging it in his reflection’s face. We’ve all shouted at ourselves for doing something we knew we shouldn’t have, but I’m willing to bet we’ve never been as funny as DeRosa while doing it.

7. Kevin HartSeriously Funny
Kevin Hart reminds me of Chris Tucker if Chris Tucker was funny and/or entertaining. His rapid-fire delivery and carefully chosen an-un-ci-a-tion of words add to each punch. He doesn’t approach various topics as much as they approach him, and his reaction – sometimes he’s confused, sometimes he’s angry, sometimes he doesn’t know how to react – resonates with the inner child in all of us. If you it’s been a while since your stomach hurt from laughing too hard, his story of the time he was in grade school and swore at a teacher will remedy that. This album couldn’t be more aptly-titled. This guy is seriously, seriously funny.

6. Lachlan PattersonJokes To Make Love To
If Christopher Walken ever decided to go into stand-up comedy and was amazing at it, people would accuse him of stealing from Lachlan Patterson. Patterson’s pacing and timing are certainly reminiscent of the famed actor, but there’s so much more going on here. His bold confidence in front of a crowd not only allows him to liken old ladies’ makeup application skills to getting into a paintball fight, but it then gives him the OK to ask why he’s not receiving a standing ovation for saying it. Patterson doesn’t apologize for anything, and he doesn’t have to. The “plate of food” button on a microwave does negate the other buttons. We should encourage Olympic swimmers to smoke pot. And saying you rescued a cat really isn’t the right way to put it. No doubt about it: Standing O.

5. Steve ByrneThe Byrne Identity
Whenever you make a Top 10 list, it’s bound to spark some conversation and controversy. “Hey, you didn’t include _____.” Well, buckle up kids because I’m about to take it a step further by stating The Byrne Identity contains the single best track of any comedy album this year. I’m talking about Track 5, “Stereotypes to Music.” Simply put, Byrne names a style of music and then begins to tell you the type of person who listens to that music. I freely admit my summation doesn’t begin to do it justice but that’s why I’m where I am and Byrne is where he is. Because his stereotypes are dead-on, you’ll find yourself laughing those big, full-on, I-can’t-believe-he-just-said-that-but-holy-crap-he’s-right laughs. That’s not to say the rest of the album isn’t as skillfully written and flat-out funny; it is. Byrne tackles the struggle of his identity: Who exactly is he? His Korean/Irish ancestry makes it difficult for him to know exactly where he fits in. Or should fit in. Or even want to fit in. Until he comes to a decision, he’ll just have to accept that he’s going to be identified as one of this year’s best.

4. Brian ReganAll By Myself
I started seeing people post Best-of-2010 lists on a variety of subjects as early as November. I chose to wait a bit, just in case something came out in December that deserved to be on the list. It’s albums like All By Myself that made me glad I waited. This one just came out and once again Regan knocks it out of the park. No one is funnier when they’re flummoxed and this time around Regan is undone by hearing tests, watching horse racing, and wrestling with his kids. There’s a reason Regan has made a name for himself and has become so popular: He’s one of the most consistently funny comedians working now, and this album does not disappoint.

3. Bill BurrLet It Go
Speaking of consistent, Bill Burr has fast become one of my favorite comedians. He’s flustered, he’s frustrated, and he’s not holding back. Burr tackles topics we’ve all thought about but never had the guts to say out loud. How many times have you heard stay-at-home moms commended for having “the most difficult job on the planet?” Well, Burr has an issue with that and makes a strong case for the other side. Sure, obesity is a problem in this country, but no one tackles the “horde of fat people wandering out of The Cheesecake Factory” with such side-splitting results. And I think it’s fair to say we’re all sick of the SPCA commercials set to that weepy Sarah McLaughlin song, but no one has been able to crystallize my hatred for this ad campaign quite like Burr. Let It Go is another solid project from a strong comic and never before has someone’s unbridled anger brought me so much joy and laughter.

2. Aziz AnsariIntimate Moments For A Sensual EveningBefore Intimate Moments, I was only familiar with Aziz Ansari’s stand-up work from his appearance on such projects like the Invite Them Up compilation. He only had one track on that album and as good as it was, it did not prepare me for how amazing his solo CD was going to be. Every track on this album is top-notch laugh-out-loud comedy. Ansari’s slight Carolina drawl mixed with his hip-hop sensibilities makes for a unique voice that left me in tears as he talks about his battle with his little cousin on Facebook. As he relays an evening out (and in) with Kanye West, you realize the story is just outrageous enough to be believable. The album comes to a hilarious climax as he re-caps an entire R. Kelly concert in under six minutes. If Parks and Recreation is your only knowledge of Ansari and his work, I cannot express to you how much you are missing out. Trust me.
1. Hannibal BuressMy Name is Hannibal
When I first heard this album back in August, I turned to my wife and said, “I just listened to the funniest album of the year.” Four months later I still stand by that statement. Hannibal Buress’s cool, laid-back Is-he-high?-No-He’s-Just-Cooler-Than-You approach left me laughing from start to finish. There’s not a weak link on this album. Whether he is arguing with computer girls in video games, adding an apostrophe to his first name to make it better, or explaining how one would judge a pigeon-kicking contest, each track is funnier than the previous one, leading to a hilarious finale with one of the best callback references in recent comedy history. The hardest thing about making this year’s Top 10 list was deciding which albums would make the cut. The easiest thing about making this year’s Top 10 list was placing My Name Is Hannibal at #1. If someone asks me what’s new in comedy, what’s good in comedy, who should they be listening to, I can answer their query with one name: His name is Hannibal.

HONORABLE MENTION
There wasn’t room for these on the list, but I still felt it was important to give them a mention.

  • Lewis BlackStark Raving Black Lewis Black is back and he’s just as angry as ever. If you’re already a fan, then you won’t be disappointed.
  • Robert BuscemiPalpable If you like your comedy a little more than off-center, then Buscemi’s breakthrough Palpable will not disappoint.
  • Keith AlberstadtIt’s Pronounced ‘Jenkins’ Alberstadt’s refreshing outlook on life will leave you seeing things from a new – and funnier – perspective.
  • Anthony Jeselnik, Shakespeare At one point in the CD Jeselnik mentions he spent time in New Orleans. Someone in the audience whoops and Jeselnik immediately tells him to shut up. And it’s hilarious.
  • Brian Scolaro, DisasterPay no attention to the title of this album. It’s misleading. Lindsay Lohan is a disaster. Kate Gosselin is a disaster. This project from Scolaro is a rousing comedic success.

Which brings us to the part of the blog where you leave your thoughts. Agree? Disagree? Who did you like in 2010? As always, your feedback is welcome. Thanks for reading!