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Whenever you watch a TV show or movie where the good guys are chasing a serial killer, there’s always a scene where the lead detective is trying to piece together clues, staring at an over-sized bulletin board plastered full of newspaper clippings, photographs, index cards, and other assorted bits of information. I imagine that wall is what it looks like inside of Mo Mandel’s head. There’s an overwhelming number of topics he wants to touch on during his stand up set, and on his album The M Word , he manages to do just that. Without it ever coming across as information overload, Mandel smoothly moves from one topic to the next. He’s a moving target, never staying in one place long enough to give you time to feel disenchanted.

If you prefer your comedians to play offense rather than defense, then Mandel is the comic for you. He comes at the crowd, delivering his material with energetic confidence. As he projects, his gruff voice is reminiscent of a Dana Gould character. Rest assured, Mandel is no fictionalization. He’s straight forward and up-front, describing himself as “kind of in between a Jew and a guy who drives by in a truck and yells “Jew.”” His heritage is the source for a lot of his material, but Gentiles can rest assured he does not alienate. There’s no Jackie Mason-esque kvetching here. Mandel is humorous and relatable and never exclusive.

There’s not a hot-button issue Mandel is afraid to touch and he is unapologetic of his outlook, whether it’s on the race issue (“Jews were slaves 2,000 years before blacks were slaves. I mean I get it, you guys are late to things…”), relationships (“I’m a little tired…I just started dating this girl…and I am worn out…from acting fake”), and immigration (“I feel like Mexican people have a right to come to this country…I just do not think they should be allowed to bring their music with them”).

As much as I enjoyed some of the bits here (my favorites included tales about meth labs in his hometown and his childhood struggle with bed-wetting), there were others I didn’t connect with as strongly. When you’re covering the amount of territory Mandel does, that’s probably to be expected. Because he moves quickly from one topic to the next, the lulls aren’t lulls for very long before things are up and moving once again.

Mandel enjoys pushing the envelope and he does it in a way where you don’t feel like you’re being pushed. He’s edgy and sometimes confrontational without coming across as too in-your-face or offensively mean-spirited. He’s honest and open, and that gives him license to speak freely.

Although I didn’t find this project to be wall-to-wall belly laughs, I did enjoy my time spent with Mandel and there are some genuinely funny moments waiting to be discovered. The M Word  is a nice representation of Mandel and, when all is said and done, is still pretty “mm mm good.”

***

The M Word is available from Comedy Central Records

In the movie Up, an elderly man takes flight in his house by simply attaching a bunch of helium balloons to it. A pretty big premise to swallow, even for an animated film, and when I first started seeing previews for it a few years ago I predicted the guys at Pixar had finally ended their impressive streak of amazing films. I was wrong. Not only was Up a project I absolutely fell in love with, but I had no idea Cars 2 would be the one to fulfill that whole legacy-ending prophecy in 2011.

In someone else’s hands, Up might not have taken flight. Forget the whole flying-house-with-balloons thing. You’ve also got the weight of a beloved character dying in the first five minutes to add a few extra pounds of depression that hang over our main character throughout the rest of the film. There’s something special behind the walls of Pixar, though, and they were still able to lift the story and set our spirits soaring.

Rob Fee’s Grape Stomp is like the Stand Up Comedy version of Up except here we get to see how it would turn out if it weren’t in Pixar’s capable hands. To put it simply: It never gets off the ground.

In my humble opinion there are three major obstacles here (one of them with three sub-points), three really super-heavy obstacles, that no amount of helium balloons would ever be able to budge. The first?

  1. Fee’s Voice.
    It’s low, gravelly, and void of all emotion, which is odd since he spends a good amount of time yelling. His voice is like the house in Up: It’s the main centerpiece, always constant, always present, and it’s big, heavy, and lumbering. It sounds like Vin Diesel if he screamed at the top of his lungs for hours on end, shredding his poor vocal cords. The timbre hampers Fee’s delivery, granting little to no levity in his words. No matter how animated he gets, the tone of his speaking voice is like a wet blanket that adds an unintended — yet weighty — somber vibe to everything.
    If Fee’s voice is the house in this cinematic allegory, then
  2. The Writing
    could be likened to the balloons, desperately trying to lift the heaviness of the project. In the movie it required an unreal amount of balloons. Fee’s jokes don’t provide nearly the amount of lift needed to get things moving. Despite a handful of promising premises, Fee is unable to flesh them out into anything that really takes hold. He doesn’t seem to construct punchlines as much as he says words with the inflection as if he was saying a punchline. At other times, he is stretching his idea so much, trying to force it to fit the joke he has in mind, that he strips all the funny out of it. He goes through a recap of the movie The Human Centipede just so he can muse about his desire to recast the film just so he can put composer Randy Newman into the film as part of the human centipede just so he can tell us how funny it would be if he had him sing “You’ve Got A Friend In Me.” That’s a long way to go and a whole lot of set-up to sit through to get to…well…not something very funny.
    The final thing weighing down the project and the one that I just couldn’t get past was
  3. The Laugh Track
    Yep. That’s right. A laugh track. An obvious, obvious laugh track. OK, I admit it, I have no written proof or first-hand evidence that canned laughter was used but to my ears it sticks out so obviously and is so poorly edited and executed, the recording itself is all the evidence I need.

    1. For starters, they (whoever “they” is. Fee? The producer? A friend with a sound FX CD?) only seemed to use three different canned laughter clips (one is actually canned clapping) with which to “sweeten” the entire album and they’re such distinct snippets I was actually kind of insulted that they thought people wouldn’t recognize the same crowd of females laughing looped over and over and over again.
    2. This one is sort of important, so listen up Future Sound Engineers of America: You can’t have the laughter start before we reach the vicinity of the end of a joke. Instead, the laugh track is pretty much running constantly throughout the album. Constantly. Through the punch, through the pauses, and through the setup of the next joke. And lemme tell ya, nothing sounds more blatantly fake than a theater full of people laughing hysterically at phrases like, “The other day I had to run some errands…”
    3. Finally, if you are going to use canned laughter and you want it to stop, may I suggest either fading it out or waiting until the laughter ends to hit PAUSE. If you want to make it sound like you’re adding laughter to a room full of people who aren’t laughing, then by all means have them all stop at the exact same time, in the middle of a big laugh.
      To give you a taste of how annoying that can be, instead of wrapping up this review with a cl

***

Grape Stomp is available on iTunes.

Ryan Stout is one of those comedians that dabbles in a variety of approaches to the art (one-liners, shock comedy, amped-up bravado) and his new album Touché is proof positive that he excels in each one. His on-stage persona is one of confident elevation. He has an air about him that is reminiscent of Michael Ian Black wherein both comics seem to be coming from a station of higher status than the audience, gracing us with their presence. This works for both comics but in my opinion Stout does it better. Where Black seems to be rooted in arrogance first with humor added as a secondary ingredient, Stout comes at us working with jokes as his primary foundation.

Stout refers to the audience as “Crowd.” Not the crowd, but simply Crowd, and it’s a great ploy. Incorporating them into his act, even going so far as to making them a character in the proceedings, draws everyone in almost to the point where we feel like a part of the action, at times even working as Stout’s partner. Not only does it give him someone to work with — and off of — but it also conveniently gives him someone to blame when things go awry. It’s not just effective…it’s also really, really funny.

Stout loves to jolt the audience into laughter by saying things that are clearly politically incorrect but he knows he can come out looking like the good guy if he chastises us for laughing at the horrible things he says. Often times he’ll scold us with a “Crowd! Crowd!” as if he’s trying to settle an unruly mob of children and you can almost see him shaking his head like a disappointed parent. His reprimanding “Crowd!” brings more laughter each time.

His one-liners are clever and Stout has a great ability to deliver them resulting in major hang-time laughter. He’ll say the joke…wait for it…and then you feel the audience (Crowd) finally figure it out. There’s even a bit of residual hang-time laughter as a smaller wave follows closely behind the original as Crowd seems to be chuckling at themselves because of how long it took them to get to the funny. The hang-time laughter really is a cool thing to witness and Stout is able to replicate the phenomenon time and time again. Seeing his ability to pull off the stunt repeatedly and the way he makes it look so effortless is a real testament to his skill.

It’s not just his one-liners that left me impressed — and laughing. Stout’s longer bits are smart, original, and very cleverly-constructed. If there’s any doubt about his talent as a laughter-craftsman, he will be the first in line to verify the claim. After a certain bit has (seemingly) come to an end, Stout brags, “That’s probably the cleanest anal sex joke you’ll hear in your lives.” He continues, “That was a joke about language and urban planning.” And you know what? He’s absolutely correct on both counts. And the fact that he draws attention to it actually makes it funnier than it already was (and trust me, it was already pretty funny).

Not only is he a talented comedian, Stout is also an upstanding citizen, as is displayed when he champions often-overlooked Special Olympics athletes, promotes an original diet and exercise regimen, and displays how attuned he is to the race issue (he reveals another word he refuses to say). Sure, each of the aforementioned topics might take a rabbit punch to the back of the head along the way, but rest assured Stout will be there with a “Crowd, please! Crooooowd!” to get us back in line.

This project is one that is definitely worth checking out, even if it means we are to blame for finding things funny that we probably shouldn’t. That in itself is another credit to his genius. He says things that are just plain wrong and we’re the ones at fault for laughing. Well played, Stout.

Touché indeed.

***

Touché is available from Comedy Central Records

The late Patrice O’Neal was a comedic powerhouse, a laugh-inducing force to be reckoned with, and Mr. P is over an hour’s worth of material that proves it. This album displays just how innately hilarious O’Neal was, as some of the funniest moments come from his off-the-cuff interactions with the crowd. While some comics toil for hours to construct the perfect way to word a joke for maximum impact, O’Neal just is funny. His humor doesn’t spring from the process of writing as much as it simply emanates from him naturally.

This is a man who genuinely enjoys people and interacting with them. He has learned that fewer things in life provide genuine fodder for humor than people and it doesn’t take him long to find the funny in each of the people he interacts with. His love for humanity is evident in the fact that he doesn’t start with an Opening Joke but instead kicks everything off by conversing with those in the crowd.

Sometimes his conversations are just that: purely conversational. He asks their ages and if they’ve ever dated anyone outside of their race. And sometimes his queries are downright intrusive, delving into sexual encounters and histories. Regardless of how much he does (or doesn’t) pry into the personal lives of those he interacts with, one thing remains constant: O’Neal is drawn straight to the funny.

His approach to people — and comedy — could be described as reactionary. When he encounters something that he wasn’t expecting or didn’t see coming, he immediately bypasses any filters society may have tried to instill in him and just says the first thing that comes to mind. And every time it’s the funniest thing you never expected him to say.

O’Neal’s humor is grounded in honesty and a lot of the laughs come because what he is saying is the truth…even if it shouldn’t be said out loud. The old adage “it’s funny because it’s true” couldn’t be more appropriate than it is here, as is the phrase “the truth hurts.” Bring the two of them together and what you’ll get are a lot of statements that probably should offend a lot of people. That’s not what happens, though. There’s no time to be offended if you’re too busy laughing.

Some of his bits that garner the biggest reactions include the difference between dating white and black women, comparing the fairer sex to an ungrateful dog who can’t jump, and his rationale for being involved with more than one girl at a time. All of them are topics that, on paper, should send the females in the audience into an angry frenzy but if you listen closely, you’ll hear they’re the ones laughing loudest.

One reason it’s so easy to see the humor in what’s being said from stage is that the audience knows O’Neal is just being silly. On more than a few occasions it’s as if O’Neal surprises even himself with the inane statements he makes and he has to stop and give in to laughing at the very ridiculousness of his own declarations. Hearing O’Neal get caught up in the moment like that was an unexpected highlight of the album for me.

My favorite track is simply called “Tolu” and it’s a moment founded in true spontaneity. O’Neal asks a man in the audience for his name and it’s obvious that “Tolu” is not the response he expected to hear. This sets off one of the finest — and most hilarious — moments of crowd work ever recorded and it had me in tears each time I listened.

The CD ends with O’Neal getting down and dirty. Literally. I probably couldn’t even begin to describe the subject of the final couple of tracks without having to douse my keyboard with Purell but I’m also not so much of a prude to say that despite its raunchy content, it was pretty friggin’ funny.

Despite the fact that O’Neal has been a consistently hilarious pillar in the world of comedy for a number of years, his time spent making us laugh still seems incredibly short. This album is a perfect send-off and captures exactly why he was loved and respected by so many in his own field. Regardless of what it was he had us laughing at, the bottom line is, he always had us laughing. Thanks to the release of this album, O’Neal is able to take us out for another go-around. Although the sadness of O’Neal’s passing can’t help but loom over this project, in the end we find that laughter does indeed trump all.

***

Mr. P is available from BSeen Media