Archive for September, 2011

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.

***

The Prophet is available on Comedy Central Records

If Bobby Slayton is “The Pitbull of Comedy” then I think it’s fair to call Hal Sparks “The Pomeranian of Punchlines.” I admit that may not sound like the most flattering of comparisons, but it’s not meant to be a criticism or putdown. Where Slayton is rough, gruff, and comes right at you, on his new album Escape From Halcatraz Sparks is full of happy energy with a manic desire to please. He desperately wants to entertain and he pours everything he has into telling a story, his excitedness turning into yippy fits that wreak havoc on his throat (I can imagine vocal coaches everywhere cringing as they listen to Sparks destroy his voice with his uncontrolled-yet-strained shrieks, wails, and attempts at an operatic falsetto).

The album begins with a grinding guitar riff that gets the audience riled up and ready for a comedy rock and roll show. Sparks is out to capture the essence of an anything-can-happen Dane Cook-esque extravaganza and he goes all in; his physicality and penchant for voices and imitating sound effects such as explosions and rapid-fire paintball guns only add to the high octane level of the performance.

It doesn’t take much to get Sparks going. Something as minute as baseball players’ uniforms, plastic bags in the road, or the names of TV reality programs can set him off like one of those fireworks you nail to a board and watch spin crazily out of control, bright sparks shooting out in all directions. Digressing back to the Pomeranian analogy, when Sparks digs his teeth into something, he doesn’t let go. He holds on with all of his might and shakes the hell out of it, growling the whole time with the fervor of a canine guarding his favorite chew toy.

On ESPN broadcasting poker tournaments: Rrrrawwwarrrrrrr!!

People who yell “Get a job!” at bums: GrrrrrrrrrrrrrARRRggghhh!

Tiny little bugs that fly around for no reason: Arrgggh!!! Rarrrrgh argggghhhH!!!

Of course, most of the fun comes from watching Sparks whip himself into a frenzy. At times he seems to lose track of where he is as his ravings appear to spiral out of his control (we get it, you love doing an impression of a dinosaur), but that’s just part of what is actually cleverly-organized pre-programmed chaos and Sparks is always able to tie everything together and get back around to his original story.

That’s not to imply that Sparks isn’t able to  focus on the task at hand. In fact, my favorite moments of the album come when he digs in and goes into his lengthier pieces. His bit on his Kentucky accent (or lack thereof) and the South in general and all it encompasses is very funny. Sparks is able to breathe new life into such topics as NASCAR, tornado alley, and tackling an automated phone service such as 411 armed only with a backwoods drawl.

I think it’s safe to say everyone knows there are trends in pretty much all branches of entertainment. One successful volcano movie sparks another and for each popular throwback to a bygone era like Mad Men comes The Playboy Club and PanAm. Stand-up comedy is not immune to trending and two little words  — airline food — are a perfect example. Right now, for whatever reason and of all things, the opening movement to composer Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana” (I. O Fortuna”) seems to be popping up all over the place. Sparks’s take on it, however, sets itself apart from the others I’ve heard recently and, as funny as it is as part of his opener, when it pops up again later in the CD the callback is a well-executed hit.

The last track, about Sparks’s adventure on a paintball course and how it transformed him into someone mad with power (“I hate guns, I’ve always hated guns, but after playing paintball for 10 minutes I was like, “I don’t even need my dick anymore!!”). Sparks excels at recreating the tensions of war as he walks us through his vengeful capture the flag mission. As the final minutes of the game tick away, the suspense mounts and we cling to his every word. By dialing back a bit, the crowd naturally leans forward to take in each detail. We’re there with him and before long we want Sparks to emerge victorious just as much as he does.

Before listening to this project, I was familiar with Sparks’s work as an actor and performer through various TV appearances but not as a stand-up comedian. After listening, I think it’s a fair statement to say stand-up comedy is where I feel he belongs. It lets him be just who he needs to be and doesn’t confine him; Sparks thrives the most when he is left to his own devices. Sure, Pitbulls are fun because they’re dangerous; you never know when they’re going to suddenly snap and bite your face off.

But there’s also something to be said for a Pomeranian. They’re spontaneous and cute and they let you hold them in your arms.

And that’s when they snap and bite your face off.

Cue: “I. O Fortuna.”

FADE TO BLACK.

**

Escape From Halcatraz is available from Rooftop Comedy Productions

If you aren’t familiar with comedian Tommy Ryman, then by all means it’s time to hop in the tub.

Bath Time with Tommy Ryman is a fun project from a comedian whose zealous energy and eager optimism make for solid laughs. Ryman looks — and sounds — much younger than his age (he tells us he’s 26) and he approaches comedy knowing full well he’s a book who’s going to be judged based on the cover. Ryman knows he doesn’t look his age and the choices he makes on approaching the topic are all smart ones. He could have played against type a la Roger Rabbit‘s adorable-yet-gruff cigar-smoking Baby Herman but that probably would have been a little predictable. Instead, Ryman plays right along with our first impression of him as he confesses he still goes to the park dressed in a Little League baseball outfit and asks people if they’ve seen his dad (“Have you seen him? He said 4:00.”).

Ryman’s friendly outlook and positive demeanor almost immediately endears him to the crowd. His tone is wide-eyed and hopeful and he relates stories with the enthusiasm of a young child telling you all about his vacation to New York City. At times his delivery is reminiscent of a young David Spade if David Spade wasn’t bitter, snarky, and fed up with everyone. Instead, Ryman holds out his hand to the listener with a big smile as if to playfully say, “Come on, you guys, I wanna show you somethin’!”

Of course, we follow Ryman as he goes bounding through the forest, pointing out all sorts of cool things he’s discovered along his journey thus far. And yes, the things he has to show us are well worth the occasional vine or tree branch that may snag your foot and momentarily trip you up along the way.

His parents’ divorce, being dumped by his girlfriend at the zoo, and being attacked by pirates; heavy topics that might otherwise bring the mood down and send the comic into a spiral of self-pity and depression. Not Ryman. It’ll take more than this to get him down, mostly because the events — as overwhelming as they can be — are also accompanied by a silver lining. There’s still plenty of cereal, the pirates have on life jackets, and at least the monkeys look like they’re having fun.

There are a couple of spots on the album that are still a little rough around the edges. Ryman has a few bits that are close to being there, he’s just about got it, but he’s not quite there just yet. For example, the story about his mother coming out of the closet is great and Ryman gets big laughs with it, but the final moments of the bit drop off and fizzle out. Things get quiet for a couple of moments but Ryman does what any good comedian does, and he carries on. Although he slips up and loses his footing for a few seconds, it doesn’t faze him in the least and he’s recovered and back on track in no time.

One thing I really liked about this album is how light it is. There are some comedians whose work I enjoy but afterward, I feel like I need to take a nap. Ryman doesn’t mess with politics, religion, and other subjects you shy away from when the in-laws are around. He keeps it simple and breezy, and I appreciate that. This may not sound like a compliment but when I say I like that I can listen to Ryman without having to think, I mean it in the best possible way. It’s not a bad thing at all and I get into and appreciate the lighter comics just as much as the intellectual heady guy next door. I enjoy PBS’s Masterpiece Mystery series, but sometimes I prefer Community. I’ve gotten a few good nuggets out of C.S. Lewis’s writings but it’s usually with more than a bit of effort and when I just want to relax and unwind, I have nothing against re-reading my favorite Stephen King novel.

Likewise, I love – love – listening to comedians who make me think. Guys like Lewis Black, Dennis Miller, and Marc Maron bring up some valid points about important issues but sometimes…sometimes you just wanna light a few candles,  turn off the phone, and get away.

And what better way to spend that down time than by having a little Bath Time with Tommy Ryman.

***

Bath Time with Tommy Ryman is available on Stand Up! Records

With his latest release, Finest Hour, Patton Oswalt has pretty much pigeonholed himself (I promise that’s not nearly as dirty as it sounds). But I suppose if someone consistently releases one amazing album after another, that’s bound to happen.

And I’m not complaining.

There are comedians whose work I enjoy and, with each new project they put out there, I find myself hoping it’s as good as I believe it will be. With Oswalt, he has changed “I hope” to “I know it will be.” Even before I listened to the first track, I knew I was going to spend the next 60+ minutes laughing uncontrollably and Oswalt didn’t prove me wrong. Stand-up comedy is indeed a true art form and that’s made all the more apparent when a true artiste (he deserves the fancy extra “e” spelling and pronunciation) takes the stage.

As Oswalt is introduced he is greeted with a thunderous applause that seems to take him aback. He humbly responds with, “Nothing I’m going to say will live up to that,” but nothing could be further from the truth. Oswalt is such a master craftsman of comedy that pretty much everything he says is deserving of illiciting such a response from the audience.

Albums like this are especially difficult to review, but in a good way. Every one of the 23 tracks found here are so good, it’s hard to single any of them out. But, in order to keep this review to a reasonable length, I’ll try. There are so many laugh-out-loud moments here, many of them coming out of nowhere and catching you off-guard, that it’s almost not fair to other comics.

I love Oswalt’s comedy because his humor is one that lingers. I found myself laughing once when I would hear Oswalt mutter phrases like “I want all the ham” and then a second, third, fourth, and even fifth time as I replayed it over and over in my head. This is definitely an album that requires repeated listenings so you can go back and hear what you missed while you were laughing your head off (At the very least, it will require constant pause/rewind combinations).

Oswalt is a comedian whose comedy thrives in the mundane. It doesn’t take much to get the funny rolling and in fact some of the best moments are ones we’ve all encountered: sweat pants in public, vowing to get in shape (this time for real!), and the things we say out loud when we’re alone in our cars. Oswalt’s re-creation of nonsense that spews from his mouth while he’s driving alone will reduce you to tears, more than partly because we’ve all been guilty of making the same random sound effects and we’ve all penned more than a few songs that are nothing short of utter ridiculousness.

Of course, Oswalt also has a knack for finding himself in situations that could/would only happen to him. Perhaps it’s the comedy gods’ way of keeping him steeped in fodder for more side-splitting bits. After all, who else but Oswalt would encounter the man whose super power is the Zorro-like ability to use a vomit bag? Who else wants to be the first-and-only non-ironic visitor to the Spam Museum and only Oswalt would find himself darting through a grocery store in order to stifle his laughter after witnessing a man whose meat order consists only of five words; Five words that, when spoken in Oswalt’s obese-guy voice, are the five funniest words you may have ever heard strung together.

Whether he is marveling at the mysterious power of cursive writing (and how it makes your signature say EwwwwwOOOOOOOoooooo!), explaining how dreams work (and the effect of Ambien on that process), or recounting the time his brother turned Jerry Maguire into the funniest movie ever made, Oswalt relays each story with masterful precision. He’s perfected every nuance of each of his stories: the wording, his inflection, his timing, the order in which he divulges information pertinent to the story, and it’s all done with the most comedic impact possible.

No one hits like Oswalt. He’s like an MMA fighter out for the ultimate revenge and he doesn’t pull a single punch. He hits us with one comedy wallop after another and he does so without any sign of fatigue (despite his story about becoming winded from impromptu dance parties with his daughter).

Just when we think we’ve made it out unscathed, when we’ve had a chance to catch our breath and regain our footing, comes the encore and whatever Oswalt may have had left over in his arsenal in unleashed at point-blank range. If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to be shot in the face with a missile launcher packed full of killer comedy, this is it.

Oswalt re-visits his famous KFC “failure pile in a sadness bowl” bit and relays to us the aftermath of having it blow up and take on a life of its own. It’s the perfect cap to an already-flawless performance and Oswalt deserves the encore of applause and cheers that began the project over an hour ago.

Despite the fact all of Oswalt’s previous CDs have been nothing short of amazing (His album My Weakness Is Strong deservedly landed itself on my Top 10 List of 2009), the title of this newest outing could not be any more appropriate. Each Oswalt CD has been the epitome of what stand-up comedy can — and should — be but this time around is it.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is indeed Patton Oswalt’s Finest Hour.

*

Finest Hour is available on Comedy Central Records

I feel bad for Deacon Gray. He’s a comedian who also happens to be a Christian. Some people refer to him as a “Christian comedian” which I guess is technically correct, but it’s also a bit misleading. For some reason we feel compelled to put comics who also profess to be Christians in that “Christian Comedian” box, yet you never really hear other comics referred to as Bob “The Agnostic Comic” or Frank “The Greek Orthodox Funny Guy.” One of the reasons I’m wary of such labels is because there is a difference between a comedian who is a Christian and “Christian comedy.”

A huge difference.

As someone who grew up as both a Christian and a comedy nut, it didn’t take me long to differentiate between the two. Comedians who are also Christians are just like any other comics: Some are funny, some not so much. Regardless of someone’s religious affiliation (or lack thereof), if a comic is funny, they’re funny. If they’re not so funny, then they’re not so funny. It’s not about their preferred religious label. When it comes down to it, did they make me laugh?

“Christian comedy” is something entirely different. If there’s one thing growing up in the church taught me about comedy, it’s that you don’t really have to be that funny as long you speak loudly, you’ve got a Southern accent, and you have frosted tips (this rule applies to both sexes). For guys, it’s a bonus if you have a goatee and wear a shell necklace. How ironic that Christian comedy is more about the image than the content.

Which all brings me back to my original point (did you think I’d ever make it back?). I feel bad for Deacon Gray because I think it’s pretty accurate when I say that when someone hears “Christian” in the comedy world, they automatically think “Christian comedy.” On his new album Revival (of the Fittest) , Deacon Gray proves why making such an assumption makes an ass out of you and Balaam.

It’s obvious Gray has spent his fair amount of time in the church and his familiarity has given him a fresh outlook for his arsenal of wry observations. His comedy doesn’t come at the church institution but rather emerges from the inside out. The interstitial sketches between his live comedy take the aspects of organized religion that so need to be addressed — mega churches with directories more complicated than the Mall of America, homophobia, Christian radio, and yes, Christian comedy — and gives them exactly what they have coming.

It should be noted, though, that Gray’s comedy is neither mean-spirited nor hateful. He’s not attacking the church as much as he’s just sitting them down and saying, “Seriously, you guys? Do you even realize what this looks like?”

Not all of the in-between bits are as solid as his stand-up, but they serve as nice palette cleansers and take us on a journey about Gray who, having realized he’s been mistaken for a “Christian comedian,” tries to figure out how to deal with the fact he’s been booked at a church and the navigation of the publicity stops that go with it.

As a stand-up comedian Gray is very friendly and approachable. It doesn’t take one long to see that Gray hasn’t come to the party with ulterior motives. All he wants to do is make people laugh and the crowd immediately latches on to his every word. Three of Gray’s brothers are preachers (something that, because the album appears to be culled from different performances, we’re told no less than three times — one for each brother!) and this is perfect fodder for Gray’s comedic sensibilities. Whether he’s snickering at the pop-culture misinformation he’s feeding them or explaining why he hasn’t had hot turkey in years (think about it), Gray is the perfect foible for his sanctified siblings.

For me, the real highlights of the CD came not when he was doing material on/about the church but when he shared a couple of correspondences he received. The first is a holiday letter written to him by his mother and as he reads it aloud, he can’t help but titter at the unintentionally funny things she’s decided to share. Gray wisely saves the other communique, arguably his strongest bit, as the closer of his show. It’s a list he received from a client of words he cannot say while onstage at an upcoming corporate event for fear of insulting the employees. As the words — identified only by their first letter — continue to be listed off, it got so ridiculous I nearly laughed my F-ing A off and P-ed my pants.

One track in particular stood out to me. It’s a pre-produced piece done more in the vein of NPR than stand-up. It tells the story of a family vacation Gray and his family took when he was younger and its poignancy is nothing less than beautiful storytelling at its finest. And, as a guy who’s spent the last 12 years in radio, I can’t not mention how much I love Gray’s This American Life/Book On Tape-like voice. Please tell me he’s also doing voiceover work and making millions of dollars at it.

Revival (of the Fittest)  is a fun album that should break Deacon Gray out of the “Christian comedian” box and land him directly where he belongs: With monikers and descriptors that are much more fitting, like

  • Storyteller.
  • Funny guy.
  • Friendly.
  • Welcoming.
  • Insightful.
  • Witty.
  • Christian.
  • Comedian.

***

Revival (of the Fittest) is available from Deacon Gray