Archive for December, 2011

Josh Gondelman opens his new CD Everything’s The Best! by declaring he’s going to do his best to try to be fun. I assume this is just some sort of ruse, because after listening to this hour-long project I don’t think it’d be possible for him not to be. He is such a pleasure to be around, it’s no surprise to find out he can keep any crowd of people entertained, whether it’s a comedy club full of adults or a brightly colored room of kids (he reveals he is a pre-school teacher who’s just put in his two weeks notice).

Sure, the fact that this guy who works with kids moonlights as a stand-up comic (or, more accurately, vice versa) initially comes across as a Can You Believe It premise but the truth is I can believe it. I’d trust this guy with my kids* and would feel safe knowing that they’ll be in good hands. Sure, they may come back with a brand new mash-up of children’s songs in their heads or learn the ins and outs of the legality of gay marriage but I can rest assured knowing they won’t be taught the lyrics to any Def Leppard songs (that’s the other guy at the pre-school).

The youthful energy of Gondelman carries over nicely to his comedy. His ruminations about child detectives (Encyclopedia Brown, Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys) and why we don’t hear from them as adults are paired together with his theory of why Han Solo isn’t nearly as cool as everyone seems to think he is.

The vast majority of his material is either culled from his own childhood experiences (opting to play the trombone in band class, how reading “The Catcher in the Rye” landed him in the principal’s office, why comic book readers are considered the jocks of the nerd community) or lifted straight from his encounters with the pre-schoolers (the recreation of a magic trick he learned from a student, the little Mexican boy who wants to be Batman, and how he was outsmarted by Jake, the little guy who has never seen a purple cow).

That being said, Gondelman is just as funny when he steps up his material to topics people face in their adult life. He is just as consistently funny whether he’s unveiling Boston’s racist tendencies (“”I’m not racist, but…” is actually secret code for “I am racist, and…””), explaining why he hopes his future daughter is a lesbian, or bringing to light the reason minor league baseball is the way to go.

The project draws to a close with the tale of how a one night stand blossomed into a full-fledged adventure in the pharmacy in search of a Plan B pill. Although the subject matter may not strike someone as the easiest, most-obvious, least-controversial choice for a series of light-hearted anecdotes, Gondelman navigates it with ease, never once crossing the line into Too Much or Too Dark. He manages to keep the tone light and humorous. Because of that, the laughs erupt just as easily and frequently as they did on the previous 19 tracks.

Another thing I really admire about Gondelman’s craft is his ability to seamlessly transition from one topic to the next without coming across as stilted or jumpy. There’s no whiplash here. His material flows really nicely and only when you look back at the track listing do you realize exactly how much territory was covered.

The title of this project really reflects not only Gondelman’s approach to comedy, but also his outlook on life. He never gets over-the-top angry and he doesn’t wallow in self-pity when he finds himself in a situation that may not be ideal. Instead, he looks at life through the eyes of an eternal comedic optimist. Instead of seeing the glass as half-empty or half-full, he opts to go for the laugh and pours the glass’s contents over his head. Then he’ll stand up, back away from the table with his arms stretched out to either side and declare, “Nothing in my hands!”

He’s right. Everything really is the best. And when you get to the point where you can look at life and believe that it’s true, well….if that’s not a great magic trick, I don’t know what is.

***

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

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Everything’s The Best! is available from Rooftop Comedy Productions

If you open your CD with a warning informing people that what they are about to hear is unlike anything they’ve ever experienced from a comedian, then you’d better have the material to back it up. That was the first thing I thought when I was listening to Matt Ward’s “Glamorous.” He further prepares us by stating he doesn’t mess around with amateur topics like GPS units but instead plans to go for the jugular by breaching such scandalous, never-before-tackled themes like (brace yourself) moonshine (What?), cocaine (Gasp!), and rewarding lack of effort (Well, I never!).

Ward spends so much time building himself up as a way-over-the-line button-pusher, when he finally does start in on his act it’s a bit of a letdown to find his bark was much worse than his bite. I feel pretty confident in saying this, as his project is peppered with awkward pauses and silences that hang in the air, lingering like an abandoned cobweb. Ward doesn’t appear to be fazed by the small responses elicited by his jokes and he barrels on undaunted. Part of me feels his brash confidence is to be commended. Another part of me wonders if the confidence is warranted. He’s like a Cubs fan in August taunting the Phillies.

I don’t know a lot about Ward or how long he’s been in the game, but at one point he comes down on “new” comics for making the grave error of asking a crowd if there are any pot smokers in the house. He does this, of course, after asking if there are any pot smokers in the house. It might be humorous if he was aware of the irony of the situation but I don’t think he is. He’s too busy chastising those amateurish young comics for daring to make such a mistake. As Ward stumbles through his set, tripping over his words and mixing up the lyrics to his own original songs, you can almost hear the pot leaving a voice mail for the kettle.

A couple of things Ward needs to work on are the metaphors and visual pictures he paints with his words. He’s so worried about coming up with what he thinks is clever wordplay he shoots himself in the foot, reaching so far that the crowd is silenced into a puzzled state of suspended animation as they try to figure out what Ward is talking about.

On why you shouldn’t buy meth in the South: “It’s been stepped on more than an old man’s ball sack.” Huh? Why are people in the South stepping on either one?

On what people would say if someone showed up to a fight with shaved eyebrows: “Whoa, he looks faster and leaner. Or packing, I’m not sure what’s going on there.”

Wha?

Listening to Ward doing what he thinks is crossing the line is quite entertaining simply because…well…At one point he dares to shock the crowd by confessing he’s fine with marijuana but – believe it or not! – he boldly takes a stand by saying he is against doing cocaine. The audience (and I) just sit there in a stunned silence that screams, “Well yeah, no crap, we’re against it, too. Most people are. Why would you think an anti-cocaine message would rile us up?”

At another point he mentions the fact that he knows a lot of famous people. But, of course, he’s not going to drop any names because that would be douche-y. Insert your own comment here: ___________________________

The album ends with Ward playing a few songs that I’m sure he would like to think are reminiscent of Stephen Lynch, but neither his music nor his lyrics live up to the dream. “20 Year Old Poon,” a tune he actually refers to as a “comedy song,” is basically just Ward singing the title phrase over and over again. Call me a snob, but for me it’s gonna take a little bit more than that.

A lot of the basic premises Ward tackles are fun ideas, but the execution is where he falls short. This project is an example of what happens if you focus on your stage persona and self-confidence more than your written material. To be blunt…it ain’t glamorous.

***

Glamorous is available from Super Cat Productions

The new CD from Daryl Wright, Wildly Inappropriate, is one of those treasures you hope you’ll discover every time you listen to a comedian with whom you’re not familiar. I went into this one not knowing what to expect and I came away from it feeling like I opened a bottle of Coke and found a “YOU JUST WON $1000!” message hidden under the cap.

Wright is down-to-earth, approachable, and possibly the funniest ex-con you’ll come across (besides my uncles, of course). He explains that he spent time behind bars for “shooting a crackhead” and he uses the fact that eight years have passed and he’s still not sorry for it as the perfect metaphor for why white guilt should be a thing of the past.

At that moment you get your first glimpse of Wright’s unique viewpoint on topics that until now may have lost their freshness. His approach is novel and clever, especially when he explains that class-ism has replaced racism. He uses as Exhibit A the fact that O.J. is in jail. He’s not there because he’s black but because he is poor. After all, when he was rich he was free to “run around killing perfectly good white women.”

On paper, this project has a lot working against it. It’s apparent there wasn’t a massive budget backing it (the recording quality leaves a little to be desired, the packaging itself is fairly generic, and the “RIP Mike Destephano” in the liner notes suggests someone fell asleep behind the proofreading wheel) but when you’re as funny as Wright is, the comedy transcends all of the technical shortcomings and takes center stage. In past reviews I’ve complained about the production quality of a project but this time around I really can’t. When you’re funny, you’re funny, and Wright’s material is much stronger and more powerful than any audio glitches. Only a few minutes into listening, any comments I may have had about the production value lost any and all merit.

Wrights riffs on a lot of things people may think about but are too afraid to say out loud: How America has become the ex-husband of the world (“We keep giving people money and they keep talking shit about us. The next time you have a flood, call someone else”) and just why rappers who refuse to use the n-word don’t make any sense (the country music tie-in on this one is brilliant).

You’re not dealing with your standard comedian-next-door here, but that’s not a bad thing. Because of his checkered past going to court for biting an officer of the law and being kicked off of BET (twice), Wright has some outrageously unique experiences to draw from and never before has a stolen stove been so funny.

The album ends with Wright recounting the tale of the time he did stand-up for the KKK. Actually, he tells you that story as a preface to the time he wore a confederate flag T-shirt on the beach. I won’t spoil anything by going into it further but that track alone is worth the price of admission. The first and last tracks, throwaway remixes of Wright’s comedy, can be skipped over. They don’t really add anything to the proceedings and aren’t nearly as good as the great comedy found here.

This album is a perfect example of comedy being able to conquer all. Wright proves you don’t need to have a big budget, or major label representation to make people laugh. In the end, all that really matters is whether or not you’re funny. Wright is. And if you ask me, that’s wildly appropriate.

***

Wildly Inappropriate is available from Eardrum Records

I don’t know what it is about Atlanta right now but something seriously funny is going on. Maybe it’s all the Coca-Cola or the maddening MARTA system or the fact that every street there is named Peachtree, but there is some amazing comedy coming out of the South and – most notably – from the Laughing Skull Lounge. Chicago is the go-to city for improv and New Jersey is your source for people you never want to be around. I never would have predicted that Hot-lanta  would be the biggest threat to topple New York City as the supreme source for stand-up.

Earlier this year the Laughing Skull Lounge blew me away with their Fresh Faces project and now The Beards Of Comedy are live at the Lounge with Cardio Mix to get our skulls laughing once again. The Beards consist of four guys (Andy Sandford, Joe Zimmerman, TJ Young, and Dave Stone (who appeared – and killed – on the Fresh Faces compilation)) and you’d be hard-pressed to find a lineup as consistent, complementary, and flat-out funny as this one.

First to take the stage is Andy Sandford and he doesn’t waste any time getting to the funny. His set begins with one of the best reasons to not follow the Golden Rule and from there it only gets better and better. Sandford explores medication warning labels and giant cupcakes with a bemused curiosity.

Sandford excels at misdirection. When he brings up the MTV show 16 and Pregnant you think you know where he’s going with it and with a lesser comedian behind the mic you might be right. Sandford, however, keeps you on your toes, blindsiding you once with his sudden U-turns and then again with how funny those detours turn out to be.

Whether he’s explaining why a perfect game of baseball only shows that it’s a boring game, revealing the recipe for an intense sensation of shame, or explaining why living next to an abortion clinic really hampers his hobbies, Sandford proves once and for all that – just like when it comes to recreational drug use – he’s not here to screw around.

Joe Zimmerman is the next comic up and he’s the kind of guy who likes to find out a little bit about the people in the audience. He asks a series of questions to find out who’s in attendance so he knows how to skew his material and as it turns out, it’s a dog-loving, racist, Jewish crowd. Zimmerman doesn’t seem at all surprised.

His low-pressure approach is perfectly suited to his material. Rather than tackle weighty, politcally-infused topics he chooses instead to ponder the common everyday nuances of life. Why would anyone ever propose to someone in a hot air balloon? What would happen if someone took Papa John’s up on their new program that lets you order a pizza a month in advance? Why would anyone have a python as a pet? And exactly how in the world do orgies get started?

All of these themes – and more – are expanded with hilarious results. By the time Zimmerman reaches his bit on scary movie trailers, his eyes are covered because he’s scared of what’s up on the big screen. In the meantime, ours are blurry with tears of laughter.

Animals that aren’t color blind and a series of wrong number voice mails are perfect fodder for Zimmerman’s observations and when he’s reached the end of his time, even though the show is only halfway over, you’ve already gotten more than double your money’s worth of laughs.

TJ Young is bubbling with a fresh-faced, energetic enthusiasm that is in perfect contrast with his ruminations on the homeless and whether or not they should have pets. The juxtaposition couldn’t be better as Young playfully cavorts through a field of deadly tiger sharks, astronauts in diapers, and unsettling billboards.

Young wraps up with a revealing look at the Amish and which dances they will – and won’t – do. It’s a nice capper to a good set and before you know it the time has come for the final Beard to take the stage.

Time really does fly when you’re having fun.

Dave Stone was one of the highlights of the Laughing Skull Fresh Faces compilation and I found myself eager to hear more from this very skilled comedian. Who knew that just a couple of months later my wish would be granted and it turns out I was right: I really did want more.

Stone is the perfect guy to be in the clean-up batter position. He easily smashes an out-of-the-park grand slam with his material on being a born-again carnivore, feeling sorry for almost-retarded people, and his less-than-impressive visits to the local Coinstar.

Stone finishes up with a great story about his time working as a DJ at a small Georgian Southern Gospel radio station. As he elaborates about his time as host of “The Party Line” program, the laughs come quickly and they don’t let up.

After you listen to this project, more than likely one of these four guys will stand out to you as your favorite. All of The Beards are so good, each one of them so solid and spot-on, whichever one you decide is the best…you’re absolutely right.

***

Cardio Mix is available from Comedy Central Records

I’ll be honest with you (Of course I will. If I wasn’t honest with you, I wouldn’t have the passionate feedback on some of my less-than-flattering reviews): Upon my first listen of Christina Pazsitzky’s album It’s Hard Being A Person, I really didn’t care for it. There were a few smirk-inducing moments, but nothing that really grabbed me by the ears and made me laugh out loud (not that grabbing me by the ears makes me laugh out loud).

I couldn’t quite place what it was that seemed “off.” A lot of her material, especially in the first few opening tracks, is geared mostly toward the fairer sex and she seems to sincerely think that raspberries (you know, the “thlbt” noise you make with your tongue) = comedy.

But what really stood out to me was the fact Pazsitzky seemed to have a hard time finding a voice that is truly her own. She greets the crowd with a strikingly Maria Bamford-esque raspy, fake whisper voice but after a few lines morphs back into her natural self. She ends the album with an apology to anyone she may have offended that sounds lifted straight from a Lisa Lampanelli closing track. I found it a bit interesting that she felt the need to pseudo-apologize at all, as she isn’t really a shock/insult comedian and for the most part I can’t imagine she offended anyone.

Please understand I’m not saying that Pazsitzky is swiping jokes from these – or other – comics. It just seemed that there were a few times she – as Dane Cook so eloquently put it – was borrowing the essences of people she enjoys. We’ve all done it. We’ve all been influenced, often times without realizing it, by pop culture and things that make us laugh. There are some comics who admit they don’t like to listen to comedy CDs lest they unconsciously lift material or delivery. And, of course, when many comedians first start out they tend to speak in the voice of the comics they admire and look up to rather than finding a style of their own. It’s nothing intentional, it’s just what happens.

And so, part of me feels that may be the case here. And sometimes it’s not the delivery but the choice of words that stood out a bit. I just re-watched Bend It Like Beckham last week and in one scene the Indian women are being fitted for saris. One woman teases the less-than-buxom girl she is measuring by saying that one day she will have “juicy juicy mangoes.” It was a line that cracked up my wife and me and we worked it into our conversations a couple of times later that day just for the heck of it.

So, when Pazsitzky gets a huge laugh from the crowd by using that exact same phrase in the exact same accent (“Juicy juicy mangoes!”) while she talks about her Indian step-father, I felt a little cheated. It was like she didn’t write a punchline but instead “borrowed” a funny line from a somewhat-obscure movie that most people have forgotten by now. At another point she tosses out the phrase “finger blasting” as if it’s her own and, again, it gets a huge reaction from the crowd. Again, my first response was, “Hey, no fair!”

It immediately reminded me of the first time I listened to Robin Williams’s Live 2002 project and he was spouting phrases and punchlines I had seen on bumper stickers, email forwards, and MySpace posts years earlier. He wasn’t being ironic by referencing the familiar quips but seemed to genuinely be claiming them as his own. Whether it was intentional or he just forgot where he heard them and eventually just started to assimilate them into his act, I don’t know, but it didn’t sit well with me. Which is why, when Pazsitzky does the same, it’s a bit off-putting.

As I mentioned earlier, I didn’t fall in love with this project on my first listen but on each of the two subsequent spins (I listen to everything three times before starting in on the review) I came to appreciate it more and more. When things click with Pazsitzky, they really do come together quite nicely. Some of my favorite bits include the casting process for the movie Monster with Charlize Theron, living in a bad L.A. neighborhood, and her message to girls in their early 20s from the Ghost of Christmas Future.

Despite the fact I truly enjoyed those moments, they were greatly outweighed by much more basic connect-the-dots material (and those blasted raspberries). Pazsitzky is a confident presence on stage and I feel once she really gets a feel for who she is and exactly what she wants her stage persona to be, she’ll be a real force to be reckoned with.

Yes, it’s hard being a person, and even harder being a stand-up comedian (which is why, as you’ll notice, I’m not one), but the two are connected and I’m looking forward to seeing how Pazsitzky develops. I truly hope I’ll end up eating my words.

***

It’s Hard Being A Person is available from Rooftop Comedy Productions