Each trip to a comedy club comes with a sense of excited expectation. You know what you hope will happen — maybe one of your friends will get called out and put in his place, you’ll hear solid jokes by a seasoned comic, and mostly, you’ll laugh a lot — but there’s never a guarantee that’s what you’ll get.

Unless you’re going to see Rich Vos.

In that case, it’s pretty much a sure thing that you’re in for a good time and his album Still Empty Inside  is no exception.

Vos is a no-nonsense comedian who has no time for run-of-the-mill niceties. Instead of starting off singing the praises of the two opening comics, he lists off people he just doesn’t like and those two are at the top of the roster. Vos never gives a reason for how he feels, simply stating, “I don’t like ’em” and the vagueness of his disdain only makes it funnier.

It’s easy to feel relaxed around Vos. He delivers his material with the laid-back energy of a guy settled into a recliner watching The Golf Channel on a Sunday afternoon. Keep in mind, I’m not implying his comedy is slow-paced or boring. Quite the opposite. Vos keeps the crowd entertained and delivers one solid laugh after another.

His approach is one of easy confidence and his crowd work is impressive. Whether Vos is dealing with..well…not hecklers per se, but…over-enthusiastic audience members who don’t understand they aren’t there to add to the festivities or simply commenting on a haircut (“You look like a Roman nickel”) or musing about the appropriateness of bringing one’s unemotional 16-year-old to a comedy show, Vos remains in charge, never once losing his footing no matter how deep into the waters he ventures.

That very same truthful up-frontness (Don’t look it up. You know what I mean) that works so well when Vos is mingling with the crowd is just as effective when he is working with his own material. He’s easily sidetracked by himself, one story hilariously reminding him of another, but no matter how far he seems to stray he always finds his mark and picks up right where he left off. A one-liner about what his wife and Jackie Chan have in common leads into a heated interaction with the audience and ends up in Edmonton, Canada where Vos finds himself in a cow milk fight with his father-in-law gone awry. No mater where his stories may lead, there’s always genuine laughter to be found.

When Vos is onstage, the hard truth is always prevalent. He’s completely honest about his three daughters. Yes, he does have a favorite (the eldest) and a least favorite (the youngest) and when it comes to critiquing the artwork of his toddler, he doesn’t mince words (“You’re a scribbler.”)

If Vos is willing to be so up-front with us about his family, then it would be foolish to assume he’d be any less frank when it comes to such PC lightning rods as the handicapped (“I’m a fan of the cripple”), racial relations (ratting out the reaction of the white people in the crowd after telling a black joke), and the mentally unstable (if you’re going to commit suicide, at least have the courtesy to wait until your friends are present so Vos isn’t blamed for murder).

Despite the fact Vos touches on these — and other — tough topics, it should be noted he isn’t pushing the envelope merely for the sake of pushing the envelope. He’s just passing on one story after another and no matter how frank he’s being, he’s also being brutally funny. From his rabbit fur hoodie to his loose basketball shorts exploits with the likes of characters named Dirk and Dickie, Vos offers up a full platter of consistent humor.

For a guy who claims to be so empty inside, he’s got a real skill for leaving the rest of us feeling full with laughter.

***

Still Empty Inside is available from Cringe Humor Records

On paper, comedians like Daniel Tosh and Lisa Lampanelli say some pretty horrible things. They get away with it on stage, though, because we all know they’re doing it to get a laugh. And, because they are genuinely funny as they go about it. The tricky part comes when you tweak the motive behind it. It’s a very fine line to walk. Unfortunately, The Not Black Album  by Chris Killian is an example of how things can go wrong.

The feeling I took away from this album is that Killian isn’t trying to say controversial things to get a laugh but instead to get a reaction. There may seem to be a minor difference between the two,  but in reality it’s pretty huge. Instead of coming across as shock comedy, it just comes across as mean-spirited and it takes away from the fun.

There are a number of times when Killian stuns the audience into shocked silence; their refusal to laugh serving as a signal to Killian (which he either ignores or just doesn’t pick up on it, I’m not sure which) that you can’t just say mean things into a microphone and automatically get laughter. You sort of have to be funny, too.

To me, the writing here is where Killian falls short. His jokes aren’t particularly insightful or cleverly constructed. They’re just…well…easy. He explains how he makes fun of his Asian girlfriend for being Asian because … “who wouldn’t, right?” The crowd’s response is so lukewarm, Killian is forced to address it. One example of his clever jibes he gives is when he’s out with her in public and sees an elderly Asian woman. He’ll point to her and ask his girlfriend, “Hey, is that your mom?”

Insert awkward pause here.

As Killian works through his set, it becomes obvious who his comedic influences are and each time he comes up short when he tries to emulate them. Don’t have an ending for a bit? Then just say something in an Aziz Ansari-esque razz-a-ma-tazz delivery. It won’t get you much of a laugh, but at least you can move on.

When Killian announced he was going to change things up by singing some original songs, I became hopeful. I thought perhaps he’s one of those guys whose stand-up isn’t that good but makes up for it with this other thing they do. Unfortunately that’s not the case. Killian’s singing and songwriting are just as good as his joke writing and that’s not a compliment.

The song structure and phrasing are clunky and the melodies feel forced and unnatural; Killian’s rhyme scheme is fairly predictable and, not to sound too much like Randy Jackson, his singing is pitchy. He sings above the note when he’s projecting and when he lowers his volume, the notes are flat. I imagine he had people like Stephen Lynch and Bo Burnham in mind when he sat down and decided to be a bad boy singing comedian but again the motive behind it feels “off.”

Besides being clever lyricists, both Lynch and Burnham are genuinely good composers and (especially Lynch) talented singers. Killian doesn’t seem to be especially concerned with musical ability but if eight tracks on your album are going to be songs, that’s probably not a good idea.

Once again, Killian isn’t looking to entertain or make people laugh, he’s out to shock and appall. It’s not about the writing, and it really should be. Just because you say/sort-of sing harsh things while strumming a guitar, that doesn’t automatically make you a comedian. That just makes you a bully with a guitar.

***

The Not Black Album is available from Rooftop Comedy Productions


I like John Mulaney. He’s funny without all of the shiny distractions and showy mis-directions that other comics sometimes employ. Mulaney doesn’t have an arsenal of impressions, silly faces, or over-the-top shock material and the honest truth is, he doesn’t need it. He’s nothing less than hilarious all on his own. Where others might come off as loud, showy, and over-the-top, Mulaney slips in under the radar with New In Town , a project just as good — or even better — than his big-budget counterparts. Not that there’s anything wrong with frenetic in-your-face-ness…that’s just not Mulaney’s style.

Mulaney is to comedy what Reservoir Dogs or Cemetery Junction is to movies. You don’t need Michael Bay or transforming robots or hi-def explosions in 3-D accompanied by THX crystal-clear surround sound to entertain the masses when you’ve got story and characters that people connect with on a much deeper level. In the same way Tarantino or Gervais didn’t need billions of dollars to tell their stories, Mulaney keeps us entertained by simply — gasp! — being funny.

Bear in mind, when I say “funny” I don’t mean smirking, chuckle-to-yourself, “That’s amusing” funny but full-on belly laughs and laugh-out-loud “Holy crap, that’s hilarious” funny.

Mulaney is a storyteller who, much like comedians Mike Birbiglia and Patton Oswalt, shows us a window into his life that upon first glance may seem mundane and everyday but upon further inspection you find that it’s in the ordinary-ness where the humor really jumps into being. As displayed in the very first track where Mulaney notes that quicksand hasn’t played nearly as big a hazard in his life that childhood cartoons led him to believe it would, his humor comes in the absurd truthfulness of confession. And also in the fact that some small part of Mulaney seems genuinely disappointed that falling into quicksand is a peril he’s never had to navigate.

It’s in those truthful confessions where Mulaney finds some of his strongest material, often times mining his own childhood for stories that never paint him in the best light. He is more than willing to eat a little crow if there is genuine funny to be found. That’s exactly what happens when he shares with us how he was bullied as a kid for being Asian-American (although he’s not), how his grade-school self could best be described as “an old gay man,” or when he reveals the anti-climactic contents of the “treasure” hidden under his bed.

Of course, just being an adult doesn’t mean Mulaney no longer finds himself in one unsettling circumstance after another. While most of us would choose to never speak of such situations ever again, he chooses to share them with the world. A trip to the doctor with the sole intent of scoring a Xanax prescription takes a turn (actually it takes multiple turns) for the worse, and Mulaney’s conceding thought is fitting: “This might as well happen.”

When he’ not revealing his most vulnerable, less-than-dignifying missteps through life, Mulaney excels at picking up on — and exposing — the little ripples in the matrix around us. Whether it’s the fact that Ice-T may be the slowest learner in the history of the Special Victims Unit, the New York Post’s predictable hierarchy rankings, or being faced with seeing Hitler on the street (and being forced to admit whether or not he would shoot him), Mulaney approaches it all with the same you-guys-can-see-this-is-crazy-too-right? point of view.

In past reviews I’ve been critical of comedians with material whose expiration date has more than passed, but when Mulaney tackles Home Alone 2‘s absurd premise of being “Lost in New York” (the streets are set up in a grid system!), he cuts me off at the pass by simply stating, “I know it’s kind of stupid to complain about a movie that came out 17 years ago but I wasn’t a comedian then.” It’s a brilliant tactic (as is his Def Jam take on it) and it had me in stitches.

New In Town  is one of those projects that doesn’t lose any of its humor upon repeat listenings. I’ve heard it four times in the last few days and I could easily go for another few rounds. There aren’t many albums (comedy or music) that I listen to in its entirety without skipping a track or two but this project is a rare exception. Mulaney presents one solid laugh-filled track after another and I can’t recommend this album highly enough.

I didn’t like this CD, i freakin’ loved it. Here’s the link to buy it and, just in case it still isn’t clear that you really need to add this to your collection, here it is again.

And again.

***

New In Town is available from Comedy Central Records on Tuesday, January 31. The stand-up special will air on Comedy Central on January 28th

If life is a highway then I think it’s fair to say we all have different approaches to the journey. On her album Thug Tears , Rachel Feinstein proves she is nothing short of one heck of a driver. “Road rage” doesn’t quite describe her because she’s not angry, but she is what I would call “aggressive behind the wheel.”

Some people take extra care to make sure the children riding along are safe and secure in the minivan, strapped snugly into their car seats. Feinstein, however, could give a crap about safety; we’ve got places to go and we’re going there now.

On stage Feinstein doesn’t waste any time with a “get to know me” phase. Some comedians will start off with a few underhand pitches to get the crowd warmed up and to get a feel for the room…what they can — and can’t — get away with right off the bat and what will have to be saved for later when the audience is more comfortable.

That’s not the way Feinstein drives.

She grabs the kids by the neck, throws them in the back seat and floors it. If they’re not buckled in by the time we hit speed bumps doing 85 MPH, then it’s their own fault.

For the most part, this works and her recklessness only adds to the adventure. Feinstein is quite adept at keeping her passengers entertained and the handful of times she hits a loose patch of gravel and fishtails a bit, she is able to retain control and keep zipping along.

Generally speaking, Feinstein’s material is culled from any combination of four different sources: Men, funny voices, her mother, and the word tits. These four wells provide a vast supply of laughs and anecdotes and Feinstein mixes up  how many of these she’ll incorporate into a joke (sometimes all four at once).

The risk Feinstein runs by returning to the same touchstones over and over again is the feeling of draining the wells dry and tempting the gods of “been there, done that.” The first few times she employs her 1940s-inspired high-pitched Naive Girl voice, it’s genuinely funny. Each time we go back to it, though, it loses a bit of its luster. It put me in mind of Jim Gaffigan’s falsetto Voice Of The Audience Member gimmick. Personally, I’m not bothered by it, but for some people a little goes a long way and it’s no different here. You’ll either love it more and more each time we return to it (the catchphrase for this album is pretty much a squeaky-voiced “My tits are scared”) or you’ll be ready to move on.

The world is littered with annoyances that set Feinstein off, perhaps none moreso than douches (basically, men) and her mom. I found it entertainingly ironic that Feinstein explains her mom and grandmother have two of the most annoying voices on the planet, yet the more riled up Feinstein gets, the more her own voice takes on the very qualities with which she is annoyed.

Her family (I think) is the source of Feinstein’s best material, especially when she’s outing her mother’s love of Navajo jewelry, explaining her father’s John McCain shirt awarded to him by frugality, or exposing her own childhood game that very understandably had her parents concerned (My tits are scared. Again).

At the end of your Feinstein ride-along you may find your hair a bit mussed, your outlook on Vegas a bit askew, and your tits a bit scared. With Feinstein, life isn’t just a highway. It’s mostly off-roading.

***

Thug Tears is available from Comedy Central Records

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