Monday, November 26, 2007

The OC Archive: Zach Galifianakis at Just For Laughs 2002


In 2002, covered my first Just for Laughs Festival, tracking down local stories I could use in my Boston Globe column and getting to meet a lot of comedians who probably weren’t coming to Boston anytime soon. Zach Galifiankakis was on his third JFL, doing a few split shows with Janeane Garofalo and mulling over his options after his bizarre but extremely entertaining VH1 talk show, “Late World with Zach,” had been canceled over the summer.

Galifianakis is all over the map onstage – telling one-liners at his piano, doing quick bursts of odd characters, or interacting with the audience. Not everyone at JFL understood his humor – he had been heckled at one of the Garofalo shows earlier in the week. The show I got to see later that week was first rate. Garofalo and Galifianakis put on a great show despite sweltering temperatures at the Kola Note.

I had only just started watching “Late World” that summer when it was canceled, and I was thrilled to catch up with Galifianakis not long afterwards, sitting at the Delta Hotel restaurant. This interview was never published. I’ve included most of it here, though I did edit a longer tangent at the end where we discussed the history of whistling and serial killers. I’ve since spoken with Galifianakis for the Globe and he’s been to Boston on his own and as part of the Comedians of Comedy Tour with Patton Oswalt, Maria Bamford, and Brian Posehn. And yes, my first question was really cheesy.

What question would you ask yourself if you were a guest on Late World?

Hmm. How do you do it? Or, what’s with the beard?

Have you done the Just For Laughs Festival before?

Yeah. This is my third? My third festival. The first year I did a gala show. The second year I just did Andy’s shows. And this time I opened for Janeane. Yeah, this is my third year. I come back every two years.

I’m almost sorry that I missed the first Evening with Janeane Garofalo show.

Well, I liked it. I like getting heckled. I like it. I sometimes invite it. But I lost control of the audience and it became kind of a circus. That’s usually fine and good but you know, it’s not good for Janeane to have to swim in that wake. You know? I mean, she probably was loving it, backstage. Because I love to watch my friends not do well on stage. It’s one of my favorite things to do.

I know you said you were hoping Janeane would bomb as well.

Yeah, unfortunately, she did very well. That made me more disappointed. I was hoping that she didn’t do well, that way we could totally blame the audience. If she hadn’t done well, it would have been the audience’s fault. She did do well, so the whole night was my fault. That’s how it works.

What is it about watching your friends fail that you enjoy?

Well, because I’ve been there so many times before… I only like it if they can handle it. I like it if they can handle it. I think comics are funnier when they’re… Johnny Carson, when his jokes weren’t working – I don’t know if you remember – but he was so much funnier in his recovery to try to get out of it. I think it’s just a comic thing, that you enjoy watching disaster and awkwardness.

The Andy Kaufman factor.

Yeah, but he did it so purposely. That was his whole purpose. I’m talking about when someone doesn’t mean to do it and it happens. I have actually gone to open mics still just to watch people not do well.

You have to want to bomb in the beginning. It has to happen. That’s just part of the process. I once did a community college not too long ago. Well, a couple of years ago. And it was five o’clock in the afternoon, and some guy booked the show and it was literally kids sleeping or studying. And they put a microphone in the student common area. And my opening line was, because it was a community college, I went, “I used to go to a community college, look at me now.” I said, “I know all you guys feel bad because you go to a community college. I went to a community college. Look at me now. I’m performing in front of a community college.” Complete silence. People were Xeroxing behind me. But yeah, the bombing thing is all part of the process. But when you bomb up here, it’s kind of… Unfortunately, there’s this weird shit if you do bad up here that’s going to be judgmental because the industry’s here. Just do what you can do.

What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done to try to fail on purpose or bomb on purpose?

That’s a good question. You know what, I don’t purposely do it. I didn’t mean to say I purposely do it. I like when it starts to happen, because it’s entertaining for me. But I don’t like, personally dig myself into a hole. I’m not that kind of comic. Dave Attell can do it. He can dig himself out of any hole. I’ve seen him do it. It’s unbelievable. It’s an involuntary… I don’t mean for it to happen. I don’t really provoke it to happen.

But you do invite heckling?

When hecklers heckle me I invite them onstage and I interview them. And I usually demean them in a very quiet way. As a matter of fact, I did a show in San Francisco, and this guy, I called him onstage. He didn’t heckle but he was over-laughing sarcastically. – I like that we came to this restaurant because they’re really good with the service here. -- So he was over-laughing and I picked up on it and I said to him, I call him onstage and he comes onstage, and he was kind of overweight, and it’s not good to do fat jokes. But he was a real jerk and he was a gang guy. He had like tattoos. I demean him really bad and the crowd loved it. He was really upset. And after the show, the owner of the club, I can’t remember what club it was, said, you have to go out the back door. They’re waiting for you in the front. I’ve had that happening, where there’s been some animosity towards me.

So you don’t come from the “I kid because I love” school.

I actually… Sometimes I get angry. It’s kind of like, why are you doing that? Why did you pay twelve dollars or whatever to listen to somebody and then you don’t listen to them? Just get up and leave if you don’t like it. I wish I could do that. The other night I did about ninety seconds – not even, like seventy seconds at Comedy Works.

I saw that.

I don’t mean to be a snob but…

You just knew it wasn’t going to work?

Of course it wasn’t going to work. I didn’t want to torture those people.

There was a guy named Ross Bennett who closed that show, who had a couple of hecklers, and they wound up hugging the guy afterwards and thinking he was the funniest thing. I just wonder what it is about an audience that they could get ripped that hard and then come up and hug the guy afterwards. Sometimes the audience likes the abuse.

Sometimes that happens. Sometimes the audience likes that. Why do people go see Don Rickles? They go for that reason, I think. They know they can be a target if they’re sitting up front. I’m not that kind of comic. I’m really not. But when the crowd forces me to… I just play the piano. I’m very soft. And I love to change and get completely mad at them. I think it’s a neat thing to flip, a weird Doctor Jekyll/Mister Hyde thing. But it doesn’t happen to me that often.

In New York a month ago, I got heckled in a theater. I think it was fifteen hundred seats. And this woman yells, “You’re a fucking asshole!” I do this joke where, the joke is, “I have to admit that I’ve used the word ‘sand nigger’ before. But I would never call anybody from the Middle East that. The term I used it in was, ‘Get off the sand, nigger. Volleyball’s a white man’s sport.”’ It was the last joke I did after eloquent piano playing. I get up and I explain, I apologize. I said, “There was a woman last night who was offended by that joke, and I invited her back tonight to publicly apologize.” And as I do that, a woman yells out, “You’re a fucking asshole.” So a black woman comes onstage with me. At this point the audience is like, what’s going on? They don’t really know what’s happening. Then “It doesn’t matter if you’re black or white” by Michael Jackson just starts blaring, and I just start dancing, doing the robot. And the audience is like, what an asshole. But I have this flip chart on which I’ve written this apology. “It’s just a joke.” I’m flipping this chart. And at that time, the crowd’s like, oh okay. And then another dancer comes out, and she starts, and the woman I was apologizing to, the three of us have choreographed this big dance number. I designed it that way to make the politically correct audience member eat crow.

Do you think you have a character onstage that’s separate from who you are?

It’s kind of an extension. Well, it’s kind of me, but when I’m onstage, I’m more quiet than I am in real life. I just think, I like subtle humor, and I try to be as subtle as I can onstage. I think it’s just a different version of me.

I was trying to figure out the person you were on “Late World.”

[Laughs] I’m sorry, every time I hear “Late World” I start laughing.

Just because –

Not because the show was that funny, just that the experience is just bizarre. I wish I had been a little bit more myself. And I was getting that way, but unfortunately, you have to have people come on the show, and you have to be likable. I am likable, I guess.

I saw one review that had said you were a host who thought he was too good for the guests.

Really? I thought I read all the bad reviews. I’d like to read that. I called one reviewer at the Baltimore city paper one night. He had written this review – and I don’t mind bad reviews – I wanted him to come on the show and read his article and we could talk about it. And I called him crying. I was acting like I was crying. And I told him that I was so upset, I couldn’t believe he wrote these things, and to please watch that night because I was going to shoot myself in the mouth on air. And he totally started backtracking.

Comedy is kind of like music. Different tastes, you know? I wasn’t crazy about interviewing celebrities. I don’t think they’re that interesting. At one point I think they were interesting, but now it’s a machine. It’s a big publicity machine. And individuality is not really there anymore. If somebody saw me as that, I could understand that. If I had a disdain or a bad taste in my mouth because I had to plug a movie I never would go see. I mean, I never said I liked something. I never would say that. I was very honest about it. If people are gracious to come on the show, fine. But I think that’s the problem in late night television, it’s a big ass-kissing festival. Letterman used to not do that. I thought that was his appeal. But now, his show’s so big, and it’s in competition with Leno…

I viewed "Late World" as a satire on talk shows where people pretend to care.

Well, we were trying to do that. We were trying to satirize the talk show format, the celebrity talk show format. I don’t know if you ever saw the show where we did it with just one person in the audience. To me, that’s the best one we did. People thought it was creepy. I think when we did the one-person audience, it was so good. It was the kind of thing that I want to do. And in the middle of the show, I was interviewing Adam Goldberg, the one guy in the audience, we kept cutting to him, and I said, “Can we have a laugh track, please?” Because there was complete silence. And they would do a laugh track, with one person in the audience, of a group of people. To me, I was very, very proud of that one. And then we did a laugh track of a six-year old girl laughing. It was just weird. And during the show, the one member of the audience got up and left.

So what influenced you to become a comedian?

The Andy Griffith guy came to my school and he whistled. And I remember I was just fixated on that guy. Because here’s a guy who took the one thing that he was good at and made a living, traveling around whistling. That’s what people should do more often with their lives. Instead of following the norm of what we’re supposed to do. And I was like, I’ve got to somehow learn that kind of thing. Find it. And I became the world’s best skipper. And I just went around various grade schools skipping. [Laughs] That was probably the most insightful thing I’ve ever done. The Andy Griffiths theme song whistler.

I’m not sure if I should try to background check that now…

I don’t know how you would background check that, but it’s true.

“Did you inspire a kid?”

So you’d try to find him.

Sure. That must be a depressing story.

He was an older guy, I think I remember. And I think at that same thing, I got my pants pulled down at the assembly.

He was never being funny, he was just whistling. But he took naturally what he could do… He probably got two hundred bucks for a thirty minute whistling show. All right, here’s the deal. What if you found him and he was this real egomaniac Hollywood-type guy? That’s a good idea.

They tried to book him for Just For Laughs, and he was like, “How much money? No.”

How great would it be if this article comes out and you like called me, ‘The editors went nuts. They’re putting that guy on the front of the magazine’.

And he calls and is like, “Get out of the business, kid, it’s horrible. You can’t make it like I made it before. The world’s changed.”

I hear they’re opening up a new whistling club.

Wasn’t there a Rockford Files like show that had whistling?

There’s not a lot of professional whistlers. I guarantee that you could find that guy’s name. I wonder if he’s still around? I’m going to look that up on the Internet and see if that guy’s still around. My cousin would know who that guy is, too.

You know somewhere, there’s that weird, “Hit Whistlin’ of the Fifties” album in a garage sale bin somewhere.

Yeah. He and Jim Neighbors teamed up because they knew each other from “The Andy Griffith Show.”

And then Roger Miller, who whistled on Disney’s Robin Hood soundtrack. He didn’t do the clean whistle, though.

Well, there are different techniques, obviously. Bottle whistlers are hacks. These guys… [blows into a bottle of water].

The shell whistlers are the alternative comedy of whistling.

Yeah. The Alternative Whistling Show. That’s what I’m going to do next. I’m going to pitch shows where it’s just me whistling. My dad actually saw once, on the Today Show, that skipping was good for you. And he started skipping everywhere. He would start skipping to work. And in a small town, when your dad is skipping through town –My dad’s kind of overweight, too, so it’s a nice visual. A guy skipping around. It didn’t last long.

You could combine the two.

Well, they do go hand in hand. When you skip, you tend to whistle. If you’re skipping, you’re in a good mood. And if you’re whistling, you’re in a good mood. You never whistle when you’re in a bad mood. Could you imagine skipping with a really nasty look on your face? ‘”He’s a serial killer, and his trademark is that he skips.”

Sunday, November 18, 2007

The OC Interview: Harry Shearer

Harry Shearer never seems to stop moving, whether he’s writing comic novels like Not Enough Indians, taping his numerous voices for The Simpsons, laying down his radio and podcast Le Show, filming video shorts for MyDamnChannel.com, recording music for albums like his latest Songs: Pointed and Pointless, or appearing live. He’s working on a new book, a new CD, and a new musical based on the life of J. Edgar Hoover.

I considered myself fortunate to catch up with him for the Boston Globe last month, talking about the live show he does with his wife, singer Judith Owen, called This Is So Not about the Simpsons: American Voyeurs, which was coming the Jewish Theatre of New England. We spoke by phone as he traveled from the airport to his hotel in Seattle, covering everything from humor and the media to Shearer’s lost classic film, Teddy Bear’s Picnic, a satire of privileged folly he wrote and directed. Portions of this interview appear in the Boston Globe.

I feel like you’re taking the time out to speak to me means one more book or song or video isn’t getting done somehow.

[Laughs] No, I’m in the car, going from the airport to the hotel in Seattle. No guilt required.

How do you balance all of this – the Simpsons, the Web site, the radio show, and the book?

I’m just one of those people who is very fortunate and loves what I do. And I know that there’s a limited amount of chances to do it, so I try to maximize those opportunities that I do have.

Did Not Enough Indians come out the way you had envisioned it, the dynamic between the characters?

If it didn’t, I really misspent six years. That’s pretty much the way I wanted that book to be.

What made you take on the casinos?

Well, I was just fascinated by the strangeness of the historic 180 that happens to at least some Native Americans to going from the most despised and genocided people on the continent, they are now sitting on top of this huge money pile to the extent that they can be envied now. And I just thought that was a great historical joke that amused me enough that I wanted to toy with a little bit.

Shortly after I read it, I went to the Mohegan Sun for the first time, and I kind of wish I had visited the Mohegan Sun first, because I wasn’t aware of just how much you didn’t exaggerate, how much that was reporting.

That’s sort of my modus operandi anyway. I’m not a big exaggerator. I think that humankind is funny enough that all you have to do is observe it pretty carefully and take out the pauses and you’ve got pretty good comedy.

It seems like you had been to the Mohegan Sun.

I had in fact never been to Mohegan Sun. I’ve been to other Indian casinos, but not Mohegan Sun, nor Foxwoods. But I’ve been to casinos along the Mississippi Gulf Coast and I’ve been to the largest Native American in Southern California. They all have a lot of things in common. I just stayed in a hotel, part of a casino complex in Melbourne, Australia, and it has that same design philosophy of no right angles.

Does This Is So Not About the Simpsons have a through line, or is it more of a revue?

It’s a show that Judith and I conceived for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival last year and did it there for a sold-out month. The through line is basically that she’s a Brit, I’m a first-generation American, we both feel as though we know this place well but look at it slightly from the point of view of outsiders. Hence, American Voyeurs. She looks askance at the Hollywood/Beverly Hills axis and I look askance at the New York/Washington D.C. axis, and each of us do so through comedy and music, and there’s some amusing video along with it. That’s the common thread of the show.

Her mainstay isn’t comic, really.

You haven’t seen her live. Although her music is very emotional, she takes the audience from that very deep emotional place to this very funny stuff when she’s just talking between songs. It used to be a shared joke between us, Arianna Huffington saying to her at one point when she first met Judith, "Have you always been funny or has it just happened since you met Harry?"

Do you collaborate on the writing as well?

Yeah, we shot pieces back and forth and worked on it with each other. And I have to say, I was amazed by the ease with which we could give notes to each other during the rehearsal process. That speaks well for… something.

Does she ever come to you with ideas when you’re not necessarily working together?

Well, she always plays her songs, I’m the first person to hear her songs. She wants me to play bass on them so she can hear it and start thinking of arrangement ideas. She tries to bounce songs off me in their nascent stages and I always try to make her go back and finish it before she plays it for me. But she’ll say, what do you think of this.

I’m the opposite. I have this radio show and I never let her listen to anything I’m working on until it’s on the air. We’re polar opposites in that sense.

Is it that you have a certain vision for something and if you start listening to someone else’s voice you’ll sort of ruin that? Is that the idea?

No, it’s just that I want the idea to be fully realized before someone reacts to it. I never pitch, for example. I don’t like telling a shard of an idea to people, even if that’s necessary to sell it. It seems to me if you can experience what’s good about an idea in one sentence, then why do you bother writing more? Where’s the rest of it, you know?

How does the show come together, song versus sketch?

It’s pretty much I’d say slightly less than two thirds talk and video and one-third music, maybe edging a little more music than that, but that’s the ratio.

Is writing satirical songs more difficult than it seems? If you look at Spinal Tap, people might think that you set out to write a bunch of bad metal songs, but if you did that, no one would care.

Yeah. I think with those songs and the Folksman songs on Mighty Wind, we weren’t trying to write bad music, we were trying to, I think, lyrically, ambody the bad choices that those guys might make. But musically, we wanted to make them proper songs. And the reactions we get from people is that they work musically and then they hear the lyrics and realize what we’re about. And I think it’s the same with what I did on Pointed & Pointless. You’re never trying to write bad music, nobody wants to hear bad music. But music can be the carrier either soulful emotion or smart humor, depending on the lyrical content. There can be musical jokes involved, but I think writing bad music is sort of a dead-end street.

When you’re singing a satirical song as opposed to a non-comical song, are you singing it from the same place?

I don’t sing non-comic songs, so I wouldn’t know. I think, for me, since I don’t really sing as me, I’m always singing in character one way or the other. I either have a specific character like George W. Bush or a vocal character, like the guy who’s singing “Flag Burners” who’s just sort of a, if not stereotypical than at least a conceptual country & western singer from whose vantage point I can sing as opposed to anything that might be considered me. I don’t know how I sing. I only know how a character sings. So, for example, when George W. Bush was singing “New Orleans Whole,” the hardest thing for me is, that’s a really insinuating rhythm track, and I was really having to get his arrhythmia into it.

Are you someone who watches the news and gets angry and yells at the paper or the TV?

No, I do my yelling on the radio. I mean, I don’t yell. I have an outlet so I don’t have to yell. But I must say, given the state of… I guess I still watch as much news, I tend to watch less American news, American TV news than I used to. There’s just a certain amount of times you can tell they’re not really interested in telling me anything I need to know and you can react against that, and if you have the capacity to move along to something better, you do.

I think you actual reach more people by making them laugh, and then at the other end of the laugh, a thoughtful “hmm” might occur. My primary business is making people laugh. Judith was saying to me when we got off the stage in San Francisco, because we hadn’t done the show in a while, since January, she was sort of exhilarated by how much fun it is to just be onstage and make people laugh. There’s nothing exhausting or draining or frustrating about that. And if you’re in this to try to have any other result, that might be frustratig. If you’re thinking you’re going to change the world, maybe you’re going to get something like what the academic was talking about. I’m an entertainer, first and foremost. If an audience is entertained, then I’ve done my job and I’m happy. If they’re happy, I’m happy.

Mort Sahl said political humor has to draw blood to be effective, so I imagine there could be some friction there.

Well, you know, humor is the anesthetic while you’re drawing the blood. I feel, and certainly some of the reactions people have had to “All Backed Up,” and even that song is kind of nasty, is basically saying before you mythologize this big fat drug addict, take a look. So that’s got some teeth to it as well.

You were one of the few guys Mort Sahl was actually complimentary towards, as far as current satirists.

That makes me very glad. I started out as a huge fan of Mort’s, I’ve never stopped being a fan of Mort’s, I was at his birthday celebration in Los Angeles. To me, he has something that’s extremely rare, which is the gift for taking a nuanced observation and turning it into an impeccably crafted joke. He is maybe the best joke writer that I’ve ever seen in satirical comedy. When I was a kid, I sort of had a smart ass view of joke writing, which lasted until I ran into Rodney Dangerfield and watched him edit his jokes, and watched the care and the work, the craft that went into joke writing at his level. And Mort’s at that level or higher in terms of just the craft of joke writing. No wasted words, basically like poetry, just taking out every syllable that doesn’t belong until you’ve got the minimum number of phonemes to get the job done. He’s really, really spectacular at it.

Do you have a dim view of satire at the moment?

I’ve always had a dim view. I think we’re in a classic second term presidency of satire, in the sense that, in the first term, it’s only the people who are paying close attention who are doing jokes about the president, whoever that happens to be. And by the second term, it gets very jokey and very easy and very late night, because we all know now, oh, he’s dumb, he’s horny, he’s old. And that’s when Newsweek does a cover, “Satire is Back!” exclamation point. I’ve seen that cycle a few times, as has Mort. And I think we’re in another one of those. And a lot of what people call satire isn’t, it’s just topical comedy with those sort of easy templates as reference points.

Why did you go to New Orleans for the "Crescent City Stories" pieces on MyDamnChannel.com?

I went down there because I was trying to counteract the news media spin on the situation, which has been to relentlessly tell victim stories, as opposed to a less mono-emotional view of the situation. If you watch the news media you’d never have the idea of the sassy, hard, tough sense of humor that New Orleaneans have maintained through all of this. The news media tend to show people being sad about it. I wanted to show people in their sort of three dimensionality in New Orleans. And I thought that was something I could add to the conversation.

Are there any plans to release Teddy Bear’s Picnic on DVD?

Yes, I bought the rights back to it, and I do plan to release it on DVD. We’re working on that right now, as a matter of fact. Probably sometime next year.

It seems like it’s still appropriate or even more appropriate now.

I think the problem with that movie is that it was ahead of its time in the sense that a reluctance either on the part of the audience or the media that were filtering on behalf of the audience – I tend never to generalize about the audience, I think it’s easier to generalize about the media – to laugh at the ruling class, to use a term of art, in those days then their might be now.

Why do you think the chemistry between you, Michael McKean, and Christopher Guest persists so well through the years?

We’re three entirely, shockingly different people who are amused by a lot of the same things and share a sort of similar comic taste palette, the best way I could describe it. We’re all amazingly different as humans, but I think we all love the idea of comic work that kind of lets the audience discover the joke, as opposed to being hit over the head with it. And we are all fans of sort of working as characters and working as deeply-defined characters, as opposed to, “Here’s a funny hat! Look who I am now!” You know? I think of it as disappearing behind the character. I did this Dick Cheney video for MyDamnChannel.com, and somebody said it took them half the video before they realized it was me, and that was like, ‘Yes! Thank you. That’s what I want.” That’s how I know I’ve done a good job. And I think we all share that aesthetic. And we all love to play music, I think that’s a very deep bond among us. We really love to play music. That’s why we’ve done two musical projects and it’s why we’ll continue to go out and play music together. I used to not want to respond to questions about, “What is it you really like doing?” But I think it’s become clear to me over the last few years that my, and I think all of our favorite things to do is to play music.

Where do people recognize you from most often?

Spinal Tap and the Simpsons, although I’m always amazed when I’m in New Orleans, which is my adopted hometown, people recognize me for my radio show down there, even though it’s not heard there.

It’s on podcast now, which it seems to me that the technology has caught up with what you’ve been doing for years.

It’s the one place where I’ve been an early adopter, is of all that kind of technology to get the radio show out more broadly because of the odd recalcitrance of stations in certain cities, like Boston. A show that has that particular sensibility has much better coverage in the heartland than shall we say on the northeast coast, which I find peculiar. But there you go. That’s why god made the Internet.

It seems like you have a business model that you can really use the Internet to drive, the same way, if you look at people who made themselves cottage industries like Frank Zappa or, later on, like Ani DiFranco.

I relate to those people in the sense of, I’ve always tried to work as autonomously as I possibly can in whatever medium I happen to find myself in at the time. And the Internet allows for a lot of autonomy right now. That may be temporary. There are no guarantees.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Live Review: Comics Come Home XIII


If you’re Denis Leary, you’ve just seen your FX series, Rescue Me, renewed for a new season with twice as many episodes as previous seasons, your Red Sox have just won their second World Series in three years, and you’re celebrating the thirteenth year of your annual charity event, Comics Come Home, which benefits the Cam Neely Foundation for Cander Care. So what is there to be angry about? Well, you’re Denis Leary, so you’ll find something.

Opening the show Saturday at BU’s Agganis Arena, Leary said that, after his fiftieth birthday this year, he was going to try to turn over a new leaf, to try not to spew hate on those who don’t deserve it, until he saw Paul McCartney’s ex-wife Heather Mills on TV. He marveled at amount of money he heard she was asking for, saying, “Ringo was in the band and he didn’t get that much fucking money.”

Most of Leary’s ire Saturday was directed at celebrities and senators. Amy Winehouse and Larry Craig both had their images shown on two giant screens as Leary blurted his immediate thoughts, a burst of sunshine, as usual. The high/low point came when Leary showed an infamous paparazzi photo of Britney Spears getting out of her limo sans undies, with a star over the naughty bits. Leary asked the screen operators to show the picture uncensored, after which a picture of Bobby Brown came up on the screen. Just when you thought it was safe, there was the pic, uncensored, about twenty feet high. “That’s actual size, by the way,” Leary commented.

Leary then went into an extended riff about his own penis, perhaps just to balance the genitalia content. Suddenly self-conscious that his son was present, and had played guitar with the band during the opening, Leary said, “My son’s backstage right now goin’, ‘That’s my dad.’”

But as much as Leary’s star has risen over the past few years, Comics Come Home is rarely about him, and more about the talent that show attracts. Joe Yannetty had a great set of local humor, managing to make old premises like the Big Dig and driving to the airport fresh and funny. “Have you been to the airport to pick somebody up lately?” he said. “There’s a platoon of State Troopers, ‘Don’t stop! Don’t stop! Don’t stop!’ She can’t walk that fast! She’s right there! She’s got bags.”

Faux band Crack Hip Hop made a surprise appearance, wringing a surprising amount of laughs out of a song in which they count from one to one hundred. Artie Lange opened his set by declaring himself a Yankees fan, and then explaining to a round of boos presumably from Red Sox fans, “We have something in common. We both hate A-Rod.” Jim Norton, coming in hot with a new HBO special and bestselling book, and Medford native Robert Kelly, who’s set to release a new Comedy Central CD/DVD within the next coupel of months, both turned solid sets.

And it wouldn’t be Comics Come Home without Cambridge native Lenny Clarke, and the crowd started cheering at the mere inference that he was coming up. “I’m gonna bring out a fat guy, how’s that?” said Leary. Apparently, due to his many sitcom appearances and his role as Uncle Teddy on “Rescue Me,” Clarke provokes a similar reaction in New York City now, too, something that troubled Leary. Citing how much Clarke is a Boston guy, Leary said, “That pisses me off in a way. I love Lenny, but it’s wrong for people in New York to love Lenny.”

Clarke, who actually walked out a bit slimmer, got laughs out of the recent scandal involving Duane Chapman (a.k.a. Dogg the Bounty Hunter) and his phone message racial slurs, and a riff on smoking bans and illegal immigration. Clarke’s said he’d help the effort to curb illegal immigration by handing out cigarettes at the border. “They will be thrown out of this fucking country by sundown.”

The biggest splashes of the night were the two first-timers, Pete Correale and Mike Birbiglia. Correale’s best bits were about drinking, delivered in a pained, sarcastic Long Island accent. “A guy I went to high school with calls up recently and says, ‘My wife and I are having a party, but there’s no alcohol,’” said Correale. “I’m like, ‘Then your having a meeting.’” He also took exception to the idea that if doing shots to get drunk might make you an alcoholic. “If you do shots for any reason but to get drunk then I think you’re kind of missing the whole point of the shot,” he said. “Very few people have ever done a shot of whiskey and went, ‘Mmmm. It’s delicious. I love the way it burns your throat on the way down.’”

Mike Birbiglia is the comic to watch for. Leary, a graduate of Saint Peter-Marian High School in Worcester, saved a little ire for Shrewsbury native and St. John’s High School graduate Birbiglia in his introduction. Apparently Birbiglia, making his first appearance at Comics Come Home, was unaware of Leary’s alma mater, and asked if he could mention Birbiglia went to Saint John’s when Leary brought him out. “We hated two things – the nuns, and fucking St. John’s High School,” said Leary, busting his chops. “Please welcome to the stage a guy who’s taping his third record-setting fucking bullshit Comedy Central faggoty-ass special this week, a very funny guy, Mike Birbiglia.”

Birbiglia was on the spot and responded with material about going to a Catholic high school, and then a Catholic college. “They didn’t sell condoms on campus to teach us a lesson – to save up for the abortion,” he said of his college. “If you put a bunch of 19-year-olds in dorms together they’re not going to be like, ‘I guess since we don’t have condoms we’ll just play Pictionary!’”

Drawing mostly from his two albums, Two Drink Mike and his recent My Secret Public Journal Live, Birbiglia did his “A” set. Though he doesn’t often do political material, his “Whiffleball Tony” bit, comparing George Bush to an overenthusiastic guest at a cookout who starts a preemptive hamburger-chucking war with the neighbors is one of his funniest, mostly because Birbiglia’s good-natured everyman stance makes it impossible to call it a partisan attack. People in the crowd that night will surely be watching for his next special, which should air early next year.

By the end of the night, Leary’s voice was wrecked, but he still struggled through his show-ending tune, “The Asshole Song,” another staple of Comics Come Home. The audience seemed to appreciate hearing it, but after a two-and-a-half hour marathon, it was time for the audience to go home.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Movie Review: American Gangster


There is a fascinating story behind American Gangster. Unfortunately, director Ridley Scott waited until two and a half hours into movie to start telling it, and then spent about ten minutes telling it.

As with any fictionalized account “based on a true story,” it’s hard to imagine what parts of American Gangster are really true to real life events. The movie’s twin foci are Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington), a black gangster who revolutionizes the heroin business in the late 60s, early 70s by buying directly from the source and underselling his more established competition, and Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), and impossibly honest cop charged with cleaning up New York City’s illegal drug trade. Scott takes his time developing both characters, bringing them closer and closer together as Lucas gets bigger and Roberts pieces together the city’s criminal pecking order from his New Jersey post.

The story is familiar to anyone who has seen Scarface, Goodfellas, Mean Streets, New Jack City, or any number of gangster classics. And American Gangster might have been ranked favorably to any one of them had it come out a couple of decades before. As it stands, the story arc is predictable, garden variety hubris. Lucas challenged the existing structure, shakes things up, gets to the top of the scene, and then falls. Washington and Crowe are pitch perfect playing familiar characters – the menacing, ambitious monster behind a cool, friendly fa├žade and the dedicated but flawed everyman hero.

Ridley’s story unravels neatly, with only a couple of minor faults. The story of Lucas’s wife, Eva, feels extraneous and the role leaves little for Lymari Nadal to do but stand around looking lithesome until she has to react to occasional danger. And Roberts’ transition from cop to lawyer is quick and jarring. You wind up wondering how he went from lead investigator to lead prosecutor on the same case, if there isn’t some rule about self-interest that would prevent such a thing.

But the court sequence is the most interesting story. Yes, the montage where Lucas becomes a cooperative witness seems a little too friendly (I could imagine the Partridge Family’s “Get Happy” played in the background and sent off to VH1 as a promotional tool). But Lucas reveals a bit of himself in the beginning of the interrogation scene, about his family’s abuse at the hand of crooked police officers, that could have been a powerful bit of knowledge for the audience to have two and a half hours earlier.

Once Lucas is convicted, we get the subtitles finishing off the story. We learn that Lucas’s testimony led to the arrest of about 150 people involved in the drug trade, and that despite being sentenced to 70 years, he was released in 1981. And when he got into trouble again, Richie Roberts, who had left the prosecutor’s office, was his defense counsel, and that the two remain friends.

American Gangster is a passable action movie with some extraordinary performances. But it could have been an incredible character study about two extremely different people and the reasons why they become friends. Their interaction during the initial trial, and their relationship afterwards, is fraught with friction and dramatic possibility, and the potential for something that seems a little less standard the story Ridley ultimately decided to tell. At more than two and a half hours, you would think there would be enough room to tell more of that story. For now, you’ll have to rely on Google and a few books on Lucas for that story.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Mean Creek -- The Definition of Sound


The best way to Mean Creek’s sound is simply to listen to them. It’s easy to forget the obvious as a writer, always trying to find whatever perfect key is going to unlock the correct feelings in a reader about music they’ve never heard. Back in August, I wrote about Mean Creek for an item in the Boston Globe’s Sidekick section. I got their debut album, Around the Bend, and three-song EP in time to listen through exactly once before I had to describe their sound. This is what I came up with – “Mean Creek's folksy Simon & Garfunkel harmonies anchor a sound that alternates between jangling and overdriven guitars.”

But once I saw them at the gig I had previewed, I realized there was a lot more to them. There is a hyper-emotive, atmospheric aspect that remind me of the Shins. There are droning guitars like the shoe-gazers, and elements pulled from a multitude of other sources that, taken together, make for an original sound. It seems Spin had to invent a word for them in their review of a show with Straylight Express. They called them “country-core,” which sounds to me like Gwar in overalls playing electric banjos. If you’re reading this on Tuesday, November 6, you’re in luck. You can go see them open for Sea Wolf at the Middle East Upstairs and describe their sound for yourself.

I caught up with Chris Keene (vocals, guitar) and Aurore Ounjian (vocals, guitar, harmonica) by e-mail about the show.

I never heard the term “country-core” until the Spin.com review. Do you identify with that? I hear elements of folk, especially in the harmonies, guitar-centric indie rock like Built to Spill, alt.country.

The term "country-core" is new to us. We're definitely influenced equally by folk music like Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, and Pete Seeger, as well as rock bands like Nirvana, The Pixies, and Buffalo Tom.

Are you a different band from gig to gig? Seems like you’d be equally comfortable on a bill with heavier bands or doing an acoustic set in a listening room.

I think we're the same band gig to gig. Live we get really excited about playing and it can get really loud and energetic. Our songs fluctuate a lot between being really soft and really loud. We hope the diversity is a good thing. We love playing with really heavy bands, and really soft bands, and will hopefully continue to be able to play with both.

Do you consider yourselves a political band? You don’t necessarily make that obvious, but you can hear it in songs like “Not to Dream.”

We definitely don't consider ourselves a political band. Songs like "Not To Dream" are really just personal songs just like all our other songs. Whenever we sing about anything that is remotely political its main purpose is to express how our environment makes us feel, and how it affects us, not so much trying to send some sort of political message.

Is the new EP part of a larger project you’re working on?

Originally it was going to be released as a 3 song EP, but we will be recording more new songs before the end of the year and we're in the process of figuring out the next step, and what makes the most sense to do with all our new material.

What kind of response have you gotten opening up for Straylight Run?

All our shows with Straylight Run have been absolutely incredible. They are a great band, and their fans are absolutely amazing. It's mostly a teenage crowd and they are unbelievably supportive of every band that plays. They come to the show early and go right to the front of the stage as soon as they get into the club. When we toured the UK with them we sold out of every copy of our album we brought with us. It's inspiring to see people that excited about music.

Do you think the Sea Wolf gig will open up a new audience for you in Boston?

We really hope so. That's the main reason we like supporting national touring bands in Boston, and just in general playing with all different kinds of bands. In the past its worked out well, so hopefully it will continue to be that way.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

OC-Ed: Random Thoughts

I try to stay away from random thoughts on this blog, but here are a couple of things I’ve been thinking about the past week.

If I have the story straight, Attorney General nominee Michael Mukasey isn’t sure that waterboarding is illegal torture. That seems dumb enough on the face of it – the worlds are mutually inclusive – but it gets worse.

President Bush and others in the Republican camp don’t think it’s fair to grill Mukasey about it because he hasn’t been briefed about it, so he can’t know if it’s torture or not. So, to sum up the administration’s official position on waterboarding and torture in general:

1. We’re not torturing anyone.
2. Only people with high level clearance can be briefed on whether or not waterboarding is torture. By the way, we’re not doing it, but only people with high level clearance to official U.S. policy will have access to the specifics of how waterboarding is done.
3. In other words, we know it’s torture, but Mukasey can’t possibly know until we tell him what we’ve (not) been doing and he reads how it’s (not) been done in great detail in the official record, so it’s unfair to ask him about it.

There you have it, clear as day. Stop asking Mukasey about waterboarding.

On a completely different note, I heard something during Game Three of the World Series that amused and puzzled me. I’m a fan of Warren Zevon’s music – the dark sense of humor, the grasp of history, the baritone to falsetto dripping with sarcasm. So anytime I happen upon a Zevon song in an unexpected place, it’s a pleasant surprise. His words are important. He was good at words, had a folkie’s appreciation for them and paid attention to them.

But I’m convinced no one has ever listened to the words of “Excitable Boy,” seemingly one of the more popular tunes marketers and programmers have taken out of context to use as background music. I’ve heard it as musak. I’ve heard it as incidental music. And during the Series, it was outro music behind a quick interview on the way to a commercial, conveniently cutting out before the vocals started. So before it winds up in a Burger King commercial, here are the lyrics, for your consideration:

Excitable Boy
Warren Zevon & LeRoy P. Marinell

Well, he went down to dinner in his Sunday best
Excitable boy, they all said
And he rubbed the pot roast all over his chest
Excitable boy, they all said

He took in the four a.m. show at the Clark
Excitable boy, they all said
And he bit the usherette's leg in the dark
Excitable boy, they all said

Well, he's just an excitable boy

He took little Suzie to the Junior Prom
Excitable boy, they all said
And he raped her and killed her, then he took her home
Excitable boy, they all said

Well, he's just an excitable boy

After ten long years they let him out of the home
Excitable boy, they all said
And he dug up her grave and built a cage with her bones
Excitable boy, they all said

Well, he's just an excitable boy