Friday, February 22, 2008

Comedy News: Human Giant Dates Postponed

Those looking forward to the upcoming Human Giant tour may have to wait a bit longer to see the troupe. Paul Scheer, part of the trio which also includes Aziz Ansari and Rob Huebel, will be busy with a film role, so all of the current tour dates, save for the three sold-out shows in Los Angeles Feb 21-23, the NoisePop show in San Francisco on Feb 28, and the SXSW show on Mar 14, have been cancelled. Plans are to reschedule at least some dates, including the Boston stop, previously scheduled for Mar 12. Watch the Human Giant Web site for details.

Season Two of Human Giant premieres Tuesday, March 11. You can get an advance look at Episode One on iTunes here.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

OC Archive: Jonathan Katz

When I originally interviewed Jonathan Katz for Boston's Stuff@Night for this interview, which appeared in the June 22, 1999 issue, he was still working on his Comedy Central show, Dr. Katz: Professional Therapist for what would wind up being the show's final season. Since then, he has gone public with his MS, shied away from the spotlight, and then come back to stand-up. He released his first comedy CD, Caffeinated, last year, and Comedy Central released the complete Dr. Katz on DVD. And you can listen to his podcasts by going to his site,

The career of Newton resident Jonathan Katz has taken some interesting turns since he started out as a musician and songwriter more then twenty years ago, fronting a band called Katz and the Jammers. At some point, Katz noticed that people were talking through the songs and paying more attention when he spoke. So he started to talk more. And it has paid off.

Katz has been all over the map, from his collaborations with David Mamet to appearances on TV Nation and The Larry Sanders Show. He even played Leo, the Angel of Death, in the short-lived sitcom Ink. Now, as Dr. Katz: Professional Therapist begins its sixth season, he is busy developing other ideas for film and television and is hard at work on To-Do Lists of the Dead, his first book under his name (not as Dr. Katz).

So, what's in store for the new season of Dr. Katz?

Can't talk about that. Just teasing. Well, first of all, in terms of story line... my son, Ben -- very troubled kid -- he threatens to join the army.

That has to be traumatic. For Dr. Katz and for Ben.

Traumatic for the army. He also gets his wisdom teeth removed, which is probably the most violent episode we've ever made.

One of my favorite episodes is called "Past Lives"; Ben and Dr. Katz take a past-life regression course together. And Dr. Katz discovers that in a previous life he was a barmaid in the Old West.

Is the show set in Boston?

We're kind of coy about that. We haven't picked a location yet. `Cause it's a cartoon, we haven't had to purchase any real estate. A lot of people speculate about where it is.

Are there any upcoming guests that you're particularly excited about?

Well, Dom Irrera is going to be returning to the show. He's my favorite patient. Jeff Goldblum is wonderful.

How did you decide to focus on comedians as patients, rather than just having celebrity guests?

Because the chances of one of these comedians' saying something extraordinarily funny is greater. You know, you don't go to your psychiatrist to plug something; you go to try out material.

In Newton, I guess, there is a high density of psychiatrists?

It's the highest per capita of anywhere in the country. I'm surrounded by them.

What is their reaction to the show?

Some pride, some resentment. A lot of advice. You know, there's a shrink named Randy Glassman who has helped me more than anyone with the language of therapy. When the show first started I was really intent on being a good therapist. And I do have a lot of empathy for people. And I have a lot of respect for people who are therapists, professionally. Especially if they can stay awake.

What's the difference between you and Dr. Katz?

Dr. Katz does his own stunts.

How do you choose the guests?

It's just like every other show. It's alphabetical.

I never noticed that.

Oh, yeah. Watch all these talk shows. They're almost up to the Zs.

How did you and David Mamet start working together?

The real question is, why did we stop? No, we started working together because we're friends and have been for 35 years.

And you co-wrote House of Games, or the story that became House of Games?

We co-wrote the story over a pool table one day of the movie that became the House of Games.

And you said, "Why did you stop -- "

No, I was just being glib.

You also have To-Do Lists of the Dead coming out.

The new book I'm working on. That's something that I started doing in an airplane at La Guardia. I got stuck on the runway. So I was working on my own to-do list, I got bored, and moved on to Lincoln. I wrote three items on his to-do list: "Free slaves, think of fancy way to say '87 years ago,' and beef up security at Ford's Theatre." And the first two items are checked. Then I moved on to FDR, Eisenhower, George Washington, Kurt Cobain, Charles Darwin, Judy Garland, Sammy Davis Jr. Anybody who's dead is fair game. Gene Siskel.

Do you still perform stand-up?

Well, I did something at Symphony Hall about a week ago with Ray Romano. We did a benefit for Children's Hospital. Every once in a while I'll do something. There's usually a cause involved. I, for the last few years, have been trying, along with my colleagues, to raise money for syphilis.

To help people get their start?

I'm raising money for the actual virus.

Was this always your stage persona, or did you try other personas?

I tried the wacky guy with the banjo, and I had a box full of props. I worked with a puppet for a while. Actually, the puppet's doing very well.

A solo career.

Yeah, he didn't need me. I was bringing him down. No, no, this has always been what I do. Not because of my courage and strength and belief in what I do. It really is more of a limitation. I can't do anything else.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Hey, look at these...

As we get down to the final stretch in the primaries, you're probably feeling a little political fatigue. Clinton and Obama are doing something called "wooing" to people called "superdelegates," which sounds like it might be interesting until you find out that superdelegates are just other politicians. Then there's the sheer creepiness of this statement, "advisers to Mr. McCain said they were eager for Mr. Bush’s embrace."

If you'd like to stay informed and entertained, there are two places to point your clicker.

The first is The Garlic, written by J. Thomas Duffy. Duffy keeps track of a lot of great sources of information and is pretty handy with his own barbs. Check back often for new polls, photos, links, and other daily "cloves."

He also often links to the second site I'd like to point you to, written by premiere political satirist Barry Crimmins. I've frequently written about Crimmmins in my capacity covering comedy for The Boston Globe. He's the sharpest mind in the business, and essential campaign reading.

Lastly, if you're sitting at home tonight at midnight flipping channels and trying to avoid the news, head over to Comedy Central for the debut of Mike Birbiglia's new one-hour special, What I Should Have Said Was Nothing. I've praised Birbiglia on this blog before (here and here), and he is not to be missed. I was going to e-mail him about the new special, but then my collegue Sean McCarthy, who has been delivering the most complete comedy news on the Web over at The Comic's Comic, beat me to it.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

OC Review: A Few Last Thoughts on the Best Comedy Albums of 2007

It’s difficult to make a really good comedy album, one you’ll want to listen to more than once. That’s why a lot of them get assigned to novelty hell. But in 2007, there were at least three that might make it to “classic” status, at least for me, personally. Patton Oswalt’s Werewolves and Lollipops (Punchline Magazine review here), Steven Wright’s I Still Have a Pony (Punchline Magazine review here), and Mike Birbiglia’s My Secret Public Journal Live were all wonderful, and I have stood up to a couple of dozen listens each over the past several months.

Time will tell if they will take their place amongst the greats (for me, that’s an ever-changing list that includes George Carlin’s Class Clown, Richard Pryor’s Supernigger, Bill Hicks’ Rant in E-Minor, Robert Klein’s Child of the 50s, Inside Shelley Berman, Bill Cosby’s I started out as a child…, Lily Tomlin’s Modern Scream, Steve Martin’s Let’s Get Small, and a few others). But my bet is that Oswalt’s sense of language and sarcastic geekery, Wright’s wonderful absurdity, and Birbiglia’s honesty and affability will still feel fresh to me years down the road.

A couple of weeks ago in the Boston Globe, I named my Best Comedy Albums of 2007. Not surprisingly, Oswalt, Wright, and Birbiglia were in the top three spots (you can see the rest of it here, second page). I’d never done a “Best of” list of comedy CDs for the Globe before, but 2007 was such a good year for CDs, I felt I need to point some of them out. For a couple of weeks beforehand, my desk was covered with comedy CDs (okay, it’s usually covered with CDs, DVDs, magazines, books, and often a plate of Trader Joe’s flaxseed chips, but it was almost all comedy CDs these past couple of weeks). I had a hard time narrowing it down, and made an “honorable mentions” list that didn’t make the final cut due to space constraints.

This is an expanded “honorable mention” list, plus a few other notables that didn’t make it.

Honorable mentions, in no particular order

1. Live with a Manhattan, Don Gavin (self-released): Gavin is a Boston treasure, a veteran from the 80s boom who hasn’t lost his rapid-fire timing. I compare him to Rodney Dangerfield – you can listen to these tracks and know what’s coming and still laugh every time. If you haven't seen him, watch for him around Boston (Giggles is a frequent haunt). If you have, seek out his Web site and pick this up. Even if you've heard some of this material before, you won't be disappointed.

2. I Am A Wonderful Man, Michael Ian Black (Comedy Central Records): Black is a veteran sketch performer but new to stand-up, and it’s fun to hear him try out comic personas. Black does sarcasm as well as anyone, but there are also moments that seem inspired by George Carlin and Steve Martin, and a bit of self-deprecation, and even observational humor. It will be interesting to see him a couple of years down the road, when he has more solo stage time under his belt.

3. Sandwiches & Cats, Michael Showalter (JDUB Records): Black’s State and Stella castmate Showalter is in much the same boat, being a veteran performer new to stand-up. “Sandwiches & Cats” is a mix – mostly stand-up with some pre-recorded bits, the best of which is “Erotica,” a mix of nature adventure and erotica stories. “We Had to Do the Show,” a song recorded with Shudder to Think’s Craig Wedren and Kevin March, is extremely repetitive and insanely catchy.

4. Making Lite of Myself, John Pinette (Uproar): I reviewed this one for Punchline Magazine. Good stuff from Pinette, who seems to have an endless supply of actually funny material about his weight. But I would love to hear him stretch into other areas.

5. Spilled Milk, Sean Rouse (Stand Up! Records): Rouse can be gruff, disgusting, and crude, but he is also has deceptive wit, not unlike Ron White (the only Blue Collar comedian Rouse would save if the tour bus exploded). His patriot-baiting material on “Ladies and Gentlemen… Slackjaw!” is priceless.

6. The Art of the Slap, Scharpling and Wurster (Stereolaffs): No one does quite what Scharpling and Wurster do. They are a comedy team, but only one of them – Tom Scharpling – ever appears as himself. Jon Wurster (kick-ass drummer of Superchunk and session work) calls in to Scharpling’s WFMU radio show as any number of oddball characters, this time as everything from a ‘roid rage ravaged computer tech from the “Jock Squad” who trashes a Best Buy thinking it’s the rival Geek Squad’s house, to my personal favorite, a Skittle-eating, bourbon drinking, trash talking carp who is apparently freeloading at Aquaman’s castle in Lake Newbridge. This is volume four of their exploits, which started with the highly recommended cult classic Rock, Rot, and Rule, and probably the best of the compilations released since Rock.

7. 10,000 Laughs: The Best of the Boston Comedy Festival, Various (Koch Records): This collection of sets from the Boston Comedy Festival’s competition has some good moments, the best of which come from up-and-coming comics you won’t find on record yet. Boston’s Shane Mauss turns in a set that hints at the success he’d have over the next year, when he would appear on Conan O’Brien and share best comic honors at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen. Tom Simmons writes smart, often political material, and you should make a point to see him if his name pops up on the bill at your local club. Same goes for Darryl Lenox. Others on the rise: Rob O’Reilly, Costaki Economopolous, and Dan Boulger. The veterans one the disc are Brad Upton, Tom Cotter, and Festival co-founder Jim McCue.

8. Comedy Death Ray, Various (Comedy Central Records): This is a particularly strong compilation from one of the best shows in L.A., the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre’s Comedy Death-Ray. There is too much here to mention everyone, but there are some tracks you won’t get to hear elsewhere, like Jimmy Pardo’s manic riffing and Mindy Kaling’s goofy set, and solid material from Oswalt, Paul f. Tompkins, Maria Bamford, and Neil Hamburger.

9. Songs Pointed & Pointless, Harry Shearer (Courgette Records): As the title suggests, this is a collection of songs that range from overtly political to downright silly. Shearer takes on the torture of prisoners of war with the Beach Boys-inspired “Waterboardin’ USA” and flag-waving, “boot in your ass it’s the American Way” country with “Let the Flag Burners Fry (On the Fourth of July).” But he also includes the lost Folksmen tune “”Corn Wine” and his Elvified ode to modern intestinal problems, “All Backed Up.” Shearer is a talented mimic, as any Simpsons fan knows, and has a keen eye for politics. Fan of Shearer’s radio gig, “Le Show,” will recognize much of this material. You can see Shearer’s thoughts on the album in my interview with him from last November here.

10. Stand Up Guys, Loren & Wally of 105.7 WROR (radio station released): This one is a compilation of radio interviews culled from the Loren & Wally show on Boston’s WROR, so it’s hard to really include in the comedy album category, although there’s some strong stuff here from Boston veterans Tony V., Rich Ceisler, and Mike McDonald. Robert Schimmel and Dom Irrera are also good.

11. The 5th Annual End of the World Tour, Christopher Titus (Comedy Central Records): You could argue that this didn’t need to be a two-disc set, and you can find a few soft spots that should have been culled or rethought, but there is a rhythm to what Titus does here. His material works better when he has some sort of overall arc, as with his one-man show, Romeo is Bleeding. On this set, Titus looks at the post-9/11 world through the eyes of a new father feeling guilty for bringing a life into such an uncertain world. He’s already caught up in the normal parental confusion with the birth of his daughter on the first disc, and things only get worse when he begins the second watching the planes hit the towers on CNN with his child the morning of 9/11. When Titus plays to his best instincts, he can create something special.

12. Jewmongous, Sean Altman (Chow Fun Records):Altman is the former leader of the a cappella group Rockapella, so it shouldn’t be surprising that the music on Jewmongous is as carefully crafted as the music. What might surprise some people is how much this album rocks. Take away all the off-color references and jokes, and this is still a good rock record, which was Altman’s ultimate goal. (You can read my bit about him from the Boston globe here. Of course, if you’re among the goyim, you may want to keep Google open for songs like “Be My Little Shabbos Goy” or “What the Hell Is Simchas Torah?” (Don’t be ashamed if you have to look it up – Altman isn’t sure what “Simchas Torah” is either – that’s why he asked).

13. Joke Book, Greg Proops (Stand Up! Records): At his best, Greg Proops is a smart, socially aware comedian. At worst, he’s a bit condescending and snooty. Luckily, Proops is more often at his best than his worse, and “Joke Book” is a reflection of that. His riffing on Hawaiian yokels is fairly standard and unremarkable, but he heats up as the set goes on, ending with a series of his best stuff on Barry Bonds and Bush.

Other 2007 Releases:

1. Rough Around the Edges, Dane Cook (Comedy Central Records): This is one disc of audio, one disc of video, a much more manageable length than the bloated Retaliation. The result is more laughs and a bit less filler. Those who don't understand Cook's popularity won't find any answers here - he hasn't changed his formula of goofy physicality and repeating lines like they were hooks in a pop song. Then again, those who love Cook will get more of what they're used to.

2. Comedy and Music Hour, Best of Volume 1, Red Peters (Oglio Comedy): If you’re already laughing at the title “Poo Poo Pee Pee,” this is the album for you.

3. American Mexican, George Lopez (Comedy Central Records): Lopez is, for me, a solid mainstream comedian with fairly easy material on immigration and FEMA that some people might think is edgy. “Everything You Touch We Touch First” is a brief funny moment, and there are a few of them on the album. But most of Lopez’s observations are obvious and dull. Yes, Schwarzenegger’s “English-only” is kind of ironic, and Britney Spears has taken a couple of unflattering pictures in recent years. So what? And could you stop calling everything you don’t think is cool “gay?” Unless, of course, you’re still waiting in the lunch line in third grade.

Monday, February 4, 2008

OC Archive - Lewis Black: Born to Rant

Since we are on the eve of SuperHumongoColosoTuesday, I thought I woul dig out an interview of mine with Leis Black from the primaries from eight years ago (originally published Feb. 15, 2000 in Boston's Stuff@Night Magazine under the title Born to Rant). At the time, Black was in New Hampshire where it was McCain v Bush and Gore v Bradley. It was the first time I spoke with Black, and I have found him to be a great subject and a good man who supports comedy. What surprised me was that he was so relaxed until we started talking politics, and then he turned into the character we all know from The Daily Show, and turned back once we drifted from the primaries.

I did make one change from the published version. For the sentence about the subway platform, I used my original line, instead of what it was changed to, which was "he'd be the guy on the subway platform you suspect could be a pusher . . . that kind of pusher." I remember meeting Black after the show he did at the Grille 93 (anyone who knows comedy in Boston over the last decade will know how much Black's fortunes have changed just by knowing that's where he was playing then), apologizing profusely for insinuating he was a drug dealer in print while I gave him copies of the interview. He seemed amused by the thought that either of us should care.


When Lewis Black speaks on Comedy Central's The Daily Show with Jon Stewart as "America's Foremost Commentator on Everything," his eyes bulge, his fingers dance, and the corners of his mouth are drawn down into his neck toward two popping veins. If he weren't on TV, he'd be the guy on the subway platform looking for someone to push. Off-stage, Black, who appears at the Comedy Palace in Andover on February 18 and 19, is laid-back and cheerful. Just don't mention politics, or the two Lewis Blacks begin to merge.

How do you balance touring as a stand-up comic and being on The Daily Show?

Actually, it's not too bad because I shoot only on Wednesday nights. I get to perform on the weekends.

You went to the Yale School of Drama, but opted to go into stand-up. Any regrets?

I thought I was going to be a Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright . . . sometime before my death. School at least made me organize the act better. And going to Yale gave me enough anger that I don't think I'll ever lose it. It was a hellish place to go to theater school at that point.


Oh, no. The people I went to school with were phenomenal. The teachers were — some of them needed psychiatric care. There's a problem with a number of art schools in our country, which is that the people who're there want to do it [art], and instead are teaching. They basically end up kind of abusing the student body. You can do constructive criticism. You don't need to damage people in the process.

What were your first routines like?

They were about sex. Because I had a really funny sex life. And all of the stories that I had that were funny were about me trying to figure out really what it was all about. Since the information at that point was — we didn't have the president to learn from. We had to learn from a guy down the street named Stinky. And he didn't have all the information.

You see it as your duty to get after politicians and political candidates?

Yes. I see it as something that I was born to do, because I was born and raised in Washington, DC, and spent a lot of time watching these people. I think it's important for people to realize when they're appalled by what's going on that they have a right to be appalled by what's going on — it's appalling. I'm in Manchester, New Hampshire. I was just at this pancake breakfast, and the whole spectacle of it all was like I was on LSD. And these candidates — there's so little humanity in these people that it defies description.

What do you think of the campaign-finance-reform issue?

I think most of the American people, if asked directly and in a way that is comprehensible — "Do you think that the amount of money coming from Big Money and corporations should be limited?" — I think they would say yes. It's just unconscionable that these guys continue to run a system that has nothing to do with the reality that Americans want.

What do you think of the Republican notion that it's a First Amendment issue?

When they sat down, the Founding Fathers thought, "Boy, when we can get an Exxon-Mobil combination together and allow them to give all the money that they can and control the destiny of the country?" I mean, it's by the people and for the people, you idiot, not by the corporation and for the corporation and let's have another merger next Thursday.

How many of the candidates have you met personally?

I haven’t met any of them. They won't let me near ’em. Well, I met Bill Bradley on a plane, and I asked him not to run because it would mean that I couldn't like him anymore.

Friday, February 1, 2008

OC Interview: Megan Hickey of Last Town Chorus

Under the name Last Town Chorus, Megan Hickey creates sparse and gorgeous music (as I noted in today’s Boston Globe Sidekick, previewing her show tonight at the Lizard Lounge). Her second album, “Wire Waltz,” radiates hope amid desolation, the seduction of memory, and the human struggle to connect. Her voice and lap steel playing have won the praise of the New York Times, Spin, and London’s Sunday Times ("Waltz" was released in Europe several months before its American release), and even moved one fan to buy her an eight hundred dollar Rickenbacher Electro lap steel guitar she had mentioned on her blog. She also caught the ear of “Grey’s Anatomy” producers, who included her cover of David Bowie’s “Modern Love” in a scene last season.

I caught up with her by e-mail this week for the Curmudgeon (her e-mail punctuation is preserved).

Are you working on a follow-up to “Wire Waltz” any time soon?

I'm deep into writing and messing around with a new crop of songs. An album will come sometime in 2008. A digital-only single, “Loud and Clear,” hits on February 26th.

Why did “Waltz” debut in Europe before America?

A UK label had just re-issued my first album, so British ears were perked. Seemed natural.

What drew you to David Bowie’s “Modern Love?” Your arrangement on “Wire Waltz” is beautiful.

Merci. I'm a freak for 80s pop music. I played that song at a Bowie tribute here in New York, and never stopped.

How did the song wind up on Grey’s Anatomy? I understand TV exposure is great, but were you a fan of the show?

The show's music supervisor, in LA, played it for the show's creative staff. It became the soundtrack to Denny's Scrabble-induced heart attack. I thought the show was really well done - cinematic.

Was it strange to hear your music on TV?

Totally, dude.

Why did you name yourself “Last Town Chorus” instead of working under your own name?

I dreamed of a musical experience that transcended myself. Countless people feed and shape what The Last Town Chorus ultimately is... Musicians, live audiences, label comrades...even strangers I've never met in person but exchanged an email with. I'm just a conductor.

How did you come to play lap steel?

Blind date. It was brought over to my apartment by my original TLTC collaborator, Nat.

Is country music much of an influence, or is that too much of an assumption based on the lap steel? The New York Times review made a point of saying your playing was more “U2 than Buck Owens.”

I listen to gobs of mainstream country, but never know exactly how that seeps into my music. Harmonies for sure. Songs about places. Songs people relate to...that aren't too cool. And then there's that certain swing...

Do you have any favorite writers, musical or otherwise?

Musically, The Beatles all day and night. Literarily-speaking...James Thurber's humour. Rilke's poetry. Alice Munro's short stories.

Some of your songs don’t follow a typical verse/chorus structure. Do you have any particular musical touchstones that people might not guess from listening to your music?

Perhaps classical composers. Chopin's Nocturnes, for example...listened a million times... They manage to be devastatingly expressive and cathartic in a flowing, unwinding sort of musical form...without the devices of pop music, i.e. constant repetition of melodies and phrases. In pop music, which I utterly adore as a listener, a successful song is one where the listener can sense what's coming next, and feel gratified when (s)he was correct. In much of classical music, and in jazz too, the listener is often surprised...and is gratified when (s)he sheds expectation and is picked up and carried by the music. I employ whatever form works for each song.

Your voice draws comparisons to Mazzy Star and the Cocteau Twins – I’ve actually made the former in print myself. Do you find these flattering? Constraining?

I love when people tell me that they heard the music down someone's apartment hallway, or on a mix tape while driving in the desert, or when they walked into a club and saw us onstage. But as a fan of cognitive neuroscience, I understand the need for reference points when music is described in writing. Some references delight me, like the rare likening of my voice to Harriet Wheeler of the Sundays. We have similarly-shaped larynxes? Awesome!

How did Scott Miller contact you about the Electro? That must have been flattering, but perhaps a little frightening, to have someone you don’t know offer to buy you a guitar you had written about on your blog.

Scott emailed me that he wanted to give me the guitar. I then realized that I'd met him a couple times at my shows in D.C. I'd instinctively liked him, and he was friends with the brother-sister team who own the club. I think Scott and I are just two people who utterly adore music, both contributing to it in the ways we can.

Besides, I think he's too busy blogging about Dylan to bother with stalking and axe-murdering me.