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.

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