Year in Review: Standup Comedy

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2007 was a great year for music, but it was an even better year for stand-up comedy albums. I can’t blame anyone for not wanting to follow modern stand-up, since Dane Cook’s ability to sell millions of albums by telling zero jokes is frustrating not only comedically, but also mathematically. (How much money per joke does he make? Calculator error!) But if you can manage to look past such injustice, the year redeems itself in fine fashion. The year’s top five follow, courtesy of Rob Trump.

Michael Ian Black – I Am a Wonderful Man


Michael Ian Black is one of two Stella/The State members to release a debut stand-up album this year, and despite Michael Showalter’s superior musical ode to sandwiches, Black’s album is more consistent and an overall better effort. Both albums come somewhat closer to traditional stand-up than one might expect from members of two exceedingly strange sketch troupes, but Black does a great job of adapting his deadpan unpredictability to the format. He’s also surprisingly intelligent when he brings sarcasm to race issues. If you’re familiar with his vocal inflections from either show or from his many VH1 talking head appearances, imagine him saying this line: “The ‘white power’ crowd tend to be the disenfranchised whites, the people who don’t necessarily have all the power. So who do they blame? The rich and the powerful. In other words, the blacks and Hispanics.” It’s smart sarcastic race humor, and he does it in a much more intelligent, aware way than, say, Sarah Silverman.

4. Jen Kirkman – Self Help


Hey, speaking of Sarah Silverman, let’s hear it for the female comics today who are able to step out of her “Isn’t it funny that I’m a girl and saying this?” shadow and do comedy that isn’t as one-note and unfunny as a rape whistle. That is, let’s hear it for both Maria Bamford, whose album just missed my cut, and Jen Kirkman, who has a voice and style not predicated on her gender and not quite like any other comic I’ve listened to. She’s neurotic, but she parlays this into derisive jokes that are half making fun of other people and half making fun of herself for having such a mean defense mechanism. In possibly her best bit, Kirkman can’t stop thinking about easy it would be to kill some of her friends and then gets very upset at how similar she may be to an actual serial killer. I can’t capture the same effect of her rapid speech in print, but her performance deconstructing that particular neurosis is comedic gold.

Patton Oswalt – Werewolves and Lollipops


David Cross has occupied Bill Hicks’ throne as the best filthy, vitriolic, liberal comic of this generation for a while now. For me, though, Cross has always been a little too obvious and lazy with word choice to be a great stand-up comedian. Ratatouille’s Oswalt, by contrast, on his second and best album, is an aggressive and articulate performer who swoops from science to cultural minutiae to absurdity so quickly that when he runs head-on into politics, it’s unexpected and completely hilarious. His best bit starts as a Seinfeld-but-fouler examination of the number of birthdays people should have, then degenerates into a description of the proclamations of a hypothetical 120-year-old president: “‘Starting today, everybody has to marry a pelican!’ ‘You heard the president, son. At least you’re not in the desert dying on a fucking lie. God bless our president. Give your new mom a fish and let’s go to the White House and give thanks.’” Any other comic doing political humor, take notes.

Steven Wright – I Still Have a Pony

This release alone would make 2007 a notable year for stand-up comedy, as the only other album Wright has ever released, 1985’s I Have a Pony, has become a genre classic. Wright took stand-up in a completely different direction than anyone else at the time; he focused on word economy and deadpan delivery, distilling all of his comedic ideas to a monotone one- or two-liner. Now, due his to obvious influence on comics like Mitch Hedberg and Zack Galifianakis, Wright’s comedy doesn’t seem quite as novel, but it’s still impossible to imagine any other comic getting as big a laugh out of three words as Wright does when he says, “Imagine Pulitzer prizefighting.” This kind of wordplay with common phrases continues when Wright picks up a guitar. “This next song doesn’t go something like this,” he says at one point. “It goes exactly like this.” Nobody, not even Hedberg, is as good at stuff like this as Wright.

1. Paul F. Tompkins – Impersonal

If you know Paul F. Tompkins, you probably recognize him from the aforementioned Cross’ Mr. Show, maybe the best sketch comedy show ever. A lot of comedians associated with the show, such as Cross and Brian Posehn, are pointedly “newer-generation” comics, so it’s strange how old-fashioned Tompkins’ stand-up feels. He rarely swears, dissects topics slowly, and generally avoids political or personal issues (hence the title, I suppose). He has also recorded one of the most consistently hilarious stand-up albums I’ve ever heard. In interviews, Tompkins often cites Bob Newhart as an influence, which makes a lot of sense—they both tend to mine a central topic to the extreme before moving onto the next. As Newhart, and maybe Seinfeld as well, Tompkins shows that when that idea is good enough, it can sustain for quite a while. He spends a good minute and a half making fun of people who are “thrown off” by daylight savings time (“Is this milk still good? Who is the president? Do I have a great bushy beard?”), mocks jazz better than I’ve heard anyone savage any genre of music, and eventually builds to a six-minute, pervasively sarcastic discussion of that gag peanut-brittle-in-a-can that is secretly filled with spring-loaded snakes. In an impression of the type of person who would fall for the gag, Tompkins says, “I think I like it so much because I’m just so used to eating it. Peanut brittle out of the can.”

Flight of the Conchords’ The Distant Future EP, which is absolutely hilarious but neither strictly stand-up nor a full-length album.

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  1. whoa

    allow me to be the first to say, easy with the dane cook

  2. alexw  

    Dane Cook hatred is gone past the point of being acceptable, and is now to be expected. Thankfully, it goes without saying that Dane Cook sucks, because actually saying it would require more energy than the subject is worth. Trump seems to have nailed this.

    Also, I like that you picked Jen Kirkman and noted that she isn't of the Sarah Silverman, "WOAOAH I HAVE A VAGINA CHECK ME OUT NIGGERCHINKLOL" brand of comedy. Also, Kirkman is a Red Sox fan.

  3. why do  

    comedians never use chairs?

    then they'd be sit-down comedians!

  4. Music?  

    I thought it was a fucking awful year for music. When was the last time a really great album was released that wasn't R&B? It makes me sad.

  5. Anonymous

    Michael Ian Black's album is "I Am A Wonderful Man." And he is.

    Just out of curiosity, what other comedians were considered or close (besides Maria Bamford)?

    • rjt

      Thanks for catching my mistake. In response to your question...

      Other comedians who released albums I liked this year (other than Bamford and Showalter, whom I mentioned): George Carlin and Mike Birbiglia. Comedians who released albums that I disliked or quit halfway through: Lisa Lampanelli, George Lopez, Cook, Nick Swardson, and Joe Rogan. There are probably a few more in each category that I'm forgetting.

      As far as Doug Stanhope goes, I haven't heard a ton of him, but what I have, I wasn't terribly impressed. I think he comes off as both horribly misogynistic and more impressed with himself for being angry than truly vitriolic. I'll try to some more on your reccomendation, though.

      I also think Cross is always really self-impressed. Like I sort of said in this review, I think Oswalt, though he is more different from Hicks than Cross or Stanhope, is a better successor to his throne. Nobody's as good as Hicks, though. And on him: Arizona Bay is better than Rant in E-minor. Discuss.

      (P.S. It's awesome that at least two people are interested enough in stand-up to make this worth writing. Thanks, Justin and Alex! And anyone else who actually read this and has an opinion!)

      • alexw  

        This was pretty much a banner year for Joe Rogan, though. I couldn't give a shit about his material, but he got a lot of internet cred after calling out Mencia for his thievery. Regardless of whether it's true or not, insulting Carlos Mencia is something I can get behind.

        He has, however, come out as a big time conspiracy theorist. Not just in regards to 9/11, but also about the fucking Moon Landings.

      • alexw  

        Man, watching Dane Cook's "Rough Around the Edges (Live at Madison Square Garden) is like watching old clips of Andrew Dice Clay: Little to no actual material and hordes of truly idiotic fans. They replaced a disgusting leather jacket with a too-tight T-shirt, and "Mother Hubbard" with the Superfinger. Ugh.

  6. Sarah Silverman

    is an amazing comic to watch in the company of your own mother. I speak from experience.

  7. justing

    Rob. Buddy. David Cross is not this generation's Bill Hicks. Doug Stanhope is. Funnier associations, better-structured arguments, less whining. And a hundred times filthier. Comparing David Cross to Doug Stanhope is like inserting a steering column in a dump and trying to race it against a Mercedes. Though he didn't release an album this year, his Showtime special No Refunds is well worth your time.

  8. alexw  

    Plus I do have a thing for David Cross. I just don't like Stanhope's delivery, even if David Cross is whiny.

    Also: TOBIAS.

  9. justing

    Only because Stanhope is better. Hicks, for all his brilliance, was actually kind of a shitty performer. I think Stanhope's got a greater focus on stage, and I love how he will leave a thought strain alone through several other points before returning to it and making it work even better. Hicks' thought progression always felt a little linear (eat that, shape man) to me, and I was always left underwhelmed by his delivery. Brilliant ideas, but the performance is a little lacking. Maybe it's the voice. I'd put 'em about even brainpower-wise, but Stanhope is just plain funnier.

    Anyway, everyone always tells me there's no Bill Hicks when they haven't listened to Stanhope, but every review of his invariably starts off with lines of the "Wait no more...we've finally found the next one" variety. Give him a whirl. I think you'd like him.

    • Anonymous

      "Hicks, for all his brilliance, was actually kind of a shitty performer"

      I know every one is entilted to their opinion, but sometimes I wish this was not the case.
      I have NEVER heard anyone say Bill Hicks was a shitty performer . it is just not true. He was a true
      ly gifted and talented man and the world is a better place because he was in it. a comic legend. with such comments one can only assume that it is you
      my friend that is a shitty judge of what is or is not a good performer. in my opinion.

      • justing

        Let me clarify my point, because you seem to have missed it. The brilliance of Hicks, I think, lies in what he's saying, rather than how he's saying it. You could read a transcription of his act, and I think it would come off just as hilarious and intelligent as if you were to see it on a stage. He's like a Carlin, in that there's nothing particularly unique about his delivery that adds to what he's saying; the genius comes from the words themselves. On the other end of the spectrum, you have someone like a Mitch Hedberg, where the delivery is what makes everything work. If you tried reading a transcript of Hedberg's act, you might chuckle now and again, but it'd be nowhere near as funny. The best comedians in my mind, then, lie somewhere in the middle. With someone like Pryor or Cosby, there's a definite genius to the jokes themselves, but just as many laughs come from the nuances of how they tell them. Think of the little twinge of exasperation that enters Pryor's voice, the way he slows his cadence that makes you double over twice as hard. To me, there is nothing particularly nuanced about Hicks' delivery; he's very straightforward in the way he speaks, and even his act-outs (the segments of the joke where the comedian takes on the perspective of whatever they've been discussing) generally are delivered in his normal speaking voice. He is brilliant, and he is beyond funny, but I could not put him delivery-wise on the same plane as some others. Easily top five of all-time, but, again, more for what he said than how he said it.

        Rob: Those are definite criticisms of Stanhope, and it may be something that one needs to push through to get to the juicy comic meat underneath. I would start with his latest work (the Showtime special) and go backwards if it grabs you; I feel like he was handed the Hicks mantle just because he was so provocative, but then over the past five years, he's actually evolved to embody it.

        I didn't know this many people liked stand-up. What's everybody's favorite current bit? Right now, I am listening to the "McDonald's" track on Chris Rock's Born Suspect two or three times a day. "Look, if I could pay you less, I would...but it's against the law" is one of the most perfectly delivered lines in the history of anywhere, and the bit about trying to cut a deal at McDonald's gets me every time.

        • zum

          steve martin's doing laryngitis on the tonight show

        • rjt

          My favorite single Bill Hicks bit is "Dinosaurs in the Bible" from Arizona Bay, on which I think his delivery is fantastic. In general, I think I'd actually agree with you in terms of the words being way more important than the delivery on Rant in E-Minor, because it's pretty straightforward and angry, but I think he's more nuanced and better on Arizona Bay. I love both, and I was really into Rant in E-Minor for a while, but I find myself listening to Arizona Bay much more often.

          Favorite bits, more generally? Richard Pryor's "Our Gang" from the album Bicentennial Nigger contains, I think, the best few minutes of stand-up I've ever heard. I've listened to it at least 20 times, and the last minute still makes me laugh uncontrollably. As you might guess, I've also been listening to Oswalt's "You Are Allowed 20 Birthdays" and Tompkins' "Peanut Brittle" a lot.

  10. justing

    Haha...we both just made the same point in opposite directions.

    Bottom line, we're comedy nerds.

  11. justing

    Love that clip, of course. But the next time, we're in the same state, I'll show you Stanhope's Austin Bootleg DVD. He has conspiracy theorist Alex Jones open for him, and, as you can imagine, the entire gig goes to shit. But rather than scream and rant at the hecklers (as Hicks does, albeit wonderfully), Stanhope takes them on in a perfectly sound rational fashion and basically kills them where they stand. S'why I like him more. Hicks states his opinions, and he backs them up as such. Stanhope builds these wonderful traps of logic for audiences to fall into, and he weaves his own opinions in and out of them like a prizefighter. I get the sense that Hicks is telling me things about the world, while Stanhope is showing them.

    As for Cross, I like his other work, but his stand-up leaves me wanting. Plus from what I hear he is kind of a crap dude. Let's just trade each other mix CD's of our favorite bits and draw hearts on them.

  12. alexw  

    I've heard about that Stanhope show, mostly because of my hatred for Alex Jones. I must hear it.

  13. The Dink  

    How is Frank Calienda not on this list? Oh right, most Bwog columnists have never heard of ESPN and therefore don't get his jokes. With the exception of anything related to Mr. Show, this list is weak.

  14. ummm

    Rob, rape whistles are hilarious.

  15. invisible_hand

    i agree with the general sentiment that david cross' standup is far inferior to his transcendent comedic acting. mr. show, arrested development, really anything. he just has the best delivery when it comes to characters.
    but when he is playing himself, during his standup, he's just angry and bitter. he's not clever, really, and there's no joy in what he is doing. i mean, i am as liberal as they come, i agree with all of his politics, but they grate on me when he makes "jokes" about it.
    in re: to female comedians, it always pisses me the hell off when people talk about how women aren't funny etc. argh. i strongly encourage, nay beg, everyone to check out oh my goodness, some of the best sketch i have seen in a long time (i know this is about stand up, leave me alone.)
    and in re: to hicks. i have that whole performance, the last one, on my computer. who ever wants to watch it and laugh and weep for the world, email me.

    • alexw  

      regarding Jackie Clarke: She actually grew up no more than a few hundred yards from my house, and I had to pleasure of doing an improv show with her once. She is is one of the best improv comedians I know of in the city, period. She has a real grating nature to her voice and she knows how to use it absolutely perfectly. "Obsessed with Julie and Jackie" is a great show, but if you ever get a chance, go see Jackie in "Wicked Fuckin' Queeah." They only do it once a year at the Del Close Marathon, but Jackie says it's just the most fun she has.

  16. rjt

    Did Caliendo release a stand-up album this year? The best I could find in some searches was that he released some album of bits from a radio show, which wouldn't qualify for this. I'll admit that I've never heard his stand-up, and I'm willing to try it, but I'm not too excited because his sketch comedy show is godawful.

    Also, re: Joe Rogan. I'm hesitant to praise comics just for calling out other, bad comics, because I think that's really too easy. Have you ever heard Andy Kindler? Pretty much his whole act is making fun of bad comics, and it makes me think: you're right, but so what? Have some decent material of your own that isn't based on only playing to comedy nerds who already hate Dane Cook, and then we'll see. Also, yeah, Andrew Dice Clay was awful.

    Re: female comedians. I'm pretty sure that nobody who has made a decent effort to find good female comedians thinks that there aren't any. It's a shame that so many people haven't and feel that way, though.

    As long as people are talking about ranting comedians, has anyone ever listened to Dylan Moran? He's more disaffected than angry, but I think he's easily one of the funniest comedians currently working:

  17. LOLZ

    The biggest joke of all: taking a bwog top anything list seriously.

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