Year in Review: Standup Comedy
Written by Bwog Staff
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.
5. 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.
3. 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.
2. 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.
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.”
HONORABLE MENTION: Flight of the Conchords’ The Distant Future EP, which is absolutely hilarious but neither strictly stand-up nor a full-length album.