Bwog Know Your Web Series
Critic Rob Trump sums up the year in stand-up. Here’s what you missed in 2008 and what to make sure you catch in 2009.

2008 didn’t have as many incredible releases in stand-up comedy as 2007, but overall I’d say that it was a little deeper and had more worthwhile stuff.  Here’s the best. 

5. Doug Benson – Professional Humoredian

If you’re familiar with Doug Benson, it’s probably from his appearances on Best Week Ever or his stint on Last Comic Standing losing to people much less funny than him.  It took me a little while to warm to his sing-songy delivery, which makes him seem like a goofier comic than he really is.  One you get used to it though, you’ll realize that it’s his way of making the audience feel at ease so they’ll come along with him to his strangest, funniest bits.  Benson’s jokes and stories aren’t usually about himself, but his perpetually oblivious persona is at the center of his best jokes, like this one: “Someone just the other day asked me, ‘Who are you voting for president, and why?’And I said, ‘That is my personal business, and because he’s black.’”  Or at the end of his album — by which time a listener has come to appreciate Benson for the oddball he is — he whips out some real weirdness: “Have you ever been driving along in your car, smoking  a cigarette, and you flick it out the window, and then you drive for a few miles, and you start to smell smoke, and you turn around and you look in the back seat, and Grandma is fingering herself?”  Benson is self-aware, absurd comedy at its best.

4. George Carlin – It’s Bad For Ya

One of the saddest losses in a year that seemed full of them, George Carlin was one of the greatest stand-up comics that ever lived.  But along with many other fans of his, I’ve frequently been down on Carlin for abandoning his earlier punchline-heavy material on Class Clown and FM & AM for more preachy but less funny material in his later years.  Which is why I’m glad to report that his final album before he died, It’s Bad For Ya, is much funnier than most of his late-era stuff — even if not quite at the historic heights of his first few releases.  It’s amazing that after fourteen of his own HBO specials and countless comedians imitating him, he still can find stupid religious and cultural foibles to ridicule.  In one surreally prescient bit, he makes fun of how people talk after someone dies: “‘Phil Davis died?  I just saw him yesterday!’ ‘Yeah?  Didn’t help.  He died anyway.  Apparently the simple act of your seeing him did not slow his cancer down.’”  Lots of other comics wrote paeans to Carlin after his passing, but I might direct you to Louis CK’s tribute, which is one of the best, and allows me to mention that CK’s album would have been #6 if I were making a bigger list.

3. Andrew Daly – Nine Sweaters

Character-based stand-up comedy is hard to do right.  In fact, I think that before I heard Daly, I’d have written it off as something that across-the-board never works.  But Andrew Daly’s collection of eleven characters — who share themselves with the audience for anywhere from six to thirteen minutes — completely changed my mind.  Every single one of them has a great comedic hitch, most of which are dark: his Irish master of Blarney tells tall tales to cover up the violent, misogynistic truth of what he’s actually done; his former son of a C-list celebrity now gets coked up and attempts to run terrible scams; his fortune-teller sees a future that is perverted and specific to his own desires.  For my money, though, the funniest characters are the parodies of certain types of stand-up: one of his characters only makes extremely specific local references, one is a content-less observational comic reminiscent of Fred Armison’s Nicholas Fehn, and one spits out dirty-old-man humor.  Maybe the funniest is a comic who’s recently been turned invisible (performed with an offstage mic), rendering his self-deprecatory fat jokes — “I’m not allowed to go to the circus anymore; after the crowd gets a look at me the elephants don’t seem so impressive!” — completely dead.  The confused pause, then huge laughs from the audience is twice as fun to listen to as the jokes.

2. Mitch Hedberg — Do You Believe in Gosh?

Is it bad that two of these albums are by deceased comics?  I don’t think that indicates that it’s been a subpar year, just that stand-up has lost some giants as of late.  Hedberg, in contrast to Carlin, had not in my mind put out a truly great album while he was alive.  Most big fans disagree with me, but I think that both Strategic Grill Locations and Mitch All Together have some pretty weak spots.  It took Do You Believe in Gosh? , three years after Hedberg’s death, for me to really buy the hype that he was one of the best comedic minds of his generation.  It’s much more casual than his other recordings, in a smaller venue that I think accentuates the sharpness of Hedberg’s writing.  He follows in the one- or two-line tradition of Steven Wright, but is usually a little more observational, and delivers everything as if he were a cartoon of a stoned surfer.  “I went to a store that specializes in hard-to-find records and tapes,” he deadpans, “Nothing was alphabetized.”  And, after one of his frequent comments to himself that “that was a dumb joke,” he ruminates, “If I had a dollar for every time I said that, I would be making money in a very weird way.”  You and Carlin will both be missed, Mitch.

1. Todd Barry – From Heaven

People who know me well probably know that not only is Todd Barry is one of my favorite stand-up comics, he’s almost certainly the biggest single influence on my own stand-up.  (Entirely-earned aside: I do stand-up!  See me at Caroline’s New Talent Night on January 26th!)  Barry’s delivery has always been a strong point; he’s laid-back and economical like Hedberg or Wright, but instead of being surreal with his low energy, he’s viciously ironic.  Barry is so sarcastic-beyond-sarcasm that it’s impossible to figure what parts he truly means and what parts he doesn’t, and trying to do so would be missing the point.  His previous two albums, Medium Energy and Falling off the Bone, were both good, but occasionally picked targets too easy or undeserving of his scorn for me to follow along with him entirely.  From Heaven, however, is filled with Barry anecdotes about people you’d want to punch, which makes it all the more satisfying when Barry slays them with a just couple sentences.  In one bit, Barry talks about a woman who said to him, “I keep getting parking tickets. After I get a parking ticket, I go, ‘God, I hope they just give this money to the homeless.’”  Barry pauses the perfect amount of time before his response: “Yeah, I guess they could.  Or you could learn how to read a No Parking sign, pretend you got the ticket anyway, and write a check directly to the homeless.  There’s no connection between the homeless problem and your shitty parking skills.”  He’s similarly cruel to all sorts of pedestrian idiocy, and it’s hilarious every time.

For the record, because someone asked last year, here’s some other stuff I heard this year and liked: Kathy Griffin, Louis C.K., Tom McCaffrey, Andi Smith, Lewis Black, Eddie Griffin, Bill Burr, Dov Davidoff.  Here’s what I heard and didn’t like or quit halfway through: Lisa Landry, Rocky Laporte, Robert Kelly, Pablo Fransisco, John Pinette, Gabriel Iglesias, and Josh Sneed