Surely aware of this, America’s Comedy Central has begun to release stand-up CDs from some top US acts on to the British market, possibly trying to encourage legitimate purchases without the annoyance of those pesky shipping and import charges.
One of the first is from the bone-dry Todd Barry, who, incidentally, is coming to London next week. This fortysomething New Yorker probably one of the most under-rated comedians in America; respected by his peers but without the wider profile to match.
From Heaven is his third album, and his very lack of success is one of the constant themes, as he boasts sarcastically of the glamorous showbiz life he most certainly doesn’t live. People who’ve caught a glimpse of him on TV may believe he hangs out with Chris Rock and employs an army of staff to deal with his correspondence, when in fact he rents a shabby New York apartment, where suspicious brown water leaks through the ceiling.
Such everyday disappointment is what drives his world-weary comedy. He’s tired of idiots who say dumb things to him – of whom there are many – of the daily grind of shopping and gigging, of the pointlessness of much of modern existence. However minor the inconvenience is, it becomes personally onerous to him, and he’s going to have a good, embittered gripe about it. Likewise, it doesn’t take much to get his goat – saying ‘fridge’ rather than ‘refrigerator’ is a fatal character flaw in his eyes – prompting another misanthropic moan.
His 50-minute set comes with its own commentary, talking about how the gig’s going and making hollow boasts about his own talent that ill-match the miserable, deadpan delivery. Such techniques are increasingly in vogue, but still effective in Barry’s experienced hands.
The low-energy style – anathema to most of the hard-hitting American circuit – means he might miss out on the gut-busting, beer-snorting hilarity of more expressive comics, but the writing is subtle, precise and aridly entertaining, and always with an offbeat edge. All of which comes out well on CD.
From Heaven was recorded in a suitably downbeat location – a Chinese restaurant-cum-comedy-club in Massachusetts – last year, where you can hear crockery clunking and punters chatting. It’s very much a real, intimate gig, with Barry bantering with the audience, quizzing the guy who got free noodles or asking questions to try to localise his act. This all provides atmosphere, without leaving a feeling that you’re missing out on not being there.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, in almost every possible way, is Dane Cook’s Rough Around The Edges, recorded in the slightly more prestigious Madison Square Gardens. But the location makes the CD almost impossible to listen to, before you even consider the paucity of Cook’s so-called material.
This is, essentially, a CD of cheering, whooping and hollering, with some idiot talking over it. You would almost think this is some teenager hunched over his bedroom computer who’s dubbed his half-baked ideas about stand-up over some vintage Rolling Stones concert footage to make it sound like he’s playing a stadium gig.
But it’s not. Incomprehensibly, Cook is one of the most popular comedians in America – a phenomenal success that is possibly the most depressing thing ever to happen to the art of stand-up.
His act is the blandly observational, repeating things that happen with no extra spin, from the vague point of view of a party-loving frat boy. His frame of reference is playing Grand Theft Auto, going to strip clubs, vegging out in front of Oprah and high-fiving his mates.
Very little he says is of any interest or originality, whether it be about women who remember misdeeds to drag up in arguments much, much later, to the panic of condoms splitting during sex.
He swaggers around a lot – metaphorically and literally, as you can tell from the accompanying DVD of the same performance. But it’s all empty posturing, which he, and his countless fans, have somehow mistaken for genuine attitude.
From the phenomenal amount of noise that greets his every pronouncement, you would think he was the comedy Messiah. Never mind whether it’s supposed to be a punchline or not, a set-up line as inane as ‘I watch Lost, it’s my favourite show’ is greeted with a deafening Whooooooo! It’s as if 20,000 peope have, as one, gone ‘Wow, he likes a show I like, I’d better howl like a werewolf’. Why?
Ear-shattering, guttural screams punctuate his every sentence. Well, punctuate in the completely natu!!!!ral way those exclamation marks just did, as they have no regard for the rhythm of what he’s saying. And when he says something even a little bit sassy, such as: ‘Listen here, gaylord, I didn’t eat you fucking ice cream’, hysteria breaks outs. It’s enough to make your ears bleed.
But for all the noise, there’s actually very little laughter. People are shouting themselves hoarse to a painful degree, which is a conscious decision to show some s support for Cook, rather than the involuntary reflex of a chuckle.
Cook’s main trick is to extend his scenarios for a long time, so after a while people know they’re supposed to holler, in acknowledgment at the fact that because he’s banged on about something for so long, it’s must be a joke. So the one time he does come up with a great idea – about charity TV ads – he bleeds it dry.
It’s a travesty that Cook’s a megastar, while the infinitely more talented Mitch Hedberg died in 2005 still a fringe, cult figure. Maybe it’s all down to focus – while Cook invested heavily in marketing, Hedberg invested heavily in drugs.
Mitch All Together, his second and final album, recorded in a Minnesota comedy club in 2003, is as fine an as example of his work as you’re likely to find. Not that there’s all that much to choose from.
The CD is only 40 minutes long, but the brisk set is so jam-packed full of brilliant, creative gags, that it’ll bear many repeat plays. His approach is rare in that it’s wonderfully oblique without being obscure or self-indulgently surreal. The comedy clearly comes from a sharp insight into the chasm between what we say and do, which he exposes with deft linguistic twists. He’s Stephen Wright, but with attitude.
The off-the-wall thoughts are conveyed in a parade of no-nonsense, expertly constructed one-liners that come at you at impressive lick. A stoner shouldn’t be this precise, but while his distinctive short, stabbing, arrhythmic delivery is impressively succinct, it still manages to subtly convey his laissez-faire liberal character.
The CD comes bundled with a DVD containing a brief TV set and two versions of his half-hour Comedy Central special, edited and unedited. Not that seeing Hedberg perform adds much to the audio – he’s static, and spends most the show gazing at his shoes, only occasionally peering up through his fringe to see how a gag fared. Basically, he’s doing everything the ‘how to do stand-up’ wisdom tells you not to do. But when the jokes are this good, you can break all the rules of how to present it.
Hedberg was one of the greats, although his early death means he leaves only a limited legacy. Any serious comedy fan needs this in their collection.
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
All three albums have recently been released on Comedy Central records. Here are the links to buy them from Amazon.