David Cross & Friends

Note: This review is from 2007

Review by Steve Bennett

From this side of the Atlantic, it’s easy to put decent American comedians on to a pedestal. Not being ever-present on the British circuit, they automatically have a rarity value homegrown talent never will. Their reputations spread almost underground, like cult heroes, with comedy fans sharing newly-discovered YouTube and MySpace links, asking each other, ‘Have you seen this guy?’, happy to feel the exclusivity of being ‘in the know’.

Now David Cross has again crossed the pond, and this time brought three of his cultish compatriots with him. Expectations are high – this feels like event comedy any serious fan must attend – but can the visitors live up to the expectations?

In the case of Cross, the answer is, sadly, a qualified no. He hosts the show, ten minutes here and there, and does a decent job; but nothing special. His much-vaunted provocative edge and sharp attitude seem to have largely deserted him.

He proves his credentials with a couple of routines – a porno video called My Ass Is Haunted amuses him, and us, and there’s some nice observational shtick about the junkie who litter his East Village neighbourhood. But tonight, his sets never fly. He threatens to push the envelope with come-ons like ‘What’s worse than a paedophile?’, but then pulls it right back again, before we get to the meat.

He spends too long setting things up, such as a longwinded, rudderless preamble about being off his head in the Busch Gardens theme park or the gay flamingos in London Zoo. Such meandering makes it seem like he’s coasting along, happy to be mildly entertaining between the other acts. It’s jolly enough, but not the virtuoso display from a visiting comedy superstar we’d been expecting. It’s his name on the posters, but he’s acting as an effective, if unspectacular, compere.

His lesser-known friends, however, do provide more substantial comedy fare, even though their whimsical, deadpan styles are a world apart from the no-holds-barred stand-up fans of Cross might be expecting.

First, the dry-as-dust Todd Barry, intoning low-key gags in a weary monotone. He’s appealingly self-deprecating, both about that delivery that’s so deadpan it attracts complaints, and about his life as an awkward loser. The inherent misery is already amusing, and only heightened by his sharp, oblique writing. Not many people can get away with ‘I don’t want to contaminate the groundwater’ as a punchline, but Barry celebrates in such intellectual aloofness. The low energy does threaten to drag the set into a midway slump, but the quality of the writing ultimately wins through with some deliciously wry gags.

Kristen Schaal, who has a regular role as a mild-mannered stalker in Flight Of The Conchord’s new HBO series, is a self-consciously kooky Brooklynite, delivering her flighty material with cutesy lisp and sing-song pacing. The insecurities and the needy ditziness are exaggerated for laughs, and her stand-up throws up some neat lines from unexpected directions.

The energy of her set is disturbed, however, as she moves into sketch-like routines. There’s a sight gag about a bird in a cage she milks too much, then she reads from the diary of a suicidal caterpillar with a visual punchline you can see coming a mile off, even if there’s some silliness to enjoy en route.

The highlight of her performance, however, comes in the form of a splendidly surreal short film, Penelope Princess Of Pets, which is packed-to-bursting with odd and inventive gags. It is – of course – all over the internet, but proves not every bit of user-generated content is necessarily rubbish. Click here to view it.

The Americans are joined by a different British guest each night, and this time it was the turn of Jimmy Carr. His vicious wordplay went down a storm – providing, perhaps, some of those acidic, bad-taste barbs that we might have expected from Cross. No sensibility is left untrampled, but leave your squeamishness at home and you’ll enjoy the sheer craftsmanship of his elegant one-liners. He delivered gags from his clipboard, as is his wont, suggesting work-in-progress for his own tour later this year. A few of these lines seemed dated – odd for an expert on the joke-writing form - while others yet fell disappointingly flat. Not that such things overly concern the supercilious Carr, just a dismissive ‘fine’ to acknowledge the audience’s reaction, and we move on to the quality stuff.

Eugene Mirman revels in his own eccentricities, too; bigging himself up with promises to raise the Roof that his unassuming, geekily awkward persona suggests might be unlikely. But he has got some damn fine material, writing warning notices dispensing obvious but obscure advice, or goading the cold-callers that tried to convert him to a ‘Christian’ phone network. Some of his anecdotes can be fuzzy and disjointed, but at their heart are some strong comic ideas.

He, too, has brought along a MySpace-type video to show the audience, Adventures Of The Insane High Detective. This warped, stoner short, shot as seen through several kilos of top-grade narcotics, was more weird than funny – and perhaps more suited to the online audience than a real one. Mitchell & Webb’s drunken adventures of Sir Digby Chicken Cesar is a better sketch in a similar vein. But despite the film’s shortcomings, it didn’t overly detract from Mirman’s distinctive, original wit.

A mixed bag, then. Far from the stand-up event of the season you might have hoped for, but still a rare chance to see some unusual and inventive comics playing away from home. At a time when the London listings are full of open-mic nights and not-yet-finished Edinburgh shows in progress, David Cross’s friends, if not the man himself, are certainly worth a look-see.

Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
June 21, 2007

Review date: 1 Jan 2007
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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