Sunday, February 26, 2012

"CrazyStupidPolitics" by Bill Maher

I don't find Bill Maher's newest comedy special very funny, but I do find it terribly interesting.

Maher has put out this, his newest hourlong special, not on HBO (where most of his previous stand-up specials, as well as his current talk show Real Time with Bill Maher, have aired) but instead streaming live at It's maybe a surprising move for a comic from an older generation of comics (Maher is 56 year old), but it seems fitting for Maher, who has spent years doing his own thing in the cable hinterlands after losing his network show in the wake of 9-11. And he'd be the first to tell you: He's already rich, and this seemed like a cool idea.

The material covered in this hour is pretty standard fare for Mare, as he takes predictable potshots at most of the figures from this year's political campaign season, as well as some of the easier religious and cultural targets. It's basically a greatest hits from his recent monologues , told to an adoring crowd that eats it all up. But something interesting happened in the middle there: Bill Maher announced that he was donating a million dollars to Barack Obama's reelection super PAC. Yes, with an over-sized check and everything.

Maher is positioning himself as not only in line with a specific political idealogy, but making a very real and aggressively open investment in his ideology by placing it in direct competition with the other side's dollar. It will be fascinating to see how he plays out his arguments in future shows, where dismissal of Maher's "ivory tower, Hollywood-elite" persona can't really be applied without reservation. If speech is money, Maher made a very loud statement. Not of the type of statement being toyed with by Stephen Colbert's own super Pac, which is the sort of system-gaming intended to highlight the joke underlying it all.

Rather, Maher wanted the personal satisfaction of being able to back up his barbs in the same way that conservative billionaires have been doing since the "Citizens United" ruling by the Supreme Court. In the process, Maher has positioned himself as less of a comedian and more of a direct agitator, a role that's perfectly suited for his day job as a TV personality. In the process, comedy specials like CrazyStupidPolitics will continue to have less relevance as works of humor, but perhaps more relevance as moments documenting one side of an ongoing culture war.

(CrazyStupidPolitics is available for free exclusively on Yahoo!)

Monday, February 6, 2012

"This Has to be Funny" by Marc Maron

If it seems like I'm skewing recent in these selections, it's because the world of comedy has changed so much these past few years. Digital recording and online media releases have meant that the world of comedy albums is growing exponentially, with many acts working toward a model of putting one new stand-up special/album out every single year. Part of the reason this is becoming so commonplace is the parallel rise of the era of comedy podcasts with the same technology that enables show recordings to be made quickly, easily, cheaply and at a substantially higher quality than ever before. The idea of putting forward as much content into the world at large is becoming a borderline necessity for comics looking to make their mark on audiences with more free time, yet shorter attention spans, than ever before.

Curious then, that arguably the most prominent figure in the realm of comedy podcasting today, Marc Maron, has "only" made four comedy albums in his long career. True, the gap between 2009's Final Engagement and 2011's This Has to be Funny was the shortest yet in his discography, but one might also think that at the rate that his podcast, WTF with Marc Maron, has grown in both listenership and stature in the entertainment industry, that Maron would be capitalizing on

Alas, Maron's a little too old-school for that. Life changes both personal and professional have always been the basis of his raw-nerve style of comedy, and Maron's material is all the better for the time he's taken to reflect on things. In fact, This Has to be Funny is something of a rebirth, a coming out party for the "new" Marc Maron, the one who is finding some satisfaction in his achievements (though never enough, obviously), and going with the flow of things a bit more. That's part of why it's by far my favorite of his comedy albums, as it's largely devoid of the black-hole negativity that characterized the spiral of Final Engagement, which at times felt almost like a comedic suicide note...

Listen to Maron marvel on a trip through the creationist museum, and externalize his own neurosis into an airline counter-terrorist frenzy and remember: This is the Marc Maron who's in a better place in his life. And, counter to some assumptions about the nature of comedy, he's really never been funnier.

(This Has to be Funny is available on iTunes, Amazon and Spotify)

Sunday, January 29, 2012

"Dilation" by Rory Scovel

I promise that we'll cover a lot of ground in this blog, including albums that weren't released in 2011, but I couldn't resist following up one of the most relentlessly positive comedians working today ("Live! Live your LIFE!") with something of a counterpoint.

It's not that Rory Scovel isn't likable. It's that, unlike many comedians, Scovel isn't afraid to spend time on stage not actively trying to be likable. He's willing to let his stage persona be what it is, and yet it never feels like he's holding the audience at arm's-length, the way a performer like Anthony Jeselnik (as great as he is) sometimes does. That a good chunk of his debut record is devoted to crowd work and in-the-moment demonstrates just how integral a sense of intimacy is to Scovel's style of comedy, and you get the sense that even after several minutes ridiculing a woman's apparently misguided love of her native Michigan, no ill will or grudges could possibly have been fostered.

Dilation is full of jokes that springboard Scovel into seeming tangents, several of which unfold as bits unto themselves. And the fact that every moment truly feels organic and natural proves just how much work it takes to make comedy seem so effortless.

(Dilation is available on iTunes, Amazon and Spotify)

Sunday, January 22, 2012

"Impregnated with Wonder" by Pete Holmes

Our inaugural selection is Impregnated with Wonder, the debut album from Pete Holmes, and my favorite comedy release of 2011.

What immediately stands out in Holmes' comedic sensibility is his willingness to simply be goofy. Opening with a bit about laughing out loud alone, he frequently revels in his own ridiculousness. While his enthusiastic style sometimes leans a bit on the "yelling guy" device for emphasis, it really never becomes grating, and repeat listenings soften the rough edges of Holmes' energetic performance. In the end, it becomes impossible not to appreciate how well-written and clearly-honed Holmes' observational riffs and flights of fancy are.

For interested listeners, Holmes is also the host of the You Made it Weird podcast, in which he gets incredibly personal with fellow funny people on his favorite off-mic subjects: Comedy, God, and sex. Holmes sometimes refers to the show as What the Heck with Pete Holmes, as it's very clearly inspired by Marc Maron's seminal WTF show. Fans of the latter will definitely enjoy this one too.

(Impregnated with Wonder is available on iTunes, Amazon and Spotify)