Jen Kirkman – “I’m Gonna Die Alone (And I Feel Fine)”

Grade: A-

On her last special, 2011’s “Hail to the Freaks,” Jen Kirkman was blessed with a wealth of material for stand-up – she had just gotten married. Now it’s four years later, and Kirkman has found herself with an even bigger plate of material – divorce. And turning 40. “Freaks” had a weird mismatch, of Kirkman’s largely cynical comedy battling with her joy of being married. All of that is swept under the rug on her new Netflix special, in favor of well over an hour of jokes and stories about self-love and self-confidence in defiance of age and gender standards.

Much of “I’m Gonna Die Alone” is devoted to how Kirkman at first uncomfortably, and now comfortably stands against the ideals of what a 40 year old is “supposed” to be. Kirkman is free, literally, to criticize those with kids, or to date anyone (including a 20 year old drummer, two days after her and her husband separated). On “Freaks,” a 36 year old Kirkman sounded surprisingly happy to be settling into a married life, one she never thought she’d fit into. Looking back now, present-day Kirkman realizes she was probably right all along.

Outside of marriage and divorce, Kirkman’s special still deals heavily with age. She struggles to find breakfast for her 17 years younger drummer boyfriend because she’s forgotten what it’s like to have to eat immediately. She attributes losing 40 pounds to standing while watching TV and having an occasional cigarette. And when she finds gray pubic hairs, she’s worried it’s going to look like barbed wire.

Kirkman’s confidence has risen considerably in the years since “Freaks.” She’s cynical, but she’s not bitter. Her cynicism is instead placed in her proud and utter rejection of societal standards. She doesn’t let anything weigh her down. She could easily (and maybe expectedly) taken the self-deprecating route that so many comedians have gone down in the wake of Louis CK, but she doesn’t. One of the special’s strongest suits is how easily Kirkman is able to dig out her niche in the world and observe it from the outside. Even in one of the special’s opening bits, about Dave, a man who doesn’t know the difference between lemons and limes, Kirkman observes the stupidity of humankind as an outsider. By ignoring the social norms she once embraced, she’s crafted a unique voice, and it has sharpened her comedy and delivery. With heightened TV appearances and a best-selling book under her belt, Kirkman is still on the rise. “I’m Gonna Die Alone (and I Feel Fine)” feels like a caged animal trying to get out. And watch out, because it’s soon going to be free.

If you like this, try: Kyle Kinane’s recent album, ““I Liked His Old Stuff Better,”” is one that departs from the expected self-deprecation route just like this one (and has already become one of my favorite stand-up albums).

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Brooks Wheelan – “This is Cool, Right?”

Grade: B+

Key Bits: “new york stuff” “saturday night live stuff”

There was a sketch on Saturday Night Live recently, but not too recently, that was a play on Family Feud. It was a network edition. On one side stood CBS – host Jimmy Fallon as Jim Parsons, Taran Killam as Ashton Kutcher, John Milhiser as Jon Cryer and Noel Wells as Alyson Hannigan. On the other side stood NBC – Justin Timberlake as Fallon, Kate McKinnon (praise) as Jane Lynch, Jay Pharoah as Ice-T, and Brooks Wheelan. As himself. An SNL cast member. At the time, I laughed at the meta-humor and focused on Timberlake jumping around onstage as Fallon. But, this sketch really defined Wheelan’s presence at SNL, as a comic who was both too grounded and too weird to exist in the NBC universe. And, after his quick firing, Wheelan is out on his own – making that discord work.

It isn’t perfect. Wheelan spends basically the whole album talking about his upbringing, hoping to bank on comedy experiences to bolster his next work. But, Wheelan’s presence as both a bro-comic and an absurdist is strong here, and it’s so conclusive that it’s almost tough to know what to make of him. Wheelan talks about being an incredibly awkward child, through his love of ranking people he knows through brackets without their knowledge, and delivers it in such a way that we all can sympathize, even though that’s beyond crazy. He talks about being the youngest of three brothers in a small Iowa town, but his NYC experiences elevate those memories past the small-town boy charm.

Wheelan might jump from a joke about his brothers pranking him to a bit about how JFK really died from terrible rat breath and that the government covered it up; it’s an elaborate stand-up presence, one that shows that Wheelan is still finding his exact, specific footing.

Where Wheelan’s strengths lie, ironically, is in trying to find out exactly who he is as a comedian. The best bits he delivers on this album are family related – reacting to his father killing a possum with a rock in the garage, dipping his balls in a bottle of Scope that his older brothers used – but he also responds with absolutely unexpected reactions. He ends with pitching all his unused SNL sketches – most of which are weird, cerebral and outlandish (and outstanding, naturally).

He pitches at least eight sketches that SNL didn’t pick up, including a “Field of Dreams” where the players are Nazis, a pair of 109 year old grandfathers who are given Spencer’s gift cards, and an Australian tourist in America who can’t stop saying that Steve Irwin’s death was their 9/11. It’s brilliantly and delightfully weird, just the type of weird that could permeate SNL without making any waves. And on the album, Wheelan sounds a little resentful of his brief time at the show. He wasn’t on air much, and it sounds like it was a struggle on both sides to get his work up. Most of his failed sketches are brilliant, but just not the type to succeed on SNL, and his weird hybrid comedy just couldn’t survive there.

SNL has a history of passing on goldmines – Sarah Silverman, Zach Galifianakis, Louis CK and Larry David all had brief stints at the show before leaving unceremoniously. Wheelan never struck out to me much on SNL, but it might be because he never got his chance to. But on his own terms, on a debut album, he’s completely convincing. Wheelan is the bro-absurdist that could bridge gaps we didn’t know could be bridged.

If you like this, try: Kumail Nanjiani’s “Beta Male.” Kumail’s experiences growing up are decidedly different (Iowa v. Pakistan), but his content and delivery is similar to Wheelan’s.

Kyle Kinane – “”I Liked His Old Stuff Better””

Grade: A-

Key Bits: “This Track is Not Called 8 Ball” “This Track is Not Called Dopeman”

Comedy is tough on people that aren’t young. Kinane, at age 38, isn’t old, but you wouldn’t guess it. In his new special, he relates himself to the elderly via buying shelled nuts and fighting a battle against them. Kinane struggles with approaching middle age in a few segments, lamenting being “closer to the end than the beginning” and “tailgating your own funeral” at one point. One of the album’s best jokes lies in how Kinane finds himself reading signs out loud when he’s driving alone, imagining his brain is running diagnostics (“weird, bored Dad shit”). Jokes about burning his laundry and throwing change in the trash make Kinane uncomfortable with how his mind is seemingly rapidly degrading.

Age works in the other direction, too. Two of the album’s best bits are semi-repressed memories from his early 20’s – one, of a house party ruined by a confusing, out of place cop, and the other about the accidentally felonious blowjob he got behind a grocery store. Rarely do stand-up specials have themes that can run through the whole special, but Kinane manages to relate nearly every joke and story to the aging process. And the few bits that don’t, including saying “God bless you” to a cat and recounting his parents searching to find his interview in an issue of “Hustler,” land just as well.

What makes Kinane unique is his voice, both in the physical and metaphorical sense. Kinane has the gruff voice of a lumberjack who just slammed down a glass of whiskey (and he very well could be). Comedy Central hired Kinane to record their promos, he’s the voice you hear in their commercials (i.e. “Next Wednesday on an all new Broad City”). And his ‘voice’ is one that’s weirdly optimistic. Although much of this special is self-deprecating, Kinane always has the choice in his humor to do mean jokes, but almost never opts to. There’s an upbeat rhythm in his voice, that grabs the listener. Even if he’s talking about coroners hitting on women at a party or dropping a brick on a frog, he has an aura to him that makes it feel like things are going to be okay. I can’t say there are many comedians like that.

“”I Liked His Old Stuff Better”” is Kinane’s third special, and it follows in the trend of pointless track titles. His first two specials had bits that were named after songs by Cheap Trick and KISS, respectively. This special is all of the songs from “Straight Outta Compton,” preceded by “This Track is Not Called [track title].” It makes remembering bits for later a little difficult, but it doesn’t give away bits like other comedians would (my favorite comedy album, John Mulaney’s “New in Town,” has a bit titled “Asian American Woman” that gives away the big punchline).

“”I Liked His Old Stuff Better”” is an excellent comedy album, that proves Kinane is one of the funniest and most interesting people in comedy today. I’ve already listened to it a second time.

If you like this, try: Marc Maron. But since anyone familiar with Kinane obviously knows Maron, I’ll say Eugene Mirman’s “God is a Twelve Year Boy With Asperger’s.” I might say that because that’s the album I jumped to after listening to this last night, but the two comedians do share a voice that’s more welcoming than most other people in stand-up.

-By Andrew McNally

Marc Maron – “Thinky Pain”

 

Grade: A-

Key Bits: “Bill Hicks Was a Poet” “Israel”

It’s very possible that nothing has ever sounded more ‘Maron’ than the beginning of his 2013 special “Thinky Pain,” now available on audio. He starts by wrapping up a podcast with Tom Scharpling and walking out on stage to tell a story about crazy Bill Hicks was, and then himself admitting he didn’t prepare anything for the night. Maron didn’t prepare any set or anything for the special – and it comes off in the most Maron way possible – 50% confidence, 50% apathy. He starts the Bill Hicks story with an oral history of the venue, killing time before figuring out where to start (like an “Odyssey” bard recounting a name). What follows is exactly what you’d expect from Maron – self-pity, unwarranted anger, and the thin line between insensitivity and offensiveness.

Most of “Thinky Pain” is personal stories. Maron recounts how missing a pop-out in baseball changed his life, and how he overcame hypochondria, and his trip to Israel with his Jewish wife, among many others. Since this special was unscripted, it reassures us that Maron really is the always-slightly-upset man behind the comedy. He even says at the beginning that he might end up not telling jokes but working through some things. Even though he does end up working through things, it’s riotously funny throughout.

Maron is usually at his funniest when he’s talking about himself, self-deprecating or not. He covers his Jewish upbringing and now-aversion to religion in “Born a Jew” and “I’m Not an Atheist” and how that translated a religious vacation with his wife in “Israel.” He talks about how the religious vacation was basically just looking at rubble of buildings that were and were not Jewish. He discusses his druggy past and how he doesn’t trust people who can’t let drugs take them over for a few years on “Drug Wisdom,” and he acts out what his first time trying out autoerotic asphyxiation would probably be like on “Autoerotic Asphyxiation.” Maron switches from angry to self-involved to reluctant on a dime, and occasionally comes off as a ranting man who just happens to be funny.

The only real fault of the special is that, since it’s all off-hand and unprepared, Maron’s stories get a little tired towards the end. He ends with bits on roosters, a vacation to Kauai and having a ‘porn brain’ that are funny, but not as funny as the stuff at the special’s midpoint. “Thinky Pain” ends up coming off as a little top- and middle-heavy, going on maybe a little longer than it needs to. But then again, he has a lot of stuff to work out.

With his now very successful WTF podcast, and an IFC show in it’s second season, Maron picked a very good time to drop a new special. “Thinky Pain” helps Maron milk this opportunity without overworking it. And it establishes Maron as someone who is unfazed and unchanged by a surge in popularity. In fact, in five to ten years, we can probably look forward to a special about all of the pratfalls of success. The special’s title even comes from understanding the mental turmoil he’ll go through after missing that routine fly ball when he was a kid. Maron hasn’t changed a bit, and “Thinky Pain” is just as angry, whiny and honest as Maron’s ever been.

If you like this, try: It seems like such a softball pitch to compare a comedian to Louis CK, but Maron’s comedy has aligned with CK’s for years, even if the two have a rocky past together (or at least as documented on Louie). Maron is every bit as self-deprecating, angry, perverse and in control as CK.

-By Andrew McNally

Jim Gaffigan – “Obsessed”

(Photo Credit: firewireblog.com)

Grade: B+

Key Bits: “Donuts” “Seafood” “Cancer”

For stand-up comedians, if a formula isn’t yet broken, don’t change it. Jim Gaffigan continues to prove himself as a comedian who has found a unique voice, and one that can continue to drive it even though it seems like it should’ve overstayed it’s welcome. On what’s technically his ninth stand-up album, although only his fifth that’s readily available (the first four are out of print), Gaffigan continues to visit the same three topics he’s covered in the past – food, religion, and his kids. He honestly offers nothing new on “Obsessed,” instead choosing to enforce the album’s perfect title. “Obsessed” actually aims to cover the exact same ground that the near-perfect “Beyond the Pale” did in 2006. 2009’s “King Baby” suffered from being almost too safe, and 2012’s excellent “Mr. Universe” added a cynical vein, spawned on largely by long bits about his children. But “Obsessed” takes the exact same routes as “Beyond the Pale,” showing that as long as there’s food and weddings, Gaffigan’s material has yet to get stale. Unlike fortune cookies.

Nine of the album’s nineteen tracks have titles relating to food, with food bits often incorporated into other bits (like “Weddings,” where Gaffigan dreams of dying young from too much ice cream so he doesn’t have to go to his daughter’s wedding). And as always, they’re some of the best bits. “Obsessed” was recorded in Boston (my home city!), which feels very intentional for the album. Two of the strongest bits are centered around local New England cuisine, “Seafood” and “Donuts.” Just mere mentions of seafood and donuts elicit a response from the Boston crowd. The “Donuts” bit is all pretty predictable, with Gaffigan saying that still life paintings are of fruit because artists wouldn’t resist donuts long enough. And he doesn’t like seafood, not one bit. “‘I love lobster.’ ‘Look, I get it, I love butter too.'” Elsewhere, he tackles buffalo wings, Chinese desserts, Kobe beef and fried bread, among many others. The format is exactly as it has been on his previous food bits, and it’s largely predictable, but it’s still effortlessly entertaining.

On his non-food based bits, Gaffigan continues on with pieces on his kids, of which there’s five now. The jokes don’t land in the individual kids, but on having five kids as a collective. Now, people tell him just to stop before he forms a country (“Gaffganistan”) He briefly touches on religion again, too, with jokes on God sending Jesus back down to tell people they aren’t supposed to be eating crabs, and how people whisper the word ‘cancer’ because the Devil might give it to us if we say it loudly. His bit on “Cancer” is one of the album’s strongest points, too. He addresses both the disease – “Cancer wouldn’t even see me as a challenge” – and learning it’s his zodiac sign. “I killed grandma!” One aspect of Gaffigan’s comedic voice that goes unnoticed is how he can deliver slightly taboo bits on religion and cancer by starting with 45 minutes of totally clean jokes about food. It allows Gaffigan to talk about cancer in a totally inoffensive way, and keeps “Obsessed” spotlessly clean.

Gaffigan has largely done away with the “audience voice” gimmick that dominated much of “Beyond the Pale.” And that’s good, because it worked great there but it gets a little old even by the end of the special. He doesn’t even do many voices here, although twice he does what’s along the lines of a Jersey tough guy, that works surprisingly well. He’s more straight forward here, like he was on “Mr. Universe.” “Obsessed” might be Gaffigan finally perfecting his form, balancing food-based humor with hints of cynicism. He’s able to follow his formula exactly without sounding repetitive and without any dull points, and it’s another long special. “Beyond the Pale” is probably always going to be a high mark in Gaffigan’s career, but “Obsessed” comes pretty close to matching it.

If you like this, try: Gaffigan is a rarity in today’s world: a clean comic. So an obvious go-to is Brian Regan, another clean comic. Christopher Titus might be related, too, with his earlier albums being almost entirely family-based.

-By Andrew McNally

Patton Oswalt – “Tragedy Plus Comedy Equals Time”

(Photo Credit: Indiewire)

Grade: B

Best bits: “Sellout” “My Prostitute”

There are two things that Patton Oswalt does best: self-deprecation, and total dismantling of some meaningless (usually reviled pop-culture) subject. He does both here – while mixing in some more predictable family humor. “Tragedy” certainly isn’t one of the best comedy albums, and it isn’t Oswalt’s best, but he sells all of his jokes and anecdotes and proves that he’s still at the top of his game.

The album starts with a great self-deprecating bit called “My Fitness Future,” which is just being skinny enough that he doesn’t have to attend his daughter’s graduation in a motorized cart (Bonus: after she graduates, he says has to go sit in A/C and “swap my folds,” which is one of the most guttural trio of words ever spoken). Self-deprecation is peppered throughout the album, although the second half is centered around longer stories about Oswalt’s younger days.

First, though, is a few stories about his daughter. Two bits are titled “I Am a Great Dad” and “I Am an Awful Dad,” channeling (probably unintentionally) Louis CK’s “My 7-Year-Old is Better Than Me”/”My 3-Year-Old is a 3-Year-Old” two bits. He offers stories about his daughter getting scolded on a playground and accidentally seeing “The Wolfman” on TV, and while they’re very funny, they’re a little more traditional than Oswalt is used to. The follow-up, “Adorable Racism,” where his daughter starts being extremely racist in a Starbucks, is a lot funnier, and transitions into the album’s funnier half.

“Creative Depression” is a wildly funny bit that examines Oswalt blissfully committing suicide in a grocery store’s Lean Cuisine aisle. The whole rest of the album is largely unrelated but all hilarious anecdotes. The special’s midpoint is a lengthy bit on the opinion on selling out, and how 44 year old Patton disagrees with 25 year old Patton – and includes a total dismantling take on Nickelback that makes them look, somehow, like heroes. The bit includes a story about the gig that paid him more than anything else, ever, and how it took a very questionable turn. It’s a funny story, and Oswalt’s selling of his own fate in the story is perfect.

Afterwards, he gives stories about attempting to buy fancy clothes, a sad 19th century gardener, trying to tell jokes in humorless Germany, and a very funny bit about the one time he picked up a prostitute in Atlanta. These stories are nothing more than reflections on Oswalt’s past, and do not have much of a comedic arc, but they’re all very humorous. The special has it’s faults – occasionally a little too dark, and definitely bottom-heavy – but it has glimpses of Oswalt at his finest, and his total confidence telling embarrassing tales anchors the album. Oswalt is one of the most original stand-up comics working today, and when he starts to really get rolling, he’s unstoppable.

If you like this, try: It feels painful to ever compare a comic to Louis CK, because it’s such a cop-out, he’s the best working today. But this album did feel very reminiscent of CK’s 2011 special “Hilarious.”

-By Andrew McNally

Tig Notaro – “LIVE” + Maria Bamford- “Ask Me About My New God!”

Grade: A/A

Let me preface this review by saying that I am not lumping these two comediennes together for any reason other than their total opposites. Tig Notaro’s album “LIVE” is the rawest, most unprepared and emotionally heart-wrenching comedy album ever. Maria Bamford’s “Ask Me About My New God!” is a wholly prepared journey through characters and comically dramatic situations that many of us have been through. My purpose for combining the two in a review is simply to highlight the versatility two combined comediennes can have. Stand-up comedy is still dominated by men, despite there being many outstandingly funny women out there, and I want to highlight two in the most opposite way possible.

So let’s start with Notaro. Notaro was a relative unknown before her 2012 sophomore album “LIVE” (which is pronounced “to live” and not “to see someone live”) as Louis C.K. plugged the album to everyone in his e-mail outbox. A simple $5 donation was needed to download an album that was “revolutionary.” Her biggest acting credit was one episode of the Office and she only had one album to date, but the word of Louis was enough to push “LIVE” to the forefront. Notaro’s comedy is dark, and usually more easy to relate to than on this album. But 2012 was a bad year for Notaro. She suffered a bacterial intestinal disease, and her mother died tragically shortly after she got out of the hospital. Her girlfriend left her soon after, unable to deal with the stress. Only a few months later, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. The album was recorded only a couple days after this. “LIVE” is a short set, one that is definitely improvised in parts. Notaro says that she cannot competently tell the jokes she has written and talks mainly about all of the problems in her life. Thankfully, the audience plays into her troubles and is sympathetic. Towards the end of her set, she says that she should probably tell some actual scripted jokes, to which some audience members yell “No!” and “This is awesome!” because no such display of brutal and personal honesty has ever graced a comedy album, and maybe no recording ever. Notaro’s jokes on the album grace along her cancer, and the death of her mother, and it is painfully aware to the listener that Notaro is doing comedy because she has nothing else left to lose. The album came out last year but just got a physical release this week. Pay for it, if you can, because she is one comedienne that deserves it. I am not reviewing it for the grade; I am reviewing it for the publicity of her name coming up. “LIVE” is the most brutal record you’ll ever hear.

Maria Bamford, meanwhile, released her fourth album “Ask Me About My New God!” to the typical audience. Bamford is now most well-known for her turn as DeBrie in season four of Arrested Development, and I’ll admit that I was not familiar with her comedy beforehand. But Bamford shares some personal problems throughout her comedy. While Notaro deals with physical illnesses, Bamford deals with depression and her family’s misunderstandings of it in a long burst of practiced characters and dark honesty. Ironically, the thing that the two comediennes share in common is an age – 42 (Notaro is roughly four and a half months older than Bamford) – and both use it as a gauge of immaturity and not growing up among traditional standards. Bamford cites people saying that she should be married by now as one of the main inspirations for the album. She jumps between voices and characters – her specialty – to emphasize the heaviness of mental illnesses and the families that don’t understand them. Her humor is dark throughout, in a more realistic way than Notaro’s. Think of the cynicism of Seinfeld updated for the Internet age and done solely by Elaine.

“LIVE” and “Ask Me About My New God!” couldn’t be more different. “LIVE” is only thirty-something minutes long, and is like no comedy you’ve ever heard. Seriously, it is revolutionary. Notaro plays into her audience’s reactions to all of the bad news and gives a superior set of raw, emotional comedy that both assures the listener that someone always has it worse and prompting the listener to want to reach through their listening device and give Notaro a hug, because no one has ever sounded more in need of one. Bamford’s album trusts audience participation, meanwhile, through many practiced acts and bits that lead into humor almost as dark as Notaro’s. Bamford’s album is also very long, compared to Notaro’s. Yet both are hysterical, and emotionally draining, and both defy the long-standing sexist myth that male comedians are funnier than female ones. These are honestly two of the funniest comedy albums I have ever listened to. Notaro’s album is painful and honest, a look into maybe the worst year any human has ever undergone. Bamford’s album is satirically dark with many personas and voices in a predetermined setlist. They are both hysterical, and both Notaro and Bamford should be forces to watch out for in the near future.

I don’t have an “If you like this” because of how much I stress listening to these two albums.

-By Andrew McNally