Saturday, May 26, 2012

Isaac Witty and the Subjectivity of it all

It has taken me a long time to write this review. Too long. The reason is simple enough: I saw this show so differently from nearly everyone else in the room, that it led to a rather horrible mini-feud in my Comedy Club family. Nothing on the level of Hatfield-McCoy, because, ultimately, we’re grown ups and none of us own rifles. It was enough to make me worry that I’d lost my second home for awhile, though, and so I’ve been consciously avoiding this one.

Today, I’ve got it figured out.

I tell you that comedy is totally subjective all the time. I encourage you to go to the Club and check out the shows for yourself, or visit a comedian online to see some of his or her act, because I want you to understand that one girl’s giggle is just that. I preach it to you every week, and yet I forgot it myself when Isaac Witty came to town.

Isaac plays clubs all over the US and Canada, he’s done Letterman, he’s done Montreal. By all accounts, he’s a successful comedian. His stage presence is studied awkwardness, his jokes can be surreally strange, smartly wordish or just plain silly. I wasn’t sure what I thought, at first. I had heard his comedy was shaped by his parents’ work as Christian sketch comics throughout his childhood. I had been prepared for something a little different.

For the record, Thursday night’s crowd was small and mostly drunk, because it was Amber’s 21st birthday and her friends and family thought getting her drunk and taking her to watch a comedy show was a cool way to celebrate. It probably was. I’m sure they had a good time. I’m sure the two guys in the booth next to me who – to use an overused line – learned to whisper on a helicopter also had a good time. Maybe it was just myself and the 8 other people in the room who were trying to listen to the show who weren’t enjoying ourselves. And probably the guys on stage, too.

It took me a bit to get into Isaac’s act, partially because of the distractions and partly because it had been a while since I’ve seen that particular style of comic. I played my usual “Who Do You Remind Me Of?” game, and came up with two comparisons. There was a little bit of early Newhart there, with the stops and starts, the fake nervous laughs; and there was one other. Isaac Witty, to me, was a poor man’s Emo Phillips.

I’m not sure how many of you recall Emo. I had a very hard time deciding if I enjoyed his act when I first started watching him. From the “Bernice Bobs Her Hair” cut to the Godspell costume clothes, Emo was a being from somewhere else, someplace I wasn’t sure I wanted to visit. Once I truly listened to his lines, however, I enjoyed him. I had to love “I was my next door neighbor’s imaginary friend” or “Some mornings it just doesn’t seem worth it to gnaw through the leather straps.” His delivery was so unique that it was hard for many people to embrace him. I did better when I listened without the distraction of his visuals.

That’s how I came to enjoy Isaac most, as well. I bought his CD Thursday night and listened to it three times Friday morning. It was – sorry – very witty and I heard jokes I wished he had told on stage the night before. Like when the thing you want to describe IS the thing (a deer in headlights) or why there are Free Tibet signs so far away from Tibet (as opposed to yard sale signs, which generally are placed in your neighborhood). His bit about sending a marching band into a war zone instead of the military was funny on so many geek levels, I almost wanted to publicly confess to 5 years of playing the baritone. Almost.

While I was having this experience, many other people were having a very different one. They didn’t care for his material. They didn’t like the persona. They didn’t feel any connection to him offstage. They had some issues of a more personal nature that made them not enjoy his show.

The mini-feud started when all of this was discussed in a Facebook chat that I thought was a private conversation but, due to some very unlikable privacy settings and default changes, was actually made visible to five of us. Two were smart enough to stay away. The rest of us had a rough go of it for a few days. I stand by the opinions I expressed, but had I known who was reading, I might have expressed them differently. In the end, though, our chosen family connection is our devotion to comedy, to keeping the Comedy Club thriving and Rochester laughing. We resolved the situation and I am happy to say my year at the club will continue.

Still, Isaac’s show was the perfect reminder, part of the unique joy and sad reality that two people, sitting next to each other in the same room, watching the same stage, will never see the same show. Our perception filters are there to muddle the experience.

I’ll say again. Laughter is universal. Comedy is subjective.

Isaac Witty may be an acquired taste. I certainly found him funny, along with about ten percent of the room. That’s 2.8 people plus me. Check him out on his web site Give him a chance. As one of the local boys said to me later, “Sometimes when you’re watching comedy, you have to be willing to go there in your head. You have to work for it, but it’s worth it.” They can’t all be dick jokes, folks.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Jimmy Shubert, Steve Burr and Ralph Tetta

I began this blog as a way to keep an appointment with myself, as a place to put my notes and thoughts in preparation for a book I’m writing. I also wanted to promote the Comedy Club, to support live comedy here in Rochester and take a weekly laugh bath. As such, it wasn’t my intention to be a critic, at least not in the purest sense of that word. I began the first few in a straightforward manner, but now that I’m kinda’ in my element, you’ve noticed me drawing connections to my own life, to pop culture at large and the greater comedy world. I pull up quotes or lyrics that might inform my opinion on the most recent show. I am opening up the pieces a bit and, while I’m not sure how any of you feel about that, it makes them a joy to write.

I imagined, when I began, that the most difficult pieces to write would be the acts I didn’t like, the shows that didn’t go well. I am at a point in my life where I wish people well, try to see their strengths and hope for their success. I thought that might be hardest to do when I found myself sitting in the club and not feeling any impulse to laugh.

I was wrong.

Turns out, the most difficult pieces for me to write, at this point, are the ones that include comics who are my friends. I am using the real meaning of the word friend here, no disrespect to Facebook. This week, I have to write about two of them, Steve and Ralph, both men I admire for their comedic skills and adore for their simply being. They are the kind of friends you console in times of loss, celebrate in times of achievement and go to the midnight movies with in times of comic-book-to-big-screen premiers.

I have procrastinated this week because I want to do justice to my friends. The end product may take on a different form than previous pieces. I am unsure. Come along, anyway. It could be a good trip.

I’m gonna’ start, in honor of my hero A. Whitney Brown, by telling you folks about the Big Picture. The overall show was a good one, because the three acts share some core characteristics. Their humor is generally observational, relatable, well-written and well-performed. They all have a level of skill that reflects years of experience. They all understand the job they’ve chosen. As a whole, the evening was filled with set-up/punch line comedy, the kind we all know and love, the kind that makes us laugh out loud.

As MC, Steve got the audience moving right away. He was upbeat, throwing in newer material with his classic go-to stuff. He chatted with Jeff, who was celebrating his 42nd birthday. He talked about going to see the Avengers after the show and threw out a “Wonder Woman costume, not even Marvel” reference that made a few of us geeks feel, just for a second, that our comic book pasts had lead us to that very moment when only we got the joke. Steve was having fun, so we were having fun.

And then he brought up his comedy friend/political foil, Ralph Tetta.

I introduce them this way because, if you’ve friended either of them on Facebook, you know that’s how they are – two guys who couldn’t seem to be further apart on the political spectrum, but who care about each other more deeply than some of us do actual family. Watching Steve and Ralph together is like watching old Laurel and Hardy or Abbot and Costello films, right down to the skinny/not-so body types. I’m hoping they find the right project to tackle together, because that duo dynamic doesn’t exist much anymore (no, the Sklar brothers don’t count. Twins who complete each other’s sentences don’t make the jokes funnier).

Ralph started his set with some audience work, playing with a guy stuck in the “comedian ass seat” off the end of stage right. He kept the laughter going with his regular material (two year coke habit that left him fat, shouldn’t have sprinkled it on lasagna), but along the way, people wanted to jump in. When Ralph began talking about his 17-year marriage, one heckler with a few drinks under his belt got a little aggressive, slurring something like, “When you get to 24 years, then you’ll have a marriage.” After a few exchanges, Ralph asked the guy, “Where’s your wife now?” “She’s at home.” “Yeah? How do you know?” The audience laughed and the guy eventually simmered down. Ralph finished his set, sharing his key to wedded bliss: marry into your weight class. While Steve returned to the stage to bring on the headliner, the heckler got up from his seat, went over to Ralph and offered his hand to show there were no hard feelings.

The rest of us moved on to the evening’s main event.

With plenty of television and movie credits (2 Broke Girls, Reno 911!, Entourage, The King of Queens, Go, The Italian Job, and more), you’ve probably already seen Jimmy Shubert, the actor. Take that expressive face, booming voice and confident body language, throw it in front of a fake brick wall emblazoned with “The Comedy Club,” and turn on the mic. What you get is an hour or so of traditional stand-up delivered by an experienced pro, washed down with a couple vodka shots.

When a set starts with a hand job/Shake Weight joke, you know exactly what sort of ride you’re in for. He begins a series of themed jokes about airports, touching on everything from the TSA (Take Away Shampoo?) and the need to show your id every three feet, terrorists and racial profiling, to the ridiculousness of soda rationing on the plane. It’s not story-telling – there’s no narrative being moved forward by the jokes; it’s more like firing 50 rapid-fire rounds at the same target. His energy pushes you along, not giving you a chance to step outside and process anything. You don’t need to think too hard, anyway – he’s got the tour all set up and you’ve just got to sit back and enjoy the ride. There’s a certain comedy audience who loves this style of show, and they come out for Jimmy Shubert.

I have to admit, it can be a little scary watching this man onstage. When he’s deep in a rant, or railing against some out-of-their-league hecklers (shut up, you selfish twat. Sorry, didn’t mean to say selfish), his face turns red and I wonder how strong his heart is. For those of us who love the Hicks-Leary-Miller-Black tirades, it’s part of the fun. Still, when he breaks character and laughs at himself, I think we all feel a bit relieved.

So, back to the Big Picture. For me, the flow not just of these guys, but between them, made for an interesting night. Three different comics with similar features that gave the overall show continuity I haven’t noticed very often in the past. The audience enjoyed the entire evening, even though they didn't have the added bonuses of a lecture on how to stay relevant in the business by Jimmy and a midnight showing of "The Avengers" with Ralph and Steve. I hope I will worry a little less in the future when I talk about these guys, and maybe focus on the one thought that came to me sitting in that theater, passing around Red Vines and Mike and Ikes. Friendship has its privileges.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Godfrey, Dario Josef and Marcus Cox

I’ve mentioned in previous posts that Thursday nights at the club can sometimes be difficult, simply by virtue of the size and interest of the audience. I say sometimes; a small crowd isn’t always a tough crowd, especially when they’ve come ready to laugh. This Thursday was one of those nights.

Dario Josef had the honor of MC duties this weekend. The last time I saw him in this role, with Steve Burr and Jon Fisch, it was kinda’ sprung on him at the last moment. He did well. This weekend, he did even better. Comfort and confidence rising together, he had a nice mix of material and audience work ready to go. The premeditated stuff is getting stronger every week: the crazy neighbor’s advice and intuitive child on a plane are becoming favorites, and the way he delivers the rap concert first date joke is priceless. Dario has a natural ability to play in the moment with the various personalities gathered around the tables. He keeps it friendly, doesn’t get uptight. His laid-back charm is easy to take, and easy to laugh with. Dario got the night off to a great start.

Marcus Cox stepped in for the feature set. I’ve had a difficult time conveying how funny I think Marcus is: his energy seems kinda’ low-key onstage, although I suspect he’s a beast of a different sort among friends. I used to think the problem was nerves, until I hung out with him a few times and learned that that delivery is just Marcus at his most natural. Remember Don Knotts in The Ghost and Mr. Chicken, or maybe slightly less anxious, more like The Incredible Mr. Limpet? Marcus is similar, although without the screw face. His jokes, though, are oh so smart and designed to make you a little uncomfortable. His “pot makes me racist” bit might offend, but his delivery softens its impact. The attention to detail, like using Gertrude and Hazel – very old-fashioned names both hanging on my family tree – in his Necrophilia Convention bit, is sharp. And his quicklets (you’re not home watching the draft? Me, neither. I’m a draft dodger.) were spot on. I am going to enjoy watching this kid evolve. I think many of you will, too.

Now, to the headliner.

When I first saw Godfrey, in the 7 Up commercials and on Friday Night Videos, I wasn’t sure how to take him. Here’s another beautiful black comedic actor. Why is he so cocky? I couldn’t see what was backing him up, but I wasn’t taking in to account that I was seeing him in roles and bits that were generally written by others. I didn’t have a real sense of who he was and what he was bringing to the conversation besides a great chest (seriously, did you see that 7 Up commercial? Dang!) Personally, I had had some events occur last week that made me pray for laughter. By the grace of - (don’t do it, don’t do it, don’t do it…) - I got what I needed.

Godfrey took the stage. Took it. Every person in that room had no choice but to look forward, put down their wings and beers, and pay attention to the man on the stage. Not because of the old-school beats blaring from the speakers; not because, well, because we were at a comedy club and he was the headliner. Godfrey took the stage by force, by energy. Suddenly, the ego made sense, the best sense, where confidence and charisma form a natural halo around a person. I am hard-pressed to think of any arena where people wouldn’t be drawn in.

Godfrey assumes you’re going to assume things about him. He counts on it. And you will, because that’s who we are, that’s how we do. He spends much of his set messing with those assumptions, and that’s the pure gold of his show. Yes, he’s an excellent impressionist, from Cosby and Obama to Jason Statham and an up-and coming Steven Segal he revealed in a “show after the show”. Yes, he has some observational material that we can all relate to: homeless people having the same voice, the Snoop Dogg navigation system, gay ghosts (Boo-ooo!), how we will never suffer in any facet of life as much as our parents did. His energy is high, his facial expressions and body language are dynamic and mesmerizing. All of that stuff kept the room laughing nonstop.

And in the midst of that laughter, Godfrey pulled out the real, the things that can be said in the context of comedy that might have people reaching for their concealed weapons in a different scenario. He called us out on a lot of issues. He said there are no more men. He gave props to Johnny Cash for going off into a cave to detox, and never wants to see Justin Timberlake in an action film again. He said this is the first time in history when white and black people are acting corny at the same time. He told us we wouldn’t believe he was African because he had clothes on. He gave an assignment to the young white dudes in the front seats to look up the origins of rock, to check out the Arethas and the Chucks and the P-Funk. He told the heckler he expected him to hate, it’s what black people do to one another. He called us out for being ignorant, for saying a basketball player was whack when we’re just sitting in our living room watching him play, for being willing to put clothes on a dog before a person.

Godfrey told us he was an arrogant elitist who wouldn’t want to be friends with most of us, that to hang with him we had to be smart and floss. He said we’d trip over assumptions, that we couldn’t judge his blackness by the way he sounds or guess what he had to say based on his exterior. He talked down to us, he put us in our place, he reminded us why he was given the mic and we were shown to a chair.

And then he’d laugh at himself, at us, at the uncomfortable space he had created and say, “You know I’m just fuckin’ with you, right?” He let the audience off the hook. He planted real seeds, real ideas that need to be talked about, and then he let us laugh while they took hold. He laughed at us, with us, for us.

And I am now completely, hopelessly, forever in love with this man’s comedy.

It reminds me of the journey Chris Rock took from talking about generic foods and daddy getting the big piece of chicken, to talking about domestic violence and race issues in Bring the Pain. I bought Rock This! and read over and over the words collected between the covers. It was everything I knew comedy could do when it comes to addressing social issues, taboo topics and uncomfortable ideas that can’t be resolved if we can’t even discuss them. It’s what I loved about Carlin, about Dice, about Hicks, about Whoopie’s Fontaine character. It’s what made A. Whitney Brown’s Big Picture one of my most prized possessions. It’s the kind of comedy I adore most.

Godfrey brought all that to the Club this weekend. I had the privilege of hanging out and hearing more of his thoughts all three nights; he’s probably the most naturally funny person I’ve ever met. He’s smart, motivated, talented – I know now what he backs up that energy, that ego, with. Go to his YouTube channel; check out the White Woman’s Workout on Funny or Die; go to iTunes and pick up “Black by Accident.”

Godfrey will be back in Rochester again. When he is, I expect 5 sold-out shows. I expect a diverse audience packing the room and taking it all in. I expect water cooler conversations all over the city on Friday. If you think that’s hyperbole, that I’m just gushing like a schoolgirl, prove me wrong. Buy a ticket, sit through the show and tell me what you think. Write a guest blog – I’ll post it right here. It’s all opinion, and yours is just as valid as mine.

Next week – Jimmy Shubert!