Saturday, October 13, 2012

10/4/12 Marc Unger, Austin Lafond, Mike Gifaldi and Josh Potter

One of the greatest philosophers of my childhood, Charles M. Schultz, was able to use my favorite round-headed kid and his beagle to help me digest some very important concepts. I understood that unrequited love could ruin the taste of a good pb & j sandwich, that it was cool to have a rich fantasy life, that everyone had something to feel insecure about and that hope could always rise again, even in the most depressed of spirits. Charlie Brown was one depressed little guy. “Sometimes I lie awake at night, and ask, 'Where have I gone wrong?' Then a voice says to me, "This is going to take more than one night.'" No matter how many nickels he put in Lucy’s tin can, there seemed to be no cure for what ailed him.

 Depression, like ADD and OCD, seems to be fairly common among stand up comics, although it’s still a chicken/egg question: Do depressed people use laughter to try to heal themselves, thus leaning toward comedy, or does the life of a road dog comic, with its hours of loneliness, constant travel, tight finances and interrupted intimacy, lead to depression? I have yet to hear a definitive answer. And on this Thursday night, it didn’t seem to matter. The whole room felt depressed. The audience was quietly eating, politely focused but not seemingly eager to laugh when Josh Potter took the stage to start the show. Austin Lafond delivered his set, but couldn’t get more than a chuckle or two from the group.

 Mike Gifaldi had a bit more success. As one of my favorite local comics, I watch him nearly every week at DubLand, and always enjoy a chance to see him at The Comedy Club. I like Mike because he’s sorta’ the opposite side of my coin. He’s all tattoos and metal, irony and darkness on the outside, and a generally nice guy on the inside. The thoughts he shares onstage are not for everyone, but tonight’s crowd seemed willing to go with him. He started by telling them he’s always nervous when he goes onstage, that “the voice in my head usually convinces me I'm going to be fine, which settles my nerves, but today I realized it’s the same voice that tells me I'm going to pull out in time.”  His jokes flow from the homeless dude who never begged from him to being bit by a feral child living in the local WalMart; from his “Charlie Brown with a drug problem” hair style to his actress girlfriend who said he never helped her become a star (I lit her on fire and shot her into space.). I enjoy guessing how Mike will go over in a particular room. Tonight, although the group initially seems unsure if laughter is even part of the program, they loosen up and laugh a little.

 Which is perfect, because the experience they’re about to have with Marc Unger is, for me, nothing short of spectacular.

Marc gets on the audience immediately: we don’t like anything, we were sitting at home, then we were clubbed over the head and suddenly found ourselves in an airplane hanger listening to Josh’s depression. In one fell swoop, he knocks the audience, the room and the MC, and I know I’m in for a fun night. First, we learn about Marc’s marriage to a beautiful 27-year-old special needs teacher (“My twelve-year-old autistic student tied his shoes for the first time today. How was your day?” “I watched six episodes of ‘Myth Busters.’”) and the issues that come up between two people looking at each other across two decades. “She’s 27, she loves sex. I’m 47. I love the History Channel." She steps out of the shower, glistening and ready for a romp; he’s glued to “American Pickers,” wondering if they’re going to buy the Shell Oil sign.  She wants kids, he thinks he hates them. The jokes are at once personal and universal.

Marc covers a lot of territory in this set. He leads us through drug legalization for seniors (If you make it to 65, all drugs should be legal. If you’ve raised kids and they leave you in a nursing home, every night should be Bingo and Blow night at Happy Acres.), the future of reality tv (Last Sad Guy Standing: get 8 really depressed people together in a house, each with a weapon, and America tries to text them into committing suicide) and the ignorance still alive in the good ol’ USA (You’ll never hear checkmate in Shreveport, but you might hear “I ain’t playin’ with those colored pieces.”) His political bits about Clarence Thomas, Ruth Bader-Ginsberg and Anthony Scalia (so far right, he thinks Thomas is only 3/5 of a Judge) are smart and funny, without proselytizing. Some of the wittiest lines fly by so fast, I barely have time to scribble them in my notebook.

And yet, there is real depth to this material. “The way we get news, on our homepage, it’s all vomited together on the screen. We don’t know what’s important.” It IS both sad and funny that Snooki’s baby was #1 on Yahoo Trend, while a potentially planet-destroying asteroid was #5. It is a little abnormal that we can use the word friend to describe someone we’ve only met on Facebook (A friend helps you bury the hooker when you kinda’ fucked up, not send you a Star Trek quiz at 3 am.). Marc’s current show is great. Fortunately, you can find a good portion of it on his CD, “Dirty Truth,” available on iTunes, at amazonmp3 or in stores on December 6th. At, you can learn more about the other elements of his performance career: his acting and writing projects, his blog and radio show. 

Now, let’s get to the personal stuff, since it’s obvious to regular readers what I’m about to say.

I dig this guy.

 Marc Unger’s web site bio describes his humor as “fresh, edgy and brutally thoughtful,” and I can’t argue with that. It continues, “Armed with dynamic stage presence, his explosive rants … are not only powerfully funny, but provocative as well.” Again I agree, but for one thing. While his presence is certainly dynamic, I never felt like I was listening to an explosive rant, not in the way I’m used to. That description led me to believe I’d be hearing a delivery similar to Leary or Hicks, maybe even a Kinison rage. It could be that Marc toned it down a bit, given the somber beginnings of the evening. I should have asked when he graciously sat for awhile in the back booth and discussed his comedy with me; because I hadn’t prepared by doing any homework, I didn’t realize I’d feel this way until Friday, when I checked out his net presence.  Now it’s like I’ve somehow missed out on great opportunities because I didn’t know Marc Unger sooner. I would have gone to see his one-man show “Drinking Up the Pieces,” or any of the older ones (Nocturnal Emissions, Mindblanking). I would have watched the “Friends” and “Veep” episodes on which he appeared; actually, that’s one I can remedy, so I will watch those. How do I see “The Filchaks Take a Gamble,” which I’m sure I’d enjoy both as a new fan and as a fantasy football fanatic? I need more of Marc Unger.

“Drinking Up the Pieces” is about Marc’s two-year struggle with depression; he made a few references to depression throughout the show.  I have worked in and around the mental health community for years. I’ve had relatives, a spouse and close friends who have dealt with varying levels of depression, and went a few rounds with it myself over my lifetime. Talking to Marc one-on-one, I never got that feeling, that little drag that usually signals to me that I’m dealing with someone who’s dealing with something. He was funny, but not “on.” He was insightful. He was helpful. He struck me as an artist who knows himself, who has figured out several ways to express his understanding, and knows how to bring others along for the journey. The audience was grateful for that skill, and rewarded him with applause. I was grateful and hopefully can reward him by sending other people in search of his work.  

I took an entire week to write this review because I didn’t know how to start. Flipping back and forth through my notebook, Mike’s Charlie Brown reference kept drawing my eye. So I searched Charlie Brown and depression, and found a number of strips that spoke to me. Here’s the one I want to end on. “When you're depressed, it makes a lot of difference how you stand. The worst thing you can do is straighten up and hold your head high because then you'll start to feel better. If you're going to get any joy out of being depressed, you've got to stand like this.” The drawing shows Charlie Brown slouching, shoulders dropped, head down. It’s the same position most of the audience started in on this particular Thursday night. But Marc Unger gave them a reason to lift their heads, straighten their shoulders and laugh.

"Laugh at yourself and at life. Not in the spirit of derision or whining self-pity, but as a remedy, a miracle drug, that will ease your pain, cure your depression, and help you to put in perspective that seemingly terrible defeat and worry with laughter at your predicaments, thus freeing your mind to think clearly toward the solution that is certain to come. Never take yourself too seriously." - Og Mandino, psychologist and essayist

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