Saturday, December 1, 2012

Tom Simmons

Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde has long been one of my favorite Victorian-era writers and Brit wits. For years, I’ve enjoyed his plays, appreciated his poetry, and truly adored his social critique. As I sat down to write a review of Tom Simmons, it was the following quote from Wilde that jumped into my head.
“If you’re going to tell people the truth, you better make them laugh; otherwise, they will kill you.”
Tom Simmons tells a lot of truth during his time onstage. Since that truth is not all easy to digest, it is rather fortuitous that Tom is one of the funniest comedians I know. I am simply in awe of his ability to weave seamlessly between the political and the personal in a way that doesn’t give the audience time to cool off or pull back. The level of skill needed to recognize the point of disconnect as it is happening and ease into something warm and fuzzy is a testament to his nearly twenty years onstage.  
The set opened with Tom sharing that he worries a lot about the world: the fact that no one reads anymore, that people are shooting their coworkers or shooting their families and then shooting themselves (why can’t they start by shooting themselves? There should be some kind of suicide assistance hotline, 1-800-go ahead). People tell him not to worry about the things he can’t control. (Who worries about things you can control?)

The bits fly by quickly as this master teacher stealthily slips knowledge into unsuspecting minds, much the way my mother used to serve my brother “spice cake” and smile to herself while throwing away the zucchini peels. There’s so much essential truth packed into a Tom Simmons show that I feel a little disappointed to know I can’t possibly catch it all with one viewing. Thank God there are five shows this weekend, a cd for sale and a bonus set available on iTunes. I need time with this guy.

 While you’re still here with me, though, let me share just a small sampling of what Tom Simmons brings to the game. Here’s a full day’s lesson on money, a sore subject in America these days. Pardon my paraphrasing:
My son came with me to do radio one day. I asked him why he wanted to go; he said famous people go do radio. I said no, famous people call in. He said if you are famous, then you get rich and everybody is happy. It kinda broke my heart. I said to him, no son, money is not what makes people happy in this world. He looked at me as if to say, are you NEW here?

 See what he did there? He made a human connection with this cute story about his son, and then reeled us in to drop some knowledge.

Money is just made up, it’s an illusion. There are rich people out there who have money, but they don’t own it. It’s owned by the Federal Reserve Bank. It’s deceptively named to sound like it’s part of the government, but actually it’s a for-profit private company that owns our money. They make it up out of nothing and then sell it to us at interest. Even Sam Walmart is like, what a great business model you have there…. And the people on our money were against the Federal Reserve; Lincoln, Jefferson, Franklin, Jackson, they all thought it was a bad idea, and then we put their faces on the money. That’s like putting Mother Teresa’s face on condoms and then passing them out at Planned Parenthood.

 Three minutes into a bit and we’ve had a father/son fuzzy moment, a history and an economics lesson. Now for some sociology.

Money is our God, it’s what we worship, what we work 40 or 50 hours a week for, what we think will make us happy. We have altars built all over the country in the form of banks that we bail out. Then, we stand in front of the ATMs and pray there’s $100 in there.

Need some pop culture?

Gold will hold its value. I used to think rappers were idiots for what they did to their mouths. Turns out those guys are monster investors.

 And how about some theology?
Jesus. Jesus was a pretty chill dude. The only time he used violence in his entire ministry was on the money changers in the temple. Know how evil you have to be to piss off Jesus?

 To show you just how smart this guy is, he even uses the money theme to make some dick jokes.

We give it different names, right? It’s the dollar here, it’s the looney in Canada, it’s the euro in Europe. The weirdest name by far that I’ve found is in Vietnam where they call their dollar the dong. Like, sorry, baby, I’m a little short on dong tonight.

It’s true that I love rant comedy. I love a committed performer sharing a wealth of information using an intelligent vocabulary executed with exquisite comedic timing. I’ve seen it done well, I’ve seen it done poorly. The difference, for me, is usually one of precision. It’s easy to be too heavily weighted on one of those elements and throw the experience out of whack. I started out being a Dennis Miller fan, loving the word choices and semi-obscure references that seemed to always serve the joke. Somewhere, though, it changed, it began to spin away from sharing thought and lean toward spitting invective. What once felt like collective snark, a mutual laughing at the world, has since morphed into a constant scolding by someone who just seems content to get off on feeling superior. Tom sometimes feels like gentle rant, moving the physical aggression into something more searching, with momentary floor gazing and the occasional shrugging of shoulders. I have seen very few live performers cover so many potentially controversial topics with so many punch lines.

His Bully the Bullies podcast takes a stand against militant religious types who use the pulpit to bully congregants, who then go out and bully others with their supposed moral supremacy. Please check it out on iTunes and make a contribution, if you can. So many people out there don’t have the words so easily at their disposal, can’t always articulate on their own behalf, and so are victimized by the gift of gab. One more reason I admire this guy is that he puts his gift to use for the underdog.

Tom Simmons is a bit of a revelation: his material can be racial, without being racist, religious without being proselytizing or denigrating. He finds the balance, being simultaneously challenging and supportive in what he wants to say. I get the feeling he cares about what you take away from his shows. It’s great that you laugh, it’s even better that you think. It’s not always easy for a comic to accept that he will sometimes have to forfeit a guffaw while some new piece of information is absorbed. And when you speak as rapidly as Tom does, you lose a few chuckles along the way because the listener’s brain has to let one line go to catch the next. There are so many great lines in this show, in fact, that I’ve taken weeks to write this review. I simply could not decide how to move forward, what to share and what to set aside. I want you to leave this page with the absolute understanding that this is one amazingly talented comic who pushes all my personal humor buttons.

So, here are a few more of my favorites, arranged more haphazardly, but no less loved.

“I was working in Tacoma, Washington, and on my way to the club every night, I saw this big red neon sign says ‘Jesus cares about you.’ Which is fine, but when I left the South, Jesus fuckin’ loved me. I don’t know why we have all the drop-off all of a sudden. In his defense, I have been seeing other people lately, like Buddha and science.”

“To the rest of the world we are like a really boring hot chick that won’t quit talking about herself…. We’re number one. Wow, really? Check your stats.”

“I try to be nice, I try to love everyone, but…have you met everyone?”

“Jesus did some interesting things. He turned water into wine and they said he was God.    My Uncle Stan did that in the shed and they gave him 7 to 10. There are no ‘What would Stan do?’ bracelets.”

“I see your Bible and raise you a Declaration of Independence and a Constitution.” 

 For me, this was one wonderful comedy weekend. Just as straight-forward and thought-provoking off-stage, I enjoyed real-people conversation with Tom. I know I’m looking at 20 years of master crafting, something that can have the feel of exposure without ever baring so much as an ankle. Still, he’s the kind of person for whom I would join a bowling league – although I’d rather it be a writer’s group – just to hang out every week and hear what’s on his mind. Without that option, I must be content listening to his most recent CD, Keep Up (available at Amazon and iTunes), checking out his Bully the Bullies Podcast (also available for free on iTunes) and waiting patiently for his return to upstate New York. You should check out all the above mentioned opportunities, and go to for access to videos, his blog and upcoming tour info.

 Next weekend, Tom will be performing with another of my close comedy friends, Kris Shaw. I am excitedly anticipating just how these two smart, unique men will perceive one another. Tacoma, Washington, I’m counting on you to treat them both with love and laughter. You’re in for a few nights of truth you’ll never want to forget.

1 comment:

  1. I had the pleasure of opening for Tom one weekend. You have described very well the reasons I enjoyed every one of the six shows we did.