The Top Ten (+5): New millennium stand-up comedy albums


Obligatory disclaimer: What follows is my latest list of highly specific things I like, presented in the order I like them. This list makes no allowances for anyone’s taste but my own, nor for colossal, head-slappingly obvious omissions, of which, I’m sure, there are many. It’s pretty much as complete as it’s ever gonna get. By reading further, you absolve me, the author, from any liability related to your potentially scarred psyche – permanently furrowed brows, heart palpitations, etc. Feedback on your own favorites, or what I got wrong or right (or wrong), is both welcome and encouraged.  

In a different time, under different circumstances, I might have been one of those outdoor kids so romanticized in fiction, parenting guides, and modern television commercials touting youth activity (in my day, the NFL sadly couldn’t be bothered to help motivate my butt off the couch). Ideally, I would’ve been off running through a field somewhere, or climbing trees, catching crawdads down at the creek bed or building forts with my little friends. Instead, I was the shy latchkey kid of a hardworking, divorced parent, often left to my own devices and largely bereft of friends. So I spent my childhood diligently making my own fun. I liked watching sports, but didn’t play any except youth soccer and backyard basketball. I loved to read and listen to music, and spent an awful lot of time formulating what would become lifelong passions at the feet of MTV and HBO. I never felt deprived. HBO in particular would prove to be a seminal influence, and among its specialties in the 1980s were movies, boxing, and stand-up comedy. I’ve already spoken a time or four here on the first two topics, but comedy proved no less influential on me growing up. I always appreciated the craft of comedy, and I loved the confidence, the quickness, the seeming spontaneity, the transporting story, the clever anecdote, the withering insult – it was something for a smart, quiet kid to aspire to – and how incredibly colorful and vividly detailed everything was in this ostensibly real world being related on stage. I learned early on that stand-up was a heightened reality, one where both anything could happen and where the closer you skewed to actual reality, the more impactful and memorable your flights of fancy might be, assuming they ever landed.

I remember the day in 1990 I strolled through a Knoxville record store and, after about an hour of browsing, bought George Carlin’s What Am I Doing in New Jersey? instead of whatever Top 40 crap the kid from that alternate universe I described earlier might’ve settled on. Carlin, along with Roger Ebert and, to a lesser degree, Stephen King, was one of the unquestioned lights of my young life. I instantly responded to his worldview – critical if not yet cynical, whimsical and irreverent and centered in a simultaneous love of words and mistrust of institutions. One day, perhaps on an anniversary of his death, I’ll write a proper appreciation, and when the time comes I know I’ll throw my entire heart into it, since that is the very least he deserves. The point I’m circling is that HBO made me a fan of George Carlin long before I ever purchased one of his albums, but there was still something about that album. It wasn’t his best, though it was borderline top five. What it was to me was a handheld portal into another, better world. I also remember memorizing Eddie Murphy’s Comedian album long before I ever saw its infamous companion concert film, Delirious. I loved Carlin, and Murphy, and Emo Philips and Bobcat Goldthwait, and a dozen others I discovered via assorted HBO specials. I spent one awesome New Year’s Eve night at my grandmother’s house, flipping through the “scrambled” cable channels until I finally found HBO. In those days, there was this misguided notion that if the picture was illegible the channel was somehow useless. But this was comedy, hardly a purely visual medium, and, in stand-up, seeing the comedian was always a distant second to me to hearing him. Excited, I lined my ancient tape player up with the TV speaker and pressed “Record”.

That evening’s entertainment was Robin Williams’ A Night at the Met, one of the greatest pieces of comedy ever recorded, and another I can still quote liberally with minimal provocation. It ended up as a clipped hour special recorded on side one of a 90-minute audio tape, which sounds unfortunate, but my goodness was it ever glorious. I listened to side one of that homemade cassette, recorded off a “scrambled” TV channel at midnight in a sleeping house on New Year’s, one hundred times if I listened to it once. When Robin Williams tragically committed suicide last year, memories of that tape were the first things to occur to me, not memories of Mork or Adrian Cronauer or Aladdin’s genie or Garp, but of playing Night at the Met until the tape wore out, and of infinite, lingering gratitude from a kid clumsily finding his way in the world.

To this day, I still revere the comedy album, and I’ve been thrilled to see something of a stand-up renaissance occurring in the first two decades of the new millennium, spurred by the so-called “alt comedy” movement. If anything, I am more a fan of stand-up now than I was back then. For my money, the art form is as varied and vital now as at any time in its surprisingly storied history, possibly moreso, though that’s for the (professional) historians to debate. It’s been a really good century so far, at least on this one score. Sounds like a countdown in the making to me…

But first, some brief (?!) words to hopefully cast light on the vagaries to follow:

1) This list contains a maximum of one album per comedian. Because of the limited timeframe in question, and the bevy of interesting, original voices contained therein, this didn’t prove too difficult a guideline to adhere to. For the record though, all the comedians here listed have additional albums well worth seeking out (notably, Black’s Rules of Enragement; Oswalt’s Feelin’ Kinda Patton and Finest Hour; Bamford’s How to Win; Stanhope’s Dead Beat Hero and Beer Hall Putsch; Giraldo’s Midlife Vices), except for EP-slingin’ Dan Telfer…and, of course, the shocking non-conformist at #1. Always leave ‘em wanting more, right, Dave?

2) Fresh from the relative success of my 2014 Year End albums recap, I have officially instituted a policy for all of my “list”-type posts going forward. Each entry in a given list will be governed by an arbitrary word count, which is arrived at in the process of writing the first entry and then strictly, painfully followed ever after. This is intended to make the posts more enjoyable to read and manageable to write, since, with no restrictions and a subject I’m passionate about, I might very well instinctively set off toward the horizon and not stop writing until I get there. The downside is that one can barely scratch the surface of any work of art when confined to, in this case, 350 words. I think that is, at best, what you’ll find I’ve done here. Make no mistake, these are terrific albums, each of them brimming with invention and cruelly expert in its extraction of laughter from listeners. I haven’t done any of them proper justice, despite writing just under 7000 words total here. I hoped it’d be sufficient just to try.

3) Because it can indicate noteworthy differences in pacing, presentation, or subject matter, I thought it might be useful to classify each comedian below as either a joke teller, a storyteller, or some ultra-efficient hybrid of the two. Not only do I not have my own personal preference, I think you’ll notice a decent mix of all three kinds (plus Lewis Black, who I should’ve known would be undefinable) throughout the top ten (+5). I just happen to find such distinctions interesting. Your mileage may vary.

4) Please be forewarned that every album on this list contains profanity and/or sexual references, very often in excess. Stand-up comedy has been irreverent since it first learned to crawl, and, in my opinion, is at its best and most vital when circumventing polite behavior, pushing buttons and challenging taboos, though that’s not a universal proclamation. The mind crafting the humor is always more important, and just as style fluctuates wildly from comedian to comedian, so does substance. I heartily endorse any person’s right to establish his or her own comfort zone and police it accordingly, but I also think that if ever there’s a place for pressing the envelope – and there definitely is – it’s in stand-up. Again, your mileage may vary. As a public service, I’ve assigned to each album below an inexact number grade on what I’m calling the “Gaffigan/Stanhope Index”. This 10-point scale grades comics on the combined level of subjective indecency in their act. The higher the number, the greater the level of profanity and/or suggestive content it contains. I recognize I might not be the most impartial grader, given where my sympathies historically lie, so proceed with some caution. Everyone has personal thresholds, and while the rankings below bear out the idea that I don’t think quality and objectionable content necessarily have the first thing to do with one another, I also recognize that the farthest reaches are never everyone’s cup of tea. In conclusion, I’m not saying that a 4 is necessarily anything you’d still want to play for your elderly grandmother. I’m just saying that a 10 could quite possibly kill her.

So, caveat listenor, and, try to remember, it’s just comedy. Relax! Enjoy!

attell favorited me

1) Dave Attell – Skanks for the Memories (2003)
Style: Joke Teller | G/S Index: 9

Nutshell: The difficulty in building this list – which, although the cream separated from the remaining crop rather neatly, still had 31 initial finalists – came down to figuring out and properly ordering albums #2-10, but never in identifying the top spot. Uncouth, ribald, and rapid-fire, Dave Attell’s Skanks for the Memories is unquestionably my favorite comedy album of the new millennium, and possibly of all time. His precision, Mamet-esque cadence and flippant, battering ram attitude launched approximately a thousand open mic pretenders in the early aughts, alongside some clever kids who honed wonderful voices in the process of paying homage (Kurt Metzger, Big Jay Oakerson). No other album on this (I hope) rarified list can quite match the rate at which Attell’s jokes are delivered, like a batting practice machine gone berserk, or the “shock and awe” rate at which they land, which is, I daresay, as high as any album in comedy history. Attell’s material always feels like it is being delivered by the wisest ass cab driver in all of New York, holding forth on a procession of aggressively non-P.C., non-sequitur topics (Terrorism, Drinking, Dating, Amish Sex), and wringing as much laughter as possible out of each premise before storming forward. “This is when the fun happens: late,” he asserts early on. “You ever hang out all night long and go home a little early, then get that call the next day? You know that call: ‘You shoulda hung out, man!’ It’s always ten minutes after you leave when all the fun shows up…like the Funmobile is a block behind you at all times, full of strippers, midgets, and balloons…every type of fun imaginable!” Anyone who gets the pleasure of seeing Attell live should know going in how unlikely it’ll be to catch every joke he tells, since he moves so fast and residual audience laughter will drown out 15-20%. What you do hear, assuming you can handle it, will be spectacular. I’ve witnessed Attell put together even funnier nights live in the years since Skanks for the Memories was released. This is merely my treasured official take home souvenir.

Sage Wisdom: “Women have all the power. You know why? Because women have all the vaginas. They do. And the vagina’s like its own little person, isn’t it? It has a time of the month, like it works for the government. And everything affects it: the moon, the tides, kittens, balloon rides, Dave Matthews in concert. What really affects the penis? Whiskey and pepper spray, that’s about it!”

2) Paul F. Tompkins – Impersonal (2007)
Style: Joke Teller | G/S Index: 3

Nutshell: Speaking from a consumer’s perspective, as a fan who has championed numerous journeys of self-discovery over the years, I’m compelled to ask: should artistic change always be seen as a net positive? Jovial, bone-dry, perpetually be-suited raconteur Paul F. Tompkins presents an interesting case study. I’m not actively courting controversy here, because I dearly love the man, value his comedic mind and sensibilities greatly, and trust he’s in a happier creative place now. In 2007, however, he was, improbably, something even more special. Tompkins debuted in the early aughts with the excellent, semi-autobiographical HBO special Driven to Drink (available on HBOGO, and worth your time), a half hour of gently sardonic musings on the modern world mixed with bits of personal philosophy and tales from his days as a Philly small-timer. Then, as now, I would’ve classified Tompkins’ style as “Storyteller”, not “Joke Teller”. In fact, the man has a rare gift, one he really began exercising with the release of 2009’s Freak Wharf, an odd duck transitional album marked by a sudden full embrace of onstage improvisation, yielding comparatively diminished returns. Tompkins has intimated that in the moment storytelling was the end he’s been working toward all along, but even as I enjoy his later material, it pales in comparison to his disarming, exquisitely random debut, 2007’s Impersonal. Most comedy albums do. Impersonal’s title also sums up its approach. The Tompkins who would subsequently begin removing layers of distance and detachment from his onstage persona is 95% persona here, a snooty, cheerfully derisive upper-crust pretender, nose and volume turned way up, who wields sarcasm like a scalpel as he surgically dissects an assortment of perhaps the least pressing issues ever – updating “gag peanut brittle” cans for the modern age, exposing Sesame Street’s gross negligence in teaching “Spanguish” to American preschoolers, deconstructing the “upscale balloon store” racket, authoring revisionist history of the Irish Potato Famine. Tompkins’ touch is deft, his jokes sly, impeccably constructed, and funny above all, with errant improvisational moments that only serve to momentarily humanize his ridiculously arch social critic, making the crowd eager to play along.

Sage Wisdom: “I don’t know why people write letters to magazines, because it accomplishes nothing except to make me angry when I’m trying to read a magazine. It’s bad enough there’s 50 pages of ads, and then there’s perfume in it…but I always forget about letters. That’s like another little slap in the face as I’m trying to get to the meat – the magazine meat – turn the page and arrrgh, that’s right: letters! Who cares? You know these letters are intended for you, right, Magazine? Not for all of us? They’re trying to talk to you. All the letters are addressed to the editors. I’m not an editor of this magazine. If I am, I have been asleep at the wheel! Please continue to withhold my paycheck! I can maybe understand it if you’re mad at the magazine, right? There’s something in there that got a bee in your bonnet…and you need to fire off your angry missive: ‘Dear Magazine, I am most displeased! Harrumph!’ There! I hope they print it. You have struck a blow for all of us! Thanks for standing up. You are like the Rosa Parks of Maxim! Somebody’s got to do something. Those were not the hundred sexiest women!”

3) Lewis Black – Luther Burbank Performing Arts Center Blues (2005)
Style: Social/Political | G/S Index: 8

Nutshell: Rage is an interesting foundation on which to build a comic persona. Professional curmudgeon Lewis Black has never lacked for vitriol, but his pervasive humanity transcends one-note thinking. His rage is constructive. It mirrors his audience, articulating their malaise in a hilarious and altogether more galvanizing way than they could accomplish. Part of what makes Black a riveting presence onstage is not just that his anger (and prolific profanity) springs from an apparently authentic place, but that you rarely have any idea when or to what degree it will do so. He might as well be the world’s coolest tenured college professor, frazzled but passionate, during the long stretches in between, as he expounds on the institutional rot of American politics and the maddening stupidity of modern life. Then Black explodes like a geyser, hits the heights, crests, recedes, then resets. He’s like the comic embodiment of Alfred Hitchcock’s famous preferred model of suspense. You know there’s a bomb under the table, ticking away. You have an idea of the time remaining, but mental math is hard. Then, boom. Black is actually a rather jolly figure in his own twisted way. He has an incisive and self-deprecating sense of humor and a mind that seems to never stop working. He also tends to make a ridiculous amount of sense. Each of Black’s ten albums has much to recommend it, but Luther Burbank finds the sweetest spot possible, triangulating fire from his default vantage points (outrage, disdain, disbelief) to annihilate a veritable buffet of juicy topics, including Janet Jackson’s infamous wardrobe malfunction (“you do realize you’re appearing in public, and not as commander of the Battlestar Galactica?”) and an epic screed on the second Iraq War. Black succeeds in making the headlines of a decade ago seem vital, and Burbank’s musings and artillery volleys are even funnier in hindsight, which is an amazing trick to pull off. “If this qualifies as evolution in leadership,” he complains, “by 2016, we’re going to be voting for plants.” Here another election is around the corner, and Lewis Black is just as prescient as ever.

Sage Wisdom: “So it’s why people, you know, they don’t know gays, so they’re against gay marriage… you know, which is just unbelievable. I mean, after 9/11? You’re gonna…that’s something you’re going to worry about now? You need a hobby. Because on the list of things we have to worry about, gay marriage is on page six, after ‘are we eating too much garlic as a people?’”

4) Doug Stanhope – Something to Take the Edge Off (2003)
Style: Storyteller | G/S Index: 10 (It’s partly named for him, after all)

Nutshell: Even at his most relaxed and conversational – and Something to Take the Edge Off certainly represents that – Doug Stanhope is still a peerless and effortless provocateur. He’s also a whip-smart libertarian misanthrope, self-amused and radically indelicate, with a pronounced, albeit buried, humanist streak, a boozer and serial ranter of epic proportions, and a deeply, inherently funny man. He’ll go to absolutely any verbal length to prove a point or explore a theory, both of which he has in abundance. This early set, where he is accompanied onstage by the languid, winking acoustic guitar of fellow comedian Henry Phillips, is not only the ideal starting point for any further exploration of his particular hybrid blend of extreme social commentary and blissfully puerile storytelling – though I’d still advise the curious to proceed with utmost caution – it has the added benefit of being the most solid sustained material of his career, narrowly beating out 2004’s excellent Dead Beat Hero and 2013’s Beer Hall Putsch, which was such a return to prime form that it found its way onto my year-end cross-genre top twenty. On Something to Take the Edge Off, Stanhope rails against vice cops, imagines a super-authentic, never-aired backwater episode of Real Stories of the Highway Patrol, waxes philosophical on self-destruction and suicide, bedroom politics, advice, and double standards, the offstage grind of stand-up comedy, the ties that bind blue collar proles to their dead end locales, and, of course, offers up the lyrical ballad of Bobbie Barnett, the Twins fan who may not have liked it, but at least didn’t welsh on the bet once Boston won. Stanhope takes a track or three to approach his customary level of multi-directional disgust, but Edge is hilarious immediately and throughout, resulting, given its confidence, thematic scope and musical accompaniment, in something almost more akin to a triumphant one-man show than traditional stand-up. Vivid, outrageous, always pointed and occasionally poignant, Something to Take the Edge Off only ever plays at being laid back. Instead, it’s a brilliant, uncompromising, patently offensive warning shot across the bow of both establishment comedy and establishment thinking.

Sage Wisdom: “Every time you say you hate children, people always say the same thing: ‘It would be different if it was your own child.’ Yeah, well what if it wasn’t? What if I believed all you people who told me that and I squeezed out a rat of my own on your good word, and I end up hating him just as much as I hate the screaming kid on the airplane, or the kid at Denny’s who leans over the booth and plays in your hair and drools food on you? And his parents think it’s hilarious, and you’re hung over! You just wanna… not hurt the kid or anything, but maybe squeeze a lemon in his eyes. Something that’s not traceable back to me. If it was my own kid, I could do that to him all day long and I don’t know that that would ever get old to me. How can you know what kind of parent you’ll be? How do you know you’re not going to be that ‘shake the baby’ parent?”

5) Patton Oswalt – Werewolves and Lollipops (2007)
Style: Hybrid | G/S Index: 6

Nutshell: There are comedy nerds, and then there are nerds who are comedians. Patton Oswalt is the patron saint of both, and arguably the single voice most responsible for/identifiable with the growth and popularization of “alt-comedy” in the new millennium. His 2004 debut Feelin’ Kinda Patton was the first comedy album I’d bought in years, and, unsurprisingly, given the voice behind it coupled with my inherent nerd-dom, love for comedy, and time away, an absolutely revelatory listen. By 2007, as you’ll notice the further you read, the comedy landscape was finally catching up to the promise of FKP, so Oswalt’s sophomore release (on Sub-Pop Records, no less) had much to live up to. Werewolves and Lollipops goes big from start to finish, rolls confidently and cuts deep, officially cementing Oswalt’s greatness while further burnishing his strong authorial voice into something of a long-range beacon calling out to freaks, geeks, goofballs, and exiles. Werewolves is essentially a greatest hits album, spawning many of the comedian’s best known and loved bits, as when he analyzes America’s sweaty love for Kentucky Fried Chicken’s so-called “Famous Bowl”, lionizes 1970s grade-Z horror flick Death Bed as the pinnacle of Hollywood’s can-do spirit (even in the service of execrable schlock), decries modern science’s blinkered progress after a 63-year-old woman gives birth (“Hey, we made cancer airborne and contagious! You’re welcome! We’re Science!”), or fantasizes about using time travel not to kill Hitler but, rather, George Lucas – at midnight, with a shovel – in a desperate bid to erase the Star Wars prequel trilogy. Oswalt remains an alt-comedy godfather, ruling Twitter and acquitting himself well in independent films like Big Fan and Young Adult while retaining an impressive creativity level and batting average on later albums like 2011’s excellent Finest Hour and last year’s Tragedy plus Comedy Equals Time. In the early aughts, though, he was both geeky trailblazer and schlubby, unassuming juggernaut. No hour of alt-comedy contains a “classic to non” ratio that equals, or really approaches, Werewolves and Lollipops. Listening to it today, the good memories come flooding back effortlessly, and knowing laughter crashes anew.

Sage Wisdom: [sung in the style of the late Joe Cocker] “A-me-ri-ca! / eatin’ my lunch from a single bowl / in my parents’ basement! / where I’m livin’ / happy birthday / I’m forty-three! / [dramatic pause] / That’s how I want my lunch! / I don’t wanna waste those precious calories chew-in’ / [exhausted pause] / Somebody move my jaw for me…”

6) Mike Birbiglia – Sleepwalk with Me (2011)
Style: Storyteller | G/S Index: 2

Nutshell: Even among the half-dozen comedic storytellers I’ve collected here, Mike Birbiglia is a breed apart. The folksy, disarming Massachusetts native rose to prominence augmenting his stand-up dreams with guest spots on NPR’s This American Life and gaining acclaim on the strength of two seriously autobiographical albums. If Birbiglia’s second release, 2007’s My Secret Public Journal, benefitted greatly from his already impressive command of long-form storytelling, its follow-up, the deep, irresistible Sleepwalk with Me, seemed like the groundbreaking of a new kind of extended play comedy altogether, even if it wasn’t quite. Including it here feels like a cheat – or would be if the end result wasn’t so terrific – because Sleepwalk isn’t merely a book of jokes or tall tales but rather the story of Mike Birbiglia’s life. Born as a one man show off-Broadway, honed to a laser edge, and road tested for years, Sleepwalk recounts Birbiglia’s salad days as an aspiring comedian and loving but uncertain boyfriend, juxtaposing his various neuroses and trials – as a man-child embracing responsibility, as a partner struggling with commitment, as a fumbling stand-up finding his voice in the face of abject failure – against victories tiny and incomplete, leaving very little out. It reads as possibly dark material, though the end result is buoyed by Birbiglia’s warm, self-deprecating humor (of an early gig performed during a bustling college cafeteria’s dinner rush: “I was like an oscillating desk fan, blowing humor”), knack for mining winning comedic asides out of thin air (“I kept running into Abbie on campus, because I was following her”), and total command of stage and story (second-guessing foolhardy decisions with his trademark “what I should have said…” and reinforcing audience reaction to particularly awful moments by confiding, “I know…I’m in the future also”), no matter his rambling mic persona. Sleepwalk with Me trusts the strength of its individual stories even as it assembles them into an overarching thematic quilt rich with pathos, life lessons, and copious laughter. It would work as a single, 70-minute track. Compulsively listenable for the first time or twentieth, Sleepwalk is a comedy album unlike any I’ve heard.

Sage Wisdom: “I knew Abbie wanted to get married, and I knew I wasn’t ready for it, but I couldn’t say it. I remember thinking, ‘maybe I should break up with Abbie’…and then I thought, ‘maybe I’ll eat dinner.’ So we never dealt with it, until we went to my brother Joe’s wedding. Now, if you’re ever in a relationship that seems to be moving towards marriage, and you’re not ready for it to go in that direction…don’t go…to my brother Joe’s wedding! ‘Cause it’ll come up!”

7) Kyle Kinane – Death of the Party (2010)
Style: Storyteller | G/S Index: 6

Nutshell: To experience Kyle Kinane live is to love him forever. I only accomplished that recently, but was an early adopter nonetheless. Thank Death of the Party for that. From the moment I started writing this piece, I have circled the subject of Kinane warily and with mounting discomfort, like an airliner low on fuel searching for a landing spot. Over the course of five years, the scruffy, blue collar Chicagoan has gone from total unknown to a sort of cause celebre within the larger comedy world, yet retained his singular, shoulder-shrugging, completely unassuming authenticity. Kyle Kinane, see, was once accosted by the Burbank police for running a stop sign on his bicycle. The “pursuit” consisted of twenty minutes of him being unaware he was being pulled over. I recently read a gargantuan profile on Kinane, which spent 6000 more words defining and explaining him than I’ve allotted myself here. I enjoyed it thoroughly, chuckled often, agreed with everything, yet found myself no closer to properly describing him for this countdown. Kinane’s comedy is blissfully grungy, both populist and elusive, covering topics rooted in stoner ennui and his charming, simultaneously flagellating and chilled-out brand of self-doubt. He once received an inspirational speech during an emergency visit to the award-winning “worst men’s room in Chicago”, has cold-called housewives attempting to sell them gourmet cake decorations, and was demoted from a dead-end warehouse gig (“to a desk job, like when a cop shoots the wrong guy”) because he spent his work hours diligently approximating the Beach Boys’ “Sloop John B” using only a forklift’s modular whir. He knows, in deliriously vivid detail, what the definition of insomnia is, and has the perfect epitaph already picked out for his headstone. His tales are graceful and philosophical, in surprising, deeply considered ways, free of hack influences or any lingering whiff of compromise. For all his reflexive protestations, there is true, strange genius here, a kind of a comic savant masquerading as “loveable loser” thing. Kinane is a bottomless well of stories, each richer, crazier and more engaging than the last. You hope they’ll never end.

Sage Wisdom: “I can only confidently apply to businesses where the first name of the business is what they sell and the second name of the business is a fictional geographic location or architectural structure. Let me give you an example: Radio-Shack. Pizza-Hut. Those are the only places I can walk into and say, ‘you know, I think I’ve got this one.’ First job I applied for in California – I moved here six years ago – first job I applied for was at Nike Town. I walked in there with my little button-up shirt, thinking, ‘what the hell am I doing here?’ I don’t even like sports. The interviewer asks me, ‘what position are you applying for at Nike Town?’ ‘Pfft, I dunno. Mayor? I don’t know, man. You tell me, what’s open?’ He’s like, ‘this isn’t an actual town’, and I’m like, ‘that’s perfect, because I don’t have much political experience…’”

8) Maria Bamford – Ask Me about My New God (2013)
Style: Hybrid | G/S Index: 5

Nutshell: At any given moment, Maria Bamford’s audience can be split into rough thirds: those laughing out of utter surprise, those laughing out of utter delight, and the remainder, laughing out of utter confusion, though laughter, at least, is something they have in common. “Things are going good,” she offers, about halfway through her magnum opus Ask Me about My New God. “I’m trying to bring the tension of reality (television) shows into my everyday life. I just eliminated my mom from America’s Best Dance Crew.” Then she elaborates further, hilariously, as she does for each of Ask’s hundred or so other random, unlikely premises. Bamford sternly discourages her audience from contemplating suicide until it’s more seasonally appropriate (“Late Fall!”), and relates that she’s recently found herself trying to listen more to the emotions behind the words of her local liquor store clerk. Sure, she’d buy Oreos from him in addition to Diet Coke, if they weren’t expired. His response: “You’re trying to fix it! I just need a witness to my experience!” More than any other comedian here, Bamford must be heard to be understood. Even then, comprehension will likely prove incremental. She has always cut a meek silhouette, with her affected nervousness and mousy speaking voice. But then she starts confidently inhabiting the voices of others – her self-possessed parents, her overachieving sister, a cavalcade of sound bites from L.A.’s hipster/blue collar classes, even former neighbor Ernesto Martinez, a wrong number for whom she assumed pro bono debt reconciliation negotiations – with her own voice as the Willy Wonka-style tour guide, and she becomes sort of magical. Whether recounting time-honored family traditions (“Joy Whack-a-Mole!”) or fretting in vivid detail that celebrity chef Paula Deen’s recipes have lately taken on the air of a stealth suicide note, Bamford’s comic mind is a truly wondrous thing, unorthodox, untethered, a full step beyond normal, spinning the achingly mundane and intensely personal into a fantasia of fully-realized comedic impossibilities. I could describe her for hours – sadly using only my own voice – and never do the scope or quality of her comedy proper justice.

Sage Wisdom: “Vote for Maria Bamford for Eagle Rock Neighborhood Council: She can do it…if it’s on a Tuesday.”

9) Greg Giraldo – Good Day to Cross a River (2006)
Style: Joke Teller/Social | G/S Index: 8

Nutshell: Whatever cache the late Greg Giraldo held in his comic life was largely derived from his high profile role as cleanup hitter on Comedy Central’s periodic D-list celebrity roasts, which is a damned shame. While the former lawyer’s crackerjack timing and innate, withering ability to instantly size up any person or issue before surgically dicing it into kibble served him well on the easy target circuit – asserting that without Bill Engvall, Sears would have no comedy section; calling Lisa Lampanelli a “circus bear in a pantsuit”; defining “Carolla” (re: Adam) as an Italian word meaning “one eyebrow” – the disappointment of his career is that he was never afforded the acclaim due his stand-up, which, based on the evidence of his two albums – 2009’s Midlife Vices and his debut Good Day to Cross a River – was already operating at a near-Carlin level/intersection of sublime dirtiness and trenchant social critique by the time he died in 2010. Though both are essential, River is the better set. Giraldo is as merciless on himself as on his moving targets, though he also exudes a unexpected humanism throughout, attacking the vacancy and self-centeredness of the mid-aughts with the same supreme confidence and cutting insight he used to dismantle dais after dais on TV. Words erupt from his motor mouth with passion, precision, and consistency that, unheard, is hard to fathom and, once heard, nigh impossible to approximate. River is the sound of voice silenced before the world knew quite what to make of it, operating at peak power and efficiency. Revisiting it is a somber occasion only just before clicking “play” and after clicking “stop”. In between, it’s Mr. Greg’s Wild Ride. As luck would have it, I met Giraldo a couple weeks before he passed. He seemed noticeably beholden to some chemical or other, but he struck me personally as a nice man, and was so relentlessly funny on stage that I left the club elated, knowing instinctively that I’d probably never see his equal again. If you only know Giraldo from the CC podium, you owe it to yourself to know him better.

Sage Wisdom: “This guy told me it sucks for him, he’s always stereotyped as a terrorist, you know? Whenever he travels, people always assume he’s a terrorist. And that does suck, but this is America. Every ethnic group has a stereotype that they’ve had to overcome at some point in their history. I mean, I’m half-Colombian and half-Spanish. I don’t get upset every time people assume…that I’m a bullfighter. I don’t. I just deal with it. It’s my little cross to bear. But I can’t be seen with a sword or a cape, you know? You don’t think I’d love to wear my skin tight pink Capri pants with the bedazzling on them, without hearing, ‘Look at that bullfighter! I told you they was all bullfighters!’”

10) Pete Holmes – Impregnated with Wonder (2011)
Style: Hybrid | G/S Index: 6

Nutshell: Unlike some modern comedians whose stage personas are overly dry or too cool and/or clever for their own good, Pete Holmes compulsively seeks connection and fairly desperately wants your approval. The distance between his on stage persona and his off stage personality – evidenced on his long-running, frequently fascinating podcast You Made it Weird – is actually pretty negligible though, measurable perhaps only in terms of speaker volume. Offstage, “Petey Pants” is still a solid six if not a seven, friendly, empathetic, and unequivocally engaged, fiercely intelligent even as he feigns incompetence and selective stupidity, quick to digress with interview subjects and quicker still to laugh uproariously, ever obsessed with his three conversational pillars of sex, religion, and comedy. Onstage, Holmes is a tooth-rattling, borderline nine, a wacky water weasel gone haywire and spewing observations instead of summertime refreshment. Think of prime Brian Regan with half the filter and restraint. On the sublimely ridiculous Impregnated with Wonder, Holmes holds forth on topics such as the fun of standing like a pregnant woman, the stigma (and difficulty) of legitimately “not knowing” something in the age of Google, using YouTube comments as a litmus test for judging American youth, the existential despair of eating at Subway, and the edifying, feverish joys of being an adult. Joy is such a predominant theme throughout that Holmes even unveils a single-player, empty house game called “Pierce!”, intended to instantly inspire its participant to live in the moment. Not all the jokes hit, and a few are complete throwaways, but Holmes delivers them with an irrepressible positivity that cushions their fall. We’re not talking peace activist positivity here so much as cult member positivity, though with his easy chuckle and fresh-faced, wide-eyed perpetual enthusiasm, Holmes has an interesting way of making extremes of all sorts coexist plausibly. A great shaggy blond goofball standing at a lanky but animated 6’6”, Holmes sometimes has the feel of an Irish Wolf Hound teetering on hind legs, his open-tent comedy planting warm, playful, sloppy kisses on every member of the audience simultaneously. Some of them arrive more prepared than others, one imagines.

Sage Wisdom: “Comedy is the best. I am so glad I am not a magician. Have you taken a moment today to be glad you’re not a magician? Comedy audiences, you guys are here to have a good time. Magic audiences are the worst. It’s the only kind of entertainment where 90% of the audience is trying to ruin it for themselves… …You should enjoy it. That’s how I am at a magic show. I’m there to play. Look at my happy face. You can see me in the front row. You’re damned right I’m in the front row! Volunteering, getting into it. But people try to ruin it for me. I was at a show recently where I saw a man fly. He took flight! I didn’t misspeak, he flew! And to prove it wasn’t a wire, he flew through hoops, and in a box…it was amazing! And this guy…I’m not with this guy, who’s this guy? He leans over to me and goes, ‘it’s a magnet!’ SHUT UP! You spent $35 to be in a non-magical world. We could’ve stayed outside! Let’s be in here where there’s magic! You don’t have to understand it! ‘It’s a magnet! Magnet! [thinks] Well, I don’t understand magnets, and I don’t understand this. They’re probably in bed together! Because one time, I had these two gray squares and they wouldn’t touch, but then I flipped one and they did. That’s probably what makes him fly!’ Magnets are NOT magical! My refrigerator has never once disappeared…”

Plus 5: In addition to his F/X show, current “greatest comic alive by acclimation” Louis C.K. (Storyteller; G/S: 7) releases a new special/album every year like clockwork, though his best work of the century, 2011’s Hilarious, dates back to just before his professional breakthrough and contains many of his most memorable and inspired riffs, a veritable textbook on parenthood, aging with and without grace, and the selfish vapidity of modern society. The late Mitch Hedberg (Joke Teller; G/S: 5) belongs on any list of the greatest joke writers of all time. His 2003 opus Mitch All Together is loose, flighty, and inspired (“When I was boy, I’d lie in my twin-sized bed wondering where my brother was”), a consistently clever master’s class in comedic style that wrings laughs both knowing and surprised from its listener, while inevitably making him/her pine for what might’ve been. Former Simpsons writer Dana Gould (Hybrid; G/S: 5) – who, for the record, has two basic emotions: “Rage, and suppressed rage” – is one of a handful of the sharpest comedic minds currently working. His 2009 album Let Me Put My Thoughts in You is effortlessly smart, refreshingly subtle and dependably unpredictable. Whenever you think you have him pegged (beware the ending to the story he tells of bargaining with his young daughter over snacks before bedtime), he fools you, yet again. The stand-up sets of self-professed “King Loser” Christopher Titus (Storyteller; G/S: 7) routinely run to exhausting lengths, as the master storyteller turns the chasm separating self-deprecation and self-help into a tightrope, then deftly does a dozen kinds of dances atop it. Titus’ work has fallen off slightly in recent years as he’s struggled to retain his blazing authenticity while tending to the persona that made him a cult star of both stage and small screen, but his jaw-dropping debut, 2004’s Norman Rockwell is Bleeding, still feels like something raw and unprecedented, an unvarnished, high energy and painfully personal memoir of perhaps the most dysfunctional upbringing imaginable, or at least survivable. Finally, effete but edgy Chicagoan Dan Telfer (Storyteller; G/S: 6) turns the mundane into the oddball poetic on his delightful, literate, and unpredictable 2012 album Tendrils of Ruin, whether comprehensively deconstructing the homophobic mindset of stereotypical sports fans, dissecting one of the worst straight-to-video horror movies ever, or recounting his trip to an obscure Starbucks that inspired a 2-star Yelp! review (later pulled from the website for being “too dark”).

Like every other comedian here, Telfer is a fiercely original voice, which is only the start of what makes me enjoy his work so much. He or any of his fellow runners up would’ve made a fine #10. Indeed, several of them occupied that spot before the final decision was made. In the end, I went with the sets that made me laugh both the most and the most dependably, but this group is a half-step off championship pace at best.

George Carlin
May 12, 1937 – June 22, 2008

Robin Williams
July 21, 1951 – August 11, 2014

Greg Giraldo
December 10, 1965 – September 29, 2010

Mitch Hedberg
February 24, 1968 – March 29, 2005

“Nous Sommes Charlie”

One thought on “The Top Ten (+5): New millennium stand-up comedy albums

  1. Hey Eric, Thanks for sharing this post with me. The introduction is especially meaningful to me…thinking what you must have been experiencing those days as that latchkey kid.  Whew…Will call soon. Much love!

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