On the appropriately titled Hilarious, standup comedian Louis C.K. writes off much his bitterness as a side effect of growing old, but growing wiser seems to have much more to do with it. His disgust with the class of 2010 and their lack of a connection to the real world -- if it doesn’t plug into a USB port to charge, it’s worthless -- makes for the comedian’s richest set to date, and when he covers his recent divorce and the absurdity of reentering the dating world at 41, he elevates his material to a Pryor or Carlin level. Through it all he maintains his regular-guy status and all the accessibility that has made him the people’s comedian, but if any of that sounds like he’s given up the gross, check the climatic “My 3-Year-Old Is a 3-Year-Old” for a scatological tale of parenting that causes some in the audience to shriek with horror while most others erupt with laughter. These crude moments wouldn’t be so impactful if everything else wasn’t so smart and honest, and as Louis C.K. goes further down both ends of that spectrum, the results keep getting better and better.
David Jeffries, Rovi
For a comedy group that was born and raised in visual mediums -- web videos and the Saturday Night Live television show -- the Lonely Island are still way ahead of the curve when it comes to the comedy album format. Of course, music was at least half the reason links to their series of SNL Digital Shorts would dominate in-boxes every following Monday. The smart mimicry of teen pop ("Dick in a Box"), Euro-disco ("Jizz in My Pants"), or old-school rap ("Lazy Sunday") is half the attraction, and when you add the "aw shucks" look of on-camera Islander Andy Samberg, you can get away with a lot of shocking material. So many mentions of naughty bits would be tedious if Samberg and SNL writers Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone didn't have the brains to pull it off, and dealing with the differences between races seems much less dangerous when the trio show they're well-versed in the works of their hip-hop guests, E-40 and T-Pain. Their hiring of eccentric underground rap producer J-Zone shows their in tune with what's next and when white rasta wannabe "Ras Trent" complains of his "bomboclat parents" and declares he can make a chalice out of a Sprite can, the snarky commentary is made all the sweeter by a lyric that drops two deep reggae references: "Me night nurse never want to plant de corn." The track has also been updated so that a visual joke from the original SNL version is removed, and with all the interludes and new material, plus fake alternative album covers throughout the booklet, this isn't an afterthought but a fully committed comedy album. On top of that, it's a hilarious comedy album that's just as hip, inventive, and inappropriate as their digital shorts.
Comedian Tim Wilson's discography is a strange mix of seemingly tossed-off efforts and ambitious projects. His loyal fan base has had to hang on tight with twists and turns like his Soul Train inspired concept album Super Bad Sounds of the 70s. His 2007 album But I Could Be Wrong is bound to shake off another batch of fans since it proudly wears a Parental Advisory sticker and Wilson's material is now closer to Chinga Chavin territory than it's ever been. The good news is it suits him just fine, and there's plenty of A-list material that doesn't rely on cussing, like the bitter and smart "Way out in the Country" or better yet, "Deddy Worked," which must have been stolen when Kinky Friedman wasn't looking. The populist stuff made for morning radio jocks is still here ("Disco Ball" which focuses on football) and politically incorrect moments like "Pork Rind Airlines" (as in "the terrorists won't be ridin' no...") are still impossible to defend. Even harder to explain is the allure of his standup which is casual, messy, and built more for chuckling that laughing. Still there's a homemade and rebel charm to it all and the serious filth, wrier lyrics, and new Brooks & Dunn look suit Wilson better than expected. He may be getting older, but he's definitely not clamping down, making this generally tossed-off effort more appealing than it has any right to be.
David Jeffries, Rovi
Finest Hour is an arguable title thanks to this comedian’s killer trilogy of previous albums, but Patton Oswalt is experiencing an oaklike kind of mellowing as he reaches that unpivotal age of 42. Instead of throwing out precious moments such as "failure pile in a sadness bowl” (Werewolves and Lollipops) and "Uncle Touchy's naked puzzle basement" (My Weakness Is Strong), Patton stuns his audience here with an embrace of “The Miracle of Sweatpants” during the opener, and exits with “The Horror of New York City,” a masterwork bit that might just sound like “you kids get off my lawn” to a Brooklyn Hipster. These button-down bookends fly in the face of the comedian’s earlier cynicism, which has now turned into a keen awareness of cynics and the over-abuse of irony. Sounding genuine, he shows concern for the good people at “The Museum of Spam” who are forced to endure more “hipster douche bags” than real customers. After all, ire is worth saving for things that truly deserve it, and targets like the circus and religious fanaticism are chopped up into absurdist little bits, while surprisingly uncool things such as "Jerry McGuire" and courteous people are gently hugged. Patton’s quest to let the warm fuzzies into his life doesn’t mean sacrificing the masterful, vulgar wordplay (here you get “swamp ass” and “nut fog” right off the bat), while hints of nerd-speak suggest he’s still willing to join any “Marvel vs. DC” argument in the general vicinity. When he realizes that masturbating to Internet porn has taken time away from teaching his daughter how to read, it’s a hilarious and transcendent bit that captures the true worth of Finest Hour. Less catch phrases and more life lessons may not be to everyone’s taste, and while the laugh count is down a shade no matter what side of 40 you fall on, this more reserved Patton offers a richer experience, especially on return visits. Plus, he’s totally right about the sweatpants.
David Jeffries, Rovi
As anyone who witnessed their legendary shorts on HBO will attest, Tenacious D is indeed the greatest band on earth. Bad D is still better than the Beatles and good D is transcendent. Even so, Tenacious D's debut album will likely kick fans on their asses because the D is no longer just about JB and KG. They're even ready to be more than a power trio -- they're ready to be backed by a full band, complete with Dave Grohl on drums and the Dust Brothers behind the boards. After years of hearing them as an acoustic heavy metal duo, that's a real shock, but they've also overhauled their repertoire, reworking and retitling several songs and leaving many tunes behind. Most regrettably, there is no "History of Tenacious D," even if it is quoted in the liner notes, but there's also no "Rocketsauce," no "Kyle Took a Bullet for Me," no "Sasquatch," no "Cosmic Shame," no "Special Things," and no "Jesus Ranch." "You Broke the Rules" becomes "Karate," "Song of Exultant Joy" is "Kyle Quit the Band," "Sex Supreme" becomes "Double Team," "The Best Song in the World" becomes "Tribute," lacking many of the "Stairway to Heaven" allusions in this version, and so on and so forth (elements of their opening theme are incorporated into "Kielbasa," thankfully). Furthermore, the dynamic has shifted drastically because the group no longer sounds like maniacal misfits who've conquered the worlds in their own minds playing to an audience who just hasn't caught up yet. Here, they sound like victors who've had their delusions of grandeur come real (which is true when you think about it -- those shorts might not have done much on HBO, but videotapes passed through a lot of hands on the underground video railroad). This is a bigger change than you might think, and while the acoustic D sounds better, weirder, and purer, this still is a hell of a record, particularly because it rocks so damn hard. The worst thing about it are the sketches, which may be funny, but not nearly as funny as the plots that tied the shows together (nothing as funny as asides from the show, like "circle church," either) or the live routines; they tend to distract from the music. And the music is indeed what matters, since no matter how silly and gleefully profane this can be, Tenacious D rules because the music is terrific. The tunes have hooks, Kage and Jables harmonize well, and the cheerfully demented worldview is intoxicating, since their self-belief and self-referential world is delightfully absurd and warm (think about it -- the sex songs may be vulgar and may be about their prowess, but their prowess is about making those backstage Betties feel good). Sure, some listeners may chuckle because this all comes from two large, cute, 30-something slackers, but they're missing the inspirado behind this record -- Tenacious D certainly know they're funny, but that doesn't erase the fact that they rock so hard. They came to kick your ass and rock your socks off, and that is a very special thing.
It's hard to get the full effect of Lewis Black's gloriously bitter comedy if you're only listening to him -- watching the man work himself up into a lather with jowls shaking, beads of spittle flying from his lips, and his eyes bulging from his sockets as if his head is about to burst open from sheer pent-up rage adds immeasurably to the effect of his barbed, pungent wit. But at the same time, the intelligence and reason behind his wrath often projects better through repeated listening on CD than it does by watching the man threatening to erupt on-stage, and 2003's Rules of Enragement captures Black at the height of his powers both as a high-pressured comic and as a incisive political satirist. While Black's rants about winter in Minnesota, the evils of soymilk, and how the Irish brought alcohol and Catholicism together are reasonably standard stuff, they're also smart and exceptionally funny, and Black's unceasing barrage of bad karma gives even his most mainstream material a fierce edge. It's when he moves on to deeper matters -- America's failure to keep its water supply clean ("We buy bottles of water from Pepsi and Coke, because if ANYBODY knows water, it's Pepsi and Coke!"), political and corporate corruption ("If big oil gave anybody in this room 31 million bucks, you'd be THRILLED to be big oil's bitch"), and various varieties of post-September 11 malaise ("How do we bring democracy to Iraq? What do we do, give 'em our civics books? 'Read this, it's crackerjack material!'") -- that Black proves he can be every bit as funny while dipping his toes into provocative material that sadly few contemporary comics would have the courage to touch. While not the full-on flamethrower of David Cross' epochal Shut Up, You Fucking Baby!, Rules of Enragement is a similarly powerful bit of no-holds-barred standup comedy that proves the furious provocation of Lenny Bruce, Bill Hicks, and Richard Pryor is thankfully still alive in American humor. Or at least it's still alive until Black gives himself a stroke.
Mark Deming, Rovi
Greatest Comedy Hits compiles most of Eddie Murphy's most famous comedy bits, as well as some that were never available on disc before. Murphy's hilarious riffs on Mick Jagger and James Brown, his classic routine on hit-and-run drivers, and his impressions of his drunken father -- they're all here. Included as well are recordings from his films Coming to America and Nutty Professor, as well as some riffs from his concert film, Raw, none of which were ever released on CD before. The real coup, though, consists of the seven previously unreleased recordings made at various club and stage appearances, some apparently from the late '80s and early '90s. Though the sound quality is uneven, which sometimes causes the jokes to be drowned out by the audience, there is still plenty of gold to be mined here. Murphy's take on Moses (most of his miracles were the result of a mistranslated speech impediment), his routine about a conversation with Little Richard, and his description of the birth of his first child are as classic as anything else here. His other new routines are too short (or in the case of "Almost Fucked a Midget," far too long) to be as vintage, but contain scattered laughs here and there. Fans may quibble over absent selections, such as his infamous gay Honeymooners bit, but for newcomers as well as longtime fans, Greatest Comedy Hits is a necessary purchase.
Victor W. Valdivia, Rovi
Released just over a month after his passing, George Carlin's It's Bad for Ya features the same material as his final HBO special of the same name, which aired in March of 2008, but it's a different recording from a much smoother performance. Carlin was well aware of his odds at the age of 70 -- which is "69 with a finger up its ass" -- but on first listen it's hard not to get the creeps as the comedian obsesses on death, mostly his own, for the front half of the album. There's no solace to be found as his no-nonsense (and no heaven, either) attitude destroys all things comforting, but it is most definitely hilarious. The great thing about nearing death is that you're allowed to forget things, even the important things ("...but it was your daughter's funeral"). While the computer age means dead friends must be deleted from Outlook's address book, the comedian prefers to create a new folder and make his own digital purgatory. With these right-on-the-mark and very 2008 computer references, Carlin proves he's still up to the time and still incredibly sharp as he skewers the modern-day practice of "child worship." He's disgusted with a world where every kid wins and understands file sharing better than old-school playtime ("Do today's kids even know what a stick is?"). This seamless movement from death to parenting and on to blowhards plus conservative America is the masterful stuff comedy students should study, plus Carlin's overall delivery is sharper and faster than most would believe. Here he casts off the misrepresentation that he's just an old rambling hippie doing an hourlong expletive-filled version of "you kids get off my lawn." You've got to be comfortable with the ideas of no God, kids suck, and that America is corrupt to the core, but if you can sit with that, It's Bad for Ya is about 100 laughs heavier than his previous effort, Life Is Worth Losing. The only thing left to mention is the packaging, which looks cheap and divides the set into way too many tracks before redeeming itself by acknowledging Carlin's death with a Zippy the Pinhead quote, a touch the "anti almost everything" comedian would have loved.
More times than not, Columbia/Legacy's Essential collections are stellar overviews. Boasting a two-and-a-half-hour running time and 38 songs hand-picked by Al himself, The Essential "Weird Al" Yankovic is yet another well-executed title in the series. Encompassing 12 albums, the double-disc set starts from the beginning of Al's career, with "Another One Rides the Bus," his live "Another One Bites the Dust" parody from the Dr. Demento show in 1980, and it gradually chronicles up to the R. Kelly-influenced "Trapped in the Drive-Thru" from 2006's Straight Outta Lynwood. Most of Al's big parodies are highlighted here ("Eat It," "I Lost on Jeopardy," "Yoda," "Like a Surgeon," "Fat") -- as well as some choice deep cuts, like the ripping accordion medley "Polkas on 45," the opening theme from UHF, and a smattering of absurd originals ("Albuquerque," "Dare to Be Stupid," "You Don't Love Me Anymore," and "The Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota"). All of these could be deemed essential for fans, but nitpickers will wonder about the whereabouts of "Ricky," "Money for Nothing/Beverly Hillbillies," and two of Yankovic's best food parodies, "My Bologna" and "I Love Rocky Road." These songs aside, not much is missing, considering the depth of his discography. The exhaustive four-disc Permanent Record has 50 songs, but it stops at 1994. Al may have hit a rocky patch for a spell toward the turn of the millennium, but he had some of his best work just after, including the geeky rap satires "Amish Paradise," "It's All About the Pentiums," and "White & Nerdy." For nostalgic fans who just want a quick taste of the '80s, Greatest Hits is the best bet, but those seeking a deep-rooted summary that's both comprehensive and extensive should look no further than this.
Jason Lymangrover, Rovi