Reflecting On: Mike Birbiglia – Two Drink Mike

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Mike Birbiglia is one of the biggest storytelling comedians in the country. His shows often center on a main story of some type, be it sleepwalking or past relationships, with jokes written around and supporting the thesis. Ten years ago, Two Drink Mike was released. While it’s a solid comedy album, it is the only traditional release from Birbiglia before he transitioned into more of a story based format. While it doesn’t have the depth and writing of projects like Sleepwalk With Me, it provides the footing and talent that led Birbigs to experiment and craft his act into something unique to the comedy scene.

Two Drink Mike, Birbiglia’s debut album from Comedy Central Records, is more or less standard fare. Quick one-liners mixed in among larger ideas. The album is a loving mixture of talent and young, hungry ambition. Ideas, such as how his girlfriend’s cats were gay because, “they’re always licking each other and spooning in the window and criticizing the way I dress,” hadn’t quite evolved into long form, intricate tales. The way that absurd ideas like the ‘Dustbuster Olympics’ and its inclusion into Sleepwalk With Me built the story, as a symptom of the climactic ending rather than a standalone throw away, hadn’t found its way into his act yet. What remains is an album of fantastic jokes of absurd premises, even though they only tease the openness that we’ve come to see in Birbiglia at this point in his career.

Two Drink Mike seemed like a hit at the time of its release. I have no idea how it did in terms of sales, but it was at the forefront of the comedy boom of the mid 2000’s. Comedy Central’s record label exploded fresh off of the success of Dane Cook’s previous albums, Retaliation and Harmful if Swallowed. New CDs were being released constantly. Amid a full roster of albums, Mike Birbiglia appeared, fresh faced and awkwardly doing a photo shoot next to a washing machine.

I passed his album around to all of my friends. As one of the few comedians on the record label who ‘seemed clean,’ he became the first storyteller we’d ever heard. “You’d be surprised”, one of the first punchlines (and still one of his most famous), became an inside joke that we still use today. They’ve gone to several of his shows in Indianapolis and anxiously tell me how amazing it was afterwards.

Even though the jokes are solid, they’re a vast departure from where Birbiglia’s comedic style would end. It’s one of the few instances I can think of where a comedian caught on before they had really found their voice. To change from a ‘traditional’ joke teller to a storyteller with jokes written around an idea is a massive accomplishment, especially after already having notoriety and a firm fan base.

Two Drink Mike is a good comedy album. Though I can’t rank it among my favorites the way Sleepwalk With Me does, it’s one of my most memorable. Birbiglia was the first comedian I discovered that didn’t obsess about dicks. Instead, he talked about pizza bagels. He didn’t shout “fuck” every few sentences while he thought of the next line. Instead, there was a nervous chuckle to his voice that let me see myself in him, just doing what made him happy rather than attempt to be another dirty comic. And it made me what to explore comedy more than I had and see who else could be this unique.

I do think that Birbiglia’s success helped launch a new generation of storytellers, and an appreciation of ‘clean’ jokes, helped by the fact that Jim Gaffigan started rocketing to fame around the same time. And while his comedy can tackle darker subjects and topics, Birbiglia maintains an upbeat attitude and sense of whimsy to his stories. And after everything, his set concludes with an acoustic song recapping the show and adding one last laugh to his bits from the last hour, making every bit feel like it was an inside joke with the audience all along.  This type of delivery not only perfectly sets up the future of Birbigs’ career, it laid the foundation for the wave of ‘positive’ comics like Pete Holmes to gain traction in the scene.

Two Drink Mike is one of those albums that instantly brings me back to a certain point in time, when it felt like the stand-up world was just beginning to find its way out of a niche sub-cultural hobby and into a mainstream entertainment venture again for the first time in years. While comedy was finally discovering what it was again, Two Drink Mike tested the waters of Birbigs’ storytelling abilities to establish himself in the world of long form comedy that he currently dominates in today.

by Kyle Schultz

kyle_catKyle Schultz is the Senior Editor at It’s All Dead and has worked as a gaming journalist at Structure Gaming. He lives in Chicago and relistens to stand-up albums over and over like a terrible ceiling fan made of jokes. Two Drink Mike was the third comedy album he ever bought, after Dane Cook’s first two. Hooray!

Joe Rogan Brings the Deathsquad to Chicago

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“…’No fucking way,’ is the correct response.”

I’ve met Joe Rogan in Chicago three times, making more of an ass out of myself every time I shake his hand. Tonight, I wanted to say, “Thanks for being part of the inspiration to get me to write and work for what I want,” which is a fact and means a lot to me. Instead, I said “You’re an inspiration.” He looked at me as though worried I might Mark David Chapman him right there before smiling for my photo, and then I fucked right off. I suck so very hard.

The thing abut stand up comedy is that it means something different to every person that hears it. Every sentence can either be a gut laugh or hate speech depending on how you perceive it. Maybe that’s why Joe Rogan appears to be such a divisive persona to me and my friends. For me, seeing him perform yearly in Chicago has become a yearly festivity – I haven’t missed a show since 2010 when I first became aware of him via the Joe Rogan Experience podcast. I also have grown accustomed to going alone, as no one else I hang out with seems to like his stand up.

Rogan’s style of comedy is such that it sweeps at your philosophies relentlessly. There may be moments where there aren’t laughs. Instead, he engages in conversation before launching into a punchline for the first time in a minute. It requires patience and a willingness to hear someone out before casting judgement, which is becoming more and more something akin to a lost art.

This was the first time that I can think of that he has performed in Chicago without some type of snow storm chasing me away from the theater.

Starting off the night was Rogan’s best friend, Bryan Callen. You might recognize the name from MadTV or as a regular on the JRE podcast, but he was the biggest shocker of the night. I have known of Bryan for years from the podcast and have found him underwhelming at times. He always entertains, but can oftentimes fall victim of rambling from time to time. His debut comedy special/album, Man Class felt rather bland to me when it originally came out, as though he recorded it before knowing exactly how to handle his act.

Tonight, though, opening for one of the biggest headliners in the country, Callen couldn’t have better command of the stage. His extremely quick talk, eccentric movement and easy to follow stories decimated the crowd with some of the loudest laughter of the night. Not only had he fully understood how to showcase his act, he had perfected it. He casually paced the stage in a frantic pace of growling words, relating stories about being concerned about a sea cucumber his daughter was burying alive in the Tahiti sun while trying not to look like he was arguing with his wife for 10 perfect minutes.

The energy, nuance and pace reminded me of a young Dane Cook – at home on the theater and nothing short of a spectacle on stage. Whatever my thoughts on Man Class could have been, Callen is now on my list of the top comedy acts in the country. The fact that he isn’t a national star is utterly maddening.

Then came Joe Rogan, an icon in comedy unlike any other. Fans of most comics like Louis CK or Jim Norton come with a reverence for their style of comedy, which can easily be seen on Louie and the Opie Radio with Jim Norton (or Anthony Cumia Show depending on the episode) shows respectively. Joe Rogan is a different animal. The Joe Rogan Experience is a three hour podcast, broadcast three times a week. Nine hours a week, fans listen to him talk. The show sometimes covers comedy, but mostly philosophy and news with a variety of intelligent guests. Consequently, no one really seems prepared to hear him do stand up.

Most comedy, including Callen, attempts to cram as many jokes into a sentence or story with as few words as possible; something deliberate, calculated and bare bone that will allow the audience to follow easily without the distraction of ‘fatty’ description. Since his last special is only a few months old, it seems clear that he is toying with new material and enjoying the flow of seeing what works and how.

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Taken on a terrible camera so as not to disrupt the show. I am a nuisance…

The most interesting aspect of Rogan’s style that has only gotten more prominent over the last few years is how the audience is specifically his. He is building a new act (having recorded Rocky Mountain High last year) and the new material had a few kinks to work out. I’m not a comic critic by any means, but a big enough fan of the genre to recognize a bit of fat on a joke.

His fans, though, are so used to and in love with just listening to him talk about anything that a full minute can go by without a punchline. Meanwhile you can see his mind whirring away on how to follow down a train of thought. The most impressive quality about it is that the audience allows him the time necessary to walk those paths and remains utterly silent. They hang onto his every word like gospel.

The usual topics were covered (marijuana, jerking off, mentioning Brock Lesnar at least once), but there is a definite push back against the ‘PC’ agenda underlying his newest act. Every now and again, he would just say, “These are jokes, people” after talking about Bruce/Caitlin Jenner or Charlie Hebdo. There are killer jokes, and a killer underlying story about “Debbie’s parents” and the way that children learn and grow up by watching how ignorant their friends’ parents can be that defines this new hour in a way that none of his other specials has covered. It was cohesive and full, and I hope a good portion of it makes the next special. For being just months since the last one, the newer material is shaping up to be one of his best sets.

For being an act that is in the works, Rogan commanded the stage with the confidence of one of the few true veteran comics in the country. His storytelling was much looser than I’ve ever seen before, which felt more organic and fluid than I am used to. The crowd ate up every minute, the laughter growing with each mention of “Debbie’s parents.”

I can’t say that it was Rogan at his finest; it seemed like he was toying with bits and ideas and unsure of how exactly to top them off, but it was damn fun, regardless. My only criticism was that he finished with a 30 minute free-balling Q&A session once he’d run out of material. For all intents and purposes, this was awesome, but it did seem tacked on and the only part of the night that didn’t have an agenda.

Joe Rogan live is an experience anyone remotely interested in comedy should consider. He doesn’t sugar coat things and talks to you about topics on a level where you’re treated like an equal until you heckle. You might not like all of it (the guy next to me didn’t enjoy talking about God at all), but you’re in for a ride that guarantees to leave you at least pondering the subjects at hand and attempting to think in depth just a little bit. Not only that, but he brings people to perform that his fans love, i.e. Bryan Callen and Eddie Bravo hanging out in the lobby of the theater. If tonight was any indication, next year’s special is going to be a monster.

by Kyle Schultz

kyle_catKyle Schultz is the Senior Editor at It’s All Dead and has worked as a gaming journalist at Structure Gaming. He lives in Chicago and will most likely make an ass out of himself again next year. Why do I insist on talking to my heroes like a douche? Booo. Boo Kyle, Boooo.

Reflecting On: Jim Norton – Trinkets I Own Made From Gorilla Hands

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During 2015, we’re going to be looking back on some of the best albums that were released 10 years ago and discussing their legacy. Feel free to share your thoughts and memories in the replies, unless you’re an O&A fan, in which case I expect it to be fucking brutal. Enjoy!

There’s a very real possibility this is one of the dumbest things I’ve ever written. ‘It’s All Dead’ is a play on the idea of the incredibly annoying negative outlook on the music scene, but if there is one art form that is truly being hunted, it’s comedy. The constant bombardment of attacks on language and philosophy from every angle of the political spectrum is a nightmare for artists who live in clever wordplay and sentence structure. I’m a fanatic for stand-up comedy, and one of the best and most prolific is New York’s Jim Norton.

Trinkets I Own Made From Gorilla Hands is an odd CD. I’m not sure when it even really came out (‘Wookipedia’ lists it as simply ‘April 2005’) and I discovered it a couple of years after release. It’s not even his best CD in my opinion. What’s important about it though, and why I look up to it so much, is that it’s a time capsule and a base for what would grow from it.

I found Trinkets around 2009, years after release. By that time, it was already dated (“The Blackout of ’03”) and involved news stories I had forgotten about (the D.C. snipers in “Gay Snipers”). But it was brutal. The CD was honest, despicable and disgusting but I loved every moment of it. At the time, most of the stand-up I was listening to was the Comedy Central Records brand comedians (Dane Cook, Jim Gaffigan, Mike Birbiglia). They were funny, but there was a charm to them that didn’t delve into the depth that I saw in Norton. He was the first comedian to really display concepts that, at the time, I would think too rooted in sex (“A Shot in the Eye”) and partially under thought (“Legless Old Lady”). But, there is a very keen insight to self-deprecation that he uses to catch himself in mistakes as much as he does anyone else, such as stopping his set mid-sentence during the track “Mean-Spirited Christopher Reeve Jokes” to quiz the audience, “Did you just hear me say the ‘Hodeson’ river? I SUCK”.

It wasn’t until later that I realized that this was as real and raw as comedy gets. The subject material is brutal, dark and enviously honest. With a basis in sex and dark humor, Trinkets builds off his original CD, Yellow Discipline and sets up the masterful sets recorded on Despicable and No Baby For You! Chances are good you’ve never heard of any of these albums, and chances are higher that they aren’t to your taste. I don’t have any friends that listen to Jim Norton, and I’ve pushed him on everyone I know.

Trinkets was recorded over ten years ago, but that doesn’t make it any less funny. The jokes are a perspective of the times they were written in but most importantly the ideas set up the next phase of his career. I’ve been an avid listener of the Opie & Anthony Show for several years (now The Anthony Cumia Show and whatever the hell the actual title of ‘Opie with Jim Norton’ should be), and a large part of that has to do with Jim Norton. The incredibly, and uncomfortably, honest opinions he has on political and sociological situations have been a trademark of his radio career for years.

Views outside of the mainstream for sociological ideology is a difficult thing to defend at times, and harder to joke about with how uncomfortable it seems to make people (“Understandable Racism”). Today, Jim Norton is such an honest commentator of events in the news and politics that most news reporters should be ashamed of the story not dissenting from the views of their networks as opposed to the discussion at hand coupled with absurd observation. Whenever a major news story breaks, Norton’s take on it is something that I want to hear as soon as possible because whatever my take on it may be, I am acutely aware that he’ll give me something to think about.

Trinkets I Own Made From Gorilla Hands is an album that I hold to a higher regard than it perhaps deserves. If you want a truly great comedy CD, this is most likely not it. But what makes it special is the idea that comedy is an ever evolving art form. Bands can sound the same for decades on end as long as they are catchy, but comedians must constantly grow and push new ideas to stay relevant for more than an month. It’s one thing to bounce around an array of subjects and dark humor in an attempt to stay relevant, but it’s another to use it as a tool to create unique points of view on every day news that challenges the thought of the listener and fight against common ideology.

All things considered, Trinkets is a good album. Do I think Norton could have done better? Yes. Do I think it was the right CD for the time? Yes. Do I think I explained myself well enough in all of this? Eh. But what I take away from it is so much more than the actual subject material. It’s a reminder that, as ‘blue’ or childishly absurd the subject material is, behind it is a thought challenging expectation and advancing beyond the mainstream. It gives me hope that I can do the same while laughing at someone who has fallen down the stairs into a “puddle of AIDS”.

by Kyle Schultz

kyle_catKyle Schultz is the Senior Editor at It’s All Dead and has worked as a gaming journalist at Structure Gaming. He lives in Chicago and truly believes the O&A crew has created some of the best content in the history of radio. Your mom’s box.

Reflecting on: Dane Cook – Harmful If Swallowed

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Eleven years ago, Dane Cook was just warming up to become the biggest stand up comic in the country, pulling the art form into the mainstream again for the first time in several years. He is the comic version of Green Day; high energy, loud, simplistically stylized, relevant, and despised by people who think that he rose to the top of the scene too quickly.

Dane’s rapid joke delivery has been a hot button over whether he is or isn’t funny for years. Regardless of your opinion, Harmful If Swallowed had to have somehow played a part in your life when it was initially released.

Like it was for many people of my generation, Harmful If Swallowed was the first stand up album that I really listened to. At the time, it was the single funniest thing I had ever heard. I would laugh myself to tears in school to the point that teachers began asking to listen to it. Everyone I knew either had the CD or was lending it out to someone else. Along with the Blue Collar Comedy Tour, Dane Cook helped revive an interest in stand up for a mainstream market that previously hadn’t seemed to be there.

In some ways, the fact that HIS was such a breakthrough album was nothing short of a happenchance miracle. Though Dane is at his best is in the midst of his powerfully descriptive storytelling (“Someone Shit on the Coats”, “B-N-E”), it’s an element that isn’t anywhere near the forefront on this album.

While the stories are good, they aren’t pushed nearly as far as he is capable of, which most likely wasn’t a skill he’d mastered yet at the time of the recording. Some of his most memorable jokes, like “Car Accident” are throw aways; he jumps to the heart of the joke as quickly as possible and then moves on without batting it around like a cat to drain every ounce he can from the concept.

In fact, the album itself in incredibly amateurish and wildly unpolished. Dane opts to hover over quick topics, hitting the meat of the story and throwing out a punchline without sitting to linger a while longer to pull out the details that make them true Dane Cook jokes à la Retaliation and Vicious Circle. Instead, the driving force for the material on this album is an alarming number of sound effects (“Parking Structure”).

What really makes this album special though, is that it stands out. When it was released, stand up was just starting to really make it big again after a rough drought throughout the 90’s. Harmful If Swallowed came out before Jim Gaffigan was a household name, just as Mitch Hedberg was becoming a legend, the country had just heard of Ron White for the first time, and The Chappelle Show had just become the biggest thing on television.

At least from my perspective, it seemed extraordinarily rare for a comedian to make a name for themselves outside of a pocket community in New York or Los Angeles, and Dane Cook was able to do so the old fashioned way: a comedy album boosted by a fairly decent Comedy Central Presents special.

Cook stood out for the fact that it was high energy and reflective of the culture at the time; loud and ‘wacky’. HIS caught your attention because it wasn’t following the trend of mature joke telling of the Blue Collar group, nor as edgy as Chappelle. Dane straddled a weird line of finding the genuinely funny lines amidst a sea of arguably ‘hack’ subjects to create an energy that no one else so prominently displayed.  He commanded your attention as soon as you heard his voice. It was youthful, enigmatic, absurd and almost romantic (“My dick feels like corn!”).

Harmful if Swallowed is a shining star of a recording that maybe wasn’t quite ready to be as big as it was. Just two years later, Dane would release a double album with two hours worth of material astronomically more rounded out, better written and with a much more cohesive delivery style. It’s easy to only see Dane Cook as the mega star that the second half of the 2000s would see him as, but for one little hour, Harmful If Swallowed shows a comedian still working through the struggle of finding a voice. Whether or not you are still willing to give him a chance, that Dane Cook is a silly bitch.

by Kyle Schultz

kyle_catKyle Schultz is the Senior Editor at It’s All Dead and has worked as a gaming journalist at Structure Gaming. He lives in Chicago and yells at the rain on occasion. He also wants to play you in FIFA.