Today was a big day for audio recordings of comedic acts, better known as CDs. With only one powerhouse label, Comedy Central Records, able to put resources into distribution and marketing of new stand-up material, this can be a rarity. This isn't to say that there aren't other record labels trying (A Special Thing and recently Sub Pop come to mind), but that's for another post. Needless to say, gone are the days when cool cats would stand around on a Saturday night smoking cigarettes and listening to the latest Lenny Bruce record between Miles Davis and John Coltrane albums.
Today (or rather yesterday by the time you read this) new albums by Mike Birbiglia (BTW, Mike Birbiglia is skinny and hilarious!) and Steven Wright were released. The two comics couldn't be any more different.
Mike Birbiglia seems to be the comic-of-the-moment since Dane Cook decided to take on the movies and World Series commercials. His audience-conscious and self-deprecating style seem like they would work well with any crowd. He takes it to the point that his acoustic guitar recap song at the end of the album seems to be only there to help the listener remember the funny parts that they will unfunnily recount to their friends later. On this album, My Secret Public Journal Live, Birbiglia uses the concept of the secret public journal to tell more stories than the straight "bits" of his last album. He pretty much always hits his remark no matter who he's making fun of and how much he goes off on a tangent. And when he uses a bit from his last CD, the rapist with that kind of mattress joke, he gets an even bigger laugh than last time. It doesn't seem like anything can go wrong for Mr. Birbigabugula.
Steven Wright, on the other hand, has not quite been in the spotlight lately. His last album, I Have a Pony was released in 1985. Practically a whole generation will only recognize him as the guy that slept on the couch in Half Baked. His style is far from storytelling and more like caustic, dry, cerebral one-liners. Often I find myself not actually laughing at his jokes, but wondering how he came up with such a concept. Other times I laugh and don't know why. Maybe one of the reasons why there's been such a gap between albums is that it would take a long time to test out these jokes until they were right. Imagine working on a bit over and over in clubs for months until it got the laugh right where you wanted it. Your hard work may eventually pay off with a few minutes of solid material that you can use. Now imagine that you did all that for about four seconds of material. Not to mention that perhaps a joke will only work after another joke. And also, what if a joke bombs? You'd have to dig yourself out of the silence with the next joke and your rhythm could be off. It's craziness.
There's more to this than just a shared date though. According to a Dead Frog interview from February '06, Steven Wright is Mike Birbiglia's favorite comedian. Birbiglia saw him when he was 16 and basically attributes Wright as the reason that he got into comedy in the first place:
When I was 16, my brother Joe took me to see Steven Wright live at the Cape Cod Melody Tent for my birthday. It was the first live comedy show I'd ever seen. When you're 16 you can have experiences that you're not completely self-reflective about. You can have experiences where, literally, your world is changed. You can't do that anymore. I think you reach a certain age where, Alright I know what's going on right now. I understand a chemical reaction in my brain is occurring.
So I had this kind of transcendental experience, of Oh my God, this is what I have to do. This is what I'm going to do. As a child, you have anxiety about what you're going to do with your life. I joke about it in my act, but I always had a lot of anxiety about what I was going to do. For a while I thought I was going to be a rapper. And for a while I thought I was going to be a teacher. Or a poet. Or this or that. But I wasn't sure. And then I saw Steven Wright; this is exactly what I want to do. There couldn't be a more precise thing that encapsulates what I spend my spare time doing.
So I went home and probably for two or three years, wrote Steven Wright jokes. I think everybody goes through a stage where you're doing somebody else. I was writing jokes that he could pull off but I probably never could.
So Bigbiglia tried the style of his childhood idol, but eventually grew into his own voice and the storytelling style that he uses today. This is yet another testament to the unique craft of Wright. Mitch Hedberg had success with the one-liners, but it was nothing like Wright. Others will try but won't be able to pull it off.
So who wins in the end? I'm not sure. Birbiglia's album is instantly hilarious and successful while Wright's doesn't really grab you at first. I'm thinking that it's more of a "grower" like a good rock record can sometimes be. My Secret Public Journal Live will probably outsell I Still Have A Pony, but I hope Steven Wright doesn't decide to quit the game because of it.
And all of this does not mention the dark horse of 9/25. Michael Ian Black, of Stella and The State, released his standup debut I Am A Wonderful Man on Comedy Central records. Why must Comedy Central compete with itself? More on that album next week.