Sunday, August 17, 2014

FTT Off-Topic: The Oddfest Comedy Tour comes to... Camden?

The Lineup
Not sports, not an issue. Right?

Tonight, I took the Shooter Wife to see the Oddball tour stop in Camden, the ex-murder capital of America, and the just over the river arena / fairground that can accommodate about 7,000 people under the roof, and another 15K on the lawn. Oddball is a comedy festival where you get about three hours of bang for your buck, with a rotating crop of A-listers at a few dozen dates across the U.S.

Here's the thing about Camden... I lived in the greater Philadelphia area for the first 30 years of my life, and never set foot in it, other than a single day trip to the Aquarium. It's that bad, that scary, that devoid of attraction or purpose. Seeing the show booked for this venue didn't stop us from going, but it did certainly give the experience a certain vibe, one that the comedians definitely picked up on. Local comedians were on the Festival Stage at 5pm, but as that was standing room only, in the bright sun, and not terribly worth it to my ears when I checked it out, we pretty much took a miss on that and just went to our seats.

The MC of the show was Brody Stevens, who is credited on Wikipedia as having a 15-year career of stand-up and acting appearances on a host of shows. He basically served as the warm-up act, a thankless chore in a setting where everyone has come to see the headliners, and a solid percentage of the crowd is bent out of shape that Amy Schumer, originally on the bill, wasn't appearing.

I'd like to be charitable to Stevens, since anyone can have a bad day and I didn't catch his act on the Festival Stage... but man alive, he was horrible. No one on the bill tonight was as funny as Stevens was unfunny, and he wasn't even unfunny in an awkward or challenging way that spoke to some sort of artistic ambition or too smart for the room. Rather, his timing was just scattershot, his jokes lackluster, and his willingness to be combative about a lack of reaction was bomb-tastic. Oh, and if you are going to do crowd work, it would help if you weren't really bad at it.

Brent Morin then took the stage and did a nice 15 minute set, with good energy and the usual acts of self-depreciation; nothing revelatory, but a fine effort to get the Stevens taste out of our minds. Jerrod Carmichael's set was interesting, in that he took a more refined and quieter approach, with nice local references ("This is the murder capital of the U.S." (Someone in the crowd: Woo!) "That's not something you should be happy about...") and command, but you kind of had to strain to understand him from time to time, and that's not a great thing to say in a festival setting. I could see Carmichael being good in a club, and eventually having a following along the lines of Burress. He's pretty talented, but not yet to the point of being truly memorable.

Our third comedian, and the last of the mostly unknowns, was Chris D'Elia. Like Morin, he's on the show "Undateable", and he had more of an upbeat energy, but his central premise (men and women, and the all-encompassing sex drive of the former) isn't exactly winning awards for originality. Still, he was successful in connecting with the growing crowd, and took us to the first true headliner of the night, Hannibal Burress. Who came out in an airbruhsed jumpsuit of his own face. Just, well, because.

Burress has a special on Netflix (Comedy Central), and was famously named by Louis C.K. as his favorite working stand-up a few months ago. He combines a certain political edge (Burress is black, heavy-set, and a hip-hop fan) with great fits of fancy, and he's got a relaxed delivery to go with outstanding timing. While the acoustics did him no favors, and his closing comedic rap with ballerina accompaniment didn't really do much for me, he's a flat out stud, and his 25+ minutes passed way too quickly. Keep an eye on him, he's going to a growing presence and influence on American stand up. Most memorable riff: an extended list of all the things that a fixer fan could do for him, rather than have someone killed. (I told you Camden had an impact on the performers.)

We passed the intermission doing what we could to avoid contact highs from hipsters with vape pens and uber-potent stank weed, avoiding the money vape at the usually overpriced concessions with overly long lines, passing on mawkish tributes to Robin Williams, and staying away from DJ Trauma keeping the crowd engaged with Bon Jovi and Neil Diamond. Ouch. Stevens then came out to do some of the exact same jokes he had done just two hours ago -- borderline troll behavior,  really -- before bringing up Sarah Silverman.

Silverman gets, IMO, too much grief for not working in enough new material, and for not being, well, Schumer. Tonight, she did 25 minutes I've never heard before, and while it occasionally verged on the ground of throwing politically correct meat to trained dogs, the vast majority of it was just fearless and great.  She did some light crowdwork in support of a single joke that seemed to take her longer than expected, and seems to be working away from her "Jesus Is Magic" era persona, which is a good sign for future output, I think. I suspect that being on this tour, in the presence of so many grinders, is a good thing for her, and she's as adorable as ever. There's the core of a great new hour here. Most memorable riff: how sperm cells show a sense of smell, which makes them life, and the counseling and invasive medical procedure men should undergo before electing to abort said cells through the act of masturbation. You've never seen so many men wince as one...

For sheer joke machine firepower, I'm not sure you get better than Dave Attell. The long-time club comic and Comedy Central mainstay did a masterful half hour that was as blue as you could imagine or hope for, and some audio problems (loud popping noises, likely from speaker issues, but hey, it's Camden, maybe it was gunfire) just inspired him to riff harder and better. His workrate is amazing, and his writing is just airtight; it's almost like a modern Rodney Dangerfield, only quicker. I was a fan before this set, despite the sense that I wouldn't like his crowd (super-boozy porn enthusiasts), and I'm a bigger fan now. He could have easily done another hour without losing anyone, and some people actually got up and left after he was done, I guess because they just didn't want to hear anyone after him. Most memorable riff: how to make girl on girl porn.

Finally, the tour closer and linchpin: Louis C.K. The biggest draw in alternative comedy did not disappoint, delivering a great set of truth that showed his gifts of pacing, imagination, originality and pivoting from point to point without ever showing a moment of strain or artifice. At his best, Louie makes stand-up look effortless, or like the most natural thing in the world for a grown man and father of two to be doing. Even when he's mining territory that other comedians work (say, how technology makes bad decisions much more powerful), he generates deep and serious laughs for how that would manifest, and the success of his past few years hasn't changed his commitment or focus to the craft of stand up. Most memorable riff: the anxiety of parents toward the sexual maturation of their kid.

As you might expect from stand up, the set ended somewhat abruptly, and the crowd fled like cockroaches with the lights turned on as soon as Stephens got back on the mic to hype, yet again, his involvement with the final episode of "Chelsea Lately." No, seriously. Brody Stephens is just the worst.

All in all, a great night, despite the lack of Schumer, the stunted nature of hearing so many different voices in such a relatively short period of time, and the presence of such disparate elements of terrible (Stephens, the DJ work), good (the first hour stand-ups) and spectacular (Burress, Silverman, Attell and C.K.). If you have a chance to go see the tour when it comes to your town, by all means, do. It's just that good , and really worth your time.

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