”Making people laugh is the lowest form of comedy.”
Turbulent times breed great comedy. Just as the stone-cold bummer of the 1970s begat Andy Kaufman, Albert Brooks and the golden-age National Lampoon, the fascism creep of the aughties opened a sprawling “underground comedy” landscape, ranging from the explosive cynicism of Doug Stanhope to the melancholic absurdity of Zach Galafianakis. But unlike Brooks and NatLamp, most of today’s comedy luminaries have yet to really capitalize on the potential of the long-playing album. The typical comedy album remains essentially a glorified demo reel, a well-broken set performed in front of a sympathetic audience (which is usually mixed way too loud). It’s a stacked deck. A few of the more brazen rebels of the ’90s experimented with taping in front of unfriendly audiences (see Bill Hicks’s Flying Saucer Tour or Andrew Dice Clay’s probably-forever-unsung classic The Day the Laughter Died), but if these records sounded weird, that spoke more of the genre’s creative poverty than of Clay’s and Hicks’s courage. More recently, even the highest-profile innovators haven’t tried much new on wax.
Enter alienated San Francisco art nerd Brent Weinbach. If Galifianakis’s boozy outré concert film Live at the Purple Onion wasn’t quite comedy’s Magical Mystery Tour, Weinbach’s The Night Shift isn’t quite its White Album. (It might be closer to Pure Guava.) But, for a comedy record, it’s got a damned impressive experimental streak, and it deserves to be widely influential.
Weinbach celebrates cathartic awkwardness, not just in his material (when asked, “Are you retarded?” our man responds, “No. I mean, I was retarded. But I worked out so much on my SoloFlex, my brain muscles got buff with the rest of my body”), but also in his production values. Less than half of The Night Shift is recorded live. The rest consists of manic, often confrontational voicemails from his alternate personae, a few approximately sincere Tin-Pan-Alley weepers, and, most intriguingly, a lot of studio-recorded auditory noir which recalls nothing so much as a gleefully immature take on the radio theater of Joe Frank.
Much as the comedians of the ’70s spoke on the intellectual constipation of their parents and the washed-out utopianism of their hippie peers, Weinbach speaks to the claustrophobic estrangement, the muted pessimism, and particularly the deep-seeded awkwardness of the typical post-W urbanite. Some of this stuff is more fascinating than “funny,” but, nonetheless, I predict big, big things for this one-of-a-kind young man.