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Some recent comedy worth your time

Julie Seabaugh

Steven Wright

When the Leaves Blow Away (DVD)

4 stars

For a man who revolutionized the one-liner and paved the way for the likes of Mitch Hedberg and Demetri Martin (some would say the alt-comedy movement as a whole), Steven Wright never went the tailor-made-sitcom route. Sure, he’s made the odd appearance in Mad About You, Half Baked and Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes, but he’s always taken the “arts” aspect of “arts and entertainment” seriously, preferring to mastermind his own short films (1988’s The Appointments of Dennis Jennings won an Oscar) and dabble in painting and music.

With his Grammy-nominated I Have a Pony and HBO’s A Steven Wright Special—both released in 1985—serving as his only purchasable comedy output, expectations have run high for When the Leaves Blow Away. And Wright, in his monotone-absurdist way, doesn’t disappoint.

Though his face belies some wear and tear, his rat’s-nest hair remains as chaotic as the connections he makes between the lingual and the observational: “My nephew has HDADD—high-definition attention-deficit disorder. He can rarely pay attention but when he does it’s unbelievable clear.” “I think it’s wrong that only one company makes the game Monopoly.” “She was a mail-order bridesmaid.”

His is an abstract landscape of the mind, of alienation and the ethereal, every aspect of it darkly humorous and ripe for ridicule. From a nonsensical story involving spilling soup to a guitar ditty about killing a kitten, every bit is a master class in tone and timing:

Jesus pissed off a lot of people, you know. “Would you stop turning the water into wine? I’m trying to take a shower!”

The universe is expanding. That should help ease the traffic.

You know, if heat rises, heaven might be hotter than hell.

I have a CD burner ... my fireplace.

The disc also includes the 45-minute One Soldier, a black-and-white period meditation on mortality, regret, music and really, really not wanting to have babies. “I wish I would have danced more,” Wright’s character muses. “That would be my main change. That and everything else.”

Patton Oswalt

Werewolves & Lollipops (CD)

3 1/2 stars

“I’m drunk. Here we go.” And go he does, as the former King of Queens player unspools a tight, seamless sequence of narratives involving food, unnecessary birthday parties, abuses of science, bad horror flicks, cell-phone plans, four-star chefs, his “f--ked up” childhood and other topics of concern for any self-professed outsider worth his weight in comic-book references. (At one point he claims, “My geekery is getting in the way of my nerdiness.”)

In Oswalt’s world, the elderly can legally pummel others to death, Bush and Cheney are goofball characters in bad TV shows and his future children ridicule his lead army figures and Blade Runner gun. It’s also populated by mimic-worthy characters, including an affected “Physics for Poets” student, a wide array of slack-jawed yokels and a Kermit the Frog-like George Lucas, who, upon ruining the Star Wars saga, is informed by a time-traveling Oswalt: “I don’t give a shit where the stuff I love comes from! I just love the stuff I love! Hey, do ya like Angelina Jolie? Well here’s Jon Voight’s ball sack!”

Some of his voices, in fact, are remarkably similar to those utilized by night-owl Dave Attell—at one point Oswalt even mimics the same circus-calliope ditty Attell did on 2003’s Skanks for the Memories.

Stilll, anyone who gives a shout-out to Mandalay Bay’s Fleur de Lys and describes Cirque du Soleil productions as “wet and French and gay and on fire at the exact same time” is golden in our book.

Ahmed Ahmed, Aron Kader, Maz Jobrani, Dean Obeidallah

Axis Of Evil Comedy Tour (DVD)

3 stars

The three headliners from the news-making Axis of Evil Comedy Tour (with a special appearance by New York Arab-American Comedy Festival founder Obeidallah) take on the highs, lows and utter bafflements of—in Obeidallah’s words—“going to bed white and waking up Arab on 9/11.”

By now, bits on pork and “I always hate flying because ...” are contenders for the Hack Hall of Fame, but once those are safety disposed of, each comic lets his unique outlook and style shine through. Obeidallah is the most political of the four, subverting his sweet, baby-faced nature to wryly warn that “President Bush wants to know what you’re reading. You know why? He’s jealous,” before pointing out that white isn’t a skin color, it’s a status. In that same manner, he reasons, “Arab is the new black,” and soon suburban kids everywhere will wear their Arab headpieces sideways to be cool. The more subtle and introverted Ahmed leans toward personal narratives to dissect cultural differences, while Kader counters with a physical, impressionistic take on the global economy, mimicking a variety of skeptical, ignorant and just plain clueless characters (including a so-so George Bush). Jobrani’s Iranian heritage, Hotmail woes and nonsensical scenarios (Osama playing hide-and-seek) serve as a jumping-off point for rapid-fire mini-monologues comprising a barrage of facial contortions, knee bends and hand gestures. “You never turn on the TV, see a United Airlines commercial with a Middle Eastern pilot,” he muses. “You never see me standing there going, ‘Come fly the friendly skies ... I dare you.’”

There’s nothing too aggressive or petulant here, and nothing particularly outrageous, either. It’s a solid effort, though by the time Jobrani concludes with a plan to spread love through ecstasy-fueled, spazzed-out dance breakdowns, it’s obvious who the foremost comedic superpower is.

Joe Rogan

Shiny Happy Jihad (CD)

4 1/2 stars

“Nobody even knows I’m a f--king comedian,” Rogan bemoans about the legacy of his stint on Fear Factor at the outset of his superb second album. “I was like, ‘What are you going to do? You’re going to sic dogs on people? Okay, I’ll host that. How long’s that gonna last?’ Four years later I’m standing in front of a chick with a mouthful of animal dicks going, ‘You can do it! You hang in there!’”

As a comic, Rogan has grown dramatically since 2000’s sophomoric and occasionally grating I’m Gonna Be Dead Someday. He can still come off as a pot-smoking frat brother, but if you delve deeper, it’s clear why he’s fast becoming the heir to both Sam Kinison (the eye-popping shrieks, the in-your-face posturing) and Bill Hicks (intellectual social criticism, those scary-ass demon/bear noises). A few years of mind expansion have seemingly provided him with all the answers: legalize pot, invent robot f--k dolls and jet packs and channel biological impulses appropriately. He sees through the absurdities of both Catholic and Middle Eastern religion; social labels; and technology (“If I left you alone in the woods with a hatchet, how long before you could send me an e-mail?”). He believes Brokeback Mountain is a comedy, Osama bin Laden is a comic-book villain and March of the Penguins is an action-adventure adrenaline rush, and he voices Middle Easterners, mid-American yokels, “8-year-old retarded boys” and a host of long-suffering females.

Not that he’s reducing himself to a lunk-headed onstage character; now that it’s clear he’s in on the joke of his own goofball success, the macho harangues and half-assed imitations serve more to inject facets of his own personality. Anyone who readily admits, “You gotta be dumb to be willing to get onstage with a microphone, tell your opinions to a bunch of strangers and hope they laugh. You gotta be some kind of weirdo,” comes from a place of gut-punch honesty. As a man, he’s clearly got issues. As a comic, he’s got more than a touch of genius.

Christopher Titus

The 5th Annual End of the World Tour (CD)

4 stars

Dave Chappelle may have taken the stage for a marathon six-plus hours at LA’s Laugh Factory last month, but Christopher Titus delivers his own going-the-distance performance with World, two discs of epic comedic proportions. Sounding like an amped-up cross between David Spade and Mitch Hedberg, he takes another step in his comedic evolution, from surface-deep observationist to dark family historian to examiner of interpersonal relationships within a sociopolitical context.

Industry wisdom concedes that comics soften when they have children. Titus seems to have bucked the curse, dissecting the pregnancy with abandon. The birth occurs so quickly—“like a crackhead threatened with rehab, like a Cambodian lap-dancer at the ping-pong championships”—his daughter is left swinging in midair: “It’s a baby, swinging on my wife’s crotch, man. Pick it up! It’s not Cervix du Soleil, man! Pick it up!”

Titus takes on SARS, mad cows, anthrax, Xanax, WMDs, gas-price hikes, racist Survivors, Terri Schiavo, global policy and George Bush (“Throughout history, great hardship has created great leadership. In this man’s case, it’s created a Special Olympics honorable mention”). Then it’s war, war and war. Yet throughout, his deceased father and toddler daughter are never far from his mind. Comparable to a one-man Daily Show, Titus is nonstop, infinitely relatable, devoted and scared as hell about the future of this post-9/11 world. The loopy voices and zany demeanor may dull his message, but that’s what makes it, you know, comedy, as well as remarkably poignant.

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