Wise-ass and wild

David Cross
Shut Up, You Fucking Baby.
(Sub Pop)

Dress to Kill DVD

Bill Hicks
Love Laughter and Truth Flying Saucer Tour, Vol. 1: Pittsburgh, PA 6/20/91

Stand-up comedy has been in a creative tailspin for some time now. The lessons of Richard Pryor, Lenny Bruce and even Eddie Murphy have given way to a return to Borscht Belt hamminess and endless fart/dick/fat-chick jokes. Cast into the purgatory that is the comedy-club circuit, comics hope to get a 10-minute spot on Comedy Central ("Man, that George Bush sure is dumb!") or some horrifyingly un-funny BET Comedy Jam ("I was going down on this girl the other night, and whoo, it was nasty!"). As a result of this lowest-common-denominator attempt at "stardom," most comics aren't daring, they're not crazy, and they're not funny. Thankfully, not all comics work that way.

Best known as co-creator of the infamous "Mr. Show," David Cross delivers seemingly contemporaneous riffs as intelligent, world-weary observations that take in all of life's absurdities and spit them out in a wholly offensive and completely hilarious manner. The result is bits about topics that should be thoroughly unfunny -- the smell of the burning Twin Towers, homophobia, atheism -- but wind up being gut-bustingly comical. Track titles misleadingly based upon flogged comedy horses like "My Wife's Crazy!" (really about the evil, dishonest sociopath George W. Bush) and "My Daughter's First Date" (really about Catholic pedophilia) tell you what Cross himself thinks about the state of modern comedy. Edgy without being arch, adult without being crass and funny without being condescending, it's no surprise that this material is being brought to you by Sub Pop, rather than the folks who deliver crap like Jeff Foxworthy or Jimmy Fallon.

Eddie Izzard, whose impending stardom threatens to utterly ruin his stand-up abilities, has nonetheless proven to be one of stand-up comedy's bright spots. With the about-damned-time DVD release of his 1998 "Dress to Kill" performance, it's easy to see why. His deft blending of hyperintellectual humor delivered in an offhand, "What, you didn't know the details of the Falklands War?" kind of way is largely appealing to the unspoken mass of people who understand that transvestites aren't necessarily gay, that the U.S. is as imperial as England was 50 years ago, that Hitler had certain "issues" and that it's OK to make really funny jokes about all of it. Yeah, he does it all in drag and yeah, he's very British. But that makes it that much funnier when he talks about impaling babies on stakes.

Of course, the specter hanging over all contemporary stand-up is the ghost of Bill Hicks. Perhaps the last truly groundbreaking stand-up artist (and an obvious influence on Cross' work), Hicks' sets were less comedy routines than they were blisteringly hilarious rants on politics, commercialism, hypocrisy, drugs and, well, bad comedy. Although he died in 1994, his legacy has been transformed into legend by reissues of albums he made while alive. Now, feeding the ever-growing cult of Hicks fans, a new series of posthumous Hicks CDs is being released. The first two are a mixed bag. "Love Laughter and Truth" is a bit of an "odds and sods" collection, compiling bits recorded throughout Hicks' career that weren't featured on his other albums. Although it's great to hear "new" material, the comedy is actually spotty. But when it hits (f'rinstance mocking Jesse Helms' fascination with "poe-naw-grah-fee"), it hits hard and it's funny as hell.

However, his true brilliance shines through on "Flying Saucer Tour Vol. 1." As a largely unedited live document, it's a straight-through Hicks set in front of what he called "the worst audience ever." We're treated to much of Hicks' best material, whether it's pondering the curious posthumous anti-smoking messages from Yul Brynner or laying out the case for mandatory marijuana. Better still, it's delivered with a vindictive venom brought on by the audience's sheer boredom. Hicks takes their nonchalance less as an indictment of his humor than as what he sees as America's corpulent indifference toward everything. And it pisses him off, leading him to harangue the audience mercilessly. It's absolutely beautiful and an approach that more of today's comics might want to consider.


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