Friday, February 01, 2013

As Stand-Up Act, Joel McHale Serves a Tasty Broth -- Chicago Comedy Review

Comedian Review

Joel McHale
w/ warm-up act C.J. Toledano
Improv, Schaumburg, IL
January 31, 2013

Unlike, I presume, everyone else assembled at Improv on Thursday night, I entered the Woodfield Mall-based venue with almost no awareness of Joel McHale.

Although he has hosted The Soup on E! since 2004, on which he riffs—and rips—on clips of reality show mayhem and current events, somewhat akin to SNL’s Weekend Update, I had never seen the show. (I’ve now watched an episode on-demand, just to be more clued in as I write this.)

I have also never watched Community, the NBC sitcom in which McHale stars, and though I’ve heard his name and have seen him in a few supporting movie roles, I was oblivious to his comedic background and talents.

Pertinent to what he skewers on The Soup and on stage, I should also note that I don’t watch any reality television. While I can’t help but be conscious of zeitgeist-pervading concoctions like Jersey Shore and Real Housewives of the Wherever, I am contently ignorant of the entire genre and its denizens.

Which, I imagine, begs the question: What the hell was I doing at a Joel McHale stand-up gig? Especially as I didn’t even hear about it until the day before.

Well, my boss had an extra ticket and, with a free night—which turned out to be one on which I could use some laughter—and other co-workers coincidentally going to the show just minutes away, I accepted his gracious offer. Particularly as I should fit more comedy into my entertainment mix, but unlike theaters and concert arenas, I’m not all that comfortable attending comedy clubs by myself.

Consequently, almost all the stand-up comedians I’ve seen are all-time greats or close to it: Jerry Seinfeld, George Carlin, Robin Williams, Don Rickles, Chris Rock, Steven Wright, Colin Quinn, Bill Maher, Joan Rivers, Jon Stewart, Jackie Mason, Gilbert Gottfried.

So not only was I going to see a comedian with whom I was completely unfamiliar, but my points of comparison were all rather exalted.

Yet I found Joel McHale to be terrifically funny and highly engaging. His personality, stage manner and presence clearly connoted a well-polished, professional comedian.

No, his heavily—and understandably—celebrity-tinged routine didn’t have the breadth nor brilliance of Williams, Rock, Seinfeld or the late Carlin, but as the focal point of a fun night out with friends, McHale was delightful, even insightful.

After an opening set by C.J. Toledano, who told some nice jokes about his family and appearance but served to illustrate that the easygoing stage demeanor and precise timing of McHale—and almost any stellar standup—takes years to hone, McHale took the stage talking about how cold it was outside and referencing Chicago-style pizza (and, gratifyingly, Hot Doug's, which I was just telling some colleagues about at lunch).

When I arrived, McHale's name was misspelled on the Improv marquee;
it was later corrected
His query about the best pizza joint in town prompted a guttural scream of “Gino’s!”—not from me, though I might agree—which, along with other shouts from the same guy, let McHale show his deftness in addressing and defusing audience obnoxiousness.

Given the milieu in which he swims on The Soup, and the likely drawing card for two sold-out shows, it wasn’t surprising that McHale ran through some rather obvious subjects: Manti Te’o, Taylor Swift’s dating habits, the Kardashians and Ryan Secrest, his much more diminutive—and per McHale—high-pitched E! colleague and doppelganger.

McHale had some nice barbs about each of these targets, including portraying Bruce Jenner (now a face-lifted part of the Kardashian cabal) as a scarecrow, and after lamenting the ridiculous reality that one of the Kardashian shows outdrew Mad Men by a million viewers, he went on to suggest that reality TV isn’t quite the cesspool it was a few years back.

Quite caustically, the comic ridiculed a litany of recent reali-TV glitterati, including Flavor Flav, Bret Michaels, Heidi Montag, Audrina Partridge, Tyra Banks and, in perhaps his best joke of the night, said that The Jersey Shore had done “more of a disservice to Italian-Americans than the Mafia and the Olive Garden combined.”

It might have helped if I was more familiar with any of these people or shows, but McHale was enjoyably acerbic as he lambasted an arena in which he—and his audience—clearly revels.

After a poke at Britney Spears and a rundown of “Fat Shows” no longer in our midst—including most derisively, I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant—McHale wound down his hourlong act with some more personal observations, including stories about a particularly poor stage introduction he once received, a topless pool that beckoned him in Las Vegas and how his firstborn son had terrorized his baby brother.

Although I enjoyed the entire performance and can’t argue with success, given the insightful universality that elevates the best comedic work, I think McHale might be better served spending a little more of his stage time venturing beyond the easy targets. At least from an artistic merit standpoint, directed at neophytes like me.

But even if the host of The Soup didn’t quite bowl me over to comedy legend levels and I don’t know that I’ve been fully converted to his Community of fans (McHale’s Navy?), at the very least, Joel McHale delivered a deliciously humorous performance—even the food at Improv was pretty good—that made for a perfectly enjoyable evening.

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