truTV, Comedy Knockout Review

truTV has been throwing comedic haymakers at the established comedy world for the past few years now with hilarious hit show after hilarious hit show (Impractical Jokers, Those Who Can’t, The Carbonaro Effect, Fameless, Billy on the Street), and now they are channeling that underdog, fighting spirit into one aptly named show, Comedy Knockout.

In front of an audience filled with people who seem like they were just explained what comedy was minutes before the show started, three of the most hardened, stage tested New York comics go head-to-head-to-head in a battle of wit, ingenuity, and roasting ability. Nothing is off limits as they go hard at each other, at the audience, and just generally do whatever they can to be funny. The show is broken down into 3 rounds, and after each round the audience votes via the highly scientific crowd noise method for which comic they liked the best. The host, Damien Lemon, then pretends to detect who got the loudest cheers, and anoints a 1st, 2nd, and 3rd in each round. The winner at the end of the show gets a plastic trophy, and the loser has to read an embarrassing, prewritten (not by them) apology for sucking at comedy.

The show is still a little rough around the edges, but when the comedians really get into it and are on their game, it can be hysterical. Episode 2 with Kurt Metzger, Matt Kirshen, and Yamaneika Saunders was straight gut-busting and hilariously vicious. It is a perfect representation of what this show is at its best. In episode 3, Kerry Coddett and Dave Hill had a classic head-to-head showdown, with both of them literally fighting over the mic to get their jokes in. I became an instant fan of all of them. Veteran, fan favorite comedian Jim Norton also killed it in the episode he appeared in, of course.

Comedy Knockout might not be as refined as some of truTV’s other hit shows, but it perfectly represents the comedic energy that has brought truTV to the top of the comedy world. The voting audience stuff seems a little out of place, and the show is still trying to find its footing in general, but there are moments of greatness when everything comes together. At the very least, it is a great show to watch if you want to discover under the radar comics or just expose yourself to a bunch of names you may have never heard of before. Season 1 is currently airing right now, and there is a new episode on tonight, Thursday, May 26, after Impractical Jokers.

By Michael Halpern
Twitter: Imaginary Brick Wall (@ImaginaryBrickW)

Top 5 Stand-Up Comedians

When writing about the very best stand-up comedians in the world, it can be a daunting task to come up with a funny opener. So please forgive me for straight passing. Without further ado, here are the top 5 stand-up comedians in the world right now:

1) Chris Rock – Chris Rock is nothing short of a living legend, the King. Hell, he’s also the Queen, the Prince, and the Princess. He’s the entire royal family of comedy. He absolutely killed it hosting the Oscars in primetime with millions watching around the world, and the last time I was at the Comedy Cellar, he showed up out of nowhere and did an hour of brand new material that had the entire room buzzing. There is no question that Rock deserves the #1 spot.

2) Louis C.K. – Louis C.K. has been a major catalyst for the stand-up comedy explosion in recent years. He is an inspiration and trailblazer for creative people in every field. It doesn’t matter what venue he is performing at; he can take down any room. I have seen him at the Comedy Cellar multiple times, as the headliner at Irving Plaza, and at a Wounded Warriors Project charity event, and he had the audience in stitches each time. He has also conquered television, starting with his underrated 2006 HBO show, Lucky Louie, through his hit show on FX, Louie, and now as a co-creator of the show Baskets. That is a resume only Chris Rock can top right now.

3) Bill Burr – Here is what I wrote about Bill Burr in my F is for Family Review, “Burr is a mastermind at finding comedy in how men think, and why we act like we do. While being funny is surely his number one goal, what makes him great are that his insights cut on a much deeper level. Some try to pigeonhole Burr as the typical Neanderthal man, but it is that exact stereotype that Burr loves to play on, and ultimately rejects using ‘hilarious wisdom.’” Hey, if comedians can repeat their material every now and then, so can I.

4) Jim Gaffigan – Jim Gaffigan performed at the same Wounded Warriors Project charity event that I mentioned earlier, and being completely objective, he might have actually outdone Louis C.K. on that night. The entire theater was putty in his hands. He is the undisputed champ of “food comedy,” and if you haven’t seen his famous 5-minute bit on Hot Pockets, just stop reading this article right now and watch it. Gaffigan has been doing his thing for years now, and he is slowly but surely climbing his way up the stand-up comedy ranks.

5) Gary Gulman – Gary Gulman is the underdog of the group, an up and comer who is destined for a big breakout in the near future. He is a tall, handsome man with an athletic build, whose stand-up comedy style is that of an awkward, overweight kid who got no ass growing up. Just watch his hilarious bit about Donald Trump, Bill Gates, and Billionaires from his 2012 comedy special, In this Economy, and then go on Netflix and watch the rest of that special, along with his 2016 special, It’s About Time. I guarantee you become an instant fan.

By Michael Halpern
Twitter: Imaginary Brick Wall (@ImaginaryBrickW)

Will Arnett, Netflix’s Flaked Review

It is hard to imagine Will Arnett playing any other character than the imbecile. He did it so well as Gob Bluth in Arrested Development, and he has since built an entire career on that character archetype. He once said the reason he got into comedy in the first place, was because his attempts at dramatic acting were met with laughter anyway, so why not go with it. But a decade after Arrested Development got cancelled, it was high time for Arnett to jump back into the dramatic deep end, and he has done just that with Netflix’s new dramedy Flaked.

The first act of Flaked comes off like a watered down version of Californication. Arnett plays a recovering alcoholic, living a romanticized deadbeat lifestyle in Venice Beach. He is an easy going ladies’ man, and everyone’s best friend. He has a smooth line for every situation. But the show is much more than it appears on the surface. There is a deeper, darker side to both Arnett’s character, and the seemingly directionless storylines that are first introduced. You need to let this show grow on you, as it might not catch you right from the get go.

Whatever reservations you will most likely have seeing Arnett play a (semi) serious character, you won’t have the same issues with the supporting cast. All of them absolutely nail their parts. David Sullivan plays the role of Arnett’s bumbling best friend, Ruth Kearney plays his main love interest, Robert Wisdom is cast as the wise friend (maybe there is something to this changing your last name business, after all), and veteran actress Heather Graham brings some gravitas to the show in her role as Arnett’s ex-wife. As for Arnett himself, after the initial shock of seeing him deliver sincere lines that are actually meant to be taken sincerely, he does eventually win you over, and makes it easy to buy into, and even sympathize with his character.

Flaked is best categorized as a slow burner, with each passing episode adding new layers to the previously surface level only interactions. You can’t fully appreciate the nuance of the show until all of the cards have been laid out on the table. It isn’t perfect, and it might take some time to get used to Arnett in this new type of role, but the payoff is worth it in the end. I’ll give Flaked 4 out of 5 stars, and definitely recommend that you give it a shot, if you haven’t already.

By Michael Halpern
Twitter: Imaginary Brick Wall (@ImaginaryBrickW)

Jim Gaffigan, The Jim Gaffigan Show Review

Jim Gaffigan is a pioneer in the stand-up comedy world, blazing a trail for food obsessed people everywhere. He made “food comedy” a category all unto itself. You have to only watch his famous 5-minute bit on Hot Pockets to see what I mean. But Gaffigan is more than just a food comic. He has quietly built a reputation as one of the best stand-up comedians in the world. And he has now taken that finely tuned comedic material, and poured it into his new, aptly named show, The Jim Gaffigan Show.

The Jim Gaffigan Show centers around Gaffigan’s life as a stand-up comedian living in Manhattan with his wife and five children. The major themes of the show are food, family, friends, work, religion, and well, more food. In one scene, Gaffigan’s wife mocks him for getting banned from Big Gay Ice Cream, an ice cream shop in New York. His idea of cheating in Las Vegas is eating an entire red velvet cake in his hotel room alone at midnight, and then sheepishly lying to his wife about it, telling her he only ate half of the cake at midnight and the other half in the morning. He gets into a fight at the airport after eating another person’s momentarily unattended fries off their plate. The man has a problem, and it is hysterical.

While Gaffigan is certainly the star, Ashley Williams kills it in her role playing his wife, and carries more than her fair share of the weight. She is so convincing, that when I first saw the show, I thought it might have actually been Gaffigan’s real wife playing the role. Adam Goldberg plays the role of Gaffigan’s best friend, portraying a typical New York comic like Dave Attell. Michael Ian Black plays the role of Gaffigan’s wife’s gay best friend and ex-boyfriend. The obvious tension this creates between Gaffigan and Black is hilarious.

The Jim Gaffigan Show has flown mostly under the radar, which is odd because Gaffigan is an extremely popular stand-up comedian. Maybe it is because the show airs on TV Land, which despite its name, has yet to make much of a mark in the TV world. But the show deserves more exposure, and in the current comedy landscape where depraved humor is flourishing, it is nice to see a legitimately funny show that also has a heart. You can watch the first five episodes of Season 1 here. The schedule for Season 2 has not been released yet.

By Michael Halpern

Who Is the Best Impractical Joker?

Hold up … before you crucify me for daring to pick a favorite Impractical Joker, which is like being forced to pick your favorite child, or pick your favorite dish at a Chinese restaurant (ok, this one might be just me), I want to highlight this is not about picking a favorite in that way. My favorite Joker can change episode to episode, and even within episodes. And we all know the key to the show is the genuine friendship between the guys, with the whole being greater than the individual parts.

This ranking is about appreciating the underlying skill, art, and performance of Joe, Sal, Murr, and Q, which often gets overlooked. We all watch the show to laugh, but there is a competition going on, as well. In order to find the “best” all around Joker, I broke it down into 4 categories: Versatility, Reactions, Guts, and Performance. I rank each Joker (1-4) within the categories, and the Joker who ends up with the least amount of points is our winner. Let’s get started:

Versatility – Whether saying stupid stuff to strangers in the park, or giving a business presentation to people dressed in suits, the Jokers need to blend in seamlessly in order to get the thumbs up.

1) Murr – One second he looks like “the government in a suit,” and the next he transforms perfectly into a pedophile lurking on the outskirts of a playground, or a pervert hiding in the bushes. A true chameleon.

2) Joe – Like Denzel Washington playing himself in every movie, Joe plays his different roles in a similar manner. He doesn’t change his personality around the role, he changes the role around his personality. It is a great shortcut if you have the ability to do it, and both Denzel and Joe do it well (I know you never thought Denzel Washington and Joey Gatto would be mentioned in the same sentence, but you were wrong).

3) Q – Will not overact a role, which makes him very believable. Finds a way to stay grounded in reality, no matter how crazy he is forced to act.

4) Sal – Wears his heart on his sleeve, and it does not lend well to blending into the more formal, business oriented tasks. He just can’t keep a straight face, but we love him for it.

Reactions – The Jokers can’t control how the public is going to react to their antics, but it is nonetheless a key part of the show. This category is for the Joker who gets the best reactions out of people.

1) Q – “Don’t call me mustache.” Need I say more?

2) Sal – This is where wearing your heart on your sleeve pays off. No matter what Sal says or does, people still feel comfortable around him, and very rarely clam up.

3) Murr – His ability to slip into any character is the same skill that makes people act a bit careful around him. He is almost too slick. But watching people slowly step away from him can be hysterical in its own right.

4) Joe – His own worst enemy, as he is just too damn funny. The people he is trying to get a reaction from, laugh just as much as we are laughing at home (and just as much as the other Jokers behind the camera as well).

Guts – Pretty self-explanatory.

1) Joe – Manages to keep his dignity no matter what he is forced to do. In fact, he is a master at turning whatever situation he is thrown in around in his favor.

2) Q – You can see Q flip a switch in his mind and decide he will do whatever it takes to win a task. He tried to grab another man’s crotch in the middle of a public park. If that won’t slow him down, nothing will.

3) Sal – You can sometimes see the hesitation on his face, but it does not prevent him from conquering his fears, and he seems to have a few of them (heights, germs, claustrophobia, hairless cats, etc …).

4) Murr – Random things will make Murr tap out when you least expect it. He will say some of the most offensive, crazy stuff on the show, but then refuse to say something relatively tame. The unpredictability lands him 4th in this category.

Performance – Although it is a competition, it is a TV show as well, and the masses must be entertained.

1) Sal – Can sing. Can dance. Has quick wit when he is not falling over in laughter. The total package.

2) Murr – Always has the big picture in mind. You can see him try to balance winning the task, with entertaining the fans at home.

3) Joe – Funny when he isn’t even trying. Dives belly first into every task, with comedy his number one goal.

4) Q – Has laser-like focus on winning the task, and might not always ham it up at the risk of a thumbs down.

Joe – 10
Sal – 10
Murr – 10
Q – 10

A four-way tie! This completely scientific study proves that it is in fact impossible to pick the best Impractical Joker. I should be ashamed for even trying.

By Michael Halpern

truTV, Those Who Can’t

truTV has exploded onto the comedy scene of late, headlined by their hilarious hit show Impractical Jokers. But they have since built on that success. Billy on the Street, The Carbonaro Effect, and Fameless continued their foray into the prank, gritty, man on the street comedies, each one putting their own unique, funny twist on the genre. What was once a channel dedicated to true crime and real life courtroom drama, is now one of the leading channels for cutting edge comedy. That was some pivot. And now truTV is attempting to up the ante even higher, trying their hand at scripted comedy with their new show Those Who Can’t.

Those Who Can’t is a mash up of shows like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Workaholics, and The League. The show centers around four high school teachers, who as the school’s secretary scolds them during the first episode, “all act like children, and now (they’re) in charge of children.” Imagine being able to play out the worst version of yourself, actually acting on that passing thought you would normally dismiss as a horrible idea. That is who these characters are. Benjamin Roy plays a history teacher, Adam Cayton-Holland plays the Spanish teacher, and Maria Thayer plays the librarian. Andrew Orvedahl stands out in his role as the gym teacher. He is the loveable idiot that just can’t catch a break, but is too stupid to realize it. You can’t help but root for him, but at the same time, you know it is only going to keep getting hilariously worse for him.

The only person trying to rein in the shenanigans of the main characters is the school’s permissive, new age hippie principal, played by Rory Scovel. And he absolutely steals the show. His best intentions of trying to create a Zen, relaxed atmosphere, and always trying to see the best in people, is completely trampled on and taken advantage of by the teachers. Watching his attempts to stay “centered” and keep his composure, while the gang drives him to his wit’s end, is downright hysterical.

With Those Who Can’t, truTV has proven their recent run of success is no fluke. And by entering the genre of scripted comedy, they have created an entirely new avenue to keep growing and climbing in the comedy world. I can’t wait to see what direction Those Who Can’t takes as season 1 progresses, and hope to be able to call it one of my favorites by the time it is all said and done.

By Michael Halpern

Zach Galifianakis, Baskets

Zach Galifianakis is known for his off-beat, dark style of comedy. What makes him truly great is his ability to relate and endear himself to the audience, even when playing the most bizarre of characters. But he lets the audience only get so close. He reveals only a small sliver of what is actually behind his veneer of comedy. It is this quality that can lead people to label Galifianakis the quintessential “sad clown.” And in Zach Galifianakis’ Baskets, he makes this a reality.

Baskets is a dark comedy, centered around the life of an aspiring clown. Or, as Galifianakis’ character would tell you, he has “a passion for clowning.” Nobody in his life believes in him, though. His classical clown teacher mocks him, calling him “Bozo” and “Ronald McDonald.” His girlfriend constantly puts him down, derisively remarking, “you are not a clown.” But he refuses to give up on his dream, and eventually lands a job as a rodeo clown.

In classic Galifianakis style, he somehow makes all of this very relatable. You do not need a passion for clowning to find common ground with this show. Baskets focuses on themes like following your dreams, brushing yourself off after getting knocked down, and the perseverance it takes to reach your goals. All presented with that signature Galifianakis charm.

Galifianakis is not the only thing Baskets has going for it, either. Louis C.K. is the co-creator, writer, and executive producer. You can certainly see his fingerprints all over the show. Louie Anderson plays the role of Galifianakis’ mother. Yes, you read that right, his mother. And he is shockingly perfect in the role. Lesser known actress, Martha Kelly, plays Galifianakis’ insurance agent. The interplay between Kelly and Galifianakis is absolutely hysterical. I hope to see more of that duo as the show progresses.

If the early returns are any indication, FX has a major hit on their hands with Baskets. Zach Galifianakis and Louis C.K. have combined to form a comedy powerhouse that has just begun to tap into the potential of what this show can become.

By Michael Halpern

Aziz Ansari, Master of None

Aziz Ansari is notorious for his jovial, high energy, balls to the wall comedy style. Best known for his role as Tom Haverford on Parks and Recreation, Aziz often plays the character of everyone’s best friend. The not a care in the world, ceaselessly optimistic guy. It is that same personality that shines through during his stand-up comedy specials. But if you listened close enough, you would have noticed a gritty undertone that was just waiting to bust out. And Master of None is its coming out party.

If Aziz was a pop singer, Master of None would be his stripped down, acoustic album. Saying all of the things he wanted to say before, but couldn’t. Filmed and directed in a style similar to Louie, it tackles the topics of dating, sex, marriage, career, family, and racial stereotypes. Master of None is not the gut-busting comedy we are used to seeing from Aziz. The jokes strike on a much deeper, personal level. The comedic situations stem from the day-to-day challenges that life throws our way. It is the voice of a generation that is fighting to make its mark and find its place in this world.

The role of Aziz’s father is played by his real father. And he steals every scene he is in. Eric Wareheim plays the role that Aziz usually gets cast in, as the funny best friend. You can’t help but to be won over by his quirky, cuddly, understated comedy style. And Danielle Brooks absolutely kills it in the one episode she appears in, playing the role of Aziz’s agent. I only wish she had a larger role. There are even cameos made by Claire Danes and Busta Rhymes.

Aziz has already proven hilarious in roles where the audience can just turn off their brains and laugh for a little while. With Master of None, he has now taken his comedy game to the next level. Do not let the title of the show fool you, Aziz Ansari is most certainly on his way to becoming a Master of Comedy.

By Michael Halpern

Bill Burr, F is for Family

Bill Burr is firmly entrenched as one of the best stand-up comedians in the world. He is a mastermind at finding comedy in how men think, and why we act like we do. While being funny is surely his number one goal, what makes him great are that his insights cut on a much deeper level. Some try to pigeonhole Burr as the typical Neanderthal man, but it is that exact stereotype that Burr loves to play on, and ultimately rejects using “hilarious wisdom.”

Five minutes into watching the first episode of Burr’s Netflix show, F is for Family, it becomes clear his signature humor will easily slice through the animated comedy format. Truth be told, I am not a huge fan of many animated comedies. The situations can become too unrealistic and lose ties to any kind of reality. When I mention this criticism to friends, I am told that is the exact reason why they love animated comedies. To each their own. Either way, F is for Family does not fall into these traps.

The show is set around a lower middle class family living in the 1970’s. The humor is anything but outdated though. Much of the show’s humor is filtered through the lens of modern day society and technology. It pokes fun at a bygone era, while managing to hold on to just enough nostalgia to give the show its heart. Focusing on themes like work, family, and keeping up with the Joneses, F is for Family relates to a wide audience.

Season 1 gave viewers just a small window into the thoughts rattling around in Burr’s head. He has not even begun to flex his considerable comedic muscles. If Burr is not enough star power for you, Vince Vaughn is a producer, and Justin Long is the voice of the oldest son. The pieces are in place to make something really special here. I look forward to seeing if Burr and F is for Family can further capitalize on their considerable potential in Season 2.

By Michael Halpern

Top 5 TV Comedies

There has never been a better time to be a fan of TV comedies. Maybe I really should not be calling them “TV” comedies anymore, right, considering you can watch on your phone these days. On second thought, I really should not be calling it a “phone” anymore, either, considering you can watch TV on it. Wait, what? Let’s just move on. Here are the top 5 comedies on “TV” today:

1) “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” – If TV comedies had a Hall of Fame, this show would get in on the first ballot. From social satire, to over-the-top insanity, Sunny amazingly continues to blaze new trails going on their 11th season. This show is not for the faint of heart, but good comedy rarely is. Watch at your own risk.

2) “Nathan For You” – The label, “comedy genius,” gets thrown around far too often, but when it comes to Nathan Fielder, it is truly accurate. Watching Fielder pull off his absurd stunts, in order to “help” small businesses, leaves the audience in what I can only describe as an “hilarious awe.” A master of deception, Fielder always has one more trick up his sleeve just when you think you have seen it all.

3) “Impractical Jokers” – The best marathon show on TV. Nothing to do on a lazy Sunday afternoon? How about laughing your ass off for three straight hours, while watching four guys cleverly try to embarrass each other on the streets of New York. The key to the show is the genuine, lifelong friendship between the guys, and before long, it is easy to feel like you are just one of the gang.

4) “Real Husbands of Hollywood” – Do not be turned off by the horrible title, this show is a true gem. It mixes the best elements of shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and various mockumentaries, with Kevin Hart’s style and humor. The result is a resounding, outrageous success. Do yourself a favor, and watch this show.

5) “The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret” – The most underrated show on TV. Criminally underrated. Seriously, if you are a fan of comedy, and have not devoured the two, six episode seasons on Netflix yet, you should be arrested. The first season aired in 2009 and the second season aired in 2012. Season 3 is scheduled to come out in January. I can only assume the three-year gap between seasons is because absolutely nobody has heard of this show. Which is odd, because it stars David Cross and Will Arnett, of Arrested Development fame. Come to think of it, maybe these guys are just destined to star in great shows that get noticed after they are already cancelled … maybe that can be what their next show is about. Either way, in order for Todd Margaret to not go the way of Arrested Development, do them a favor, and watch this show.

Honorable Mentions: Inside Amy Schumer; Episodes; Grace and Frankie; Master of None; F is for Family.

By Michael Halpern