Great comedy albums are in short supply these days, which is to be expected. After all, great comedians are equally rare. There was a stretch of dazzling successes in the genre from the mid-'70s through the mid-'80s. Richard Pryor, Bill Cosby, George Carlin, and later Eddie Murphy recorded stand-up concerts that were simultaneously hilarious and adventurous. While they contained varying doses of social commentary, they were unified in their brilliant writing and flawless execution. Unfortunately, after the early-90's glut of stand-up "comedy" on television and in the boom-then-bust club market, the overall level of comedic production seems to have dropped precipitously. The post-Rosanne and Tim Allen world found every one-trick-pony comic being rewarded with a sitcom that repeatedly beat the star's sole joke to a pulp.
The late '90s were marked by two successful talents who managed to help create shows that avoided the pitfalls of these cookie-cutter sitcoms: Jerry Seinfeld and Ray Romano. The two comics and their respective shows could not be more different. Seinfeld brilliantly eschewed and skewered sitcom convention, while Everybody Loves Raymond shines in its mastery of it. Despite the "four people and an apartment in New York" setting, Seinfeld succeeded through shock. It played on the viewer's comfort and complacency with the genre, and its writers delighted in their dogmatic refusal to ever cater to viewers' expectations. Raymond is surprising because it superficially adheres to all of the viewer's expectations, but is so well executed that one is repeatedly delighted. Ray Romano's skewed but warm persona is the perfect anchor for an ensemble that is edgy but still rooted in traditional sitcom sensibility.
That skewed but warm persona is the key, and it is precisely the same approach that Romano takes to his live show. Unfortunately, Live at Carnegie Hall demonstrates that this approach is far more effective on screen and in the midst of the show's gifted ensemble, rather than as the sole focus in concert. It is very easy to see how David Letterman was intrigued by the quirky Romano and his familiar yet somewhat off-center view of things. Now that listeners are familiar with Romano's comedy from his show, it's easy for them to see what Letterman saw.
Unfortunately, the low-key and deadpan humor at the heart of Romano's work results in a less than compelling live album. His timing is as impeccable as always, but the material sounds hollow without other actors off of whom Romano can play. It's like the difference between watching a great tennis player practice with a machine and seeing that same athlete engaged in pitched battle with a worthy rival. The mechanics might be the same, but the context changes the act from mundane to transcendent.
Romano approaches his material from the same perspective that he writes his television show. No topic or situation is so hackneyed that it is not worthy of a return visit, and Romano seems confident that his quirky approach can deliver a new angle and new laughs. More often than not, this strategy works on the television show. The results on Live at Carnegie Hall are far less consistent.
Romano covers territory that has been extensively mined by Bill Cosby for years, particularly family life and the old "kids do the darndest things" routine. While Romano is a gifted comic, his style is fundamentally less suited for this material in the live setting. Cosby's unparalleled excellence as a storyteller allows him to elevate these themes. In doing so he avoids the primary pitfall of this realm, which is the sense that the comedian is engaged in the equivalent of showing off family photos. Romano is not so successful in this regard. This is not to say that these portions of the act, comprising almost the entire second half, do not contain quality jokes and a big laugh or two. The problem is that they fail to crackle with the energy of a great comedy performance.
Romano does find success on some topics that are not related to family circumstances, but these segments are short, disjointed, and outside the general arc of his act. A brief foray into ethnic humor is an awkward and curious way to begin the act, but his brief rant about Olestra chips (a curiously Seinfeld-like bit of trivial observation humor) works very well. The few times that Romano addresses the topic of sex, he finds great success. He would have been well-served to expand on these topics at the expense of the elaborate family pieces.
Live at Carnegie Hall might be an attractive package for someone who is head over heels for Romano's work. For the rest of us, it is an enjoyable, middle-of-the-road document of a comedian working in a medium that is not conducive to his best work. Romano may have over a decade of stand-up experience, but he is fortunate that the media Masters of the Universe have given him a sitcom that allows him to display his real genius. Some may enjoy watching Venus Williams warm up, but it's no substitute for seeing her take on Martina Hingis.