Music

Ray Romano: Live at Carnegie Hall

Rob Varak

Ray Romano

Live at Carnegie Hall

Label: Columbia
US Release Date: 2001-10-02
Amazon
iTunes

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.

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

This week on our games podcast, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

This week, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

Keep reading... Show less

Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

Keep reading... Show less
3

Gabin's Maigret lets everyone else emote, sometimes hysterically, until he vents his own anger in the final revelations.

France's most celebrated home-grown detective character is Georges Simenon's Inspector Jules Maigret, an aging Paris homicide detective who, phlegmatically and unflappably, tracks down murderers to their lairs at the center of the human heart. He's invariably icon-ified as a shadowy figure smoking an eternal pipe, less fancy than Sherlock Holmes' curvy calabash but getting the job done in its laconic, unpretentious, middle-class manner.

Keep reading... Show less
5
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image