On Demetri Martin’s 2006 album, These Are Jokes, there’s a meandering track called “One Story,” which contains a bit about a friend of Martin’s who thinks that “a lot of [his] joke premises are contrived and hard to believe.”
Like much of Martin’s material, it’s slightly meta; it’s a joke within a joke in which the oddball comic purposely constructs a horrendously unbelievable premise not just for laughs but perhaps to also subtly comment on comics who earnestly set up jokes with premises that are superficially believable – mundane doesn’t equal believable! – but upon quick reflection are rather void of any semblance of reality.
And unless you’re a comic not of reality – see the aforementioned Martin, Zach Galifianakis or Steven Wright – then reality (with gentle twists and deformations, of course) is where the funny usually lies. A good artist can get the funny out of what’s real.
That said, it was difficult to get through comedian Jeremy Essig’s new album, Monque, without constantly thinking about Martin’s bit and without being terribly distracted by Essig’s sometimes unbelievable premises and post-premise follow-ups.
And it should be noted now, before going any further, that yes, all the words used in a 50-minute stand-up comedy set need not – should not – be totally believable. Like George Carlin said, every joke needs an exaggeration. However, too much exaggeration too often can create something seemingly disingenuous; and that’s what happens on Monque: the listener is forced too many times to suspend disbelief.
It happens when Essig tells a story about going to a drag show. He begins: “I was at this drag show and this dude comes out, and he’s like 6’5” and really muscular, and he’s dressed as Tina Turner. This is the same moment some 4’11” frat boy just looks up at the stage and goes, “Queer!”’ Essig finishes: “Tina Turner kicked the shit out of this kid. How much would you pay to see someone combine the singing talents of Tina Turner with the beat-down skills of Ike Turner in one performance?”
The juxtaposition Essig sets up in the punch line is hilarious, and so it’s easy to ignore an obvious question that makes the premise unbelievable: Why is a homophobe at a drag show?
If this account is based mostly in reality (which it seems to be; as in it’s not inherently otherworldly or absurd to think Essig was at a drag show), then Essig should at least acknowledge that it’s extremely odd for this other type of person to attend a drag show. He should also acknowledge that “Tina Turner” beating the shit out of this guy right then and there is more than a slightly strange occurrence.
Essig later tells a story about a friend who drunk-faxes him in the middle of the night. Listen below:
You could almost imagine Essig in the midst of writing the joke, admitting to himself that the premise is unbelievable – my friend can’t fax in the middle of the night if he doesn’t have a fax machine – and then pulling the Kinkos card at the last second to save the bit. Kinkos is open all night. My friend went to Kinkos to drunk-fax me. That’s believable. But it’s not.
Like the drag-show joke, the drunk-faxing joke is not so offensively unbelievable on its own. It’s the half dozen or so other implausible setups throughout Monque that make the album so difficult to like — especially since it’s easy to want to like Essig as a person.
Other characters in his material include a woman who tells him not to drink alcohol on their first date, a guy wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the words “American, and Proud of It” who yells “Where’s the damn relish?” at a gas station Quick-e-mart cashier and a McDonald’s worker who can’t see the difference between “hamburgers” and “cheeseburgers without cheese.”
In the end, this is clear: Essig creates hilarious situations that seem more suited for sketches than stand-up. Seeing what he’s describing would be hilarious. Plus, sketch work thrives on major exaggeration. But stand-up is too intimate an art form, is based too much in honesty, that many of Essig’s good ideas fall flat.
There are bright spots on Monque. This is one of them. Check it out: