Sometimes, when I’m out sharing a drink with friends, we’ll ill-advisedly dip into conversations about controversial topics: politics, religion, whether or not Arrested Development should be a feature-length film or whether it should ride off into the sunset at the pinnacle of its reign on Netflix. Fortunately, fists rarely fly, even as we rib each other for being so obviously wrong.But there’s always the danger that the debate will pivot from being spirited and thought-provoking and humorous to harsh mean-spiritedness. You know when that happens: rather than inspiring continued questioning or parrying with fun jibes, some soul will burrow into recalcitrance, unwilling to offer a constructive alternative to the ideas they demolish.
I was concerned that Dave Foley’s newest album, Relatively Well, would err on the side of too-bitter-to-be-funny. I’d seen the comic live at South by Southwest a year or so ago and he was clearly still smarting from a divorce that has left him in less-than-desirable financial straits, even as his material delved into topics beyond his personal life. But Relatively Well manages to, in most moments, avoid venturing into excessive viciousness that elicits discomfort rather than laughter. Although Foley spends much of the first half of the album lamenting his post-divorce, middle-aged life, he manages to reflect on his failed marriages with a hint of light-heartedness.
A high point in this thread is a story from the comic’s youth, where he and his Kids in the Hall cronies took a 19-year old Uma Thurman out for her birthday (note: this is 1989, pre-Pulp Fiction, pre-Gattaca, pre-Kill Bill). By Foley’s telling, he was hoping to (and well on his way to) spend the night with her, until he mentioned that he had a girlfriend and she replied that she respected how “faithful” he was to said girlfriend. Aaaaand scene.
Naturally, two divorces later, Foley remains haunted by the memory. What a couple that would be: Dave Foley, not Ethan Hawke. Maybe he could have stopped her from participating in the travesty that was Batman and Robin as Poison Ivy. We can only dream. After a surprisingly funny take on a recent divorce enforcement court hearing — it’s a very sad story, but Foley injects enough absurdity into the tale to balance the injustice of the legal process — the album shifts to confronting broader social issues.
This is where, if anywhere, an unfortunately bitter frustration surfaces and approaches nastiness. Taking on some familiar targets — Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, other anti-science folks, those who believe in God — Foley’s disapproval is well-taken, but the critiques occasionally come across as stemming from a holier-than-thou position of certainty. Don’t get me wrong: I’m no climate-change critic. I love science. I believe in evolution. And gravity. Foley’s right. All that exists, and those who reject climate change cause a hell of a lot of problems. But, for example, chiding religious folks for having faith—akin to a socially-acceptable psychosis, says the comedian—felt simply mean-spirited rather than a biting but funny joke.
That said, I found Foley’s takes on heady topics like the Higgs Boson and the impact of language fascinating and fresh. He, for example, imagines an alien race made of dark matter and gets angry at them for their arrogance over occupying 95 percent of the universe (note: this joke is based on the fact that scientists have found they only know about five percent of the matter that comprises the universe, the rest being some unknown dark matter. If you think the set-up is too intricate, nobody ever said comedy was easy to get. Read a newspaper. Stay with it). And Foley closes with a well-crafted tale of the first time he shared some material about the raw power of the n-word. Spoiler alert: it didn’t go well for Dave, but the fallout is pretty fun to hear about.
In the end, if you can get past those occasional descents into hostility, and if you’re cool with delving into science and religion and a graphic discussion of Foley’s middle-aged sex life, Relatively Well offers a biting, provocative assessment of society’s foibles. And of Dave’s personal baggage.