Last Friday's Oddball Curiosity and Comedy Festival at the Gexa Energy Pavilion wasn't as memorable as the first time Funny or Die brought a comedy showcase to our town. That's not to say it wasn't good. For a lot of comedy nerds in attendance, it will be one of the best and most formative live comedy experiences of their lifetime. It was a glorious collection of the most inventive and creative comedy minds of our time but it won't stick as hard in our minds as last year's strange derailment.
Blame our brains for leaving such a lasting impression. Studies show that we're more likely to remember the details and stories from the negative moments of our history than the positive ones and while both were good shows overall, last year's ended on an appropriately "odd" note.
The first Oddball festival kicked off with the majestic return of Dave Chappelle to the stage after a long hiatus from touring and the constant glare of the scrutinizing spotlight. He had solid material and seemed to be back in the rare form that made him such a comedy icon but then it descended into weird, improvised madness that put the brakes on a rapid, funny set that almost sent an otherwise pleased audience through the windshield. That was followed by an absolutely dismal show in Hartford, Connecticut thanks to an impatient crowd of loud hecklers mixed with Chappelle's lack of patience for audience douchebaggery. For the otherwise well behaved Dallas crowd, it felt like a Spinal Tap show where the band opens with Stonehenge and Big Bottom and closed with an experimental jazz odyssey.
The return of Oddball was not that. It started strong and finished very strong.
Funny or Die's weird mix of a freak show carnival with a comedy showcase is a genius idea because both acts are bizarre ways to make a living. You've got performers with names like Hell-n Fury and Scarlett Storm shoving condoms through their sinus cavities and snapping mouse traps across their tongues. Turn your head 90 degrees around and you'll see comedians baring their souls and reliving their personal pain for your amusement. Someday I'm sure we'll see a comedian who walks barefoot on broken glass while making jokes about their masturbation habits and the universe will collapse in on itself.
As the growing crowd approached the gate, we could already hear the booming, emotionally empowered voice of Brodie Stevens, star of the Comedy Central series Enjoy It!, pumping up the crowd for the local stage featuring Dallas' own Josh Johnson, Clint Werth and Christopher Darden and Austin comedian Ashley Barnhill. They all performed solid sets despite the fact that the crowd stood in the heat, keeping cool with extremely overpriced beers and bottled water. Following their sets, Stevens became the star as he continued to work the crowd and at one point jumped into it to do just about anything to keep their attention. Part of the charm of Stevens' act is watching his motivational powers of positivity take the wheel and you hang on because you're never quite sure if you're watching a genuine act or the start of what might be a total mental breakdown. Either way, he had the crowd adequately warmed up and ready for the main event.
Comedian and "Roastmaster General" Jeff Ross served as the evening's host and it could not have been a more perfect choice because the man is a master tamer of crowds. The large, gentle insult comic turned on anyone in the front rows and the rest of the crowd was happy to watch him judge the khaki wearing one-percenters who could afford to have their balls broken. He scanned the masses with his "Roast Cam" courtesy of a smartphone and brought a lineup of people on stage for some speed-roasting that included a woman in a wheelchair with multiple-sclerois (or MS or "monkey scrotum" as she called it).
He also had one of the more poignant moments of the show for comedy fans or as poignant as a roast comic can get.
"I'm gonna miss Joan Rivers," he said while strumming a guitar, "but she finally looks her age."
The two openers, Grant Cotter and Julian McCullough, also had great sets, covering a scattershot of topics and targets since they had less time than some of the bigger names on the bill. The crowd was responsive but seemed a little subdued at the start of the main show as evidenced by McCullough's reaction to the news of his new baby.
"In Kansas, they gave me a standing ovation when I said I had a new baby because in the midwest, they have hearts," McCullough said doing a callback to one of his bits about the super boring Midwest state. "In Texas, it's 'Oh, you had a baby. That's sounds like it's your problem.'"
Whitney Cummings came out next and had to deal with some hecklers up front in her opening bits. Why do people in comedy crowds think they can or should even try to be funnier than the main act on the stage? Please shut the hell up when someone is performing. The reason you're down there is because you aren't funny. She had no problem shutting them up with her sexually charged schtick.
"You and me in an hour?" she said repeating some mindless statement that some schmuck in the front spent more than $150 to shout at her. "How do you do that when you're so gay?"
She may have stuck to one primary topic for the majority of her set but she really knows how to mine a topic that has become such a boring subject for comedians who are way beneath her on the food chain. She's never edgy or profane for the sake of being either. She has strong material that can stand on its own legs.
"I'm not a golddigger. I'm the one with the gold," she said. "When I want a baby, I'm going to go to Africa and buy one like an adult."
Hannibal Burress was the only one on the bill to make his second appearance at Dallas' Oddball festival. He had a high bar to top after his downright hilarious set in 2013 and he launched over it with the kind of ease that makes seasoned comedians drool with jealousy. His material was sharp and his delivery was scary good particularly his reenactment of a father and son bonding over a beloved sports memory that was created by a magical potion called steroids.
"Steroids did that shit," he said. "PCP never did that for a father and son."
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The evening just continued to improve with each act who took the stage. Comedian and podcast guru Marc Maron brought his self-loathing anger to the crowd with a smart set fueled by his high functioning form of frantic depression. It was hard to write down any quotes because his thoughts moved so fast and fluid but his ice cream story and why it "can go fuck itself" is worth not spoiling. It sounds like such a simple idea for a comedian to pontificate on but he turns it into something so smart and deep that it creates thoughts and questions even if that's not his ultimate goal.
Sarah Silverman followed and she easily wins the smartest comic on stage award, by trying to achieve something bigger than making people laugh. Of course, she's not for the easily offended and if there were any of those people in attendance, they should have stayed home and listened to their Osmonds records instead. Watching her perform in a state as blood red as Texas was a joy because she wasn't there just to piss off the pious or the conservative pro-lifers, even if she donned a T-shirt that read "Stand with Texas Women." She weaved those ideas into smart jokes and stories while she worked the crowd to question judgments about religion, abortion, sexual abuse and human destruction. She also had the funniest swipe at Texas Gov. Rick Perry of the evening, a man who cannot be ridiculed enough.
Louis CK closed out an already impressive lineup and it was a rare sight to behold and not because he's the most famous and lauded comedian of our time. He demands respect without screaming for it. His mere presence commands an attention that is very rare in comedy. He opened so strong that it snapped the audience into their seats like the safety bar on a roller coaster. Twenty minutes went by when I noticed that I hadn't written a single quote from his act because I didn't want to miss a second of it. I also didn't hear a single heckler or an inappropriate "woo" during his set. I couldn't even see a single, rude glow from a cell phone. He had the entire crowd's attention for 30 minutes and no industrial strength construction tool could sever it.
He could sense our reverence and he rewarded our attention and respect by gifting us a new phrase to work into our daily conversations: "a blizzard of dicks." That's assuming that our pessimistic brains will allow us enough room for joy in order to remember it.