For years, HBO has been a haven for stand-up comics looking for their big break. Some have done it through one-hour specials the network airs, others have done it through smaller comedian showcases, such as the Young Comedian's Special. I remember Rodney Dangerfield hosting one in the mid '80s, where people like Sam Kinison and Andrew Dice Clay first received nationwide recognition, but a veritable who's who to of comedy have also graced the stage through the years, including Ray Romano, Judd Apatow, Jerry Seinfeld, Dave Chappelle, Jon Stewart and Bill Maher. In the '90s, HBO streamlined things and swung the spotlight to African-American comics with its Def Comedy Jam show, where Chappelle, Chris Tucker, Bernie Mac and others performed.
The latest incarnation in the HBO comedy lineup is titled Down and Dirty, hosted by little Jimmy Norton. Norton has parlayed his many appearances on the "Opie and Anthony" radio show into movie appearances - and even a spot on the 2008 best-seller list with his book "I Hate Your Guts." He has appeared in his own HBO stand-up special and in late 2008 he decided to spread the wealth around, hosting a four-episode run of half-hour long shows for young and established comics.
The format isn't unlike other variety or showcase format. There's your theme song and introduction (in this case, both are done by Lemmy from the rock band Motorhead), followed by four to five minutes of pretty funny material from Norton, which segues into the younger acts, and finally, the various headliners. The performers are as follows:
Episode One: Anthony Jeselnik, Whitney Cummings, Jim Florentine, Artie Lange
Episode Two: Jim Jeffries, Kevin Shea, Andrew Dice Clay
Episode Three: Geoff Keith, Louis Katz, Sean Rouse, Bill Burr
Episode Four: Joe DeRosa, Ari Shaffir, Russ Meneve, Patrice O'Neal
For the most part, the younger comics seem to be in a sort of contest to see whose material can out-gross the others, which often leads to underwhelming laughs. However, I enjoyed a few of the performers, namely Keith and Jeselnik. Keith tends to bring an "aw shucks" vibe to his act and when he belts out an off-color joke, it's both surprising and funny to see where he takes it. The other one I liked above everybody else, was Jeselnik. Looking a bit like Matt Damon, he delivers his jokes in a Steven Wright-ish deadpan manner that allows him to work a little darker than most of the people with which he shares the stage. In his small set, I thought he was damn good, and I'd like to see him do more of this material in the future, hopefully on his own hour-long special.
Then the old guys come out to wrap up the show. And yes, Lange and O'Neal's sets are funny, as I was expecting them to be. I haven't heard much from Burr but am familiar with some of his small television roles, and he turned out to be not too bad in the showcase. But Clay needs to drop the whole "Jersey gumbah" act. He's starting to lose his hair, he holds a cigarette on stage for prop reasons (he smoked like a chimney on stage back in his heyday), yet he still has the large jacket/belt/sunglasses and is telling more observational humor, counteracting what made him famous in the first place. God bless him for trying, and Norton brought him on as one of his comedic idols, but Clays needs either go back to the well or just move on altogether.
Ultimately though, Down and Dirty is a solid first start at what could be another long-running show for HBO. Ideally, the fields of stand-up comedy could be cultivated with a crop of new young comics for the 21st century in this manner, then I think we would all be better for it.
The episodes are presented in 16:9 anamorphic widescreen, presumably replicated from the original broadcast. It's not like stand-up comics are the prettiest people in the world, but the image is pretty clean and is accurately reproduced, with periodic touches of edge enhancement. Overall it's straightforward and without issue.
Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo is the sound of choice, and I can't say I'm surprised. The spoken word is clear as a bell without distortion, and the crowd noise sounds good without being overpowering. You don't feel as if you're a part of the audience, but this is typical for a stand-up performance.
The performances range from average to funny, and if you like your humor a little on the blue side, then you'll like Down and Dirty. I hope that there are future installments of the show on the horizon, so the show can evolve into the place where today's up and comers and show off. If HBO reruns this anytime soon, definitely set aside the time to give one or two of the episodes a spin.