Stand-up comedy has come a long way since the days of blackouts in between burlesque acts, carefully considered night club fare, the practiced, perfected "five minutes" for that one-off appearance on a late night talk show and the beloved two sided LP. Ever since the '70s, Steve Martin, the advent of the rock star comedian, and the lure of easy access via HBO, Comedy Central, and likeminded outlets, the teller of jokes has gone from ticket sales gimmick to superstar, from warming up for the chanteuse to starring in their own hit sitcoms and films. As a result, there are hundreds of working comics today, each one offering their own unique, demographically approved takes on the current events of the day, the journeyman observations of existence, and every once in a while, the tantalizing taboo of society's sacred cows.
Like the Def Comedy Jam, The Kings of Comedy, and other omnibus showcases, former NBA great Shaquille O'Neal has his own, Showtime sponsored tour, and with the DVD of Live From Atlanta, we can see both the positives and the negatives of such a set-up. Featuring five stand-ups and some equally hilarious work from host Faizon Love, we are treated to an 85 minute overview of what urban humor looks like in 2013. Back in the days of Richard Pryor and Redd Foxx, black comedy was a combination of foul mouthed rants and razor sharp social commentary. Over the course of time, many in the business have removed the consciousness and kept the curse words. Here, it's tough to tell if the material has been edited to emphasize the epithets, but one thing is crystal clear - everyone except British comic Gina Yashere has no problem - let me repeat, NO PROBLEM - dropping the N-word whenever and wherever they feel it's needed.
In fact, Ms. Yashere's entire act is based around the crazed culture shock of being from a far more PC country (England) and facing the outrageous self-racism of America. She doesn't get the N-word, calling women "bitches and hos" and the whole rap culture. She's more clever than laugh out loud funny but she has a point. In fact, each act here has a theme, a specific POV that each specific comedian in trying to get across in 18 to 22 minutes. For Finesse Mitchell, it's all about getting older and being unable to sexually satisfy your partner the way you used to. Red Grant, on the other hand, is all about the concerns of copulation and cunnilingus. He's also a fan of fellatio and all other fornication prospects. Lavar Walker is the most "conservative" of the company, discussing his previous career as a pharmacist and what a royal pain in the ass it was (too many elderly people being old and infirmed) while Robert Powell illustrates the often controversial material that gets his repeated "fired" and then "rehired" by Shaq.
For his part, Mr. Love is all about his size, its limitations, and how suave and cool and collected he can be while carrying around such heft. Shaq is present, sitting in the front row of Atlanta's Symphony Hall with his obvious entourage and snickering along with every dirty (and non-dirty) joke. The audience, of course, loves every single smackdown, occasionally lapsing into the Arsenio era of appreciate - the dog bark. Yet it's not hard to see the pandering here. The comics know a couple of cracks at the vagina or someone's sagging ball sack will garner guffaws. When Ms. Yashere starts attacking these easy targets, you can feel the good mood of the room recoil in "don't make me think" rebuffs. Still, there's enough good stuff that you can turn off your brain for 90 minutes and not feel horribly ill-informed. Sure, Mr. Grant's act is very one note (how many times can you talk about BJs) and the "old people are irritating" element of Mr. Walker's work grows tired, but these are also very funny people who pass the most important test of any stand-up - they make you laugh.