Mike Brody’s album That’s Not What I Meant is a frustrating listen at times, which is a testament to his talent. Certainly it’s a well-made, briskly-paced affair: over in 40 minutes, high energy and with only a handful of jokes that truly fall flat. The problem is that parts of his set see Brody developing a fully-formed, holistic worldview. He’s very close to becoming himself here, the way any worthwhile artist must eventually have a central aesthetic—an essence, if you will—that is truly them and no one else, and from which all their work flows. It’s always exciting to see young talent begin to find themselves, but it’s equally vexing to see them get so close and then not go all the way.
This is all a high-falutin’ way of saying there are jokes here that seemingly only Brody could tell, and jokes that pretty much any capable comedian could come up with. To be fair, very little of the latter is bad. (Though a joke about how his uncle thinks there hasn’t been a good album since 1976 has an intriguing setup, but the Applebee’s-based punchline is bit pedestrian given the myriad ways he could have taken it.) Yet jokes about the Teen Wolf basketball scene or a monologue comparing The Shawshank Redemption to maintaining decorum while defecating in public restrooms fall squarely into a category Patton Oswalt once described as “funny, but whatever.” They’re just clever enough to avoid scanning as lazy, but not too different than what any VH1 talking head could say, ultimately feeling negligible.
If we’re being hard on Brody here, it’s just because elsewhere he hones in on something more authentic. The best parts of Meant are dispatches from a 33-year-old born layabout, reporting back from the weirdest parts of the Midwest. “When I was a kid you were either an AM kindergarten student or a PM kindergarten student,” he recalls. “I blame my entire slacker existence on the fact that I was a PM student. What’s it teach the kids? ‘Go on, sleep until noon. You’re going to work at Jimmy John’s anyway.’”
The Jimmy John’s thing turned out to be true, for a while anyway, and leads to bit about a co-worker named Cinnamon. “Bitter irony about Cinnamon was that she smelled like shit,” and gave Brody a hard time about using deodorant. This is the sort of material Brody excels at: observational work that feels unique to his experience, handled with an authorial voice that is light and detailed, and avoids coming off as unnecessarily mean.
“I think the funniest things in life are true,” he says, which is why he’ll ask his grandmother about the bully she deals with at her retirement center, Visiting Angles. We get to see the formation of his worldview; in the Midwest there’s enough time and space for everyone to create their own odd little worlds, and it’s his job to find them and report back…because there’s not much else he can do with his life.
Brody has spent his entire existence as a Type B-minus, and much of his best material explores how just because he’s gotten married and “grandfathered in” to his wife’s adult life, that doesn’t mean he’s got his shit together. He’ll still get in pointless fights with AC/DC cover bands on Facebook and inadvertently send bizarre sexts to his wife that make him sound gay. He delivers these admissions of immaturity in a voice peppered with “Awesome!”s that ranges from rambling to high-pitched and excitable when arrives at the denouement, coming off as a relaxed, regular dude who gets worked up about life’s little details. Brody seems like he just wandered on stage one day, but there’s enough back-and-forth rhythm to his delivery to show he’s put some thought into how he comes off.
As is often the case with comedians who work in such a vein, Brody clearly has a great deal of affection for where he’s from, and damns and praises it at the same time. When he was just a year and a half old, his mom took him to a grocery store. She turned around for a minute, and found that he had been replaced in the cart with a frozen turkey. The crazy old man who kidnapped him was immediately caught in the parking lot. Amazingly, the police were not called. “Oh, it was the Seventies,” his mom rationalized, “It wasn’t that big of a deal,” his tone revealing both his exasperation with his Iowan parents and a gratitude that he was lucky enough to have such nowhere-else experiences make him the oddball he is today. Brody repeatedly calls himself a slacker, but hopefully he’ll leave aside the more interchangeable material and push himself to keep exploring his own weird little world.