You Stink, the debut album from Jesse Popp, is one of the more continuously uninteresting hours of comedy to come out in recent memory. Filled with irrelevant asides between bits and overall weak jokes, You Stink’s primary problem is its lack of focus, as Popp runs all over the place without connecting any dots. It’s not that his subject material is diverse (that’s not necessarily bad at all); it’s that there doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to it. Instead of making absurd jokes that are well-crafted and uniquely spun, Popp merely extrapolates dull stories into unfunny, bizarre tangents. Rather than ending of their own volition, they routinely trail off until the next bit is started, with nary a segue in sight.
A Michigan native, Popp started stand up in 2000, moving to New York to further his career in 2006. Considering he’s been a comedian for over a decade, it’s quite surprising—shocking, even—that Popp cannot speak for 30 seconds without saying, “Uhh…” mid-sentence. As a comedian, one must not simply be comfortable with his or her cadence, but utterly aware of it. Popp is decidedly not the latter. And to compound the issue, much too often Popp commits what could widely be considered the calling card of the unpolished comedian: the “Uhh…” immediately following the punchline. This is the kind of stuff people pull at open mics.
What that “Uhh…” right after the punchline represents is a lack of confidence in the joke—or, in some cases, an abundance of undeserved confidence. In this instance the “Uhh…” serves as a modern-day rimshot. It’s meant to tell the audience to laugh. A skilled comedian, though, shouldn’t have to give the audience subliminal instructions; he or she should instead be able to rest assured their material is funny and thought-out enough that audiences will know how to react appropriately.
You Stink is certainly lacking in, but not entirely devoid of, funny moments. That said, those highlights are too few and far between. On “The Modern Woman,” Popp advises, “If you are going to buy a book on how to pick up chicks, just be sure to check the copyright date. You don’t wanna wind up like me: leaning up against the lamppost, flipping a quarter all night.” This is a genuinely funny image (even though it’s not rooted in any sort of reality), but it serves no purpose because it ultimately doesn’t lead anywhere. Compounding the issue, nothing leads into it, either. Popp’s comedy is almost like an episode of Family Guy, comprised of continuous randomness until every so often one has to ask, “How’d we get here?”
This randomness is one of the central flaws of You Stink. Popp’s paucity of focus never allows him to get into a groove where’s he firing on all cylinders. There can be lulls on an album, yes, but the whole thing can’t be one. Popp never creates any momentum, and the reason is because he never fully fleshes out a concept. Certain comedians can allow their sets to consist of ultra-short bits or jokes, but those comedians are unique (one-liner guys like Steven Wright and Mitch Hedberg immediately come to mind). The other extreme is found in someone like George Carlin, a man who referred to his bits as “essays.” Popp, though, deliberately plants himself right in the middle. He’s not a one-liner comic, but he never extends his jokes into anything more cohesive. Again, he just sort of moves on, brushing off the previous failure before going in for another attempt.
In this way, there’s nothing really memorable on You Stink to sit with the listener and make them want more. Instead, the listener is left feeling empty, having little to take away from the previous 60 minutes.
Popp is a writer on Conan. It makes sense that the titular O’Brien hired him, as he seems a perfect fit for the host’s sensibility. Like O’Brien, Popp is unabashedly absurd, and seeing as Popp’s set is essentially a collection of one- to five-line jokes, it’s fitting for him to work on a late-night show, especially one as famously offbeat as O’Brien’s.
But while that style works for late-night monologues and skits, it does not translate as well into the realm of stand-up comedy. For the latter to work, the comedian has to fully embrace the absurdity, making it the centerpiece of his onstage persona. Popp, unfortunately, does not make this leap. He seems caught in between, unable to commit to something that can make him unique. Instead of crafting a memorable presence that stands out and demands attention, Popp merely falls into the background, opting for rabid mediocrity and never realizing the potential below his surface.