Recorded at the Parlor Live Comedy Club in Bellevue, Washington, Doug Benson’s Smug Life is his fifth album in the last five years. While some surely find his prolificacy something to applaud, there are certainly others who cannot get on board with the much-celebrated pot comic. Benson’s a polarizing figure: with his affable demeanor and genuine personality, it’s difficult to instantly dismiss his worth as a comedian upon first listening. That said, for anyone who’s given Benson adequate consideration, they’ll most likely take an extreme position.
Smug Life is a double album. The first disc is titled “Uncooked,” and the second “Cooked.” Throw in the fact that it was recorded on April 20, 2012, and it’s pretty easy to understand the difference between the two shows. With the material roughly identical in both hours, Benson lightheartedly asserts that now the debate can finally be settled as to whether he’s funnier stoned or sober.
The central flaw of Smug Life, though, is that this is a pointless debate, as there are no sides being drawn and no critics taking up arms. In this way, the premise of doing the same show in two different states of mind is rendered as simply a gimmick. It’s an excuse for Benson to get high and give his audience what it wants. Smug Life won’t—can’t—win over dissenters. All it can do is fire up his fan base. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing—his fans surely want more hours of comedy—but it’s not really a good thing, either. Because with each new hour, Benson doesn’t seem to change. He doesn’t seem to grow as an artist annually. It’s cheap talk to say he merely recycles his material, but it’s fair to say there’s not much of a difference amongst any of his five albums. Again, Benson knows what his audience wants. Some may call it pandering, while some may claim an act of showmanship. Whatever label one decides is most likely indicative of his or her affinity (or lack thereof) for the comedian.
It’s best to think of Benson’s comedy as something along the lines of performance art (albeit without the pretense). Benson writes and prepares jokes and bits, yes, but his sets are so interactive that it’s disappointing to listen to them on an album. They’re meant to be experienced live, not observed after the fact. Benson’s a master at crowd work, taking what the audience gives him and running with it. It’s funny for the people in the club, but for the listener at home—so removed and so alien—the comedy doesn’t translate. A good comedy album, though, should. There needs to be a certain level of replayability, but with Benson, this is not the case.
Take, for example, Benson’s habit of reading Tweets during the show. Roughly 20 percent of each hour is comprised of Benson either announcing what audience members are Tweeting about the show, or reading several of his own Tweets and explaining their backstories. For the people in the audience, this is hilarious. He calls out Twitter handles, awkwardly and humorously forcing people to own up to their personal musings, and he makes the show highly rewarding for all who are present. For the listener at home, though, this tactic is bullshit. All it does is kill time, filling up precious minutes that could be devoted to well-crafted, re-listenable comedy.
Benson likes to put out a new hour each year, recording annually on 4/20. This is admirable, especially when considering the only comedians who have been (or were) routinely able to accomplish this are George Carlin and Louis C.K., two inarguable titans of stand up. The difference between these two legends and Benson, however, is that they did full hours. One can subjectively argue over the quality of those hours vis-à-vis Benson’s, but what one cannot contend is the originality. Carlin and C.K. put in the time and effort needed to turn over their material each year. One cannot say that Benson takes the easy route, but it’s fair to say he certainly takes a shortcut. For fans of his comedy, though, this qualm falls on deaf ears, as they get what they want. The only caveat is that they need to get it in person.
Smug Life is either a failed experiment or a glorious achievement, depending on whom one asks. At the end of the second track on disk two, a stoned Benson laughingly proclaims, “‘Cooked’ is so much better,” effectively ending any debate. None of his fans would argue. For those not on board with Benson’s style, however, there’s hardly any difference, and hardly any reason to listen.