It’s wise to pay attention to each new release from AST Records, the imprint of longtime comedy-nerd website ASpecialThing.com. The label has proven itself a reliable bullhorn for today’s best comics – often well before their current renown – including such alt-comedy heroes as Paul F. Tompkins, Jen Kirkman, Kyle Kinane, Jonah Ray and Doug Benson.
Given AST’s loving relationship with the L.A. stand-up scene, it makes sense that its latest release, Jim Hamilton’s whimsically-titled Poems About the Ocean (which sports some of the most soothing/creepy cover art in recent memory), was recorded at the Nerdist Theater on Sunset Boulevard. Hamilton is a regular on that scene, but if there’s any justice in the world, Poems will be the perfectly-timed bullet that helps him break to a wider audience.
From a distance, Hamilton’s material and delivery is comedy at its most basic: wry one-liners and short stories that take a few seconds to sink in, self-deprecating and smart in their construction, all delivered at a deliberate pace that benefits the listener’s absorption and appreciation. The style is crisp and classic, owing to greats from vaudeville to Steven Wright and Demetri Martin (assuming you consider that last one great). But the material is only deceptively basic. Hamilton’s stock-in-trade is the idea, not the delivery or physicality. It’s hard not to sit back and admire the density and plurality of both on Poems. Many comics would be lucky to have a quarter of these missiles in their arsenal.
There’s little to no crowd work, personal insight or improv on Poems. Hamilton simply takes the stage and starts cutting into the crowd with his razor-sharp material, creating a delightful tension in the room with nothing more than his voice (imagine a less-baritone Ron Lynch, with a lisp) and, presumably, some well-timed squints and grimaces. With few exceptions, the jokes work free of context. There are some that sound like Laffy Taffy wrapper quips, the kind that sail by when you’re eating lunch and something clever but benign pops into your head: “Did you know the word coincide does mean ‘To kill coins’? Bogus.” Then there are slightly more premise-dependent ones that turn on Hamilton’s measured delivery: “I just had to go door to door and tell my neighbors that I’m a registered sex offender. [Pause.] I’m not. I’m not a sex offender. [Pause.] I had to tell them that so their stupid kids would leave me alone.” Or: “I just found out I can’t have children of my own. The doctor told me the medical explanation, as far as I understand it, is that when I ejaculate, there is rarely if ever a woman in the room.” Followed by: “I haven’t had sex in so long my hymen grew back.”
On paper they can seem like Borscht Belt groaners, but the punchlines snap into place like Legos when hanging on Hamilton’s every calculated word. The way he screws up his voice at the end perfectly sells the idea that, yes, this is ridiculous. But we know it’s ridiculous, and he knows it’s ridiculous, so why not give in? He affords listeners just enough time – usually a second or two – to savor the puns and twists before moving onto the next brilliantly-constructed number. It’s easy to image Neil Hamburger cranking out some of these, albeit with a phlegmy cough and a good deal of harrumphing.
A few one-liners start bland and end with punctuated sadness. “It does not matter how many neckties that I pretend to look at…everybody in Nordstrom’s knows I’m there only to take a shit,” he says, before launching into more fecal jokes. “When you’re slidin’ into first and you’re feeling something burst. That’s diarrhea. That. Is. Diarrhea. [Pause] If you slide into first, you deserve diarrhea.”
Hamilton’s set is loosely organized around topics including religion, music, dating and so on, but the lines between them are only noticeable after he’s moved onto the next one. Like the similarly low key Todd Barry or Hannibal Buress, his delivery loosens a bit as the tracks tick by (particularly on “Infinite Monkeys”), the practiced indignation rising and falling with his voice. But overall his restraint is remarkable. Many of the jokes – “Are you just going to stand there all day, Burt Reynolds, or are you going to sell me a ticket to this wax museum?” – would crumble without the clean, knowing delivery.
The album ends quietly with a pun-riddled callback to an earlier joke and a brisk “Thank you, good night,” leaving the listener scrambling to hit the replay button. That’s the power of Hamilton’s succinct charm: he packs more into the brisk 43 minutes on Poems than many comedians do into a couple albums. The dryness may not be for everybody, but anyone not endeared to Hamilton’s clockwork mind by the end is probably just a terrible person anyway.