Listening to Mark Poolos‘s Unbridled Enthusiasm is like running into that big, drunk party animal you went to high school with. It’s not entirely unpleasant and there are some moments where you catch yourself genuinely enjoying his company, but you would never seek him out on purpose. Sure, he’s a nice enough guy, but he makes some pretty questionable life choices and he’s kind of a misogynist, so you really don’t want to spend too much time with him.
The opening track of the album kicks off with Poolos doing a shot “to tits” and meta-musing about how he’s recording his album. It then launches into a poor quality recording of an address to the listener, where he tells them that this is his “third full-length comedy CD,” bashfully admitting that he’s really proud of it. It is a little too earnest and it smacks of amateurism, which is unfitting for a stand-up comic who’s been performing for more than 12 years and should be able to let his work speak for itself.
That aside, as the “full-length comedy CD” progresses it becomes clear Poolos has an easygoing demeanor that makes one feel less like they’re listening to a comedy album and more like they’re listening to somebody tell stories at the bar. It’s a combination of self-effacing humility crossed with a loud cockiness that can be very fun to listen to. Poolos is very comfortable in front of an audience, soaking in the laughs and never letting a lukewarm response to a joke shake him. His style is more conversational than presentational, with stories and jokes naturally coming one after the other. His jokes are most successful when he’s just riffing, but unfortunately Poolos often veers from this off-the-cuff style into jokes that reek of too much effort.
Astute observations or puns are often overshadowed by raunchy sexual material that’s not quite smart enough to be funny, but not obscene enough to be able to get by on shock value alone. Early on in the album, the flow of a perfectly entertaining riff about bar fights is interrupted by a weak lesbian-pornography joke before it fumbles back to its original topic. A few of the blue jokes are successful, like the one that imagines Poolos sleeping with a senior citizen and sharing post-coital Werther’s Originals, but these are the exception rather than the rule. Sometimes it even seems Poolos uses his stand-up as a soapbox to let the world know that he’s had sex before.
There are some stellar moments, such as when he shares an anecdote about a customer at the Super 8 where he worked asking, “Can you validate me?” with Poolos sharply replying, “You make a difference.” In Poolos’s bio it says he’s been compared to Adam Sandler and Louie Anderson, but lines such as that one are reminiscent of Mitch Hedberg in their absurdity. Unfortunately there are too many spots where Poolos loses confidence in these quick, clever moments and launches into contrived, setup-heavy jokes that feel inauthentic. The best comedy has its roots in honesty, and when he veers from that Poolos loses his momentum.
When he tells the story of the Halloween he and his buddy tried to help a passenger in a bad car accident while they were dressed as the Grim Reaper and Jesus, it’s just too calculated to be funny. Even if the story is 100 percent true, the amount of work that went into the joke shows, preventing any type of genuine payoff. A comedian can certainly take artistic liberties with personal anecdotes to capitalize on their comedic potential, but too many of Poolos’s jokes suffer from being overly stylized and embellished upon. It’s difficult to enjoy a joke when one hears the comedian trying so hard to make it funny.
It’s also difficult to enjoy a joke when multiple variations of it are included on an album. Perhaps diehard Mark Poolos fans are hungry to hear alternate takes of the same joke, but for the casual listener there is little reason to include multiple recordings of the jokes that they heard less than an hour earlier, with only the slightest variations. These second tellings take up a sizable portion of the end of the album and create a roadblock preventing the listener from having a satisfying comedic experience.
Overall, Unbridled Enthusiasm is just that: a less than satisfying comedic experience. Poolos has some strong, smart material that is ultimately overshadowed by sex jokes and overly complicated setups. The material he includes on the album and his choice of how to arrange it leaves his work to suffer at points, and though there are glimpses of an engaging and likable comedian, the album does Poolos no favors.