It’s very difficult for observational comedy to hold up over time. Even solid material can age quickly as once-novel ideas become over-observed, and trends and references change with the wind. So Stand Up! Records‘s decision to reissue Robert Kelly’s 2003 album, Robert Kelly Live, is an interesting one.
Kelly’s reputation has undoubtedly grown in the intervening years. He toured the country with Dane Cook and was featured on Cook’s 2006 HBO tour documentary, Tourgasm. In 2008, he released his second album, Just the Tip. More recently, he played Louis C.K.’s brother on the first season of Louie, and has been cast alongside fellow Comedy Cellar regular Godfrey in FX fall pilot Bronx Warrants.
On the other hand, a lot can change in nine years. It’s hard to say whether this material was fresh when it was first released, but now it feels decidedly stale.
Kelly’s stand up covers the well-trod ground of sex and scatological humor, mixed with some less-than-Earth-shattering remarks about New York’s smells and raking leaves. It is, in some ways, the epitome of “Hey, I relate to that!” humor. That’s not to say there is anything wrong with the subject matter, per se—all premises have the potential for new, fertile material. But Kelly fails to expand on his ideas in any meaningful way, and his set is mostly a list of shallow observations.
This means that he hits on a lot of topics, each for a very short period of time. It’s difficult to determine whether it’s a case of ruthless editing or if Kelly has some moral opposition to transitions, but the way he switches between subjects is dizzying. Occasionally the lack of segues feels a bit glib, like his abrupt shift from discussing the Taliban to his afternoon in a tanning salon, but mostly it’s just confusing and kills any potential momentum.
The other problem with listening to a nearly decade-old album is that our social norms have undeniably evolved. Though it would be ridiculous to insinuate that homophobia is absent from comedy clubs these days, Kelly’s tendency to describe things as “a little faggy” feels moored in a different era. His material about women is hardly more progressive, although it appears to have been antiquated even when it was recorded. When he learns that a male audience member doesn’t play video games, he’s dismissed immediately as “gay”; when a woman pipes up that she does, his retort is, “Okay, you fucking lesbian. Relax.”
Overall, his thoughts on the fairer sex are less than complimentary, and with a track entitled “Women Are Evil,” his intentions are not hidden. Despite that title, he doesn’t come across as an overtly sexist person. The real problem is that his topics, such as women’s unreasonableness or their lack of beauty upkeep once in a relationship, have been so thoroughly mined by everything from sitcoms to beer commercials that they lack any punch.
Similarly, his propensity for falling into ethnic intonations habitually walks the line of good taste. His annoyance at being mistaken for Mexican while visiting Los Angeles or his take on the relative sexiness of accents is clearly based on his own experiences—he’s not trying to win points through racial stereotyping. But he fails to add any substantial ideas to the discussion, making the need for comically exaggerated accents questionable.
It’s not that Kelly seems like a bad guy. If anything, his tough-guy attitude feels like a false persona, and his attempts at righteous indignation ring hollow. His excessive use of profanities starts to feel like a crutch, an attempt to add heft to some very thin premises. It’s when he flubs a line and mutters, “I’m such a douchebag,” with an endearing giggle that a genuinely relatable side of his personality emerges.
There are a few good laughs. A bit about a blooper reel from Osama bin Laden’s videos works well. And when he mentions how he’s still afraid of the dark, and that he worries about monsters in the woods, he hints at a whole world of potentially interesting material in that more vulnerable arena.
The album’s fairly generic title is unfortunately indicative of his voice and of the material, which lacks cohesion or overarching themes. (An attempt at a running joke about a “piss the pants monster” doesn’t work or build to anything interesting.) At the same time, Kelly doesn’t quite manage to establish a unique enough personality to encourage the audience to get on board with his particular point of view. (Fortunately he would go on to correct this imbalance on the more introspective and far superior Just the Tip.) It seems, then, that the decision to re-release Robert Kelly Live now must be solely related to Kelly’s increased prominence, as the material itself is nowhere near memorable enough to deserve another rotation.