A comedian’s first album is often a best-of reel from his or her first few years of comedy, resulting in a series of good jokes that doesn’t quite cohere into a unified set. Even for a relatively new performer, weaving career highlights into one seamless hour is a difficult task, one that holds back the debut of promising talent Beth Stelling.
In the case of Sweet Beth (the title is derived from a self-assigned nickname), this can be seen in the lack of continuity over the course of the 50-minute set. In the beginning she raves about her kind-hearted boyfriend, who she loves so much as to have his name tattooed on her back. But a few tracks later she’s joking about bringing a different guy home every year, rankling her mother and confusing her baby nephew.
Keeping track of continuity in a comedy show is undoubtedly a nerdy endeavor, but having contradictory jokes in one set is confusing. The audience is trying to put together a portrait of the person onstage, and opposing jokes can distort the narrative. It’s fine if certain material is older, or some stories took place years ago…just say so.
More generally, comedic voices also change, especially early in a career. Here Stelling opens with a story about her backpack, full of jokes and set lists, being stolen shortly before the recording of the album. It’s a well-told story, but it’s clearly newer than the rest of the material, thus possessing a slightly different tone.
She’s on more solid ground with her stories about her parents, who provide a bounty of material. “So my parents are divorced,” Stelling says as she launches in. “Did I say that, or is that obvious?” Her mother’s well-meaning attempt to compare stand up to an Olympic sport is both sweet and funny, and her dad’s cluelessness makes for a handy bottomless well of jokes.
Unfortunately, some of these promising topics feel like they’re approached but not fully developed. There are some short bits that are fantastic (like a cashier asking if she’s a ballplayer), while others don’t quite build to enough of a payoff. And in her family material, she’s better when she’s stretching her comedic mind, like imagining how her dad would have reacted at her middle-schools sleepovers, rather than simply relaying amusing stories about her father’s 12 a.m. to 2 a.m. “unpaid raccoon internship.”
The album’s last proper track, “The Longest Drink Order,” clearly works for the audience at the taping but doesn’t fully translate into audio. It’s followed by an extended musical bit with her hometown comedian friends Tiffany and Danielle Puterbaugh, which is an unnecessary and somewhat self-indulgent addendum.
Stelling is incredibly likeable, with an open friendliness that makes her enjoyable to listen to. She clearly has a funny mind and a ton of potential. In fact, what Sweet Beth needs is more from her—more development in her stories, more imagination, and ultimately, more laughs.