For years George Carlin was the gold standard for stand-up production. A new one-hour HBO special every year and a half or so was a breakneck speed, more so than the casual fan might realize. Lately Louis C.K. has been getting attention for keeping a similar pace. On November 6, Tom Shillue kicks off an ambitious project that, if it works, will redefine that standard. For one year he will release an album a month, each with its own theme, starting with Better, Stronger, Faster, his love letter to geekdom. He’ll follow that with Big Room, to be released on December 11.
The logistics of Shillue’s style give him a chance to pull this off. He is a storyteller, and a damn good one. There are three tracks—“Better,” “Stronger” and “Faster”—bringing the album in at just over 36 minutes. Each track is its own meandering story, keeping with the overall theme, separated by a little piano music. They could be taken from the same night or recorded weeks apart. Shillue isn’t firing off one-liners or doing a series of unrelated chunks. He is telling stories that allow him to wander a bit, and to weave in bits about why he has a fetish for women lit through chain link fences and how he made a date with his doctor.
“Better” is about Dungeons & Dragons and girls, “Stronger” is about a nerd fight over Lord of the Rings, and “Faster” is about the Six Million Dollar Man. He bemoans how easy it is to be a nerd these days, as well as the flood of fake poseurs invading the territory he worked so hard to establish as a kid, creating D&D family trees and dipping hand-drawn maps in tea to make them look old. Now everything is on the web, so some buff, shirtless dude can look information up and call himself a dork. He describes a particularly heated chat-room debate about the comparative bravery of Bilbo and Frodo Baggins. And he recalls playing The Six Million Dollar Man, and how Star Wars arrived just in time to save him from the former’s rapid decline after the Fembot plotline. It’s hard to resist the temptation to search YouTube for the former’s theme after Shillue dispatches it.
Yes, this is an homage to the nerd, but more than that, it is a coming-of-age story for Shillue. He is deft in setting up that arc, how all of these beloved things came to pass, sometimes haltingly, as he grew up and started kissing girls. Shillue has been praised for his storytelling before, and he is often Cosby-like here. He’s got a wonderful sense of dynamics, sometimes reducing his voice to a whisper to show reverence or awe, or shouting in defense of Bilbo. He’s not afraid of a little silence. And while he does wander from subject to subject, there is very little fat in each individual section. He knows which details to keep, and he never gets so sentimental or introspective that it overwhelms the laughs.
This is a project worth following. Shillue is off to a strong start. Now he just needs eleven more 35-minute chunks as good as this one, and he’ll be set.