Storytelling comedian and late-night TV regular Tom Shillue continues his “12 in 12″ experiment with the delightfully breezy Lateral Thinking Puzzlers, the third album in Shillue’s overall quest to release a dozen albums centered around different themes that allow him to play to his strengths.
Puzzlers is only a comedy album inasmuch as it’s a recording of someone trying to make people laugh. More often, it feels like the loose, patched-together musings of a podcast (Shillue’s own is called Funny Story) or a hastily-assembled version of NPR’s Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me! news quiz. In other words, smart and snappy, but not all that polished.
The first of the album’s three tracks explains the rules of the lateral thinking puzzler, essentially a game involving yes or no answers to word problems. “It struck me how many stories from my own life follow [it],” he says before offering an example. “A man stands alone in a dark room, screaming. He doesn’t know why he is screaming. Upstairs two boys sit up in bed and look to each other. They think they know why this man is screaming. They are wrong. What is happening?”
Audience members yell out their questions, and Shillue deftly finds jokes in the interactions. His clean, insistent delivery and happy-white-guy tone fits the material well, and by the time you find out that the screaming man was his father (who had improbably burned himself on a coin that Shillue and his brother placed on a lamp – for scientific purposes, of course) you’ve gotten a brief window into Shillue’s childhood.
Comedy nerds will admire his skill in wringing out content from such casual subject matter. But average listeners may feel a bit left out, as if they truly had to be there to fully appreciate the vibe of the room – and especially to hear what audience members were yelling. The album jumps around various New York-area sets where Shillue recorded these bits, so there’s little to no continuity from track to track, or even within tracks. But it proves that Shillue at least test drove this stuff around the block, and it certainly helps that the audience is happily along for the ride.
Shillue proudly talks about attending barbershop-quartet conventions, and uses his father’s gout to throw out alternating Shakespearian and Dickensian phrases. But he also rhapsodizes about Olympic figure skater Dorothy Hamill’s ass and is quick to hint at darker subject matter among his profanity-free jokes – much like Jim Gaffigan, for whom Shillue often opens.
Just as the lo-fi movement in Nineties indie rock dared listeners to reconsider what was worth listening to when the normal sonic trappings were absent, these tossed-off releases implicitly ask whether Shillue can sustain our interest simply by being prolific. As the “12 in 12″ project rolls along, it seems increasingly likely he will meet his goals of quantity and breadth. These are agreeable diversions, not life-changing art, but Shillue’s live-in-the-moment approach has so far ensured that there’s something worth listening to on each release.