“Edgy” isn’t the word that jumps to mind when describing the likeable, profanity-free storyteller Tom Shillue. Thus his decision to devote one album in his “12 in 12” project to racier material seems like more of a challenge to himself than a sampling of his material. It’s a brave choice to venture outside of his comfort zone as part of this grand experiment, and his immense talent means that even though taboo-busting isn’t the best use of his storytelling skills, the album is still very funny.
“Racism,” the first of two tracks on the 29-minute Edgy, begins with the strongest material. His musings on white panic and whether he’s inadvertently contributing to a culture of racism are both clever and mixed with an appropriate amount of liberal guilt. But the second half of the track, about whether women should rule the world, is more a story about telling a joke than a joke in itself. Comparing the Manhattan crowd at the taping with a past, über-liberal Brooklyn audience who had rejected his pro-male defense, one assumes he hoped to re-capture a great, confrontational set but instead gets a slightly put-off but mostly just unconvinced crowd.
When he closes out the track discussing his single days, it’s clear why racy material doesn’t come naturally to Shillue. Back then, he says, he wanted to live a Maxim lifestyle, admitting that while 60 percent of his stand up was about making people laugh, the other 40 was about finding “some chick to make out with after the show.” Even when describing his attempts at a raunchy bachelor life, he ends up with a sweet, PG-13 story culminating in a sad, lonely cab ride home.
Later, after defending war and big tobacco, he admits that he wanted to “take on the audience’s sacred cows,” launching into a sizable chunk mocking the Dalai Lama. The flippant way in which he describes the traditional Tibetan process of determining the next Dalai Lama, and his affected disgust at the phrase “high-ranking monks,” serves as a meta-statement on anti-religious comedy. Why pick on these well-meaning, distant people who believe that visions of the future can be seen in a lake? His reasoning – “There’s probably a lot of Buddhists here, right? A lot of Buddhists, which means a bunch of Catholics who got bored” – is in itself the most satirically sharp point in the set.
His attempts to defend the invasion of oil-rich countries, and a convoluted analogy about male-pattern baldness and ovulation, don’t feel real enough to sink one’s teeth into. Truly “edgy” comics are often aggressive and confrontational to force the audience into believing they might really mean the terrible things they’re saying; the shock is what makes it funny. But it’s nearly impossible to buy that this soft-spoken father of two is anything other than a nice, well-meaning guy. He, like everyone, has his darker thoughts and counter-culture inclinations, but at the end of the day, edginess just doesn’t fit him.