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Brent Weinbach Is Killing Me

He’s one of the most inventive stand-up comedians around. So, why does he sound like a throwback?

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Brent Weinbach. (Seth Olenick)
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In the first 15 minutes of his third album, Mostly Live, released last year, comedian Brent Weinbach briefly speaks in the accents of the following people: a teenage Latino video blogger; a reggae hype-man; a Frenchman singing “When You Wish Upon a Star” from Pinocchio; “a Vietnamese jazz vocalist who works as a waiter during the day”; Karen, “a young woman … wearing a beige blouse and a brown knit skirt”; and James, “a professional black male living in San Francisco.”

Weinbach does these voices sure-footedly, if always not pitch-perfectly, but he isn’t exactly an impressionist. Neither is he the kind of voice-character performer, like Nick Kroll, for whom the stand-up stage seems like a place to try out bits while waiting for a sketch show to begin filming. What Weinbach is, exactly, can be a little difficult to describe in prose. It helps, maybe, to say that in 2007 he won the Andy Kaufman Award. Or just to say that he’s one of the most formally inventive stand-up comedians currently practicing.

If he’s an absurdist, he comes by that perspective honestly: He’s the son of a Filipino pianist and a Hollywood producer and writer responsible for both the vintage B-movie The Freakmaker (1974) and the B.B. King-featuring instructional video Country & Blues Harmonica for the Absolute Beginner (1984). Can you guess which one’s his mom and which his dad? “Because I’m half Filipino and half Jewish,” Weinbach says, introducing one bit on the new album, “a lot of people ask me, ‘Who’s Filipino? Your mother or your father?’ ” Pause. “My name is Brent Weinbach.”

Weinbach’s was the kind of childhood home that incubates humor not neatly aligned with any commercial category—whether or not it was inevitably so because of the collision of Filipino and Jewish culture, each of which has its own distinct history of domination by imperial powers and laughter through tears. Weinbach’s sister, Laura, a musician, notes on her website that she “grew up in a musical household that embraced eccentricity” and that her “next-door neighbors were circus contortionists with emus and fang-toothed monkeys as pets,” while other folks in the vicinity included “Slash, Ice-T, and Larry from Perfect Strangers.” Weinbach himself was probably telling the truth, too, when he let me know that as a kid, he auditioned for the lead in the horror movie Child’s Play. How seriously could one regard the world, having grown up, like he did, on the awkward margins of B-list Hollywood?

Having had a 1980s and ’90s childhood helps, it turns out, to appreciate some of Weinbach’s comic output, like a grim My Buddy-commercial parody, or his so-completely-unflinchingly-serious-it’s-amusing podcast, The Legacy Music Hour, about 8-bit video game music from the Nintendo Entertainment System and Super Famicom. (The only tacit admission that there might be comic value in this bafflingly recondite, straight-faced endeavor is in a video posted this fall reinventing the podcast as a Solid Gold-style dance program.)

At his best, though, Weinbach creates a kind of comedy that’s not about allusions to particular pop culture phenomena of the past or present, but all about sound and rhythm. His work generally is musical, that is, but mostly not in the funny-songs sense (à la Tom Lehrer or, l’havdil, Bo Burnham)—though this latest album does close with a tunefully scatological number that isn’t entirely dissimilar to some of Weird Al’s originals, if performed more sincerely and as a duet with an innocent audience volunteer. Weinbach also doesn’t do the playing-an-instrument-gently-to-add-atmosphere-while-telling-jokes shtick (cf., recently, Demetri Martin and Zach Galifianakis)—though he has the chops for that, having played lounge piano professionally in the Bay Area for a few years after graduating from Berkeley. Instead his comedy comes across as musical in the sense that what’s both funny and skillful about his routines tends to be the same thing that would be interesting in a piece of music: dissonance, counterpoint, harmony. He seems to know that this is what he’s up to. In the 2010 documentary I Am Comic, Weinbach describes one variety of comedy performance: “Sometimes there’s something that somebody does that goes beyond words. It goes beyond being a brain thing. It is almost like experiencing music.”

How does this work in actual bits? Take “French Pinocchio,” a track on the new album, which involves Weinbach singing a couple of lines from Jiminy Cricket’s iconic song in gravelly Gallic, but turning, on the last note and the word that should be “true,” to the unmistakable “doo-doo-doo-doo-doo-doo” beeps of Super Mario Bros., World 1-2. This makes no sense whatsoever and doesn’t sound like anything at all when described here, but it is genuinely funny because it manages to do with sound what a good Anthony Jeselnik joke does with words. It eases you into certainty about what’s coming and then subverts your expectation—a melodic version of what Freud, analyzing wit, called condensation.

Equally unquotable—not because they’re filthy, but because they’re little masterpieces of tone and timbre—many of the bits on Weinbach’s new album manage to produce some of the same satisfying frissons through the way they sound. One, titled “Acting,” involves Weinbach and a member of his audience shouting the phrase “Stick ’em up” at each other over and over. Another begins with Tuvan throat singing, turns into action-movie sound effects, then cornball dialogue, and then a meta-discussion of what has just happened. Weinbach sings the ingredients on a Doritos bag as a Latin mass. These bits aren’t funny conceptually, but listen to them. In a field of performers whose vocal expressions tend to be simple enough to capture with all-caps and italics, Weinbach’s inimitable sound sets him apart.

His calling isn’t to plumb the subtleties of Jewish culture, or Filipino-Jewish-American culture, for that matter. He’s a contemporary and occasional collaborator of guys like Louis Katz and Moshe Kasher, who don’t refrain from ethnic shtick, but he says, rather admirably, that all the Jewish material he wrote when he was starting out in the business turned out too corny to use. Still, he’s infusing new vitality into a couple of comedy traditions with rich Jewish histories, going back to vaudeville, radio, and the early years of SNL, and in the process he’s making some of the most interesting humor albums of our time.

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So, the question is, I suppose, does not-particularly-“Jewish” humor a Jewish comedian make? At what point does a comic who happens to be Jewish cease (or, for that matter, “begin”) to create “Jewish” humor? Can’t wait to learn more from Josh at his TENT comedy intensive this spring! http://www.tentsite.org

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Brent Weinbach Is Killing Me

He’s one of the most inventive stand-up comedians around. So, why does he sound like a throwback?

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