I have always loved Harland Williams' stand-up. I first discovered him back in 1999 when he did a show on Comedy Central called the Hilarious Hour, and it was. I ended up recording that (on VHS!), and years later I discovered it and transferred it to my iPod. That might not be legal. I'm not sure. What I AM sure of is that it is one of the best stand-up sets I've ever heard, and I've spent the intervening years searching for it in the hopes that maybe, someday, he might put out some of his older material. It doesn't look like it's going to happen though, which is a shame. However, I did buy Har-Larious, his most recent set, and it's excellent. If you haven't heard it, leave this page right now and go get it.
Because this thing? Man. What a letdown.
If you don't know anything about Harland, then there are two things that make him great. One is his explosive, absurdist sensibility, and the other is his preternaturally amazing crowd work. Good God, can this man work a room. It's a rare beast, the comedian who is not only comfortable going off-material, but who is also so stinking good at it. There's a special kind of kick and spin to jokes that you know were made up on-the-cuff because of what an audience member has said, and Harland has, hands-down, been the best comedian I've ever seen at it.
Which is why it is so baffling to me that he chose to record this set alone in the middle of the desert.
At the start, he makes a quick comment saying that listeners shouldn't need an audience to "know when to laugh," but that's never been the reason why I think audiences are central to stand-up comedy. There's a certain level of feedback, an organic rise-and-fall that comes when a comedian is performing for a crowd. It's like the comedian is lobbing tennis balls over a net. The audience's response preps the comedian for the next lob. Even if the audience is as stiff as a brick wall, at least the ball returns. There's still an energy or motion to the sets. Without an audience, all you get is one ball after another whiffing silently through the air and landing with a dull thud. Which is a lot of what you get with this set.
He's got some good bits in here, and I genuinely laughed out loud more than once (SO's and Dinosaurs, Death, & Knowledge are the best tracks), but the bulk of the album is either just passable or downright cringe-worthy. It turns out that his explosive absurdity comes across as desperately manic when it's done to pure silence. He occasionally yells at crows, farting turtles, a passing plane, and a wild dog, and he has weird running gags about sunflower seeds, corned beef, and cinnamon, but instead of being hilariously crazy, they come across more like Harland's simply lost his mind. Add in the fact that at least three of the bits on this album are recycled from Har-Larious (Has Louis C.K. ruined me for comedians with fresh material, or is it just too much to ask that a comedian find a way to write all new jokes in the span of eight years?), and you get a huge disappointment.
My love for everything else he's done is strong enough to push my rating up to three stars, and also to admit that if he does another album (hopefully in less than eight years), I'll still be the first to buy it. But if you're new to Harland, please do not look here for your first taste of the man. Check out Har-Larious and his movies, and if you're still starved for more, you might find a few morsels on here to enjoy.