This week, Providence-based comic Ray Harrington released his first CD, The Worst Is Over, on respected comedy label Stand Up! Records. Recorded over two nights in September at the Comedy Connection, the disc is a sort of eulogy for the wharf-tucked club, a favorite of Harrington's that the Bangor native personally selected for this recording. Less than a month later, the club closed its doors, though you'd never know it from the packed house captured here. (It might help to know that this writer, who interviewed Harrington the week prior, was in attendance.)
While an assessment of stand-up comedy may feel like an uncomfortable critique of someone's thoughts, it's more accurately to say it's a survey of one's performance of character. By this rubric, Harrington's a smart guy, and it's refreshing to find someone who can hit such high notes without pretending otherwise. His act seldom trades in failed recognition humor, that blunt tool in most comics' toolboxes, but this hardly means he's heady; rather, his material has a context that extends beyond the stage. Indeed, often as thoughtfully and progressively as Louis C.K. plays the aggrieved working-class American male, Harrington performs the persona of the educated, socially liberal, misfit rural Yankee. He doesn't insult nor attempt to educate his audience, but merely brings them along for the ride.
Harrington isn't a physical comic, per se, but a significant part of his material's heft can be derived from his size. It naturally manifests in his set, though some of its magnitude is naturally lost on a recording. And there's a nifty juxtaposition with one of his most recurring voices: a lispy, genial delivery that Harrington uses not only for female voices, but his own weird interior narratives. Where a lesser comic might use it to tease out some vacant sexuality humor, Harrington uses it as part of his marvelous riffs, to help keep differing trains of thought separate.
In an interview last fall, he told the Phoenix that he begins each set with about 15 minutes' worth of straight-up, un-premeditated riffing, a practice he's cultivated to the point it clearly yields some of the night's biggest laughs. Three of them occur in "Hello," basically an intro track, in which Harrington rather masterfully segues an awkward location nod into some whipsmart moments of crowd banter. This may appear to listeners as simple crowdwork, like his ongoing supplications to separate throngs of bachelorette parties or his uncomfortable exchange with the older gentleman in the front row whose off-note commentary — while falling far short of heckles — would've surely unnerved many others. But this ad hoc chatter will often find its way into other jokes and asides, keeping the set from ever getting too rigid.
The Worst is Over takes on the language of marriage (in a hilarious extended contemplation of the classic "would-you-still-love-me-if" hypothetical), international contrast (Did you know that when you're in England, you're not fat, you're just American?), or regional dystopia (If you haven't been to Nebraska, here's the deal: Get a brick, smash yourself in the face with it, and then have somebody say 'We don't have iced coffee, faggot.' — that last bit a real-life road-trip quote, he attests). We hit a couple odd notes — though perhaps necessary ones — in "The Prison Wood Store," where Maine becomes the butt of the jokes. But he totally nails fantasy football (in the voice of one of his "bro dudes," defensively): It's not weird! Fantasy football isn't weird at all! It's just my dream team of men that do whatever I tell 'em to do, and I think about 'em all day at work!).