They Might Be Giants w/Jonathan Coulton, Eugene Mirman & Pretty Good Friends
Friday, July 29
Better than: Funny you should ask.
Around the 30-minute mark of the the heavens’ continued urination on the gathered masses at the Williamsburg Waterfront on Friday, comedian Todd Barry looked out to his soaked audience and asked in a voice filled with his usual jaded mischief: “Isn’t this so much better than paying $15 to be inside?” Well, no. From where I sat near the front there was plenty of groaning, especially when the rainstorm started up again after a brief dry interlude, but few people actually left. Whether the assembled thought they could tough it out or were just that into They Might Be Giants is a question only they could answer, although based on the amount of Giants t-shirts and other paraphernalia—one dude straight-up came ready to LARP, rubber sword and shield and everything—spotted in the crowd, it’s clear that the band’s fanbase is a devoted one. Truly, there is no deeper bond in the universe than the bond formed between nerd and their formative talismans of nerd-dom.
Now that JellyNYC, the promotions company that booked free Sunday afternoon shows at the Williamsburg Waterfront outdoor pavilion (and at the now-almost-an-actual-pool-again-venue McCarren Pool) has fallen out with the Parks Department (whither Chuck Schumer?), last Friday’s performance from They Might Be Giants and the comedians billed as “Eugene Mirman & Pretty Good Friends w/ Kristen Schaal & Surprise Guests” was the only free show in a concert series that once included regular gigs from the likes of Sonic Youth and TV On The Radio. It was, of course, far from the only free show in the city or even that street; five minutes up the road that evening was a free Fucked Up and Screaming Females gig at the House Of Vans. And, obviously, it’s not like Williamsburg is entitled to free shows or anything. But something does feel missing without those waterside Sunday matinees. I suspect that part of the audience commitment was because this was the only free Waterfront show they were getting this year, and goddamnit if some weather was going to screw it up.
King Of New York Comedy Eugene Mirman opened the night and introduced the comedians, all of whom are the type of talented people you would expect at a show organized by Eugene Mirman, a gregarious bear of a man who’s a reliable presence at high-profile New York comedy events and who hosts his own comedy annual comedy festival. I am loath to spoil too many of these hard-working comedians’ punchlines or condense their set-ups, but let it be noted that Tanqueray Gin should use Mirman’s ideas for drink slogans (“Tonight we Tanqueray; tomorrow we plead not guilty to vehicular manslaughter”) and that the uber-game Kristen Schaal did “a one-woman reenactment” of that scene from Flashdance (the crowd cheered hard when she got a bucket of water dumped on her) and said the word “taint” at least 50 times.
Pale and proud Jim Gaffigan wasn’t on the bill, but he shows up often enough at Mirman shows that his arrival was greeted with a combination of applause and “of course,” which turned into laughter when he described the birth of his fourth child as similar to “you’re drowning, and then someone hands you a baby.” Shortly after Gaffigan began his set the rain, which had paused for a few minutes, restarted in earnest. This seemed to fluster him but it inspired Barry, who told the audience they all looked like Apple Store employees and then took deadpan glee in “shitting on them” during the rain. (He was funny enough that no one booed.) Patton Oswalt, quite possibly the funniest stand-up comedian working today, began his set shortly after a dramatic crack of thunder and announced that “if I die, I hope it’s doing what I love: Telling dick jokes to hipsters.” He then began a set centered around his recent experience living in New York City that included a Rashomonesque, multiple perspectives account of the time he interrupted two crackheads mid-blow job.
During the past decade They Might Be Giants have become as well-known for children’s albums like Here Come the ABCs as for anthems like “Don’t Let’s Start” and “Ana Ng,” both of which inspired the drenched audience to pogo for a few minutes until they realized their socks were too damp for much movement. Perhaps to emphasize that They Might Be Giants is not just for the children, the Johns and their sideman included several self-consciously “adult” songs from their new album Join Us like “When Will You Die” and “Judy Is Your Viet Nam.” Of course, even when the lyrics are cranky the melodies remained sticky and upbeat.
True story: when I interviewed Michael Azerrad for this, he mentioned that TMBG was the only band he wished he’d included in Our Band Could Be Your Life. “They were very DIY, very original,” he told me. “The thing about them, their branch of underground rock consists of one band. Them.” Since forming in 1982, They Might Be Giants have proved to have more cultural influence than musical. There are almost no bands that sound like them, but their sense of humor—dry, silly-but-smart, packed with historical allusions and cultural minutiae—was a clear (and acknowledged) influence on modern humor stalwarts like The Daily Show and McSweeneys. Long before Brooklyn was hip and geeks conquered American culture (I can’t begin to apologize for what me and my fellow comic dorks did to the summer movie season), Johns Flansburg and Linnell were waving their nerd flags so hard that ideas about cool and uncool eventually collapsed in on themselves. Then again, Friday’s show had a segment were the band performed a song using sock puppets, so they’re probably fine with whatever way you want to read it.
Critical bias: They Might Be Giants famously advertised their “Dial-A-Song” answering machine service (“Free when you call from work.”) in the Village Voice; the resulting exposure helped them snag their first record deal. Clearly, this is one of the Voice‘s finest accomplishments.
Overheard: A few fans brought their own sock puppets to sing along with the ones on stage.
Random notebook dump: We’ll debate the merits of Jonathan Coulton (who played right before TMBG) another time, but the fact that he earns quite a ridiculous living by seeding songs about zombies, coding and the video game Portal in places where techies congregate online is a convincing argument that more indie bands should try to target the elusive “music for people who don’t really listen to music” demo.