You won’t hear roars of laughter from the crowd while you’re watching David Huntsberger’s 2015 stand-up special One-Headed Beast, digitally released this week via the good people at Comedy Dynamics. That has something to do with the humble size of the audience that came to see him perform at a small venue in Austin, Texas. But it has everything to do with the nature of Huntsberger’s comedy.
The tone of One-Headed Beast is something closer to a great TED Talk or a particularly fun sociology class. Outside of a small story in the beginning of the set about getting awestruck by the clouds nestled in the mountains around Vancouver, British Columbia and connecting our tendency to view these aerosols as homes for good souls to the death of his grandmother, there’s almost nothing personal in this hour of comedy. At least not in the way we might expect.
Outside of strictly political comedy or the more outlandish stylings of folks like Anthony Jeselnik, the most popular stand-ups are the ones that we can relate to on some level. They boil the universal down to the specific, using their lives and experiences as the best examples. Huntsberger digs for the humor and absurdity in human nature on a macro level: the biases we all carry with us, our strivings and failures to supersede our baseline instincts, our pathetic efforts to define the indefinable.
It’s not your typical recipe for an hour of yuks. But Huntsberger stays one step ahead of his viewers by pairing each part of his act with animation. As he stands on a charmingly cluttered stage, to his right is a screen rolling through a variety of styles and images, conceived by a consortium of about 20 illustrators. Most take an abstract path, grasping on a little detail in the material and blowing it up to a large scale (the harsh triangular shapes that pop up in response to his mention of the Canadian mountains; the paper doll that breaks off the chain and starts attacking his neighbors reflecting his confusion about human’s violent nature). Like the comedy it is illustrating, these animations are equal parts poignant, thought-provoking and charming.
Impressively, the animation never becomes distracting. It complements Huntsberger well. And director/editor Keith Blomberg does an impressive job balancing both the live material and the visual accompaniment. It helps that Huntsberger isn’t a terribly dynamic performer of comedy. For One-Headed Beast, he stays pretty much in one spot, taking the occasional break to sip from a mason jar of beer. This works to the advantage of the material, really, because it could be hard to watch him pace the stage as he rattles off these longform segments. His agile mind and calm voice is more than enough.
The depth of his material requires that kind of assured, steady hand. Huntsberger asks some tough philosophical questions of his audience. Why are we to assume that, if there is a God, He/She is some benevolent, all-powerful force? Couldn’t this Creator be, as he puts it, like a “middle manager,” doing just enough to not get fired? And isn’t it the height of ego for us to claim that our story is being created by a kind of “internal writing staff”? He sharply and smartly points out that we humans don’t like things being left up to chance or happenstance. Nor do we want to accept that, says Huntsberger, “without tools or weapons, we’re pretty useless.”
If you’ve already heard Huntsberger’s equally contemplative stand-up CDs or followed his path through the podcast world (he was one of the three hosts of Professor Blastoff with his buddy Tig Notaro and currently hosts The Space Cave), you’re familiar with the ground he covers and his unique comedic voice. But for the uninitiated, this is the perfect place to wade into the inviting, sometimes choppy waters of one of comedy’s greatest thinkers and curiosity seekers.
Robert Ham is an arts and culture journalist based in Portland, OR. Read more of his work here and follow him on Twitter.