Like much of the Chicago class of comedians he rose up with (such as Kyle Kinane and Pete Holmes), Matt Braunger thrives when he makes observational material a little more fanciful or surreal. The ground covered in Shovel Fighter starts out pretty ordinary—partying, throwing up, hangovers, strip clubs—but Braunger cooks up some good concepts, like the universal sound we all make before barfing at a party, or his wish that a waiter would just understand his hung-over order of “cheese babies and a hot boy” without further questions.
Braunger has a winning, avuncular manner that’s not as aggressively hyper as Holmes, but it still feels like he’s slapping you on the back and gently urging you to get on board with his bit. And it’s not tough to comply, even when he goes down more outré paths, like imagining Leonardo DiCaprio singing a theme song to Inception (“it’s a dream within a dream within a dream!”) or Willy Wonka leading a tour of a savory factory. (“This canoe’s made of ham, it’s all slick and greasy!”) There’s a slight awkwardness to some of the segues—Braunger switches from Willy Wonka to a kid with a “sweatpants boner” apropos of nothing—but he’s affable enough that it’s easy to go along with the ride.
Braunger finds plenty of original concepts to riff on in the album’s first few tracks, even as he marries two fairly tired tropes (men vs. women and strippers) in the excellent eight-minute “Strip Club For Ladies,” which features a particularly inspired bit about the tragic lives of the Chippendales. The second half of Shovel Fighter is punchier, weirder, and more disconnected. There are some gems, particularly the title track where Braunger imagines the “worst job ever,” but the material’s relative weakness dashes the thematic flow Braunger built up in the first half. There, everything feels connected to his lifestyle as a comic and how much harder it is on his body now that he’s past the age of 30, building to a funny Freudian slip about eating a lot of “Lonelyman dinners.” After that, it’s just a series of jokes, some better than others, with no chance for anything to really build up steam. Braunger saves a couple of solid longer stories with a more surreal edge for the close, but doesn’t quite succeed in marrying the two styles he’s gone for.
Still, on a track-by-track basis, Shovel Fighter is very strong stuff—you could pick out almost any bit, put it on for a friend, and win him over to the cult of Braunger pretty quickly. It’s hard to complain about thematic consistency when listening to Braunger recount his joy at an Italian restaurateur’s stereotypical catchphrase. It’s not a perfect hour, but anyone measuring by gleeful energy could argue otherwise.