When asked how long a young stand-up had to work, before they became funny, the comic Greg Proops responded, “Seven years.” That was working multiple open mics a night, five to six nights a week. Not seven years before a comic got successful, either. Seven years before they got funny.
One can empathize, then, with the average guy who’s funny at parties, but doesn’t exactly have any insight, or ambition. It’s easy to crack a couple of people up, when there’s a beer or a couple hours of heavy petting at stake.
Take that same funny guy, though, and put him behind a mic, under hot lights. Put a few dozen judgemental people he can’t see, out there, in the dark. That same guy will be all nerves, stammering through some pre-written jokes read off note cards, dehydrated. Unable to swallow. The longest five minutes of his life. He’ll most likely never get behind a mic, again.
The ill-advised-standup-debut is an open mic trope the author has come to fall in love with, over the years. There’s some kind of grim humor in watching a person’s entire performing career be over and done within five minutes. It’s schadenfreude, for sure, but there’s something deeper than that. For some of these guys, it’s just as funny to them, that they fail. They’re in on the joke. And it’s infinitely more satisfying to watch someone work through their need to be onstage in one go than to watch someone who’s not funny or talented refuse to give up on their (ill-advised) dream.
The true sociopaths, though, the performers who grit their teeth, knuckle down through those awkward developmental years to craft something wholly their own. Those rare few who rise up through the ranks of bringer shows, through showcases and into national headlining tours. By the time you see them, their act is perfectly honed, their voice completely their own. It’s a strange headfuck, then, when a video of an early set by someone like Patton Oswalt surfaces: here is a familiar face, a familiar voice, but the timing is off. He’s terrifically uncomfortable, at the mic, awkward pauses, trying to remember the punchline. It’s bad, but there’s a comfort, in the badness. You’re watching the seed germinate into what will become the performer you love.
Insane Clown Posse, due to the fiercely independent nature of their career, have done all of their growing up in public. After two EPs of generic gangsta rap under the moniker Inner City Posse, the crew was struggling to differentiate themselves from other Detroit rap groups. Two key things happened to make that possible. The first was hooking up with Mike E. Clark, who produced much of their debut full length, Carnival of Carnage. The second was a dream Violent J had, in which spirits from a traveling carnival appeared before him. J and Shaggy 2 Dope were charged with warning the world of the Dark Carnival’s approach. That new mission-and the new name-gave the Insane Clown Posse more than enough to differentiate themselves from the other local crews.
It was a slow transition, though, and there was a lot of trial and error involved. Carnival of Carnage opens with a spoken intro by Violent J, accompanied by ambient rain sounds, and about twenty seconds too long. One can hear J learning how to warn the listener of impending doom. Following the Esham-produced title track, the album finally kicks off with “The Juggla,” synth bass and funky drums on the verses, carnival sounds on the choruses, and a sweet Prince sample on the bridge. Aside from a little hype man play from 2 Dope, it’s essentially a Violent J solo track. A lot of things the wicked clowns learn to do very well, later on, are in demo mode, here.
Later, J, 2 Dope and John Kickjazz rap over a country beat, mostly drumless, on “Red Neck Hoe.” The subject matter is misogynist on the surface: full of “bitches” and “sluts.” Dig a little deeper, though, and the clowns are taking to task racists, specifically. Another great tradition shows its head for the first time, here: while Violent J does the lion’s share of the verses, Shaggy 2 Dope rolls in from time to time with truly classic bon mots. “Red Neck Hoe” is the earliest example, with Dope’s line, “I can take a little Conway Twitty, when I’m suckin’ on a redneck titty.”
The album’s highlight comes on “Is That You?” Produced by Kid Rock and Mike E. Clark, and featuring a couple of choice verses by Kid Rock, “Is That You?” hints at the head-nodding catchiness of later albums.
Mike Clark is the Insane Clown Posse’s secret weapon. He’s a genius producer, able to build utterly catchy tracks at lightning speed. Clark produced Kid Rock’s debut album, Grits Sandwiches for Breakfast and, with Carnival of Carnage, began a collaboration with ICP that lasted unbroken for ten years. Kid Rock’s voice on “Is That You?” is perfect: years away from a duet with Sheryl Crow, and further still from emulating the politics of Ted Nugent, his cheap pimp plays nicely against J’s fat psycho. 2 Dope jumps in for just the right amount of hype, his screaming voice sounding not unlike Screech from Saved By The Bell on inhalants.
Carnival of Carnage closes on “Taste.” Sonically, it’s a throwback to 70s AM radio, funky guitars beneath a bouncing rhythm track. It’s a gang affair, too, featuring verses from Nate the Mack, Jumpsteady, Capitol E and Esham. The ICP seem most comfortable, here: this is just the guys getting together, trading rhymes with the homies, trying to outdo each other. At this stage of their career, Esham was the bigger star. And, even though John Kickjazz was still with the group, Carnival plays like a Violent J solo album, in a lot of places. The real fun comes with moments like “Taste,” where J is one of a posse.
With Carnival of Carnage, Insane Clown Posse made a real beginning on their legacy. As many moments fail as succeed. The flow has never really changed, over the years, but the bag of tricks continues to grow. Between albums, ICP would perfect the stopgap EP, keeping fans engaged while they worked on their bigger projects.
With each of their first six proper albums, the promise was made that the end of the world would be prophesied across the six Joker’s Cards. Carnival of Carnage, wobbly as it is, was merely the first few tentative steps into a greater saga.