Anthologies of all kinds typically need to keep a tight focus to reign in the multitudes of different talent drawn into the project. Whether doing a tribute album to a single band or capturing a night of stand-up comedy from a dozen different comics, all the voices trying to harmonize are going to hit a flat note now and again. So the added problem with assembling an all-star cast of musicians and comedians for 2776: A Levinson Brothers & Rob Kutner Presentation—a musical comedy anthology album ostensibly satirizing America—is that practically no one is doing what they’re best at. With musicians attempting comedy and comedians attempting music, both groups are trying their hand at the form the other spent decades mastering. After listening to a whopping 28 tracks, it’s clear that instead of each group elevating the other, almost everyone ends up dragged down to the middle.
2776 kicks things off strong, with the 1000th anniversary of America, where a future president played by Will Forte gives his State of The Union speech, “America, We’re Good,” a celebration of the country doing well enough, but not straining itself. He eventually encounters Martha Plimpton’s conquering alien, so he and Secret Service Agent Aubrey Plaza take the alien back through America’s history in order to convince her not to destroy the country. These tracks are perfect for people who miss Forte’s presence on Saturday Night Live—he’s in his element in this intentionally surreal low-budget musical with big aspirations, the sound of community theater with delusions of Broadway grandeur. This is only aided when Forte and Plimpton meet Paul F. Tompkins’ George Washington, a surprisingly profane and immoral version of our first president that Tompkins clearly relishes in playing, this being the exact tone he’s mastered on Mr. Show, Comedy Bang Bang, and his own Pod F Tompkast.
Tracks that pick up this cue thematically and hew closely to the performers’ strengths are the highlights of the album. “Welcome To America” by Triumph The Insult Comic Dog and Rebirth Brass Band is an incredible show-stopper, a biting parody of this country’s treatment of immigrants from Ellis Island through to present day. “Therapy Secession,” in which Jonathan Katz tries to keep maintain the union between the North and South as personified by the amazing Maria Bamford, is a fantastic pairing of two performers whose energies couldn’t be more different yet play off each other perfectly.
But for every track that synthesizes its elements perfectly, there’s two more that are brought to a screeching halt by a performer/genre mismatch. The worst of this, it has to be said, is when comedians rap. Andy Richter steps in to drop a verse in “Escape from New York,” a track about NYC’s gentrification problem. It’s a great idea, but listening to him rap is the auditory version of seeing a runner trip over their own legs. If there’s a hell designed specially for me, it certainly has the Auto-Tuned sports-themed Sklar Brothers rap “Live It Now” on repeat. Even performers who have mastered comedy rap are saddled with guest stars that drag them down. Zach Sherwin’s Tupac-era pastiche about the funny pages “Stop The Presses” is great on paper, but the guest-stars keep Sherwin from gaining any momentum to dig into his usually stellar wordplay.
The most heartbreaking of the lot is the end of “Journey to Anywhen,” an absolutely brilliant track where Reggie Watts begs Right Said Fred to use their time machine to visit different eras, but they only want to go to 1991. Watts’ vocal loops and Right Said Fred’s clearly up for it attitude give the already inspired premise a bouncy vibe that produce my favorite minute and a half on the album. Unfortunately, though, the track is two minutes long, and the remaining 30 seconds are a staccato blast of every possible pop-culture reference from the early nineties as rapped by Mayim Bialik. It’s “Hey, remember that?” comedy and isn’t half as clever as the rest of the song.
2776 provides a few other misses that are on-theme before almost abandoning satirizing America completely. “God Bless America,” where Patton Oswalt recites what appears to be poetry over sleepy blues guitar as an irritated God seems interesting but ultimately says nothing. Nina Totenberg and Dahlia Lithwick’s sketch “US Vs. Rock N’ Roll” is an NPR radio report of a trial which appears to be the climax of musical where the Supreme Court hears a case about banning rock music, but instead of being amused by the radio report, it just makes me want to hear the actual musical number. And Margaret Cho’s sketch “Mt. Rushmore,” in which she plays the first female queer Asian-American president whose visage is added to the South Dakotan monument is deeply irritating in its stiff obviousness.
The last section of 2776 is its most consistent, but oddly has the least to do with satirizing anything. With the narrative conceit that the country apparently suffers every apocalypse imaginable in the future, the final non-story tracks are songs about mole men, zombies, a revolt of living toys, and professing your love to your bomb shelter mate. These are all funny enough and surprisingly easy to listen to—Toymageddon by Yo La Tengo, Ira Glass and Eugene Mirman is basically just a good Yo La Tengo song with some very funny narration—but never reach the heights of some of the album’s satirical material.
2776 is a charity album, with sales benefiting OneKid OneWorld, which I’m sure helped attracted this immense collection of talent. These are all performers I almost uniformly enjoy outside of this album, so my hopes were high that they could combine their collective genius into something great. But with over 45 different performers with a range of different talents, the Levinson Bros & Rob Kutner took on a near impossible task of making something coherent and consistent, and unfortunately didn’t quite succeed. With highs and lows spread out sporadically over an immense 28 tracks, 2776 as a whole ends up being a more apt satire of America than any of its individual tracks—focused on its ambition and pride, it eventually gets tripped up by its own excesses to deliver something mediocre.
Casey Malone is a freelance writer, game designer and stand-up comedian living in Boston.