In 1993, buffoons, jerks, assholes, and rednecks saved the comedy album

In 1993, buffoons, jerks, assholes, and rednecks saved the comedy album

By 1993, the stand-up comedy boom of the 1980s had reached peak saturation. The nation, littered with bars and restaurants transformed into makeshift chuckle huts, swarmed with hacks in sport coats, peddling their warmed-over observations on marriage and breakfast cereal in a bid for stardom—or rent money. And thanks to television, they were also all over your living room: Bill Cosby, Roseanne Barr, Tim Allen, and Jerry Seinfeld dominated primetime sitcoms, while you could catch the hundreds swimming in their wake on HBO’s Comic Relief, One Night Stand, and Young Comedians specials, A&E’s Evening At The Improv, Fox’s Comic Strip Live, Showtime’s Comedy Club Network, Comedy Central’s The A-List, Stand Up Stand Up, Short Attention Span Theater etc. etc.—all without leaving your house or paying a two-drink minimum. And especially in this economy, people began to ask themselves, why would you bother?

That attitude—that comedy was a common and endlessly renewable resource, so widely available as to be almost valueless—took its earliest and biggest toll on the comedy album. 1993 was long removed from the days when The Button-Down Mind Of Bob Newhart could take top album honors at the Grammys, or the ’70s heyday when George Carlin, Cheech & Chong, Richard Pryor, and Steve Martin convinced audiences to gather ’round the turntable and pay rapt attention to their slowly building stories and skits. Over the course of the ’80s, comedy had begun to emphasize the sort of rapid-fire gags that left no room for heckling drunks—hardly the kind of comedy worth immortalizing, or owning, on record, particularly when it was just a click away.

The few stand-ups whose albums flourished at the end of that decade did so only by being faster, louder, and ruder than their audiences, like Robin Williams, Sam Kinison, or Andrew Dice Clay. And even these records were little more than souvenirs of their far more popular filmed concert specials, or their overall cults of personality. Eddie Murphy decided he’d rather be El DeBarge, trading stand-up for music; other huge comics, like Seinfeld and Jay Leno, didn’t record anything at all. Like the vinyl LP that had nurtured it, the comedy album seemed all but obsolete by 1993.

Then something unexpected happened. Four albums released that year—Adam Sandler’s They’re All Gonna Laugh At You!, The Jerky Boys’ self-titled debut, Denis Leary’s No Cure For Cancer, and Jeff Foxworthy’s You Might Be A Redneck If…—all became surprise hits, moving impressive numbers, landing on the radio, and spawning movie and merchandising deals. Suddenly, the comedy album was back. Even more impressive, each of these albums was their performers’ first. It seemed that, just as comedy’s elder statesmen had become convinced no one wanted albums anymore—leaving the Grammys to give its Best Comedy award to slapstick classical music composer P.D.Q. Bach four years in a row—a bunch of upstart rookies swept in and gave the comedy record its biggest season since that vaunted ’70s heyday. To borrow an applicable line from Sandler’s album, “Fuckin’ shit!” How did this happen?

In the case of They’re All Gonna Laugh At You, its success can be most obviously explained by the following that had already developed around Sandler, who, at the age of 27, had endeared himself to his fellow generation of young slacker savants, thanks to appearances on MTV’s Remote Control and Saturday Night Live. On SNL he was known for goofy Weekend Update pieces like Opera Man and Cajun Man, and singing playful summer camp songs about red-hooded sweatshirts. But, as Sandler recalled in Spin’s recent oral history of They’re All Gonna Laugh At You!, “There were skits and songs and stuff I wanted to do but didn't think I could get on SNL because they were too filthy.” 

So, in a decision met with some understandable skepticism by Warner Bros. Records, Sandler invited SNL cast mates David Spade, Rob Schneider, and Tim Meadows, SNL writers Tim Herlihy, Conan O’Brien, Robert Smigel, and Bob Odenkirk, and longtime friend Judd Apatow to help him record one of the most hilariously juvenile albums since the days of Cheech & Chong. A buffoon discussing hairy balls with the dean of his prospective college; an assistant principal describing his jack-off fantasies over the school P.A.; the brutal beatings of janitors, teachers, and bus drivers; the gleeful torment of toll-booth operators—They’re All Gonna Laugh At You! was filled with the sort of dirty sex jokes and violent fantasies of teenage rebellion that would most appeal to his fan base. And that fan base repaid him handsomely, putting singles “Lunchlady Land” and “The Thanksgiving Song” into heavy radio rotation, making the album go double-platinum, and helping Sandler launch a still-prospering comedy empire.

Similarly, The Jerky Boys—the aliases of childhood pals Johnny Brennan and Kamal Ahmed—also had the benefit of a built-in following, as tapes of their prank phone calls made their way through the bootleg circuit to eventually find their way to Howard Stern. It’s easy to see why Stern gravitated toward them, for the same reasons the audience that snapped up their Atlantic debut did: Like the best prank phone call, The Jerky Boys’ shtick was about the simple joys of being rude, but philosophically, it was about exposing the tacit, mutually agreed-upon niceties that bind society. For kids just realizing that rules are bullshit—that their only true power is derived from acquiescence—it was intoxicating to hear Brennan and Ahmed break them, just by calling people up to fuck with them. 

The Jerky Boys obviously didn’t invent the prank phone call. (The year before, in fact, saw the release of Neil Hamburger’s arguably even funnier Great Phone Calls.) But they did it with the most flair, creating a stable of recurring characters—the hostile Frank Rizzo; the nebbishy Sol Rosenberg; Middle Eastern caricature Tarbash The Egyptian Magician—and catchphrases (“What’s up there, sizzlechest?”; “I don’t need to talk to you, tough guy”) that transformed their cheap practical jokes into miniature sketches. The sense of narrative they created was so strong that, the year The Jerky Boys was released, Touchstone immediately set to work on adapting it into a movie (only later understanding that, oh yeah, prank phone calls are meant for listening).

But while it represented a groundswell of their individual popularity, some of the popularity of the Sandler and Jerky Boys albums can also be attributed to timing. Both were released in an era of encroaching political correctness—an age of touchy-feely, Clintonian idealism that Sandler and the Jerky Boys answered with jokes about beating the shit out of people, shot through with an unapologetic New Yawk attitude. And their fellow ’93 breakout, Denis Leary's No Cure For Cancer, fell right in line with that . Like Sandler, Leary was a vet of Remote Control who hung around MTV for the next several years, turning up in interstitial “rants” to puff cigarettes and take down sensitive pop stars, lending MTV an “edge” through the self-aware mocking of the very network he was appearing on. “I think you hear me knockin’ and I think I’m comin’ in,” Leary would declare, a rallying cry to anyone else feeling disenfranchised from an increasingly wussy nation.

Leary compiled most of those MTV bits into his 1993 one-man show No Cure For Cancer, which then became a TV special, a book, and, within nine months of its release, a gold album. It also became what the world would forever know as “Denis Leary”: Across dozens of movies and TV shows to follow, Leary solidified himself as the voice of rage in a world gone soft, railing against those who would ask that he not smoke, not eat red meat, not litter, and generally not do any of the things that made America great. That he seemed to have stolen most of the attitude, if none of the insight, directly from Bill Hicks made Leary even more the “Asshole” he proudly declared himself in his hit single—an anthem for an audience that was similarly, generally angry, though not about anything particularly important or too politically divisive. 

Leary’s inclusion of radio-ready tunes like “Asshole” and “Traditional Irish Folk Song” also spoke to a savvy understanding—one Sandler and The Jerky Boys shared—that, in 1993, the “comedy album” was now really a “comedy CD.” Ye olde comedy “album” was dominated by long stand-up sets that demanded listening in one sitting; the comedy CD allowed you to skip around, take it on the go in your Discman, and generally enjoy—selectively ignore—it on your own schedule. The early adopters who used the CD format to their advantage treated their comedy albums like a collection of tracks, enabling fans to call up their favorite bits whenever. ADD-addled youngsters who couldn’t sit still for a 20-minute monologue could certainly spare eight-and-a-half for Leary to riff on drugs. Meanwhile, radio DJs maybe couldn’t drop entire comedy album sides and take a smoke break anymore, but they could definitely break the monotony of Top 40 by slipping in “The Thanksgiving Song.”

The CD’s bite-sized consumption assuredly helped Jeff Foxworthy, whose You Might Be A Redneck If… was built on context-free, endlessly replayable gags. By the time he’d recorded his debut, Foxworthy had spent years honing his observations about being proudly Southern and poor into highly quotable one-liners, ideal for skipping around or as drop-in interludes on the radio. And that helped You Might Be A Redneck If… climb the country albums chart in a way not seen by a comedian since Ray “The Streak” Stevens. The accessibility of its format and its gags sent Redneck to No. 38 on the Billboard Top 100, made the album go a jaw-dropping triple-platinum, and eventually turned Foxworthy into the best-selling comedy recording artist of all time—not to mention spawned an entire, still-churning industry of “redneck” entertainment. 

Much as Foxworthy pointed the way to the explosion of Blue Collar Comedy and Honey Boo Boo to come, the successes of Sandler, The Jerky Boys, and Leary each presaged their own seismic shifts rippling outward from ’93. Sandler’s They’re All Gonna Laugh At You! crew would all but shape modern comedy—everything from Late Night With Conan O’Brien to Mr. Show to all things Judd Apatow—while the album’s smartly stupid, frattish immaturity quickly became a predominate comedic sensibility. The Jerky Boys helped beget the viral stunt and Internet troll, while their crude irreverence lives on in cartoons like South Park and Family Guy (where Brennan works as a voiceover actor). And though Leary has rightly taken crap for all that he stole from Bill Hicks, he also helped introduce Hicks and “alternative comedy” to kids who might have never have found it otherwise, providing them with a beginner-level entry point to edgier stuff, and giving it the exposure that helped it prosper. 

More importantly, their collective success finally set the comedy album back on track, just as it seemed to have breathed its last. While both Sandler and The Jerky Boys lost their bids for the Best Comedy Grammy, the fact that they were even nominated after years of the soporific likes of Erma Bombeck and Garrison Keillor—and furthermore, that they lost to Sam Kinison’s Live From Hell—reveals just how much things changed that year. After 1993, comedy records pulled back from the brink and began to flourish anew, to the point where even Seinfeld finally deigned to record one—openly, bluntly acknowledging that they had “just started to sell again.” And while it may never again see the kind of numbers the class of 1993 pulled, the comedy album continues to proliferate today, aided by digital distribution, satellite radio channels and streaming services eager for content, and audiences who are savvier than ever about finding the stuff they find funny. The comedy album lives, and all it took was a bunch of rednecks, assholes, jerks, and buffoons to save it.