The dirty secret about comedy albums is that not every great comedian can record a great album. Plenty of great comedians either never got around to preserving their act on wax or they wound up with an LP that didn’t quite showcase their comedic strengths, either capturing an off night in a club or pursuing a conceptual direction that didn’t quite deliver. Then again, there were times where a concept wound up being so strong, it elevated a performer who wouldn’t otherwise be considered a candidate for the Comedy Hall of Fame. Take The First Family, the seminal 1962 LP lampooning the John F. Kennedy White House: Vaughn Meader may not have significant comedic skills but his JFK impression was enough to fuel a landmark comedy record.
The First Family is joined on this list by records from comic legends such as Robin Williams, George Carlin, Richard Pryor, and Joan Rivers, to name a few. These are the 40 albums that document a stand-up comedian in full flight, a comic using a studio as their foil, and a number of points in between. Some might have an aesthetic approach that feels slightly antiquated or cover topics that are out of date, but shifts of perspective are inevitable: the passage of time inevitably alters the perception of the content. That’s the case with such masters of the form as Bill Cosby and Woody Allen, comedians who recorded successful and influential albums at their prime but those records may sound uncomfortable to a contemporary listener due to the scandals that have tarnished their legacies. We decided not to include those albums for that reason. The records collected here can still amuse and entertain thanks to the execution of the bits—from both the comedian and their producers—that keep these albums fresh and funny years after their initial release.