In the case of a small handful of comedians—Todd Barry, Doug Benson, Patton Oswalt, Paul F. Tompkins, David Cross, etc.—I treat the release dates of their new albums with the same level of anticipation as I do my favorite bands and solo musicians. Do the A.V. Clubbers listen to stand-up albums regularly, and do you each have a favorite? (Mine is Eddie Murphy’s self-titled debut, dumb songs and all.) —Dustin Perry
Even though my boyfriend and I first bonded in college over old comedy albums like George Carlin’s Occupation: Foole and Woody Allen’s Standup Comic, I’ve never really gotten into comedy albums. I’m not sure why; I feel like they don’t have a whole lot of replay value for me compared to music albums, or maybe it’s just because I’ve been working as an editor for a long damn time, and as Genevieve and I noted in a previous Q&A about music we listen to at work, I can’t edit and listen to anything where you have to pay attention to the words. Still, I have time for books on tape and podcasts these days, and I’m not unwilling, just unschooled. Hopefully I’ll get some terrific recommendations from this Q&A. I think the only one I’ve ever actually listened to obsessively is Denis Leary’s No Cure For Cancer, an album that completely gives the lie to that no-replay-value prejudice. In fact, I think I’m going to listen to it again on the way home from work tonight. I’ll try not to sing along to either “Asshole” or “Traditional Irish Drinking Song” on the train. (“We haaaave no heads / No, we haaaaave no heads!”)
If we’re talking about formative comedy-recording experiences, I think my pre-teenage fascination with old-time radio has a place here. Specifically, Jack Benny, whose radio show in the ’30s and ’40s basically invented modern situation comedy. Like few of his peers—his great rival Fred Allen comes to mind—Benny’s character, timing, and jokes still kill today. Jazz critic Gary Giddins included a fantastic Benny appreciation in his book Natural Selection, which anyone who cares about comedy as a topic should seek out. And since Benny was on-air every week for decades (on TV, too), any number of half-hour shows could be counted as “albums.” For the same of simplicity, and because it’s the obvious canonical favorite (it even made the National Recording Registry, the Library Of Congress’s audio-preservation branch), I’ll pick the March 28, 1948 episode, featuring the curmudgeonly, cheapskate Benny’s lengthy pause-that-says-it-all when a robber asks, “Your money or your life?” (His eventual answer, after the silence that garnered one of showbiz’s biggest-ever laughs: “I’m thinking it over!”)
I own my share of stand-up-comedy albums, and every once in a while, I get the urge to play my favorite tracks off of them, like those rare occasions when I want to hear a rapid succession of catchy top-40 hits. But stand-up is essentially a live medium, and without the element of surprise, of the wild reaction comics can get when they do something truly unexpected for the crowd, it doesn’t usually work for me. But I have a favorite comedy album, and it gets played as much as the very best music in my collection, for much the same reasons. The Firesign Theatre’s entire output from 1968 to 1971 is worth having, but there is no better piece of recorded comedy in all the world than Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me The Pliers. It’s the White Album/London Calling/It Takes A Nation Of Millions/(insert your favorite all-time record here) of comedy: technically daring, incredibly intricate and layered with meaning, brilliantly conceived and perfectly executed, and after approximately a million listens, still funny as hell. The Firesigns were unique because they created a form of audio comedy—not standup, not theater, not exactly sketch comedy, not improv, but a kind of humor specifically designed for listening at album-length—that no one did before, and no one has done since. They were just that funny—and Don’t Crush That Dwarf is just that good, a comedy record that unequivocally deserves to be called a masterpiece.
Ultimately, it’s beyond me to name anything better than the ’70s albums of George Carlin (just find the Classic Gold compilation and you’re set), but Bill Hicks’ Relentless draws me back more often than anything else. Hicks’ posthumous Rant In E-Minor takes his morbidity and spiritual tirades to the level of medicine. (Its bit about how Rush Limbaugh likes to get peed on is one of the funniest things ever, but it jams some incredibly brutal imagery into the listener’s head.) Relentless packs just as much daring aggression into a far tighter stand-up performance. As much as people (me included) like to think of Hicks as a transcendent figure, he had a great way of balancing that with just plain sharp gripes and bizarre hypotheticals: “Uh, Mister Hicks, thank you for your testimony. I don’t know if we have a place for you right now on the Supreme Court, but boy, you ever thought about becoming a senator?” Like Carlin, Hicks beat nightclub comedy at its own game, mastering stand-up in the classic sense and renewing it with challenging spite.
Woody Allen’s persona was fully formed when he recorded the routines that would make up Standup Comic, my favorite comedy album and one of the biggest influences on my own sense of humor. The Allen of the sixties was a singular combination of philosophy graduate student and Catskills cut-up, part joke merchant, part absurdist storyteller. Whether riffing merrily on American expatriates (“Lost Generation”) or the antics of hypnotists (“The Great Renaldo”) Allen is in his element, an urbane big-city neurotic taking in the ridiculousness of the world. Allen takes an almost sensual pleasure in words and ideas: in a particularly transcendent bit, he speaks of a trip down South where he accidentally ends up at a Ku Klux Klan rally and his life flashes before his eyes. It’s only when his memories include such incongruities as “frying up a mess o’ catfish” and visiting the “ol swimming hole” that he realizes that he’s actually experiencing someone else’s life in miniature. If Allen sometimes giggles ecstatically at his own material, who can blame him? This is funny stuff. Allen would soon leave stand-up for bigger, arguably better things: the film world’s gain was stand-up’s almost incalculable loss.
I was late to the game when I heard The 2000 Year Old Man only a few months ago, in preparation for my interview with Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks. But boy, did I take to it almost immediately, especially after I learned more about how it was made. Reiner would start each bit with minimal setup (“I’m standing here next to a man who claims to be 2,000 years old,” “I’m here with an astronaut,” etc.) and start asking questions of this person, and Brooks would just run with it. Later entries in the 2000 Year Old Man collection were extended bits starring the titular guy, but my favorite is the first album from 1961, which has Reiner baiting Brooks as the man, a two-hour-old baby, a psychologist, the third best poet, and a gaggle of weirdoes in a coffee shop. (Coffee shops being a new thing at the time.) The bits are recorded live, too, which means later, you can hear Reiner giggle along with the audience and Brooks honestly react to the ridiculous questions Reiner is asking. It’s warm, surprising, and simple—a perfect example of the straight-man/funny-man dynamic still prevalent today, and an improvised journey that’s easy to take again and again.
It isn’t a comedy album per se, but This Is Spinal Tap has been my favorite funny record since I was 14. What’s strange thing is, I didn’t really get all the humor back then—it’s a record I’ve grown into as I’ve gotten older. As a Duran Duran-listening kid, I fixated on goofy, hard-rock spoofs like “Heavy Duty” and “Big Bottom,” relishing in their simultaneous inflation and deflation of rock ’n’ roll machismo. But now that I actually like classic rock, I see it as a celebration of the genre, too. And I now have a stronger appreciation for the depth and craft of Spinal Tap’s caricatures of the ‘60s, specifically “Cups And Cakes,” “Gimme Some Money,” and “(Listen To The) Flower People”—songs that are actually hard to distinguish from the actual output of the British Invasion and hippie eras. What’s even more remarkable about the album is how well it’s aged; in fact, it sounds far more timeless than much of the music it parodies. Mostly, though, it just makes me laugh my ass off every single time.
Like Tasha, I rarely listen to comedy albums. I enjoy them when I hear them, but I have trouble liking them once I’ve heard all the jokes, and I find it hard to work when I’m listening to someone who’s much wittier and pithier than I am blaring in my ears. (And I do most of my iPod-listening at work.) But I’ll give it up for a couple of albums, I guess. Patton Oswalt’s Werewolves And Lollipops got me through the dark days toward the end of my last regular office job, when I was pretty sure that I had wandered into a situation I would be stuck in for the rest of my life. Oswalt wrote jokes the way I wished I would tell them, and his riffs were always enough to keep me hanging on in the last days of the newspaper biz. But I guess my favorite would have to be To Russell, My Brother, Whom I Slept With by Bill Cosby. I haven’t listened to this since I was a kid, and I’m sure if I listened to it now, I wouldn’t find it as funny as I did back then, but I have fond memories of spending long summer weeks at my aunt and uncle’s beach house, listening to a cassette tape I found of the album, letting all the routines about Cosby’s life lull me to sleep. I realize that most people don’t listen to comedy albums to fall asleep, but something about how Cosby toed the line between “safe” and “daring” made 8-year-old me appreciate his stuff all the more.
I became a fan of Albert Brooks’ movies when I was in college, but I didn’t hear his two comedy albums—1973’s Comedy Minus One and 1975’s A Star Is Bought—until much later, and was surprised by how much they differ in tone and approach from Modern Romance, Lost In America, and the like. As a stand-up comedian and talk-show guest (and in his Saturday Night Live shorts as well), Brooks jumped between straightforward observational humor, one-man sketches, and pieces that were far more conceptual and satirical. He was covering the comedy bases, from Ed Sullivan-friendly fare to the kind of material that would blossom in the club scene a decade later. Comedy Minus One is anchored by three long routines: a very funny personal story about opening for Richie Havens in front of an angry mob of stoned Texans, a fanciful bit about what would happen if Washington held open auditions for a new national anthem, and an interactive bit that requires listeners to read from a script for what amounts to a deconstruction of a corny old vaudeville act. A Star Is Bought is more far-reaching, parodying the radio landscape of the mid-’70s as Brooks pretends to try for a novelty hit: by recording a “sexy song,” a “patriotic song,” a “cut-together-a-bunch-of-hit-records-and-have-them-talk-to-each-other song,” and so on. Both records are a document of their times, and a peek into Brooks’ versatile comic mind, and both are littered with great lines that have become standard quote-fodder in my household. (I’d list a few, but they wouldn’t make sense out of context.) They’re both also out of print, although the blog Never Get Out Of The Boat has posted a sample track from each record.
Noel claimed dibs on those early Albert Brooks albums, which strike me as a still-hilarious blueprint for today’s crop of stand-up deconstructionists, so I’ll pay tribute to a modern comedy duo that represents a throwback to an older form. I realize there’s been no shortage of praise on this site for Scharpling & Wurster, but what they do every week on The Best Show On WFMU (and on a series of excellent comedy records) is unique to our times, squaring an antiquated radio format with modern-day absurdist touches, sly cultural commentary, and flat-out inspired silliness. All of their albums are essential listening, but I’d like to call attention to the three-part saga of Mother 13, which unfolds over two of them, New Hope For The Ape-Eared and The Art Of The Slap, and had me helplessly weeping in laughter on a public train. Mother 13 is the ultimate example of a major-label casualty, a band that processes great musical influences (specifically The Clash, The Who, Led Zeppelin, Nirvana, and R.E.M.) into generic alterna-swill. Yet its frontman, Corey Harris, has the swagger of the huge rock star he fully expects to be. The first Mother 13 segment chronicles the band’s appearances at various corporate-sponsored festivals and showcases (e.g. “the Earthlink/Pringles Summer Slam Jam”), and the second two trail off into inspired insanity, as Corey, his mates, and a horde of “special guests” attempt the gimmicky feat of becoming the first band to play a show on Mount Everest.
For the past couple months, I’ve been trying to get used to a new commute. I get up at 6:40 a.m. to get to work by 8, and while that isn’t the most horrible thing ever, the fact that I generally don’t get to bed before 1 a.m. means I’m really, really tired when I hit the highway. So I’ve been listening to more comedy albums lately to keep from falling asleep behind the wheel. Others have mentioned Patton Oswalt, who’s terrific—and his delivery makes his albums really easy to re-listen to, because he’s casual and polished at the same time. I’ve gone through Christopher Titus’ Norman Rockwell Is Bleeding a bunch; Titus’s vaudeville style can sometimes wear thin, but his honesty—and the rage and frustration that occasionally come through the one-liners—is weirdly comforting. But I think right now for me, the all-time, “I can listen to this whenever” champ is Maria Bamford and her album Unwanted Thoughts Syndrome. I have yet to get tired of her voice-swapping shtick, and the album is incredibly solid from start to finish. In a way, it’s like listening to a piece of well-crafted, sympathetic pop music. I may not laugh as hard every time I hear it, but it always makes me smile. (Which I generally do while I’m awake, which is very crucial here.)
I like comedy albums, and I own plenty, but none gets more action than Richard Pryor’s Wanted: Live In Concert. Recorded at several venues in 1978, it captures Pryor after he’s already incredibly famous, but before he’s gone off the rails. (The lighting-himself-on-fire incident happened in 1980.) Every minute of the double disc is both hysterically funny and remarkably true—and not a note is mean. Onstage, Pryor had that natural-born gift of seeming completely at ease, sharing stories about his life rather than telling jokes. Whether those stories are as heavy as the time he shot his wife’s car to keep her from leaving, or as light as his dogs deciding one day that it was time to fuck him, he brings a nimble, inimitable energy to every last minute. One minute he’s having a conversation with his own heart attack (“Shoulda thought of that when you was eatin’ all that pork!”), the next he’s encountering a stuttering waiter at a Chinese restaurant. If you’re looking for a visual, too, the same material is covered on the DVD Richard Pryor: Live In Concert, which Pauline Kael called “probably the greatest of all recorded-performance films. Pryor had characters and voices bursting out of him… everything he does seems to be for the first time.”
I grew up watching Bob Newhart's sitcoms on television and, living in Chicago, it's still kind of a thrill to walk through the same ground covered in those opening credits I saw so often on television. (On a lark, I even looked into what it would cost to buy a condo in the building Bob and Emily Hartley lived in once.) But even if he'd never stepped in front of the cameras, Newhart would still have a rich legacy of recorded stand-up performances. Released in 1960, The Button-Down Mind Of Bob Newhart made the former Chicago accountant a star by letting him playing against characters, often via one-sided phone conversations, whose dialogue Newhart's audience had to provide for itself. (Imagining Abe Lincoln talking to his Madison Ave. press agent: "How's Gettysburg?… Sort of a drag, huh? Well, Abe, you know them small Pennsylvania towns…") The two-disc Something Like This…: The Bob Newhart Anthology offers a fuller picture of Newhart's stand-up work, and confirms him as the quintessential comedy album comic. Newhart doesn't command attention with volume. You have to closely, awkward pauses and all.