Remember when you’d get a group of friends over, and you’d sit around the living room and take a 12” black disc out of a paper sleeve, put it on a record player, and laugh uncontrollably?
If that’s a memory of yours from the early 1960s, or from the mid-1970s (when you were more likely listening to records in the basement or rec room, away from your parents), then it’s one you share with millions of people. But, in fact, you might have been sitting in the living room as far back as 1922, when “The Okeh Laughing Record” was stamped onto 78 rpm shellac discs. “The Laughing Record” consisted simply of three minutes of people laughing out loud; apparently it was contagious, as it became a huge best-seller.
Comedy recordings have actually been around as long as there were recordings. Monologist Cal Stewart recorded several jokes as the rustic “Uncle Josh” as far back as 1897. The first recorded comedy sensation was probably a comedian named Joe Hayman, who put out a series of routines about a Jewish immigrant besieged by technology, most famously “Cohen on the Telephone,” which came out in 1913. Comedy songs were particularly popular; every vaudeville or musical comedy star worth his or her salt, such as Eddie Cantor or Fanny Brice, waxed their choice bits. By the time these celebrities moved to radio in the early 1930s, there was so much comedy on the airwaves to be had for free that few people bought comedy recordings. In the late 1940s, bandleader Spike Jones had some big successes with his novelty numbers like “Der Fuhrer’s Face” and his frenetic desecrations of pop standards such as “Cocktails for Two.”
Unlike popular songs, which were routinely crafted in three-minute segments anyway, comedy was a victim of 78 rpm technology; the listener might get a “bit” from a comedian, but rarely a routine and never a performance. When the long playing record came along in 1948, it provided around 45 minutes of playing time, but even then comedy took awhile to catch fire. Listeners could purchase repackaged episodes of old radio comedy shows, but among the few pioneers to lay down tracks of original comedy in the 1950s were the eccentric hipster guru Lord Buckley, the radio parodist Stan Freberg (who had a hit single with his spoof of TV crime shows, “St. George and the Dragonet”), and Tom Lehrer, whose first album came out on a 10” LP.
The first comedy album of the modern age was Mort Sahl’s The Future Lies Ahead, released on Verve in 1958. Norman Granz was a pioneering jazz record producer and signed Sahl to record his routines in front of a live audience (an unauthorized recording of a Sahl concert was taped in 1955). Sahl’s records did very well and his largesse extended to his colleague Shelley Berman, who was making a name for himself performing comic monologues in nightclubs in Chicago and on the West Coast. Berman recalls how Sahl changed his career with a simple suggestion:
Mort, said, “Hey I’ve made a record with Verve. Why don’t you do the same thing?” I said, “Oh my God, put all of my material on a record? Forget about it! I’ll never be able to do it. Because the surprise will be gone and everybody will know my stuff.” And Mort said, “Go on, try it.” So the technicians came for two nights, or something like that, at the hungry i and just went to town recording me. And one day I saw my record in a window. An LP. With a picture of me. And they picked a title, “Inside Shelly Berman.” I was pretty thrilled about that. And then somebody told me I was on the charts. I said, “What the hell is that?” I didn’t know a thing. And suddenly I was handed a tremendous check for my royalties. And there, now, I realized, “My God, I’m a star.” I had no idea it would be so successful. I had no idea that it would make such a big difference in our industry.
Inside Shelley Berman is generally regarded as the first hit comedy album and was the first full album to win a Grammy in the “Spoken Word Comedy” category in 1959. (The only other previous Grammy for comedy went to—eek!—the single “The Chipmunk Song.”) It now occurred to producers (and listeners) that they could recreate the best 45 minutes of a comedian’s live set; it occurred to the comedians that they could reach a much larger audience. This innovation changed the life of a former accountant from Chicago who had been playing around with a tape deck, expounding on some funny phone calls he had made with another pal at work: his name was Bob Newhart.
I had three routines, I had the “Driving Instructor,” the “Submarine Commander,” and “Abe Lincoln.” So, a disc jockey friend of mine, Dan Sorkin, in Chicago, said that the Warner Brother record executives were coming through town, calling on Dan and some of the other top disc jockeys. Dan called me up, he said, “Put what you have on tape and I’ll play it for them.” So I put them on tape, brought it down there, they listened to it. And they said, “Okay, okay, we’ll give you a recording contract, and we’ll record your next nightclub.” And I said, “Well, we have kind of problem there, I’ve never played a nightclub.” So they said, “Well, we’ll have to get you into a nightclub.” So my first date was at Tidelands in Houston, Texas. It was the first time I ever walked out on a nightclub floor.
The resulting album, The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart was released early in 1960; it zoomed to the top of the charts—not the “comedy” charts, the Billboard charts for all of popular music. “It just went crazy,” said Newhart. “I mean, a year and a half before that I was doing a local man-on-the-street show in Chicago, and I put out this record album, hoping it would sell maybe twenty-five, thirty thousand copies, you know? I was just totally unprepared for the commotion they caused.” Later that year, Warner Bros put out a sequel, The Button-Down Mind Strikes Back!—and that album shot to Number One. In fact, both of Newhart’s albums occupied the top two spots for nearly 30 weeks, a record not surpassed until 1991 when Guns N’Roses took the top two spots. Newhart is a good loser: “And I always say, “Well you hate to lose a record but at least it went to a friend.”
The comedy album phenomenon of the 1960s brought comics into American homes in a variety of different ways. For mainstream artists like Berman, Newhart, Nichols and May, the Smothers Brothers or Jonathan Winters, albums were a way of remembering favorite routines that one had seen on Ed Sullivan or a television talk show. For comedians under the radar, such as Dick Gregory, Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks, or Tom Lehrer, it was a way to attract a cult following. For an artist like Bill Cosby, his albums—he had three top ten records between 1966 and 1968—were a way of keeping his persona in the public imagination while waiting for better television or film projects to percolate. Albums were the only way that raunchier comedians like Lenny Bruce could reach a larger audience; Redd Foxx had a cottage industry with “party records”—records of blue material that cultivated a huge nationwide audience without drawing much attention to itself. The comedy album also exploded at an odd confluence of technology and society; it allowed a sophisticated audience, for the first time, unfiltered access to extended passages of mature comedy. Newhart sees the phenomenon as a matter of a shifting consumer demographic: “Nightclubs had kind of priced themselves out as far as a young family was concerned; they became quite expensive. So my understanding was that a lot of the college kids and the young marrieds would get together at somebody’s house and they’d have pizza and beer and, and they’d play a comedy album.”
College radio stations and inventive FM disc jockeys were eager to promote their cult favorites (and, as Cheech Marin said, playing an entire side of a comedy album allowed a DJ to go out for a smoke) and provided huge exposure. For the right kind of performer, many college students and young marrieds would be willing to shell out the $4.99 for an album. Singer/parodist Allen Sherman sold millions of records from 1962 to 1964. The most bizarre success in comedy album history occurred when a young comedian named Vaughn Meader released a studio album parodying the Kennedys called The First Family. From the get-go, the album was a rarity; it was conceived and recorded in a studio, rather than being a momento of a live club date. Stations around the country refused to play it—in the more sophisticated New York, it got some air play. Soon, orders for The First Family turned into a deluge; released on October 22, 1962, the album became the fastest selling album of any kind in history and eventually sold an unprecedented 7.5 million copies. Exactly one year and one month after its release, The First Family was transformed into a cruel jest and copies were pulled off the shelves. On the evening after Kennedy’s assassination, Lenny Bruce was playing a club date, and the audience eagerly anticipated how Bruce would comment on the national tragedy. He did not disappoint; his first words were “Vaughn Meader is screwed.” And, indeed, he was.
Comedy recordings turned a major corner in 1972 with two releases each by George Carlin (FM & AM and Class Clown) and Cheech and Chong (Cheech and Chong and Big Bambu). These were albums geared primarily to college students and best listened to in semi-darkness with a bong close at hand, preferably while there was a term paper that needed to be written. Most importantly, these albums presented routines that were not recoverable by other means—they would never have been performed intact on network television (indeed, all of Cheech and Chong’s albums were produced in the studio). When Richard Pryor hit the scene with This Nigger’s Crazy in 1974, it firmly established the comedy album as the lingua franca of the counterculture. These records could not be listened to in the company of your Aunt Sue, like Cosby’s Fat Albert fables, but nor were they the fringe albums of Lord Buckley and Moms Mabley, They were huge, huge commercial hits and all of the albums listed above went gold (selling over $1 million), as did practically every other album by Carlin, Cheech and Chong, and Pryor in the 1970s. (Albums by Robert Klein, David Steinberg, Lily Tomlin and various crews from National Lampoon deserve a nod as well.)
A hit album was so integral to a comedian’s fortunes in the mid-1970s that Steve Martin went through the tortures of the damned trying to get his routines on vinyl. When he finally succeeded with Let’s Get Small in 1977, Martin not only won the Grammy (beating Pryor’s three-in-a-row streak), he became the first comedian with a platinum album (over $2 million in sales). He was such an immense figure at the time, that his next album, A Wild and Crazy Guy, shipped platinum. It was a magical time for recorded comedy. As comedian Jeffrey Ross remembers, “Comedians were the rock stars of the time. You know, all my buddies in New Jersey, if we wanted to sit around and listen to Wild and Crazy Guy over and over and over, that was no different than listening to Queen’s We Will Rock You over and over and over. We didn’t differentiate between comedy and music. It was all just awesome.”
Yet, all awesome things must come to an end. Two new trends converged to curtail the glory days of the comedy album. When Richard Pryor filmed Richard Pryor–Live In Concert in 1978 (and, four years later, Richard Pryor Live On The Sunset Strip), he brought the full effect of a sold-out concert experience to a national audience (provided they were over seventeen years old). By the mid-1980s, home video and cable television were so ubiquitous that they obviated the voice-only appeal of the comedy album. (It must be admitted that it was often irritating not knowing what visual gag that woman in the audience was cackling at.) Oddly enough, the CD, which did damage to other aspects of the recording industry, has been a boon to comedy, with elegant and encyclopedic boxed sets of the albums of Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, Reiner and Brooks, among many others. And contemporary acts such as Chris Rock, Adam Sandler, and Jeff Foxworthy have done very well with CD releases of their work.
Still, for a twenty-year stretch, there was something special—an unrepeatable confluence of social habits and technology—about listening to a comedy LP on your turntable. As David Steinberg put it, “Just one person giving you all these ideas, a barrage of ideas that was how you thought and how you talked amongst yourselves–that had never happened before. So the albums were huge–they made sense in comedy because it’s all about your ear, it’s about what you’re hearing, what you try and repeat.”