© 2004, Jim Mendrinos
THE 50 MOST INFLUENTIAL COMEDY ALBUMS
Long before comedy central, before HBO, or even before the first comic did a spot on the Steve Allen Show, there were the comedy albums.
For the most part they started out as "party records" with Belle Barth, Moms Mabley, or Skillet & Leroy saying all those wonderfully naughty things that you weren't supposed to say in public. If you're of a certain age your parents probably had a stash of these records, held under lock and key, that you were never supposed to listen to.
If you're reading this you probably listened to them every chance you got.
Eventually the albums gained respectability, as did the comics who recorded them. Moms Mabley and company were replaced by Newhart, and Lenny Bruce, then by Pryor and Carlin, and just about every comedian of note between the late 50's and the early 80's.
These are the albums that influenced the people who make America laugh today. Notice I didn't go for "Best Comedy Albums," or "Funniest Comedy Albums;" that would be subjective. Instead I asked the comedy performers, from the Smothers Brothers, down to open mikers what influenced them. To that I added information like record sales, chart positions, and Grammys won; and I came up with an informal list of what is influential.
You might think I've missed one. You probably think the order is wrong, and that so and so should be higher. Chances are your favorite comedy album is too low on the list, or not even there. There's good reason for this; there are so many great comedy albums, and only 50 spots on the list! (I will post 51 - 100 on the forum pages)
I did have a couple of rules. First, I limited an artist to a maximum of 3 entries in the top 50; otherwise we would have 11 Pryor Albums, 7 Lenny Bruce Albums, 9 Cosby albums, and no one else would be represented. The other rule was the album had to be distributed by a record company. This allowed me to exclude the 473 CD's from the guys I worked with in the last 2 years. Finally, I went for original albums, and tried my best to stay away from "The Best Of" collections.
One final thing before we get to the main event, the best part of doing this article was listening to these old friends again. Each recording is wonderful, and unique. If you loved one of these recordings as a kid, you'll still love them today.
50 – Dick Gregory Live at the Village Gate
“Dick Gregory talked about topics with substance long before Richard Pryor and Paul Mooney. He talked about them at times when it was dangerous to talk about these things.” – Leighann Lord
Dick Gregory was in full political bloom when this album was released in 1970. The funky cover art, rich in imagery was the first clue that something deeply moving was inside. Although references to Agnew and Hoffa make this record seem dated, a brief look under the surface shows a comic mind that was delving ever deeper into the world around him; and a man who could use punchlines like daggers, and pierce the hypocrisy of his targets with comedic judgments. This is a fine example of comedy as a social force.
49 – Reality, What a Concept – Robin Williams
At a time when the popular style of comedy was evolving into more traditional monologists, Robin Williams burst onto the scene with a frenetic style, and disjointed characters delivering lines quicker than the audience can catch them. This was the first, and most comics I’ve spoken to say the best, of Robin’s albums. Here he wears the influence of his comedic mentor Jonathan Winters on his sleeve, and the results are extraordinary. This was one of the first times the main focus was on the performer, and not the material, a trend that still carries through to this day.
48 – Gilda Radner Live from New York
“The first comedy album I got was Gilda Radner Live from New York, and I used to do all her routines. Her comedy was entirely character driven, and was a big influence on my improv and sketch work. Then I brought all that with me to Stand-Up.” – Betsy Salkind
While not a stand-up album in the truest sense of the word, this was Gilda at her best. It contained excerpts from her Broadway show where she combined new sketches for her greatest SNL characters with some moments of Gilda being Gilda. This album inspired a generation of female performers, and raised the bar for sketch performers.
47 – The Wit and Wisdom of Andy Griffith
“He told stories like nobody else could.” – Scott Bruce
With all due respect to the current crop of southern comedy stars, there is a debt of gratitude to be paid to Andy Griffith. Andy Griffith took clean, rambling anecdotal stories and weaved them into a symphony of comedy. One track in particular, “What it Was, Was Football,” stands out as a benchmark of storytelling. Without Andy Griffith setting the stage for southern comics, there would be no Brother Dave Gardner, Jerry Clower, or “Blue Collar” comedians. One note, the original LP contains more tracks than the CD re-release.
46 – Bigger and Blacker – Chris Rock
To the younger generation of comics Chris Rock is the goal. Arguably the best in the business right now, Chris stands alone as a comic who puts Stand-Up first. Although not the best selling or most critically praised of Chris’ albums, Bigger and Blacker shows what a great comic can do when he has the freedom to exercise his artistic vision. Mixing sketches and funny songs onto a dick that contained brutally funny stand-up, Bigger and Blacker served to paint a portrait of a comic emerging into a full blown artist.
45 – Dice Rules – Andrew Dice Clay
This is the one that gave birth to the “comedian as a rock star” dream that so many of us have. At the height of his popularity, Dice stepped onto the stage at Madison Square Garden and drove his devoted fans crazy with his brand of comedy. Brash, offensive and unapologetic for being that way, Dice was on the verge of becoming the world’s first “Stadium” comic, and this is the album that shows just how big he was. Although time and popular tastes have maligned his contributions to comedy, Dice Rules stands as an important comedy album because it is one of the few that shows just how far the dream can go.
44 – Excuse Me, Are You Reading That? – David Brenner
David Brenner has always been synonymous with television, having made more appearances on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson than any other performer; however given the fact that this is the only album on the list with a limited one time only pressing, it is surprising that it gets mentioned by so many comics. Brenner is the first observational comic, and this record shows him at his very best. Having listened to it again just recently, I was surprised by how timeless and funny these bits are. Every line is strung together without a bit of fat, and each punch sends the audience into fits of laughter. It’s a great example of how intricate the craft of comedy can be. I was fortunate enough to contact Mr. Brenner about this album and he said, “The album is one of the best and funniest things I’ve done in my career. I’m very proud of it and glad I did it, if for nothing else than for my 3 sons. I’m going to sell it to them on my death bed.”
43 – Waiting for the Electrician or Someone Like Him – The Firesign Theatre
“In college everyone I knew was into the Firesign Theatre. We knew all of their stuff by heart.” Jeff Jena
Sketch comedy specifically designed to be heard. The Firesign Theatre constantly played with the audience’s perceptions, and turned them on their ears. This eclectic group of performers took the lessons they learned from listening to radio greats like Stan Freberg, and combined it with a politically charged counter-culture sensibility, and the result is a collection of comedy that has become as much of a campus mainstay as the homecoming game, or the student center. This, their debut album, recorded in 1968, retraces American history from the Native American perspective, and side 2 has a trippy 20 minute jaunt that starts with a language lesson, and winds up as an excursion through an imaginary Eastern European country. This album is best listened to with a thesaurus in one hand, and your favorite mind altering substance in the other.
42 – The Wonderful World of Jonathan Winters
“Jonathan Winters was one of the first comedians I really "got" - the characters, voices and everything are all dead on. Not so many traditional jokes per se, just great character comedy.” – Jim David
There are two truly great Jonathan Winters album, this one and Jonathan Winters Wings it. Both albums show how creative comedy can be. The Wonderful World of Jonathan Winters was first released in 1960, and showcased Jonathan doing something that had never been done in comedy before; he played an entire cast of characters by himself. Most of his pieces were actually carefully constructed sketches that showcased all those wonderful voices in his head. You can’t help but be amazed by what he could do. The stand out tract is “Used Pet Shop.”
41 – Let’s Get Small – Steve Martin
“Steve Martin came along and exploded on the country when I was still in college. SNL was what you did on Saturday night, and if Steve Martin was the host the room would cheer when his name was announced the week before” - Ross Bennett
At a time when Pryor ruled the cutting edge, and Andy Kaufman owned the conceptual comedy world, Steve Martin came along and knocked comedy on its ear by just being silly. Martin, already an accomplished comedy writer, his debut album made absurdity a force in comedy for the first time since Groucho retired, and installed the phrase “Excuse Me!” into the lexicon of popular American language.
40 – Flip Wilson Live at the Village Gate
Side one was the early show. Side two the late show. This 1964 album contained only a hint of the comedian who would one day be the first African American to have the number 1 show in the country. Flip’s easygoing style was more akin to a Bill Cosby than a Dick Gregory, however his pleasant demeanor masked the true bite of his material. When you compare this album to “The Devil Made Me Buy This Dress” (#32) you’ll clearly see the growth of Flip Wilson as a comedian, and as an artist.
39 – Big Bambu – Cheech and Chong
“Cheech & Chong doing Sister Mary Elephant, that’s classic!” – Rich Guzzi
The album cover looked like a pack of rolling papers, and inside the front cover there was the world’s biggest sheet of rolling paper I’ve ever seen. I still have mine, however I will confess to rolling the most humongous joint with the one that came in a friend’s album. This is the album that contained so many classic bits, Sister Mary Elephant, Let’s Make a Dope Deal, and Unamerican Bandstand just to name a few. The comedy was aimed at a younger audience, and did it ever hit its mark. One listen to the timing between Cheech and Chong, and you’ll see why they were able to be a great comedy team a full decade after comedy teams fell out of vogue.
SIDEBAR # 1
Five CD’s FOR COMICS ONLY
Sometimes something speaks better to and artist than it does to an audience. These 5 recordings contain valuable lessons for comedians; you might want to check them out.
5 – Woody Allen on Comedy
Although way off the norm in terms of writing process, Woody gives sage advice in this much-too-serious interview. Although each topic is filled with nuggets of wisdom for aspiring comics and comedy writers, the stand out track is the one on stage personas. Woody clarifies the process of becoming a character perhaps better than anybody that came before him. Part of the “On Comedy” series from Laugh.com. (You should get them all.)
4 – Richard Pryor... And It’s Deep Too!
This box set containes all the Warner Brothers releases fro Pryor. Although some of his more expariamental albums are missing, like “Craps,” “Black Ben the Blacksmith,” and “The Wizard of Comedy,” this box set still manages to document the evolution from his 1968 self-titled debut to his last major release “Here and Now.” Hearing the evolution of perhaps the best scripted comic of all time is an experience not to be missed by any comedian. Of particular interest to comics is the final disk, “That African-American is Still Crazy (Good Shit from the Vaults),” which has a wealth of unreleased tracks, including the funny yet heartbreaking “M.S.”
3 – Johnny Carson on Comedy
Johnny’s take on what is and isn’t funny and why serves as an education for any performer. In particular his take on Joke Construction is priceless. Part of the “On Comedy” series from Laugh.com.
2 – American Comedy Box 1915 – 1994: But Seriously
From W.C. Fields to Robin Williams, this 4 CD box set has it all. Listening to these performers, side by side, allows you to break down the construction and study the stiles. It is a veritable university for a comedian.
1 - 8:15 / 12:15 – Bill Cosby
An obscure comedy treasure not yet released on CD. Quite simply this 2 record set contains 2 different shows at a lake Tahoe casino; the early, “Dinner Show,” and the dreaded “Late Show.” Seeing how Cosby adjusts material, energy, and performance styles to fit each style will cement in anyone’s mind what it is to be a professional
38 – Louder Than Hell – Sam Kinison
“Listening to Sam Kinison albums taught me that if you can create rock star energy in a show you are unstoppable.” – Kevin Downey Jr.
Only a handful of comics ever commanded the stage with as much authority, personality, and charisma as Sam Kinison. Every bit was an assault on what the audience held sacred. Every line seemed to be pulled directly from somewhere deep in Sam’s soul. The ability to challenge the audience’s convictions while being relentlessly funny was Sam’s gift. Louder Than Hell was the place where we first got to experience it. Upon its release it was in the tape deck of every comic’s car in America. It shows Sam at his unyielding best. Love him or hate him, one listen to this album and you can’t help but be awed by the derring-do of Sam and the comedy he made.
37 – Looking Good – Freddie Prinze
Not many people even remember what a talent comic Freddie was. The cost of dying young is that more people remember the fame then remember the work. One listen to Looking Good will show you why Freddie was arguably the hottest rising comedy star in the world when he committed suicide in 1977. He was 22 at the time. His legacy was huge considering the short time he was with us. Looking Good highlights the world Freddie grew up in, and gives us all a glimpse of the person behind the star.
36 – The Songs and Comedy of the Smothers Brothers Recorded Live at the Purple Onion
“The Smothers Brothers were silly, smart and political. The silly side allowed them to soften their political bite, and gave their material a sort of stealth intelligence.” - Dave LaBarca
This was the Smothers Brothers first album recorded at the San Francisco hot spot in 1961. It showcased the fresh, breezy style that would later become the centerpiece of their CBS show. If you’re familiar with the show, you should realize that this album doesn’t contain the same political punch as the series. What it does have is the best comedy timing, and perfectly polarized comedic personas. This album shows what made Tom and Dick so wonderful, they had fun.
35 – Inside Shelly Berman
Relentlessly funny before comedians were relentlessly funny, Shelly Berman graduated Second City, and took the stand-up comedy scene by storm. This album serves as his finest moment, weaving stories at a breakneck pace, while still infusing them with every bit of the lovable neurotic energy that he had inside. If you listen to tracks like “Airlines,” or “The Morning After” you’ll see that he’s still copied by comedians some 40 years after this album’s initial release.
34 – An Evening Wasted With Tom Lehrer
If you like you musical comedy steeped in sarcasm, and highly intelligent, then you’ll love An Evening Wasted With Tom Lehrer. The 11 songs and the jokes in between them are full of the type of biting wit that borders on subversive. Listening to it now, it seems as timeless and fresh as it did back in 1959. You’ll be humming songs like the Masochism Tango for days after just 1 listen.
33 – Uncensored – Redd Foxx
“I used to sneak down in my father’s draw after he and my mom went out to listen to Redd Foxx albums. They were dirty but funny and gave you a humorous outlook at the life you weren’t living at the time!” – Bobby Collins
By the time of this 1980 release, Uncensored, Redd Foxx was no longer relegated to being just a party album. He was fully entrenched in the mainstream, and his Vegas shows were legendary. Uncensored was a throwback to the earlier Redd Foxx efforts. Recorded in front of a largely African American audience, Foxx held onto the brash style of his earlier albums, but presented material that had wisdom behind it. By today’s standards Uncensored is decidedly tame, however the jokes have an edge that only Redd Foxx could provide.
32 – The Devil Made Me Buy This Dress – Flip Wilson
“I would have to say that I was first influenced by Flip Wilson’s The Devil Made Me Buy This Dress. Flip was my star gate into the world of stand-up.” – Torian Hughes
There are a few performers who are thrust into history at the right time. Flip Wilson was one of those performers. The Civil Rights movement had made headway, and television was starting to open its doors to African American performers. Diahann Carroll had a modest hit with “Julia,” and Bill Cosby showed that a black man could be a big part of a TV hit, but who would be the first African American to be the lead on a hit show? Flip Wilson, and his alter ego Geraldine took the Grammy for best comedy album of 1970, and rode that success into prime time television history.
31 – The 2000 Year Old Man – Mel Brooks & Carl Reiner
“I was so young I wasn’t sure if it was real or not.” - Adam Ferrara
By the time they committed it to vinyl in 1961, Brooks and Reiner had been doing this at every showbiz party they were ever invited to. It was at the urging of Steve Allen that the pair brought it to the stage and then to disc. The end result was 6 brilliant sketches; however the very Jewish, very spirited, very direct 2000-year-old man stole the show. It also helped to revive Mel Brooks’ career. Without this record, Brooks might have just faded quietly into the world of sitcom writing; however this scene stealing performance turned him into a bankable commodity. Now, 43 years after the release of the first album, the character is still as strong, relevant, and funny as it was in 1961. What’s the secret to his success? Nectarines...
30 – Rant in E-Minor – Bill Hicks
The most recent release on our list, released posthumously in 1997, this is an album that assaults you with comedic opinions. While most Hicks recordings featured longer bits with a more open style, Rant in E-Minor took the strongest, shortest bits from several concerts, and weaves them together in such a way that there is no moment to catch your breath. Every line is an assault to your senses, and it expands the boundaries of your intellect through laughter. This is the album that most of today’s younger comics point to when asked about their influences. It’s also the last material that Bill Hicks recorded, and when you measure the intensity, and the brilliant wit, you can only imagine what might have been.
29 – Wanted! Richard Pryor Live in Concert
“I didn’t hear a lot of Richard Pryor until after I had been doing stand-up for a while. I was shocked at how much people had stolen from him” – Jim Gaffigan
A man, a microphone, and a brilliant mind exposing everything to a room full of people – most critics seem to agree that comedy was never quite as good as it was when Richard Pryor hit the stage. Wanted was recorded during a time in Pryor’s life when turmoil was the norm. Under professional and personal pressures that would have collapsed lesser artists, Richard Pryor rose to the occasion and released a double album of comedy so personal and profound that it stands as a testament to the comic as an artist. His bit “Heart Attacks” from the album made you understand the emotions and pain behind the experience, yet you never stopped laughing. Brilliant.
28 – My Son the Nut – Allan Sherman
“Allan Sherman was before my time, but when I was a kid somebody gave me an old LP of My Son The Nut. Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah became my anthem. It was the only funny song I’ve ever heard written from a kid’s perspective.” – Jeff Ross
It would be easy to dismiss Allan Sherman as just a one hit wonder if it wasn’t for the fact that he had so many popular comedy songs in the early 60’s. My Son the Nut was Sherman’s third and best selling album (spending 8 weeks at or near the top of Billboard’s charts), and featured the Anthem to sleep-away camp, Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah, which peaked at #5. The reason why these songs are viewed as more than just simple parodies lies in their construction. The subjects, and music choices were always funny. The lyrics were full of punchlines, and every song ended on a big laugh. The songs sounded like the songs he parodied, and the comedy was simple, charming and effortless. You’d expect no less from a man who was also the head writer for Steve Allen’s Tonight Show, and a successful television producer.
27 – Them Cotton Pickin’ Days is Over – Godfrey Cambridge
The 60’s weren’t an easy place for African American comedians. Dick Gregory was considered too militant when it came to race issue, so white audiences turned off. Flip Wilson and Bill Cosby were accused of ignoring race, and took much undeserved heat from the black community. And then there was Godfrey Cambridge. Godfrey Cambridge bridged the gap between the safe comics like Cosby, and the militant comics like Gregory. He made race an issue, but he didn’t accuse, or point fingers; instead he used his wealth of charisma to make his pointed material palatable to any audience. By making the experiences about himself, and not about the cause, he put a face on the issue. And he delivered his points in a profound, and genuinely funny way. Them Cotton Pickin’ Days is Over is perhaps his finest stand-up, and a forgotten comedy treasure.
26 – Hello Dummy – Don Rickles
“Hello Dummy is so politically incorrect, it’s refreshing. And it’s all crowd work.” - Dave Attell
1968 was smack-dab in the middle of the new wave of comedy. Nightclub style performers like Danny Thomas and Jackie Leonard were firmly out of style, and a more personal style of comedy was king. Mort Sahl, Bill Cosby and Lenny Bruce were the standard, not the exception. Well then how do you explain the popularity of Rickles and Hello Dummy? Hello Dummy showcased Rickles throwback style. His in your face, lightning quick quips were much more akin to Bob Hope then they were to Woody Allen. Rickles was less intellectual and more visceral. No intricately structured bits, just lines. Zingers, one after the other, and each one funnier than the next came at you non-stop. Ultimately what makes Rickles special is his ability to keep from taking anything, including himself, too seriously. That, and the fact that he packed more laughs per minute on this album then most performers pack into their entire careers.
SIDEBAR # 2
FIVE THAT WILL BE CLASSICS
Some recordings are just too new to make the list. What follows is a list of CDs that will be considered classics in the decades that follow.
5 – What the Hell Happened to Me! – Adam Sandler
Adam was already a star by the time this CD came out. SNL propelled him to the head of the comedy class, and his first album sold extremely well. “What the Hell Happened to Me!” took Sandler from our living rooms each week, and put him on the radio 24/7 with “The Chanukah Song.” It also showed why Adam was so popular – because his comedy wasn’t mean or ordinary, but rather because he had the ability to be mischievous, and never take anything too seriously. People who only know Sandler from the movies will be surprised at how good his stand-up was.
4 – Shut Up You Fucking Baby – David Cross
This extraordinary double CD set, recorded during Cross’s 2002 tour showed him at his bitter best. Tracks like “Monica Lewinsky and the Three Bears” show the type of wonderful incongruity Cross used to make his often-political points.
3 – The White Album – Lewis Black
The best-kept secret in comedy broke out with a vengeance on the Daily Show, and the White Album, Lewis’ 2000 debut, served notice that he was a comedy force to be reckoned with. Filled with the classic bits that Black honed over the previous 2 decades, it perfectly captures Black’s “man in rage” style, and presents it effortlessly to the listeners.
2 – Shanks for the Memories – Dave Attell
Dave uses observational style placed within well-crafted, brief stories, usually focusing on the darker side of humanity. “Shanks” surprisingly highlights Dave’s vocal nuances, and serves as a wonderful introduction into Attell’s wicked and funny musings.
1 – Dress to Kill – Eddie Izzard
The CD version of his groundbreaking HBO special, dressed to kill is heady, politically savvy with a worldview, yet presents it all with tongue firmly planted in cheek. Already a classic, it’ll improve with age.
25 – This is a Recording – Lilly Tomlin
“I loved Lily Tomlin’s album. I listened to Ernestine and imitated her at the dinner table. Granted I was 27.”- Wendy Liebman
Most people remember her as a groundbreaking actress, but most people forget she was a breathtaking comedian. Lilly Tomlin breathed life into every character she created. While her best medium is undoubtedly visual, This is a Recording showcases her great comedic gifts, and her crisp writing style; it contains many of her lovable characters from Laugh-In, as well as some blisteringly funny new characters.
24 – A Wild and Crazy Guy – Steve Martin
“The first comedy album to have an impact on me as a kid was Steve Martin’s A Wild And Crazy Guy. Of course I was like 12 or something then but his sense of humor informed everything I thought was funny for quite some time. Absurdity has always appealed to me I suppose. When he hosted SNL in 1980 and the musical guests were my favorite band Blondie, I was in heaven!” - Chris Young, Comedy Central
Goofy, campy and fun, Martin used absurdist jokes, and a goof ball style to skyrocket him into the stratosphere of comedy. King Tut showed that a comedy song could once again be viable on the music charts. Note how every verse is loaded with jokes. This bit opens with Martin doing something amazing – a callback to a bit he did a year earlier. This album is Steve Martin in all of his arrow through the head, white suit glory.
23 – To Russell, My Brother Whom I Slept With – Bill Cosby
“He does a 20 minute sketch about him and his brother Russell in the same bed one night when they were kids. He sets it up so beautifully. You can actually see the apartment, the bedroom, even the bed all in your mind. The bit has it all -- comedy, suspense even a little drama. And then he gracefully ends the bit just how he started. Which gives the sketch a nice button and the audience knows the monologue is over.” – Wali Collins
This was the 5th of 6 consecutive Grammy winning comedy albums for Cosby. (He had 7 in total for comedy, plus 2 more in the children’s category.) Cosby took his time, and weaved brilliant visual pictures for his audience, and those pictures translated to records perhaps better than any other comedy artist. This record in particular, because of the emphasis on childhood, seemed to touch a cord in comedians. When you consider the sheer amount of material Cosby put out from 64 - 70 it boggles the mind.
22 – The Sick Humor of Lenny Bruce
“I listened to Lenny and loved him. I wore out the Green Album. He was prosecuted when he should have been treasured. He busted doors down and created new fuckin’ ways to laugh. He'd be rolling over in his grave if he knew he was pardoned by Pataki for a 1960 obscenity bust. A little too late you Republican motherfuckers! I loved him. I still love him. Remember Lenny.” – Richard Pryor
This album, recorded in 1959, showed Lenny emerging as an artist. Lenny was more sure of himself here than he was on “Interviews of out Times” released the previous year; yet he still had not reached full stride as an artist. This album was the first time an artist dared to pack a social message into a funny bit on record, and Lenny did it in grand style with bits like Religions, Inc. In retrospect the humor wasn’t sick, only challenging.
21 – Comedy Minus 1 – Albert Brooks
If for no other reason, you have to get this album for the bit, “Rewriting the National Anthem.” Brooks does so many innovative and wonderful things on this album that it’s hard to mention just one. There are studio sketches mixed in with live stand-up. He uses satire and irony, wrapping these devices around top shelf punch lines, weaving intricate stories spiked with laughter. If you’re a comic, you’ll double over with laughter at “Memoirs of an Opening Act,” and if you just want to do comedy, Brooks ends the album with a sketch, where you at home play opposite him and George Jessel. Pretty out there stuff for 1973, and the comedy is still stands up.
20 – I Started Out as a Child – Bill Cosby
“I listened to Bill Cosby’s I Started Out as a Child. I found it to be an education in comedy.” – Dane Cook
This is the one that started it all. It started Cosby’s reign as the undisputed king of the comedy album. It was the first of 6 Grammy’s in a row that he earned, and it was one of four of his comedy albums that were in the top 10 at the same time. It had longevity, and originality. For those of you who only know him from his days as “The Cos,” this is where he started to form that family centered, sweet persona that he would one-day use to revive the sitcom, and take NBC from third to first in the ratings war. If you’re a story telling comic, this one is a must have in your collection.
19 – An Evening With Nichols and May
“One of the albums that influenced us was Nichols and May because they were hip and it was two people talking with great timing.” – The Smothers Brothers
Just over 40 minutes long, but what a 40 minutes it was! Nichols and May were quite possibly the best male / female comedy duo of all time. (Although George and Gracie would argue that.) As opposed to an album recorded in a club, this album is the soundtrack to their landmark Broadway show, and it allowed Nichols and May to do what they do best; perform extended pieces filled with clever lines, pathos, and some of the most biting satire the comedy world has ever seen.
18 – That Nigger’s Crazy – Richard Pryor
“The first comedy album that meant anything to me at all was Richard Pryor's "That Nigger's Crazy". My neighbor across the street sneaked and played his dad's copy for me, and it changed me completely. Since I was young, the Richard Pryor album initially appealed to me on a prurient-level, due to the graphic language and daring subject matter. But as I listened to it over the years, I discovered how superbly crafted it was, and how unbelievably well-structured the writing was.” - Lance Crouther
Comedy got a little more real and a whole lot less safe with the release of Pryor’s That Nigger’s Crazy. Gone was the notion that artists had to reflect a “Higher” standard, Pryor took the real, often gritty, and always hysterical life of the real person, and gave that person a voice on the stage. At a time when everyone was watching what they said, and not wanting to step on toes, Pryor came out and screamed his comedic agenda to the whole world. His comedy was an assault to anyone who even remotely believed they were in charge. Even the title was in your face. Other comics begged audiences for laughs; Pryor subjugated the masses. We laughed not because we wanted to, but because he demanded it. Although not the first album to showcase Pryor’s gritty style, it did reach a larger audience than his previous efforts, and it earned him the first of his 5 Grammy awards.
17 – Dangerous – Bill Hicks
“Dangerous and scary -I loved Bill Hicks and he died too fuckin’ young - god bless the motherfucker!” – Richard Pryor
Not since Pryor has there been a comedian who was hailed as an artist first. That changed when Bill Hicks matured into the icon he became. Dangerous, his 1990 debut album wasn’t the public’s first taste of Hicks, he’d done plenty of TV prior to that; it was however the first chance the public had to analyze his comedy. Like Pryor and Bruce before him, Hick’s bits seemed to find new levels of brilliance, and new veins of comedy every time you listened to it. Tracks like “The War on Drugs,” and “Smoking” have been analyzed, emulated and flat out ripped off by an entire generation of comics who came after him. Hicks is as much or more of an influence now, a decade after his death, as he was in life.
16 – The Two Sides of Dick Gregory
Given the fact that it was 1963, and the Civil Rights movement was putting the fear of god into a lot of white Americans, Dick Gregory must have filled them with sheer terror. Wit titles like; “Birth Control and Governor Barnett,” “Cuba,” “Income Tax,” “Ku Klux Klan,” “Chicago,” “Aid to Education,” “Ohio Politics and Housing Bill,” and “Impressing White People,” this Gregory album shined a bright light on America’s dirty little secrets, and did it with laughter. Gregory was popular in the college circuit, in fact by this time it was just about the only place he was working, so his comedy was reaching a younger, and decidedly more passionate audience. Although The Two Sides of Dick Gregory seems very dated now, the passion and energy infused into those bits will speak to every comic and comedy fan.
15 – Class Clown – George Carlin
"Class Clown was a landmark album in comedy. It showcases Carlin's myriad of skills (story telling, voices, wordplay) while exploring such topics as religion, politics, race and the classic Seven Words You Can Never Say on TV." – Ted Alexandro
This is the album that cemented Carlin’s immortality. It also gave birth to the most repeated list of obscenities of all time. Class Clown showcased Carlin’s new style, and cemented Carlin as a comic who speaks his mind, and doesn’t just do bits. If you were looking for the Carlin you knew from his first album, Take Offs and Put Ons, you were going to be shocked in a big way. He also went much further than he did on his second album, FM & AM. With Class Clown and FM & AM, Carlin left traditional gag driven comedy behind, and instead focused on comedy that showcased his observational gifts, his ability to find the common emotion among his unique life experiences, and his love of language. Even the language you weren’t supposed to use in public.
14 – No Respect – Rodney Dangerfield
“Rodney’s albums had the best one-liners ever, and are still classics to this date.” – Howard Berger
How did he remember all those jokes? They weren’t bits, just jokes; one-liners strung one after the other, on and on. Rodney was relentless in his presentation; every joke was funnier than the one before it. It was hard to imagine that he could keep it going. On top of that, Rodney created the most clearly defined comedy persona this side of Groucho. Every line defined his self-deprecating character, and his loser persona enhanced every line. He’s influenced a generation of comedians, including Adam Sandler who presented him with an award on “The Commies.”
13 – Mort Sahl at the Hungry i
Comics owe Mort Sahl so much more then they know. The style, the substance, even down to the casual clothing he wore were all Sahl innovations. Without him we would still be wearing suits, and praying for a gig at the Blue Angel or the Copacabana. Mort Sahl at the Hungry i is a great sampling of what makes Mort special. He is deeply political, and makes references to events and people in an unapologetic way – if you aren’t up on the events in question, too bad. All too often comics dumb it down, Mort challenged his audience to get the references, to know the facts; and usually they did. Although a bit slow paced by today’s standards, Mort Sahl at the Hungry i is a classic.
FIVE OBSCURE TREASURES
Some recordings were mentioned passionately, but alas not frequently enough to make the top 50. What follows are 5 largely overlooked recordings that everyone who loves comedy should listen own.
5 – Derek and Clive Live – Peter Cooke and Dudley Moore
Peter Cook and Dudley Moore recorded parts of this album at The Bottom Line in New York City. The rest of it was recorded in a studio while they were drunk off their asses. No social commentary, nothing political, just two blokes talking dirty and having a ball.
4 – Kick Thy Own Self – Brother Dave Gardner
Brother Dave was an ordained minister and a singer as well as a comedian. All of his pieces will seem dated when you listen to them, and some may even seem racist. However, Gardner was, in his time, widely popular, especially to southern audiences. “Kick Thy Own Self” is Brother Dave at his best, oozing charm, and putting together slick bits. I’ve never heard an audience laugh so much on a record.
3 - Black Ben the Blacksmith – Richard Pryor
This is Pryor’s concept album about an interracial romance in the old south “told” by a group of prisoners. Pryor weaves in enough voices, characters and stories to fill Parchment Farm prison. Most every bit is a classic, and the social message was decades before its time.
2 – The Complete Beyond The Fringe
Before Firesign Theatre, Before SNL, Monty Python, or even Laugh-In there was Beyond The Fringe. Fringe was four comedy writers/actors brought together to do a show at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. What they created was so brilliant that it went to London’s West End, Broadway, and eventually influenced every sketch group that followed. Get your hands on this recently released boxed set edition.
1 – His Royal Hipness – Lord Buckley
An off beat, west coast performer from the 50’s and 60’s, Buckley was a true jazz comedian. His bits were steeped in language. He told wonderful allegories, detailing the Christ story, the Gettysburg Address, and Jonah and the wale with such wonderful wording that it transcends comedy and becomes poetry. This album is a best of compellation, and it is the easiest one to find, however whatever you can get your hands on by Buckley, do it! He’s an undiscovered comedy legend.
12 – Mind Over Matter – Robert Klein
“Robert Klein's "Mind over Matter" was the reason I became a comic. I knew it by rote, especially the parts about Watergate and Agnew. Klein was doing political material in front of college kids and although I didn't realize it at the time, that's when I decided I wanted to do, the same thing.” - Barry Weintraub
Klein was a comic’s comic, and the reason why many performers got into the industry. He was intelligent yet accessible, and his comedy used so many of his tools to make you laugh. Klein is the comedic equivalent of a 5-tool player, he writes, acts, does characters, sings, and moves well, and he brings all of that with him onto the stage. Mind Over Matter was his second effort, and Klein showed that he wasn’t just a one hit wonder. Even though this recording is a bit dated, all the bits would still work on just about any comedy club stage.
11 – Lenny Bruce is Out Again
“When I was 12 and I think my mother opened a bank account and they gave her a choice of a toaster or a tape recorder/player, which she took. That must have been my birthday present because she wasn't fond of shopping, for me anyway...and I found her Lenny Bruce tape and listened to it ad naseum until I could do all the voices - Lenny actually did great accents. He was my first influence.” – Cory Kahaney
This is the last of Lenny’s albums, recorded shortly before his death. There are 2 pressings, the first an extremely rare pressing on “Lenny Bruce Records” that Lenny was virtually selling from the trunk of his car. The second, a re-mastering produced by Phil Spector is the one that most of us know. The bits are the same, however Spector edits out bits that didn’t get tremendous laughs, so the Phillies Records pressing is much shorter than the Lenny Bruce records version. Lenny was a defeated man by the time of this recording. Obscenity trials and drug addiction had gotten their claws deeply into Lenny, virtually crushing him as a person; however as an artist he was still at the top of his game. Lenny painted visual pictures using noises, a great jazz vocabulary and a cadence that was more akin to a singer phrasing a song then it was to comic patter. Brilliant!
10 – Comedian – Eddie Murphy
“I was young when comedy albums came out so I never really got into them However, I kept hearing about Eddie Murphy's album from all my friends that were older than me, and just because I knew it was wrong and not meant for my ears, I had to find a way to get it and listen to it. When I did listen to it, it made me feel great and grown up and one of the "big guys" I probably was laughing at the jokes along with everyone else pretending to get them all.” - Kerri Louise
Comedian was the LP version of the HBO special “Delirious.” Wow was Eddie on top of his game. The bits were full of characters, and voices, and stories; and the performance was without equal. Eddie’s youth and charisma helped make his performance even more spectacular. Sure the language was extreme, but the subject matter was wonderfully young and innocent. Just listen to “Ice Cream Man,” which avoided the comic cliché of using pain and anguish to fuel the art, and instead focused on the joy that was inherent in the subject. And like Pryor before him, when you saw the video of the performance, there were even more comedic nuances to discover.
9 - STAN FREBERG PRESENTS THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, VOLUME ONE
“I use Stan Freberg as a beacon. He is more satire than standup, but his development of story, of character helps me when I am setting up. Stan also loves to play with stereotypes, not racial, per se, but overall.” - Pat Adler
Stan Freberg was already a Grammy winner when this album came out in 1961. This was something unique, a comedy concept album! Along with The First Family, When You’re in Love the Whole World is Jewish, and Pryor’s Black Ben the Blacksmith, it defines the sub-genre. It was a musical romp through American history starting with Columbus, and going through the American Revolution. Each song is superb, packed with punchlines, and performed by an expert cast. Freberg has a master’s ear for parody and satire, as witnessed by parodies from earlier works like “St. George and the Dragonet,” and this recording shows that high comedy is also high art.
8 – Why is There Air? – Bill Cosby
“Bill Cosby combined storytelling, stand-up, and vocal characterizations to create incredible comedic performances. These were hold-your gut, laugh out loud routines, and it was all the more incredible because they were recordings, without the benefit of any visual aid whatsoever.” Rod Reyes
Cosby told stories, and the stories were always funny. He did so many voices and sound effects you saw the situations when you heard the bits. “Why is There Air?” in particular showcases Cosby’s gift of transforming us to a younger, happier time. Although the first few Cosby albums were short, they packed a lot of comedic punch into every bit; and because the subjects are so personal, it sounds like it could have been recorded just yesterday.
7 – The Button Down Mind of Bob Newhart
“As far as comedy albums go, my all time favorites are anything by Bob Newhart. I love the way he was just as funny on the albums as he was on TV. I laughed a lot every time I heard them.” Greg Vacarello
1960 was a hell of a year for Newhart; his other album, “The Button Down Mind Strikes Back!” got him the Grammy for Best Comedy Album. The Button Down Mind won for Album of the year! (The first comedy album ever to do that.) It’s no wonder that he was named The Best New Artist of 1960 at the Grammys. Decades before the public was aware of the effects of the media, Bob was lampooning them with bits like “Abe Lincoln Vs. Madison Avenue.” Bob also was highly stylized, using the phone as a prop, letting us only hear his side of the conversation. He forced us to use our imaginations, and participate in the discussions by doing so. He is one of the most imaginative performers ever.
6 – FM & AM – George Carlin
“When I saw George Carlin on The Tonight Show I was floored. He hit every note for me. He plugged his first album that night, FM & AM. I took all of my allowance money and bought that record and played it probably a thousand times, memorizing all of the bits and performing them for my friends and in class at school.” – Eddie Brill
The 1972 album was controversial because of its strong content, and frank material about drugs. Sure Pryor also touched on these areas, but Pryor’s core audience was believed to be black; Carlin was a legitimate danger to hit the mainstream. Little did they know that not only would he get mass recognition, but also along with Pryor he would set the bar for what comedy could be. FM & AM won Carlin the first of his 4 Grammys, although he had to wait 21 years to get his next one.
5 – Standup Comic – Woody Allen
“I remember being blown away by this album the first time I heard it and every time subsequent to that. It's like a master's class in comedy writing. The material is so fresh and unique that when you're done laughing you just shake your head at the originality. One listen to "The Moose" is all you need to be convinced.” – Ted Alexandro
Woody was dragged kicking and screaming onto the stand-up comedy stage. For several years he toiled around small clubs, and the infrequent nightclub gig in order to smooth his transition from comedy writer to comedy legend. This album, a compilation of two limited releases from the 60’s, shows exactly how innovative and smart a comic can be. “The Vodka Ad” is loaded with subtleties, and every bit foreshadows the nebbishy, neurotic character that Woody would portray in his early films.
4 – The First Family – Vaughn Meader
“Vaughn Meader was an influence because we, and everyone, were in love with the Kennedys.” – The Smothers Brothers
The First Family was probably in your parent’s record collection. It was probably worn down past the point where you could listen to it anymore. The album was a collection of satiric sketches about the Kennedy family. Although there were a few voices on the record, Vaughn Meader stole the show. This record was more than a comedy album, it was a phenomenon; it was the fastest selling record in history. The 1962 Album of the year, and comedy record of the year; The First Family captured America’s obsession with Camelot, and brought it into your living room. Although the recording would appear to be dated, our obsession with Kennedy still lingers, so the comedy, and the record are as viable now as they were back then. As meteoric as Vaughn Meader’s rise was, he fall was even swifter. When JFK was gunned down, nobody wanted to see, or hear from Meader again. How bad was it? Lenny Bruce put it best: "They put two graves in Arlington; one for John Kennedy and one for Vaughn Meader."
3 – Child of the 50’s – Robert Klein
“Robert Klein’s Child of The Fifties probably influenced me the most. It was smart, very funny and original, with a New York edge I could relate to. I saw him on The Tonight Show and thought he was the funniest comedian I'd ever seen. Once I got the album, I imitated Robert Klein and did his routines to friends. His comedy inspired me to become a standup comedian, and his influences are evident in my comedy today.” – Scott Blakeman
Baby boomers finally had a voice of their own in the Bronx raised Klein. His bits were short, focused, and oddly nostalgic. This album lacked the political edge of “Mind Over Matter,” But what it did have was a brash newness, and a firm announcement that this generation had arrived. Klein, Carlin, Pryor and to a lesser extent Freddie Prinze combined to change the public perception of comedy from Foster Brooks and Jose Jimenez, to a younger and hipper art form. Social protest, counterculture lifestyles, race, sex, drugs, and even religion were now acceptable topics; and Child of the 50’s, perhaps more so then any other comedy album signaled the beginning of the new wave.
2 – The Carnegie Hall Concert
“The most influential album to me was The Carnegie Hall concert. It was a midnight concert during a huge snowstorm and he was at the top of his game - before all the busts. The mike kept going out, and he riffed, and it is still the best album – ever, ever, ever! Especially when you think of what he was saying.” - Will Durst
How powerful was Lenny Bruce as a performer? It was a late show, during a blizzard, with no cabs running in the city, and still people turned out for his show. This 1961 release was recorded during the period that most people feel Lenny was at the top of his game, before the arrests and drugs took their toll. Lenny was crisp, weaving through a monstrously long set that was filled with topics like the KKK, the flag, Communism, Christ, Pills, his arrest, and Shelly Berman. This set showed Lenny in all his glory, rambling from premise to premise like a jazz musician jumps between cord structures, moving the audience with him. His style was effortless and intense at the same time, and he dared the audience to think as they laughed – and thoughtful comedy may just be his true and lasting legacy.
1 – Richard Pryor Live on the Sunset Strip
"The thing that hits you when you listen to any of those albums is that Richard Pryor never sells out his characters -- whether it's an animal, a woman or even a Klansman, he comes at them from his humanness and that, combined with comedic brilliance, is why he is still the greatest of all time. " - Colin Quinn
Just 18 months after suffering third degree burns on the entire upper half of his body, Richard Pryor records two nights at the Hollywood Palladium. What results is a masterpiece blend of comedy and honest human pathos, Live at the Sunset Strip. People thought Pryor was done. Who could possibly come back after something like that and be funny? Turns out Pryor not only could regain his position as the best comedian in the world, he raised the bar, and performed material that was so profound, so personal, that the audience could feel every word, relate to every experience, and laugh at every reference. It left a generation of comics awe struck. How personal was the material? Jennifer Lee Pryor, Richard’s wife told me that Pryor himself felt that it nearly killed him, and saved him at the same time. One bit in particular, “Freebase,” stands as possibly the greatest comedic piece of material ever. It’s long, and holds on tight to a single premise. Pryor took an experience that was uncommon and horrific, infused them with emotion, and created a bit that is easy for the audience to access, and perfect in presentation. “Hospital,” which follows on the record, takes us even deeper into the Pryor’s agony, and allows us to understand his experience completely. There is good reason why so many comics pointed to this record as the top comedy recording; it is one of those rare times where a great performer becomes ever greater as we experience him.
Once HBO came into being the way we experienced stand-up changed. The comedy album lost its luster, and now most of us have the DVD and not the LP. But for over 3 decades these records shaped the popular perception of what is funny, and defined the popular sense of humor. I think Eddie Brill put it best “These comedy albums were all great and instrumental in my comedy development because they made you visualize what was going on. It gave my mind the chance to work, and not only did it stimulate my body and soul, but I laughed out loud. And there is nothing more satisfying than that!”
Break your favorite out and spend some time with an old friend.