The death of George Carlin, the astringent stand-up comic, recently has caused me to reminisce about something that was dear to my heart and a great influence to my sense of the world: the comedy album. I came of age in the late 60s and early 70s, a time when comedy was evolving from the buttoned-down decorum to the counterculture hero. This is when George’s comedy took flight. His irreverent and tempestuous social commentary examined the absurdities of everyday life that I was trying to come to grips with.
Follow for yourself the metamorphosis from Take-Offs and Put-Ons to FM & AM, followed by Class Clown, Occupation: Foole, and An Evening With Wally Lambo. Politicians, advertisements, religion, the media and conventional thinking were all fair game in his routines.
The first comedy album to cross my path was from my father’s collection. It represented the button-down comedy generation. The First Family was a collection of satiric sketches about the Kennedy family, where Vaughn Meader stole the show as the President. I would roll on the floor, in stitches, as the first family perfused our living room. Apparently, this was the fastest-selling record in history. This was followed by My Son the Nut by Allan Sherman. I would sing “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah” to and with my friends. The subjects and the punchlines were always funny. They were soft-hued and delightful.
My father has a friend who owns and runs a classical music radio station in Cleveland—WCLV FM. Bob, the friend, had a show where he played bits from all sorts of comedy albums. My dad and I would listen to the show together. The comedy that I loved the most, on his show, was from An Evening With Nichols and May—Mike Nichols and Elaine May. They were hip, extended pieces filled with clever lines, pathos and biting satire.
I lived a short distance from Shaker Square in Cleveland, Ohio. There used to be a small record store there that I would frequent. I would walk from my home and enter the store full of anticipation for what would be waiting in the comedy bin. I would work for my parents or for neighbors, just to raise enough money to buy new records, especially anything new from Bill Cosby. He was my favorite. In fact the only surviving artifact from this era is a scratched copy of To Russell My Brother Whom I Slept With. I love to pull it out every now and then. His visual pictures come to life every time I listen to it. When my wife and I married, I used to jokingly say while in bed, “This is my side of the bed” in one of the characters voices, and she would respond by saying, “What are you talking about?” Comedy references can be so personal and arcane.
Here are some other albums that need to be mentioned as all-time greatest comedy albums:
*The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart—Bob Newhart. It is highly stylized, often with Bob using a phone as a prop but letting us hear only one side of the conversation (Abe Lincoln vs. Madison Ave.).
*The Devil Made Me Buy This Dress—Flip Wilson. With his alter-ego, Geraldine, Flip helped open the door to African-American performers. It won the Grammy for best comedy album of 1970.
*The Wonderful World of Jonathan Winters—Jonathan Winters. This album is not about jokes, but about the characters he creates. It demonstrates how creative comedy can be. Talk about voices in someone’s head. Watch out!
*Derek and Clive Live—Peter Cooke and Dudley Moore. Just two blokes drunk off their asses and having a good time.
*Child of the 50’s—Robert Kline. This is smart, funny, and original. Robert was one of my favorite comedians appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show. He lacked the political edge of some of his contemporaries, but he did show that the baby-boomers had arrived (younger and hipper).
*Standup Comic—Woody Allen. If you have never heard Woody’s standup act, you have to get a copy of this. It is a classic in comedy writing.
Do any of you have any favorite comedy albums that you would like to share? Leave a comment if you do.