Comedy Records: The Million Selling Stepchildren of the Record Business
Next month, the late, great Bill Hicks will return to the album bins. When Hicks succumbed to pancreatic cancer at 32, he'd only released two albums. Another eight were released posthumously, and soon you'll be able to own all 10. If you want a funny, biting peek into what the world was like 25 years ago, you can't do any better.
Comedy albums are an afterthought for most collectors, stuck in that weird little bin in the back of the store that nobody ever visits. Once upon a time, though, they racked up sales figures similar to those of their musical cousins.
For the bulk of the technology age, audio was the only on-demand format. Prior to the home video explosion of the '80s, most everyone watched what was broadcast when it was broadcast. Now and then you'd meet some crazy old guy who collected 8 or 16MM prints of movies, but for the most part if you wanted to watch Jaws after its theatrical run, you had to wait for it to come to network television.
But audio, that was another thing entirely. By the tail end of the 19th century a middle class family could afford a phonograph, and that meant not only enjoying one's favorite music at any given moment, but also speeches, monologues and comedy.
The long forgotten comedian Cal Stewart was recording for Edison as early as the 1890s. Let's put that in perspective: Comedy records have been around for so long that Stewart was doing bits about "them newfangled bicycle machines":
New technology was a popular topic for early comedy records. Joe Hayman, who is considered the first comedy record star, had hits in the teens and '20s with records like "Cohen on the Telephone" and "Cohen Buys a Wireless Set," both featuring the hapless Cohen grappling with cutting edge technology.
Humorous songs predate Weird Al by several decades, too. Throughout the 1940s and '50s, Spike Jones and his City Slickers racked up huge sales with their sound effects-laden takes on well known songs. The City Slickers were a talented group of musicians with a sense of humor, arguably laying the groundwork for bands like Ween and Primus as well as becoming an essential part of any comedy record collection:
In the late '50s, comedy albums attained a certain level of credibility when The Best of the Stan Freberg Shows took home 1959's Best Spoken Word Grammy award. That was just the beginning: Two years later, The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart beat out Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole and Harry Belafonte for Album of the Year.
Newhart's genius was presenting one side of imagined conversations, like this bit about the marketing guys behind the Wright brothers:
Comedy took home Album of the Year again two years later, when Vaughn Meader's 7.5 million selling The First Family bested future classics from Tony Bennett and Ray Charles. We were entering the golden age of comedy records, a period that would last almost 20 years.
During the '60s, some of the most subversive records available were comedy records. On one end of the spectrum there was the political humor of Lenny Bruce, and on the other stood the party record genre. Redd Foxx and Moms Mabley were the king and queen of the party records. What's a party record? I'll let Foxx tell you:
Some of my earliest favorite records were '60s comedy albums from my parents' stacks: Bill Cosby's 200 MPH, Jose Jimenez's (Bill Dana's)The Submarine Officer. Alone in my room I could have my own little comedy show whenever I wanted, audience included.
As elementary schoolers during the '70s, though, we were enthralled with comedy records that were well beyond our age group. Having a friend over and dropping the needle on George Carlin's "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television" from Class Clown felt like a dangerous act, even if we didn't know what half of the words meant.
The distance between the humor and subversion of punk rock and Carlin was razor thin, separated only by three chords and a few safety pins. Not four years after Class Clown, the Sex Pistols caused a stir by making their way through several of Carlin's seven words on the British version of the Today Show.
Most comedy records captured live performances, but Cheech and Chong approached their albums as studio works -- scripted sketches accompanying songs like "Basketball Jones" and "Earache My Eye." There wasn't a kid on my playground who didn't know the words to "Earache," even if we didn't have any idea what "wearing high sneakers / and acting like a queen" meant. The song was such a part of my generation's pop culture consciousness that the Rollins Band covered it in 1990:
The '70s were also the era of novelty comedy records -- titles like "Disco Duck" and "Mr. Jaws," but even as a kid I preferred albums I had no business listening to at that age. Lessons I learned from Richard Pryor records decades ago still ring true.
The end of the decade belonged to Steve Martin, whose first two albums sold three million copies combined. There wasn't a kid in my neighborhood who couldn't recite A Wild and Crazy Guy word for word, and who probably still remembers at least half of it. What made Martin so great was the meta nature of his humor: He played the role of a bad comedian but somehow managed to let us in on the joke.
Monty Python, National Lampoon, Saturday Night Live -- if you couldn't watch the shows you could listen to the records. Dr. Demento compiled novelty hits, and the Bonzo Dog Band and Frank Zappa blurred the line between humor and music. (Zappa even released an album in 1986 entitled Does Humor Belong in Music?)
Sometimes the line was too blurry to make out. When 1984's This Is Spinal Tap dropped, the record store where I worked racked it in heavy metal rather than soundtrack or comedy, and the headbangers ate it up.
The Spike Jones-style song parody was back in full force in the '80s, courtesy of "Weird" Al Yankovic. The classic concert comedy album was still a market force, too: Robin Williams and Eddie Murphy both racked up huge albums during the decade, as did Steven Wright and Sam Kinison. At some point during the decade Rolling Stone anointed comedy "the new rock and roll." SCTV's Bob and Doug Mackenzie even had a top 20 hit with "Take Off," featuring Rush's Geddy Lee:
Comedy records were still selling big in the '90s. Andrew "Dice" Clay was huge for 15 minutes, and Jeff Foxworthy sold anywhere from 7 to 10 million albums. Adam Sandler racked up around 5 million sales during the decade, too.
Don't count the comedy album out. Even now, in the era of "on-demand/YouTube see whatever you want whenever you want," Dane Cook has coughed up two platinum albums. Jim Gaffigan and David Cross have released my genre favorites over the last 15 years.
As far as collectability goes, rarity is everything. At press time, the highest online auction prices belong to a pseudo-comedy album produced by fifth Beatle George Martin and a Laurel and Hardy 78 from 1932. That's good news for you, because you can probably hit your local record store right now and get some good deals on classic comedy records.
Who knows? Maybe you'll even find some Bill Hicks. That dude was brilliant.