Re-Formatting the Comedy Album

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Comedy is by nature an adaptable art form. While standups are at home on stage in front of a mic telling jokes, they know how to adjust their methods for a different type of entertainment. When a comedian writes a book, or makes a movie or TV show, they are clearly working within that medium and bringing their sensibilities to bear on it. Monologues become satirical essays, random thoughts become tweets, stories and family experiences become sitcoms. Mulaney, the show, knows it still needs sets and stories and other characters despite its seemingly cut-and-paste appropriation of the title comedian’s on-stage act. When bringing your act to the big or small screen, it’s a good idea to make the most of the format. In fact, for film and television the only exception to this rule would be standup specials and concert films, which are more like documents, supplements to a pre-existing performance.

Yet this exception is the rule for one of the most popular types of entertainment in the past fifty years. The album, as a format, remains an ubiquitous pop-culture artifact, despite constant decries of its death. Since the late sixties, musical artists have been using the album to explore and expand their art, limited only by the length of disc (first vinyl, later compact). It’s a medium seemingly tailor-made for comedy, giving comedians a chance to craft unique listening experiences that only work without a visual aid. However, despite the added freedom of the format, nearly all modern comedy albums amount to the same thing: A comedian, on stage, doing a live set in front of an audience. If musicians were this unimaginative, we’d have nothing but live albums, and nothing close to the polish of Abbey Road.

But it’s not as if comedians have never tried to do something special with the album format, or that there aren’t weird non-standup outliers in the pantheon of great comedy albums. In fact, from the very beginning of the album’s heyday, comedians were using long players for unique experiences. As early as the late 60s, groups like The Firesign Theatre and Monty Python meticulously crafted bits, songs, and skits that flowed into one another, made sound effects-laden callbacks, and even tried to mess with the listener’s head. Python was especially devious in this last regard, incorporating fake record scratches and skips, even going so far as to release an album (1973’s Matching Tie and Handkerchief) with interlocked grooves that would play different sides depending on where the needle was dropped.

But sadly, as the popularly of standup made its way to records, this type of innovation faded from the format. While performers such Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner would continue to release albums as characters, such as their popular 2000 Year Old Man series, the presentational aspect of a live show was always there. A comedy album represented a recording of a show, one you could enjoy in the comfort of your own home. While comedians were happy to embrace conventions such as unique cover artwork or throw in the occasional skit or musical number (Rappin’ Rodney, Rodney Dangerfield’s one-song stab at what the kids were into comes to mind), standup sets remained the centerpiece of recorded comedy.

This begs the question of whether or not a full-on format-embracing comedy album could even be possible in today’s landscape, and what it would even resemble. For a prime example, one only needs to look to 2000, and Chris Rock’s Grammy winning Bigger and Blacker. What’s so interesting about this album is that it follows many standup-only album conventions while simultaneously breaking into new ground. Based on his HBO special of the same name, it could easily have been a straightforward, audio only version of his set. But from the first track – a lounge singer version of Rock introducing his greatest “hits/bits” – it’s clear that listeners are in for a different experience. In fact, more than half the album’s run-time is given over to musical interludes, skits, and sound-effect collages that were designed specifically for the album.

A lot of the credit for this material goes to producer Prince Paul, known for work on early De La Soul albums and as part of Handsome Boy Modeling School (it’s name taken from an episode of surreal 90s Chris Elliot sitcom Get a Life), whose unique touch can be heard on almost every track. What’s crazy about Paul’s choice as producer is the fact that Rock even went with a producer at all. In fact, a lot of Bigger and Blacker’s design feels more like a hip hop album than comedy album, from its Pen & Pixel aping cover, to its ‘lead single’ and accompanying music video, “No Sex” (in the champagne room). The result is completely unique, and points toward what a modern day ‘experimental’ comedy album would resemble.

There have been other examples of comedians embracing the album format over the past two decades worth checking out. While a juvenile, slightly embarrassing nostalgia trip, Adam Sandler’s early albums are strangely fascinating in their mixing of sketches, songs, and characters without any conventional presentational material. While fellow 90s SNL alum Norm MacDonald’s first album Ridiculous is a complete left turn from the comic’s standup persona, comprising a collection of sketches and character pieces. Also worth checking out is 2005’s underrated Triumph the Insult Comic Dog album, Come Poop with Me, which remains the high water mark of bits, songs, and prank phone calls performed by an overly filthy washed up Catskills-style comedian who also happens to be a dog.

While comedians do continue to play around with the format of the comedy album, the fact remains that these types of records are few and far between on best-of lists and year-end write ups. Nowadays with podcasts, full sets on YouTube, and self-released streams on comedian’s websites, access to conventional standup albums has never been greater. Comedy is at its most enjoyable and exciting when it messes with convention, and an album that plays around with the conventional standup formula, and makes the most of its format, would be a welcome innovation.

Photo by Duncan.

Bill Grandberg is a freelance writer out of New York, and one third of comedy group Awful DJ.