Like a lot of you, some of my earliest childhood memories involve a beat-up boom box and a shoebox filled with worn-out cassette tapes. My brother and I would spend countless hours in our room listening to these tapes, mouthing along to the words and choreographing complicated routines that pantomimed the performers’ descriptions. But while most kids were banging their heads to crappy glam-metal or perfecting their dance moves to the tunes of the day’s reigning pop princesses, we were memorizing stand-up comedy routines as we worshipped at the altar of the comedy album.
Those albums were the soundtrack to my childhood. Richard Pryor basically taught me how to curse, and for years I considered his Live on the Sunset Strip album a master class in the fine art of naughty words. I could argue that Sam Kinison’s Have You Seen Me Lately? was filled with more energy and rock-and-roll swagger than any of the hit records of the era. And to this day, with no practice or provocation, I can still recite word for word huge sections of Bill Cosby’s classic Himself routine.
Comedy albums hold a special place in my heart because they served as my gateway drug to the wide world of comedy. With the exception of a rare television appearance, these albums represented the only reliable intersection of my life and those of my favorite comedians. Though it’s difficult to recall a time when the entire world wasn’t just a few keystrokes away, it really wasn’t long ago that direct access to one’s comedy heroes was severely limited. You could catch a live show at your local comedy club, or maybe watch a standup special on one of a small handful of cable networks like Comedy Central or HBO. But beyond that, the comedy album was one of the few means of regularly connecting with all but the most famous of comedians; it was something tangible that you could own, replay, study and fetishize.
As I grew older, I continued to collect comedy albums at a ridiculous pace, spending my hard-earned cash on the latest albums from my favorite comedy icons, and even plunking down $15 a pop to take a chance on albums from up-and-coming comedians about whom I knew little more than their names. But over the last few years, my obsession with comedy albums has started to wane.
Is that because there are fewer great comedians on the scene or fewer albums of substance being released? Hardly. I’m a fan of more comedians working today than at any time I can remember (including just about everyone on this list). And the new masters are putting out albums at an impressive pace. Take Patton Oswalt, for example. Since 2003, Oswalt has released four amazing albums – 222 (Live & Uncut), Feelin’ Kinda Patton, Werewolves and Lollipops, and My Weakness is Strong – and a handful of EPs. That’s a pace that matches the output of George Carlin, Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor in their heydays.
With the realization that quality and availability aren’t the issue, I’m forced to answer a tougher question: In today’s ultra-connected internet age, do comedy albums still matter?
It seems like a weird question to ask, considering how important the album has been to the evolution of comedy over the last several decades. But, like everything else, how we consume comedy has changed dramatically, and never more so than during the proliferation of the internet over the last ten to fifteen years. Whereas access to professional funny people used to be almost nonexistent, now you can follow your favorite comedians on Twitter, treating yourself to a nearly endless stream of jokes, quips, observations and rants on the news of the day. You can listen to comics either sitting in as guests or hosting their own podcasts, some of which offer episodes as frequently as daily or weekly. And between YouTube, Funny or Die and comedians’ personal websites, you can access a mountain of video material that keeps you glued to your laptop while your significant other screams at you and insists you join her at the table for dinner like a grown-up (What? That happens to everyone, right?).
Best of all, almost all of this content is high quality, widely available and either free or really, really cheap. Unless you’re a collector who has to buy every album your favorite artist puts out to quiet the voices in your OCD-racked brain, you’re probably going to opt for the free stuff over the stuff that costs money nearly every time.
I’m not going to quote a bunch of stats related to comedy album sales figures and how they have changed over time. I mean, give me a break, I’m not Nate Silver. Plus, most of those stats are only available through Nielsen’s Soundscan service, and they expect you to pay a boatload of cash to access their precious database. Would you hand over the equivalent of your most recent paycheck to find out how many copies of Nut Sack Rodney Carrington sold in 2003? Yeah, me neither.
But consider this press statement from Comedy Central Records:
“Comedy Central Records was launched by Comedy Central in 2002 with the goal of reviving the comedy album, a genre that had seen a severe decline in sales and production over the prior two decades. Comedy Central Records has single-handedly brought back the comedy album and embraced the digital platforms as a means of reaching its demo.”
The creation of the label was a direct response to the shift in how people were consuming comedy in the early 2000s. And even though Comedy Central Records has put out some outstanding albums and claims to have experienced “spectacular growth during its first five years” (undoubtedly buoyed by the huge commercial success of Dane Cook’s Retaliation and Harmful if Swallowed albums), there’s no denying the fact that, in today’s crowded media landscape, the ultra-successful comedy album remains the exception rather than the norm.
It’s not just stand-up albums that seem to be losing relevance. If you remove stand-up comedy from the conversation, the state of the comedy album seems even more depressing. There are a few acts specializing primarily in musical comedy still making noise with their albums (Weird Al continues to make a nice living with his seemingly so-old-they’re-new-again song parodies, and The Lonely Island boys leveraged their exposure from Saturday Night Live to sell a couple hundred thousand copies of their 2009 album, Incredibad), but you could argue most of those acts have to rely on the accompanying de rigueur online video to go viral to have any shot of selling digital copies of their individual tracks, much less their entire albums. Even the oft-maligned prank-call genre, formerly dominated by acts like The Jerky Boys who rose to fame selling millions of albums in the 90s, is migrating to the web video platform where phony-phone callers can incorporate more visuals into their shtick with costumes or a roomful of friends trying to suppress their laughter.
So where does that leave the comedy album in 2010 and beyond? Given the verbal nature of comedy, there will always be a place for comedy recordings. There are plenty of artists and fans who still view the album as an important box to check on the proverbial comedy bucket list. There’s still a relatively healthy market for album versions of standup films or specials (in fact, an increasing number of comedy albums – including almost every album released through Comedy Central Records – include a companion DVD or some form of video content packaged along with the audio recording). And there still will be the rare performers who capture lightning in a bottle and become breakout stars based, at least partially, on the success of comedy albums, much like Dane Cook experienced in the mid-2000s.
But the same part of me that died a little bit when drive-in theaters started shutting down and Taco Bell started serving Doritos fears the days of comedy albums being an absolutely essential component of comedy fandom may be over. It seems to be a foregone conclusion that casual comedy fans will continue to get their fill on the internet, and even comedy nerds like myself are becoming more and more content to drink the milk for free instead of buying the cow.
Personally, my devotion to the comedy album will continue, albeit in a less fanatical fashion. But I still have that shoebox filled with cassettes sitting on a shelf in my closet, and I’ll continue searching eBay for a beat-up boom box so I can forever relive the comedy album glory days of my childhood.