April 29, 2010
Comedy, Part 3: Old White Guys
In the third part of my 4-part series on comedy albums worth knowing, I’m offering an alternative to last week’s entry about Old Black Guys and allowing the under-represented contingency of white male comedians to get a column.
Andy Griffith | The Wit & Wisdom of Andy Griffith
Though obviously best known now as a TV star, both on the sitcom named for him and as the wily old lawyer Matlock, Andy Griffith’s first gig in showbiz was retelling stories from history and literature in nightclubs. Definitely more of a monologist than a traditional stand-up, Griffith did for country bumpkins what Lord Buckley did for ‘50s beatniks. Where Buckley told the “hip” story of Jesus (renaming him “The Nazz”) and rewrote Shakespeare’s funeral oration from Julius Caesar to begin “Hipsters, flipsters, and finger-poppin’ daddies, knock me your lobes,” Griffith takes a similar tack, giving the story of Caesar’s murder an earthy spin so that Brutus replies, “Yup, me too.” Griffith also explains that Columbus decided to travel around the world because, “he hadn’t gone to camp or nothin’.” The best, and probably most famous, track from this album is “What It Was, Was Football,” where an utterly bewildered Griffith describes being shoved by a pack of people into a stadium to witness a sporting event he is completely unable to comprehend. Despite the title of the track, Griffith never does figure out what they call that sport where those fellers run up and down in that cow pasture chasing a pumpkin.
Bob Newhart | The Best of Bob Newhart
Bob Newhart, like Andy Griffith, is now best known for his TV work on two classic self-titled sitcoms, although his comedy albums are what put him on the map. His debut was the first comedy album to make it to #1 on the album charts, beating out “real albums” full of music. This compilation is a handy sampler to show you why Newhart’s so great (it has since been superseded by a 2-disc anthology of material from this period – but this particular collection is solid). Generally, a Newhart bit involves some high-concept idea – What if I was the security guard on duty in the building that King Kong decided to climb? What if modern-day PR people were already in place when Abe Lincoln was campaigning for president? – with Newhart making a speech or handling one half of a conversation (a lot of his bits are imaginary phone calls) with no partner to reply, leaving us to imagine the response of the crowd being addressed or the person on the other end of the phone. It’s simple, and yet it’s so deftly executed that the laughs come easily. I can’t really think of too many other comedians who worked like this, so this is one-of-a-kind stuff.
The Smothers Brothers | Sibling Revelry: The Best of the Smothers Brothers
I hope it doesn’t seem lame that I’m including 2 best-ofs in this column. You see, I have four Smothers Brothers records that I found at various used record shops that I like a lot, but unfortunately, they’re all out of print and some were never put on CD, so if I were to recommend just one of them to you, I might as well be recommending you check out the dodo next time you’re at the zoo. I’m not saying you won’t find it, but it ain’t very likely! So, a best-of it is. The Smotherses first hit during the urban folk boom of the ‘60s and their act is built around performances of standard folk tunes – songs about Daniel Boone and John Henry and the like – sometimes done completely straight, but often with some sort of spoken breakdown where Tom, the goofy brother, somehow misinterprets the song or makes some out-of-line remark that causes Dick, the straight, slightly pompous brother, to correct him. In this way, the brothers are able to do a polished folk act while simultaneously deflating various pomposities of the ‘60s folk scene. A perfect example is their performance of “Michael, Row The Boat Ashore” – stream it here — where Tom goes off on a long-winded Pete Seeger-ish ramble, trying to get the audience to sing along, by talking about filling the room with love: “People will be driving by… they’ll be in their car, and we’ll be in here singing. As they drive by, they’ll probably say, ‘What the hell’s going on–?’” Despite the stupidity of his plea – or maybe, because of it – he is able to get the whole room singing.
Don Rickles | Hello Dummy!
Everyone else in this column is funny, but pleasant – polite even (I mean, Newhart and the Smotherses’ milquetoast personas are part of what makes them funny). This guy, however, is a real troublemaker. For better or worse, Don Rickles is the godfather of insult comedy. Although he tries to put on a straight face and redeem himself with a wholesome message about togetherness during the closing moments of his set, it’s hard to swallow because Don Rickles has just been relentlessly mean to everybody that has come into his line of sight for the past half-hour or so. In fact, on first listen to this album, sometimes it’s hard to understand why the crowd at this Las Vegas show is even laughing. Rickles isn’t particularly witty, but he constantly says things that you just shouldn’t say – including tons of ethnic slurs – and, well, I guess, yeah, that shock does provoke laughter. And yeah, after repeated listens, the album is undeniably memorable. Rickles has only two albums, and they’re both more than forty years old, despite the fact that he continues to do shows. While it would be kind of nice to have a newer album from Rickles and hear him, say, put down celebrities who haven’t been irrelevant for nearly forty years, you’re left to assume that a new album would just have him making fun of other Mexicans, Arabs, homosexuals, and the like. So… yeah, I think we got the idea with this album. Thanks.