May 10, 2010
Now, I come to the end of my 4-part series on comedy albums you need to know. I started off with stone cold classics from the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s. Then I continued to mine material from the same era by black comedians and by funny old white guys. For this last installment, I’m entirely skipping the ’80s and ’90s (nothing really funny happened then anyway) and bringing you four albums from this past, hilarious decade. Enjoy.
Maria Bamford always seemed like one of the weaker links in the Comedians of Comedy group (at the risk of angering comedy nerds, I would suggest Brian Posehn is the weakest). Maybe it’s because she’s a woman. (Probably.) When I found a used copy of this CD/DVD combo in Other Music for $2.99, I wasn’t expecting much. Damn, was I surprised. I immediately went and got all of Maria Bamford’s albums. Comedy comes from pain, and it’s obvious that Maria Bamford has led a painful life. She experiences not only standard-issue insecurity, but she has the kind of compulsions and crippling depression people go to doctors for. Her comedy relies on her playing different characters from her life, mimicking voices in a way that at first might seem too broad or gimmicky (that was my initial read). It turns out that Bamford’s voices may be big, but they’re not generic stereotypes; she makes very specific characterizations that bring a depth to her stories and make them resonate. This is even more pronounced in the webisodes of “The Maria Bamford Show” on DVD, where Bamford acts out scenes, playing all the characters (apart from her dog, Blossom).
When it comes down to it, Mike Birbiglia isn’t a groundbreaking comic. He’s pretty much your garden-variety observational comic, who leans more toward politeness than raunchiness (although he’ll stick a punchline in now and again that is less than family-friendly). In fact, the whole concept of this album is that he is doing bits he originally wrote for his blog. Birbiglia, however, is solid. He consistently churns out relatable and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny bits, as long as he stays away from his guitar. (The Achilles’ Heel of his albums are his “funny songs,” which are best skipped.) The topics range from Catholic school to George W. Bush to parents accidentally getting a porn computer virus. See? Nothing you haven’t been exposed to before. But Birbiglia’s average-joe persona makes it all pretty palatable and downright enjoyable.
April 29, 2010
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.
April 25, 2010
In the second part of my 4-part series on comedy albums worth knowing, I’m highlighting 4 albums by black comedians from the ’60s. (Next week is Old White Guys. Last week, if you missed it, was Stone Cold Classics). You’ll notice I didn’t include Bill Cosby or Richard Pryor. It’s not because I don’t love the crap out of their albums; I do (most of them). But this column is called “Hidden Gems,” not “Gems Everybody’s Heard Of.”
Godfrey Cambridge is remembered, if at all, as an actor who fluctuated between serious roles (unusually in blaxploitation flicks) and funny roles (like the bigoted whitey magically turned into a black man in Watermelon Man) the same way his weight fluctuated between heavy and slim. His stand-up work, though less remembered than his acting, is definitely worth checking out. During this set, taken from a show in Vegas (no doubt in front of a largely white audience), Cambridge deftly deals with racial issues in a showmanly fashion that neither alienates the white folks nor panders to them in stereotypical Stepin Fetchit style. Cambridge died at age 43 from a heart attack, probably from the constant back and forth with his weight, and this disc proves that a great talent was lost. You can hear the album over at this blog.
Redd Foxx | On The Loose Recorded Live
Redd Foxx is legendary for inspiring top black comedians like Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy, by making best-selling “party records” full of jokes about normally unmentionable things — mostly sex — starting in the ‘50s. This set is from the late ‘60s, and what is unusual to the modern listener is Foxx’s distinctly old-fashioned style. He tells jokes like your dirty-minded uncle tells you jokes — set-up, punchline, set-up, punchline — not like more observational or storyteller-type comedians of recent years. But he gets the laughs. My favorite joke from the album: “Do you know the difference between a light sleeper and a hard sleeper? A light sleeper sleeps with a light on and a hard sleeper can sleep through anything.”
April 15, 2010
I’ve slipped a few comedy albums into this column on occasion in the past, but I’ve barely scratched the surface of the albums you need to hear. In fact, while conceiving this entry, I came up with so many funny albums that I am going to make this Comedy Month (yeah, I know I started late, thanks) and spread all of them over 4 columns. This first batch consists of albums that are vital if you’re going to claim to have any worthwhile knowledge of humor in recorded form.
The Firesign Theatre | Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me The Pliers
The Firesign Theatre were The Beatles of druggy, Dadaist comedy, and Don’t Crush That Dwarf is their Sgt. Pepper’s. The album loosely constructs its sketches around the story of washed-up child actor George Leroy Tirebiter, who watches himself on TV all night. This set-up allows the group to create bizarro-world versions of commercials (one for “Napalmolive”), televangelists, courtroom dramas, game shows, and the like. A lot of the album consists of a ‘50s high school movie parody that plays like Archie comics on acid. Don’t Crush That Dwarf is best consumed as one 45-minute whole — and probably multiple times, to catch all the little asides that quietly populate the “backgrounds” of scenes, making this sort of the audio equivalent of a Zucker Brothers movie or Mad magazine.
Lenny Bruce | The Berkeley Concert
Lenny Bruce became a legend as the first comic to marry iconoclastic ideas to realistically R-rated language. Sure, comedians “worked blue” before Lenny Bruce, but they were just going for cheap, pervy laughs. Bruce had something to say: something numerous police departments were more than ready to bust him for. He broke down the barriers that led to the mainstream success of George Carlin, Richard Pryor, and countless other comics writing jokes about orgasms and cops. This amazing concert from 1965 is taken from his prime period, when he had shaken off the shtick-iness of his Catskills days in favor of a free-flowing stream-of-consciousness ramble, but had yet to become so obsessed by his legal woes that he would spend entire concerts dryly reading court transcripts. It’s hard to synopsize the highlights, because Bruce’s monologue feels less like a series of discrete bits and more like a good long bullshit session where the conversation flows easily and you’re never bored.