The 10 Comedy Albums You Need to Own
As many of you may know, this last Friday I set upon recording my first full length Stand-Up album. It was quite the experience, and put all my skills and experience in sharp relief. To prepare myself, and see what does well on vinyl and what doesn’t, I listened to every comedy album in my collection. After days of living in a pair of headphones, here is a list of the 10 albums I think everyone should have in their collection. I’ve not included my own… but there is always next year's list.
Please remember that with all the lists I make here for Crave I tend to omit the obvious choices. So yes, Eddie Murphy's "Raw" and Bill Cosby's "Himself" should be on your shelf too, but I consider those “wrote” and you don’t need me telling you how great they are. Of course all comedy has a style, and some styles resonate with some ears and not others. If this isn’t your list, I would be interested in what would be on it. Tweet me care of @SaxCarr and I’ll put a list together of fan favorite albums for an upcoming week.
#10 – Steve Martin "Born Standing Up" (book on tape)
I’ve put this at number 10 because it is very definitely NOT a comedy album. But this reading of an auto-biography by its author, who happens to be a comedy legend, should be required listening for all comedians and comedy fans world wide. It’s funny, of course, but mostly it's informative and humanizing about the struggle of a performer and his art. I think it should come bundled with a few of Martin’s comedy albums throughout his career so you can chart his progression as he discusses those times in his lives, as I did when I first read this book in paper form. I can not more highly recommended this book, or book-on-tape, then saying it is probably the closest you will ever come to understanding the spark of genius that people like Steve Martin clearly posses. But as this is a list of comedy albums, I’d say if you want to scour the Steve Martin discography I would recommend ‘Lets Get Small’ his first and best. Also on the topic of books ABOUT comedy, check out COMEDY AT THE EDGE by Richard Zoglin… or wait around and I’ll finally review it for this site.
#9 Shelly Berman – "Inside Shelly Berman"
Let me say up-front that this was the first comedy album I ever listened too, and part of my love for this record may be that it was my comedy “first date”. Still, I think the record deserves the praise. Berman was one of the first of the vaudevillian style performers to define what would be later considered “stand-up”. His album is more a selection of one-man sketches then the setup/punch jokes that permeate the medium today. Still you can still hear the style he created in many of today’s famous comedians, even if the audiences no longer have the patience for bits as long as Berman presents. Easily the stand out bit on the album is set on an airplane and will forever make “Coffee, Tea, or Milk?” into a catch phrase between you and friends who have listened to the album. For further listening grab “Outside Shelly Berman” for more of his amazing razor sharp observations. Oh, and after listening to one or both of these albums, meditate on how much of comedy is derivative of these early giants. I will say the view from their shoulders if pretty amazing.
8. Bob Newhart – The Button Down Mind of Bob Newhart
It saddens me that many people today don’t know how amazing Bob Newhart really is. He represents a legend in the world of comedy and has excelled in almost every aspect of the business. Before the half-dozen or so television shows that bore his name, he recorded some of the most consistently funny records that have ever existed. Newhart pioneered and perfected the “phone” bit and most of his jokes are just one side of a conversation that somehow expertly expresses the other side with just reactions and pauses. Each of these tracks is pure gold, such that its hard to find a favorite, but “Abe Lincoln Vs. Madison Avenue” is probably the most influential both socially and artistically over time. For further listening check out “The Button-Down Mind Strikes Back” which was released later that same year (1960) and includes some of his more memorable routines.
7. MITCH HEDBERG – Strategic Grill Locations
Jumping from stand-up’s founding fathers to its more recent legends we have Mitch Hedberg in his debut album. I’ve been trying to avoid recommending “EVERY ALBUM” from some of these comedians because it seems like cheating. I very carefully considered everything Hedberg released, including his recent posthumous album, and it came down to this his first release. Nothing really compares to the first time you hear Hedberg’s VERY unique style. This album has captured that moment for me and allowed me to relive it over and over. Hedberg is one of my heroes and I’ve spent a long time learning about his career. There is a strong chance this album was recorded during a time when he couldn’t even look directly at audiences and often played with his back to the crowd, or laying on his back in the middle of the stage. One listen to this gem and you'll realize he never had ANYTHING to be embarrassed about. The album is all great and each joke so bite-size you can fall in love with dozens. I’m partial to “Smacky the Frog” but I find a new joke to love on every listen. While researching the album for this article I found out where the album takes its name, which is an unreleased joke that never hit the final pressing. I’ll include the text of it here because I find the message of the joke so inspirational:
“See I'm a dreamer, man, and when I was a cook I'd always work with people who weren't dreamers. Like, I was cooking at this restaurant and I put a hot dog on the grill and my kitchen manager came over, and he said, "Mitch, put the hot dog up here, in the right hand corner of the grill, so in case you get a whole bunch of orders at once you have all this space available." See that's how I knew he wasn't a dreamer, 'cause the day I give up my dreams is the day I have strategic grill locations. A dreamer has a philosophy: The entire grill is hot.”
May your entire grill be hot, dear readers, and may you own this album for the love of all that is sacred.
#6: Sarah Silverman – "Jesus is Magic"
I should probably be honest here and say I tend not to be a fan of Sarah Silverman. I am sure she could give a shit if I am or not, but I’ve just never seemed to vibe with her style. So much was my surprise when a comedian friend of mine sat me down to listen to this album. Needless to say, I was very very impressed. There is no begrudging that Silverman has a gift for comedy, but this album is pretty close to being a piece de resistance. Sarah’s gift for pushing the absurd across as being normal, which is all at once unsettling and hilarious is undisputable. I still listen to this album from time to time and slowly but surely I am coming around to the Sarah Silverman fanbase. It may never happen, but this album will always be one of my favorites. I suggest this album with a beer and enough time to listen to the whole thing in one sitting. The pacing here is fantastic and you’ll barely stop laughing before she hits you again with something even more insane. Come to think of it, the Sarah Silverman Program was pretty good too… Ok. Maybe I do like her. Huh.
#5: Robert Schimmel – "Unprotected"
I can still remember the first time I saw Robert Schimmel. I was already performing comedy myself at the time and as I flipped off his TV special (I think it was on HBO) I decided I had a long way to go. Schimmel is one of those people that really made comedy seem like something that was NOT for everybody. Listen to his album and you’ll get the impression that you have to be BORN this good. He was amazing, and his recent death was a sad loss to the craft. I feel like he came into his own with this album, which seems to typify his truly unique style. Its shocking, its in your face, sometimes its even too hardcore to be funny, but after the comedy work out you walk way feeling refreshed and better. Nothing would better serve the memory of this champion then to own this, and as many of his albums as you can. Also his book “Cancer on Five Dollars a Day (*Chemo not included)” is one of the best books on the healing (and coping) power of comedy. I could write forever about Schimmel’s willingness to share his entire tumultuous life with his audience but learn for yourself and put this album in your collection.
#4: Doug Stanhope – From Across The Street
Stanhope and Schimmel share a number of qualities, not the least of which is their bold stage presence and willingness to leave no stone unturned. Aggressive and verbally powerful, Stanhope is an experience more then a person and you feel that more and more as his discography progresses. This latest album contains the same shocking, funny, jaw dropping, invasive style that makes the man a great comedian. More then previous works this feels very comfortable from the veteran performer who is clearly finding his grove more and more. While many comedians seem to hit a peak and then produce album after album that could be counted as “also-rans”, Stanhope is progressing nicely. Go pick up this one for your collection and for surviving your days when you are mad at the crazy nature of humanity. Keep an eye out for his next disc too, as if the pattern stays consistent that one will again be even better.
#3 Eddie Izzard – "Dress to Kill" (and everything before it)
Eddie Izzard seems to many Americans to be one of the smartest and cleverest comedians to ever perform, and this is very true. Some of his success however does stem from being the first comedian to sell the “British style” of standup to the American audience. But even seen in this light, he is one of the very best to ever walk the stage (in a dress or otherwise). While on the subject, if you like Izzard don’t be afraid to add a few more British stand-ups to your collection too, Bill Bailey for example should be right up your ally. Now back to Izzard: Its hard to find an album in his labyrinthine discography that really is his best, but Dressed To Kill seems to be the place where he really found his pantyhose-clad legs. So if you must own only one album by this comedy trend-setter I’d pick up Dressed, but anything previous to this album is equally good, and I listen to pretty much all those tracks of shuffle and never have a problem. His later works grow progressively less inspired (in my humble opinion) as I think the pressure to produce at his amazingly fast rate has worn down his creative process, but that said these albums all contain a fair amount of gold and are worth picking up if you are an Izzard purist. Oh, and if you need any more evidence as to why “Dressed To Kill” is Izzard’s pinnacle album it contains the phrase “Cake or Death”.
#2 David Cross – (ALL)
David Cross has a rare ability to mask his anger at some of the dumbest parts of our society in a frothy mess of well worded snappy comedy that I think all people should be legally obligated to listen to. I remember watching Cross on some now forgotten comedy show doing a bit about assisted suicide vs. religion that was simultaneously the smartest and funniest thing I had heard in months. I have everything David Cross has released and I decided not to try and cut it down to the “best of the best” and instead recommend all of it, and I MEAN all of it, not just any of it. Strangely I think Cross also typifies most of the styles represented in this list. He easily combines the story telling of Berman and Newhart with the insight of Headberg and the caustic vitriol of Schimmil and Stanhope. There is an irreverence to Cross that I once worried would offend his listeners who didn’t agree with his very specific politics but he’s reached a level of funny that often makes those who disagree laugh with that “Oh you got me!” mentality. Listen to David Cross, and own his albums. You’ll thank me.
#1 George Carlin – "Its Bad for Ya"
I almost included Carlin on this list as another “ALL” candidate. George Carlin really never had a bad album, and this includes all his pre-subversive albums that included simple easy jokes like “The hippy dippy weatherman”. In truth you should at least listen to his whole discography once, just to see the transitions of a comedian who started with one style, mastered it, and then took up another and mastered that. He really was a renaissance man of comedy. I ended up choosing “Its Bad for Ya” mostly because I feel its Carlin’s deliberate message from beyond the grave. I think the comedy great knew his time was probably up and wanted to leave something behind to remind people of the message he had been working on teaching us for so long. The last track: You Have No Rights is close to his opus… and the album has more then a few pieces that deal with death, and in no small way his own.
In “A Brief History of the World: Part 1” Mel Brooks calls his character a “Stand Up Philosopher”. I think this is true of Carlin as well, who was more then anything a Stand Up Philosopher, and easily the greatest. You should own this album as a comedy mainstay and as a reminder about the parts of society we all to often forget.
So that’s it, 10 albums you should own. But honestly there could be 100 more. Comedians, at least the good ones, are treasures who’s albums should be sealed away for future generations. These records, which lead to hours of laughter, are also a time capsule for the problems of our day. If you need any reminding of how much these performances reflect our times I encourage you to listen to ANY Bill Hicks. Which reminds me, you should own his albums to. So there’s 11 recommendations. You’re welcome.