Music’s biggest night also has a funny bone. Attention may be on Adele’s performance, and who wins record of the year, but the Grammys will also dole out an award for best comedy album – a genre that’s witnessed a quiet renaissance over the last decade.
“It’s constantly refreshing, and it’s really amazing, the quality of stuff that’s coming out these days,” says Jack Vaughn, founder of Comedy Central Records.
Records based on comedy routines enjoyed a boom in the 1970s. George Carlin’s FM & AM went gold after its release in 1972. Toward the end of the decade, Steve Martin’s Let’s Get Small became the first comedy album to go platinum.
By the 1980s, however, the boom in home video and cable TV saw people turning away from comedy LPs. Well-known funny guys – Sam Kinison, Robin Williams, Eddie Murphy and Andrew Dice Clay among them – continued to put out albums, but by the turn of the millennium, numbers were dwindling.
“There were very few comedy records coming out,” says Vaughn, who in 2002 launched Comedy Central Records in part to help revive the genre. Now, he says, “The comedy record has been revived as an art form.”
The comedians contending for a Grammy this year are all well-known names: Weird Al Yankovic, Louis C.K., Patton Oswalt, Kathy Griffin and The Lonely Island, the troupe featuring Andy Samberg of Saturday Night Live fame. And most of them are on major labels. Yankovic shares the same label (Jive Records) as R&B singer Chris Brown, while The Lonely Island rubs shoulders with Canadian hip-hop star Drake at Universal Republic.
If comedy is back, though, the laugh track has changed: There are far fewer records with the mass appeal of a Martin album – and far more demand for comedy covering every imaginable niche. The scene has splintered but also grown with a number of independent record labels dedicated solely to producing comedy albums.
At least 125 comedy albums were produced last year, estimates Dylan Gadino, founder and editor of Laughspin.com, a site that covers the world of comedy. “That number keeps going up from year to year,” he says. “Despite the fact that there’s YouTube and other ways of watching or listening to comedians’ material, true comedy fans really want the definitive piece of work.”
For established comedians, an album is one more source of revenue. The big win, however, is for up-and-coming acts looking for an audience, says Ryan McManemin, co-founder of A Special Thing Records, a Los Angeles-based label that launched in 2007. “The L.A. scene was and is so vibrant. There was so much talent just at these free shows we could go to,” he says. “It was kind of ridiculous that a lot of those people didn’t have albums out.”
Of course, the labels themselves aren’t alone in pushing the comedy renaissance; iTunes has helped with a vast selection of funny stuff for downloading. Still, there’s something about a physical album – and the chance to consume comedy communally, says Las Vegas standup comic Brian Regan. “Comedy is more enjoyable when you’re laughing with other people.”