There are as many dollars as there are jokes about airplane food in the comedy business nowadays. Jim Carrey, Mike Myers and Adam Sandler are three of the biggest box-office draws at the movies. There are clubs in just about every city in the country that feature live comedy and, at home, Canadians can watch a television network devoted to nothing but funny stuff.
Yet comedy albums -- the medium through which comics as varied as Bob Newhart, Bill Cosby, George Carlin and Andrew Dice Clay met crucial early success -- seem to have an increasingly negligible place in the industry. The inaugural Canadian Comedy Awards -- which take place in Toronto on April 6 -- have no category for comedy albums. CCA founder Tim Progosh explains that the show's initial focus is on stage, screen and TV and hopes that "more awards will be included as the marketplace demands it."
Yet albums used to be the centre of the comedy world, and many fans fondly recall formative evenings spent listening to their beloved records (invariably with a bong close at hand). "When I was 16 or 17 years old," says Mark Breslin, president of the Yuk Yuk's chain of comedy clubs, "we used to go over to people's houses, sit around and listen to Cheech and Chong albums, The National Lampoon Radio Hour and Bill Cosby. These albums were one of the primary ways of exposing yourself to comedy material. That almost doesn't exist any more."
The history of comedy albums dates back virtually to the beginning of recorded sound -- in the 1910s, Thomas Edison himself made recordings of his favourite comic, Cal Stewart. The Marx Brothers and W. C. Fields put out albums comprised of classic scenes from their movies. In the forties and fifties, radio comedy stars like Bob and Ray, Spike Jones and Stan Freberg made total use of the medium. Comedy albums did such big business in the early sixties that the likes of Bob Newhart had No. 1 records, and musical comedy acts like Allan Sherman and Tom Lehrer had bestsellers. Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce made political humour hip, and in the late sixties and early seventies, stylistic heirs like Bill Cosby (whose early standup material was more risky than his TV persona would suggest), George Carlin and Richard Pryor gained wide exposure through records. Groups like Firesign Theatre and National Lampoon combined the innovations of the radio-comedy greats with a countercultural sensibility. In the eighties and nineties, comics like Eddie Murphy and Steven Wright continued to release great albums, but the genre's profile declined as comedy's exposure on TV and video increased.
Now, comedy doesn't take up much room even in Canada's largest record stores, and sales are modest. Released last November, Mike Bullard's Stick 2 Comedy has sold around 2,000 units, according to figures from SoundScan. Last year's Grammy Award winner for comedy, actor/TV host Chris Rock's Bigger and Blacker, sold nearly 10,000 units. Adam Sandler's last two albums each sold over 40,000 copies, which are huge numbers for comedy but not for pop.
In 1996, Breslin and Toronto's Attic Records launched a series of discs featuring Yuk Yuk's performers and, says Breslin, "they didn't sell at all."
He cites several reasons for the genre's decline in popularity. "One is the advent of cable TV, which made it possible for a standup comic to do an hour on television and reach what is comparably a niche marketplace in an economically viable way. The second is video stores. It's cheaper in fact to rent a Steve Martin concert on video than it is to buy an album. And the third is that we've generally moved toward a more visual culture. A lot of the comedy during what was the high point of recorded comedy -- the late sixties to the early seventies -- was done in a time when the comedy was more verbal and less visual. Certainly, you can't imagine a Jim Carrey album."
While it's true that commercial interest in comedy recordings has waned, movies, TV shows and live shows haven't killed it off. In fact, there's a great deal of grassroots activity. Compact discs are so cheap to make now that independent record companies and even comics themselves can release their own albums. Also, albums continue to bring exposure to comics whose material may be too risque for TV.
And every few years, the genre seems to flicker to life. In the late eighties, Andrew Dice Clay gained wide exposure from his albums, then a few years later, self-proclaimed redneck comic Jeff Foxworthy broke onto the charts. In 1996, a series of hit discs by phone pranksters the Jerky Boys and a handful of popular music-comedy singles like Adam Sandler's Chanukah Song and Bill Engvall's What's Your Sign? caused Time magazine to proclaim that "comedy albums are making a comeback." But new record companies hoping to cash in on the trend -- including Soda Jerk, a label started by Ellen DeGeneres -- quickly disappeared and the mini-boom quietly ended, with only Sandler still doing big numbers as his movie career flourished.
Garwood Wallace, a manager at Toronto's main downtown Sam the Record Man location, says that the genre never really goes away. "It's just that once in a while the mainstream notices it more," says Wallace. "I don't think that when we don't notice it, it's dying on the vine -- it just goes underground."
Wallace points to the success of the Vancouver musical-comedy act the Arrogant Worms, who've sold several thousand copies of their five indie CDs. Another Canadian comic who's turned to recordings for exposure is Elvira Kurt, a Toronto standup now based in Los Angeles who currently appears on her own Comedy Network show, Elvira Kurt's Adventures in Comedy.
"Certainly by now," says Kurt, "it doesn't cost very much to independently record a CD and put it out there. It can serve you on two fronts: It can create publicity and it can make a few extra bucks on a show, which is always a good thing for someone who by and large works independently."
Last year, Kurt's second CD, Kitten With a Wit, was released by Uproar, a Los Angeles-based record label run by David Drozen, a comedy veteran who produced Richard Pryor's first 12 albums. A best-selling disc on Uproar -- such as titles by Margaret Cho, who appears at Toronto's Pantages Theatre on April 15, and former Homicide star Richard Belzer -- can sell in the range of 70,000 copies in the U.S. And with releases by lesbian comics like Kurt and Suzanne Westenhoefer, Uproar has focused on gay and lesbian listeners, a previously untapped market for comedy albums. "I've got great distribution in the women's market," says Drozen, "and we sell a lot of CDs."
Comedy albums also remain a form for comics who don't get on TV because their material is too political -- like Bill Hicks, whose albums were reissued by Rykodisc after his death in 1994 -- or too raunchy -- like Robert Schimmel and Rick Shapiro. Says Mark Breslin, "Interestingly enough, that's a throwback to the days of Redd Foxx and Pearl Williams. They made stag records -- people used to put them on at parties and stags because you could never hear that kind of material anywhere."
And vintage comedy albums are constantly being reissued. Rhino Records has released a complete set of Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks's 2,000 Year Old Man albums and lavish box sets of work by Stan Freberg and George Carlin.
"These albums are benchmark pop-cultural artifacts now," says Garwood Wallace. "It's because of things like the Comedy Network. We have people coming in and asking for albums by someone they saw on an old Steve Allen Show. The recent resurgence of these classic shows has given comedy a bit of the history that pop music has. In the way we talk about a record like Sgt. Pepper or Pet Sounds in pop-music history, now you can cite comedy albums -- "do you mean mid-period George Carlin or his more abrasive nineties stuff?"
Comedy is something that's supposed to be disposable, but the reappearance of these records -- and the small but steady flow of new ones -- allows fans to study the best comedy for what it really is: an art form.
TOP PICKS, OFTEN X-RATED
It might be quiet on the comedy-album front, but there's no shortage of great material being caught on disc. These five recent releases showcase comics with top-notch skills and often X-rated vocabulary:
Bill Hicks's Relentless (Invasion, 1992/reissued by Rykodisc in 1997): This hard-living Texan standup's death from cancer in 1994 ensured his status as a comedy legend. Much loved by rock bands (Radiohead and Tool both dedicated albums to him) and in Britain (he was too fervently anti-Republican for many U.S. audiences), Hicks was a true titan of the obscene. Sample joke: "I hate you non-smokers with all of my little black fucking heart, you obnoxious self-righteous, whining little fucks. My biggest fear is if I quit smoking, I'll become one of you."
Elvira Kurt's Kitten With a Wit (Uproar, 1999): In her stories of childhood tantrums and life as a lesbian (or a "fella girlie"), the former Torontonian displays such ease as a performer that it's no wonder she's become a fave in the United States. Sample joke: "Some of the stuff that you can find on the Internet doesn't even make sense -- can anyone in this room explain to me why Tampax has a Web site?"
Chris Rock's Bigger & Blacker (Dreamworks, 1999): Produced by hip-hop legend Prince Paul, Rock's third album is mix of savvy musical pastiche and raunchier comedy than viewers of his show would expect. Sample joke: "If you have been dating a man for four months and you haven't met any of his friends, you are not his girlfriend."
Robert Schimmel's Unprotected (Warner Bros., 1999): Schimmel is one of the few U.S. comics without a movie or TV career currently on a major record label. On Unprotected, recorded last September, he delivers a classic litany of sexual hangups. Sample joke: "My wife says to me, 'You know, you might be suffering from premature ejaculation.' Does it look like I'm suffering?"
Rick Shapiro's Unconditional Love (Fortified, 1998): The latest standup to be hailed as the heir of Lenny Bruce, this New Yorker lets loose an unforgettable stream of invective in stories of his former life as a junkie prostitute. Sample joke: "I'm on all these medications now -- I'm on more drugs than when I was on drugs." -- Jason Anderson