Nope! The comedy album is not dead. It probably should be, as almost every comedian has a podcast or YouTube channel now, or is appearing on three podcasts and talk shows and in festival line-ups this very week.
But an album — the format of audio-based long-playing something or other, usually music, but then allowing for a full set of comedy when the 50s went "LP" — is a certain kind of thing. As I bought these comedy CDs below, I often asked myself why I was bothering. Can't we get our comedy from a bunch of other sources now, some not even involving pestered cats on the Book of Face; much of which is available on that other silver disc, the DVD?
Yes, memes and sitcom and stand-up collections are taking up a lot of our time both at work and in the after-hours, as diversions and consumables. But your career comedian, your yuck-bucket soldier that can't just snap his fingers and get the Internet to PayPal a million into his personal account, they still need to crank out the equivalent of a 40-minute collection of new material the way bands do.
And like those bands, the albums tend to rotate a bit on a theme, and to highlight a bit or two that makes its way to the before-referenced YouTube or talk shows. These albums may not have the majestic allure of the original, mysterious masters of the format — Redd Foxx, Bill Cosby, Bob Newhart, Mel Brooks, Joan Rivers, Albert Brooks — but they are excellent live sets of the comedian's contemporary repertoire. Now will comedy albums ever get back to the conceptual hijinks of the Firesign Theatre or Monty Python? Maybe. Probably not. But it's kind of strange though.
Think about it this way: It's as if the pop music format hit the apex of Frampton Comes Alive in the 70s, and from then on, every musician was recording everything, everything since, through voice boxes on their guitars in front of a cheering, bong-loaded, Bic-waving mob of wing-hairs. That is, live set BOOM. Done deal. There are exceptions — Norm MacDonald records studio comedy albums. (They're great, save for the homophobia. Ouch.) And there are always going to be They Might Be Giants-type bands as adept at yucks as they are rolling out the rock. But below are about as imaginative and cool and experientially fulfilling as comedy albums get these days, all of them recorded before a live audience, and all basing their artfulness on the direct appeal of their jokes'n'stories. So with that understood, let's hit 'em:
Tig Notaro, Live
There was just no way she was going to be able to move on to other releases before getting this out of her system; the night she appeared before her standard draw at the Largo and just let it all out about breast cancer, and a whole bunch of other mean shit the universe was pulling on her to that moment. A fit mod deadpan picador, Tig Notaro had built up a sterling reputation the past few years for her dazzling droll observations, her fanatical adoration of Taylor Dayne, her snappy way of coming back to idiots who casually brought up her breast size on the street ("Little titties!" she barked in mockery). Somehow, a cruel passerby of cosmic proportions entered her life, and she had too much integrity and moxie and oh yeah, is just too great of a comedian to not laugh its pants down around its ankles and spank it. This is not the easiest comedy album to enjoy, but think of it as comedy's own copy of Fleetwood Mac's Rumours. You don't want to experience what she had to in order to make it, but it's a beautiful thing, and just as unforgettable. (Also included is Live at the Moth, about the death of her mother. Just as astute, heartbreaking, hilarious. Buth holy shit. This double is more like The Wall, maybe.)
Al Madrigal, Why Is The Rabbit Crying?
Al is well known for his bits on The Daily Show where he seems like a beleaguered Everyman, just sort of taking hits as they come, until he twists them around into a sort of magic realism of sarcasm. For example, you think he's sucking up to the stupid just to get through a scene, and then he clobbers the idiot for babbling nonsense with a wicked, yet surreal, response. He plays up his ordinariness on this, his first release, a deluxe and generous two-disc set of live filmed and recorded material, with some bonuses such as an audio commentary (!) and some Comedy Central extras. In "Cholo Soccer Dad," he admits the fierce look of a fellow urban Latino gentleman seems an odd juxtaposition with his gentle coaching. These sort of comparisons, of his business casual style mixing in with an uber-macho milieu, form the brunt of his comedy. He hits that theme hard, but he has a gorgeous way of explaining his communication with his wife and kids, and the anecdotes flow out with a sort of poetry that almost seems more like literature than stand-up. Classy, and I admit that first time I watched this with a bellyful of whiskey, I wasn't laughing too hard. The next time I thought it was like comedy Coltrane; the sounds of the city wlecoming and warm in connection and recognition.
Maria Bamford, Ask Me About My New God!
I once watched Maria Bamford sorta skeeze out a whole bunch of suburban Bumbershoot neophytes who just didn't "get" her. She seemed shyer than usual, and they just fed on that as negativity and gave her back no love. On the other hand, she was mocking them hard in ways they still won't get. Like Reggie Watts, Bamford toys with being something like an unreliable narrator ("unexpected performer"?), more a suspense artist than a stand-up comedian. There's jokes about her dark streak of a dad, her doting but dizzy mom, her love for pugs. But: Who knows what she might say next? It's usually an attack on her own Diet Coke-drinking, People Magazine-gossip reading, hiding in her parents' house life. Small, squealing voices, shooting frightened thoughts from nowhere, afraid of evangelists ("What's your coffee house called?" "Crossroads." "Stop hiding behind your Jimi Hendrix font!"), non-listening therapists, well, just about everybody. Like her own cyclical thoughts, she wears a groove of her material, a Kierkegaardian love for repetition about being trapped in a small town after a breakdown and sort of being someone famous but having to deal with the dumb, mean girls from her high school. Thing is, if you want a companion in the dark night of your own soul, Maria sees you. She sees you and knows you are deep down as weird as she is. And she is letting you laugh at and with her because she knows you need it. She knows you think about suicide too, and are scared of judgment from neighborhood kids, too. And then a certain elevated quip or voice from nowhere completely freaks you out ("How can you be a comedian if you don't have any jokes?" "Call my manager, he'll explain everything"). Rarely can a comedian be called a shaman, but Maria Bamford reminds you of exactly where you are at struggling in this world feeling like the biggest, geekiest freak. "Google it! You're not alone!" she says. It's as healing as it is cathartic, and it never feels heavy. (The extras on this release are insane, so to speak: Three whole live shows in one, from a really early one as a rocking 90s gal, to totally fresh stuff from this year.)
Jim Norton, Please Be Offended
I first noticed Jim Norton on the Lucky Louie show, the sitcom Louis CK had on HBO before his current critical favorite. I loved that show, in part because of this weird little weasel, who is the kind of guy you maybe want to spend time with a couple of times a week, to hear some messed up shit no one else is going to say. His recent run-in with Lindy West was a great example of how oblivious of things he chooses to be about deeper realities like rape culture; on the other hand, he cussed out people who threatened Lindy on Twitter. So, basically a good guy, but can't help but hate Al Sharpton because – ? I don't know from this. He's pro-racial profiling and has some opinions that make him sometimes sound like a big city redneck. On the other hand, he confesses his fears being a racist himself, and admits how much he knows he disgusts people with his personal behavior ("I'm A Throat-Clearing Idiot"). And he's not bragging. And he's never really a bully; even when he's angry, there's a short guy insouciance, even if he's part of King Mob. The way he improvises the gross weirdness about his own imagined prison experiences ("I would tug his bag until it was taffy like"), and the bizarre relationship with an ex ("How much time would I get if I stabbed her? I actually walked myself through the appeals process"), reminds me how brutal comedy sometimes hits the spot. Or makes you spit.
Kurt Braunohler, How Do I Land?
Hey, it's another tall, slobby, pasty white dude. He makes fun of "Tinkle Magazine" ("found it on the ground. What's in it? I don't know, I'm not going to fucking touch it!"), how crappy biscotti is (fuck you, biscotti — fuck you! Do I want to chew on you and nurse mouth wounds for weeks? Fuck your food that requires me to give it a hot bath before it's edible!"), and … airports. But hmm, this is on Kill Rock Stars. They have great taste in music — let's listen to this again. Oh holy shit, "Sacha Baron Cohen" is Situationist heaven! (Did he really do this? Till the end of the story? Whatever, it's great.) This is the kind of prank shit Jon Wurster and Eugene Mirman would approve of, aspire to, maybe even more than them. "Dildo Jog" is just a crazy thing, written brilliantly, thrown out there to mortify an audience with no explanation. "List Of People I Need To Kill" is O. Henry-style semi-predictable, but incredibly good, and probably true. Kurt plays with banality, but that's just to tease you into a real sighting of his crunched up Id, his lack of socially-connected framework. He isn't putting on a weird persona to get laughs; he's probably a very strange dude who has taken to stand-up comedy and appears normal in order to pull the rug out from under you. So he can get you to be as messed up in the head as he is, as most psychopaths do. Even so, you leave feeling he's more creative than destructive, so I applaud his devious, delightful disingenuity.
Aziz Ansari, Dangerously Delicious
This is a perfect case of a comedian whose bottom-line substrate for material — "Texting with Girls," "Online Flight," and "I Kinda Have A Boyfriend, Is That A Problem?" — should only annoy and bore me. Yet, who can resist this sweet li'l fella?! He bounces around like a pop culture-obsessed squirrel, fiddling with the Internet, obsessed with trivia ("I wonder if 'Home Alone 2' made more money than Home Alone 1'?"), saying "jizz" over and over once he sees the ASL woman signing his act doing the hand signs for it. "Jizz everywhere!" he says again and again, to see what she does. When he settles into growing up in South Carolina with brown skin, he has to admit the racism sucks but the biscuits are "Yumyumyumyum." There's a lot of "dumb, dumb parents" raising kids in this world of rot and corruption; somehow Ansari finds enough joy and fun in laughing at them to get us to join in.
Brian Posehn, The Fartist
Recorded at The Neptune on The Ave here in Seattle, Mr. Show and Sarah Silverman Show-alum Brian has a very warm audience for his jokes about his good luck in finding a wife (and the virtual impossibility he could cheat on her), the scariest pot story ever told (it's great, it's about a fake eye, you have to hear it), still being mad about George Lucas's ravaging of his Star Wars memories, dealing with fellow fat guys in comic shops, and yes, a whole lotta farting going on here. My favorite bit is about "The Apocapypse," which is what his son calls the end of the world. (It's cute, I love the end of the world being cute.) This is the kind of release every comedian does at least once in their career — a whole lot of promises about swearing to give up intoxicants, and how happy the family life is. Not the greatest source of comedy gold anymore, not unless you're Louis CK I guess. I'd love to see Brian get even deeper into Nerd World — now that he's writing comics for Marvel, a whole album of comic con stories would probably be awesome from his POV. Don't expect a lot of depth — but there's a lot of charm in all the gross.
Kevin Nealon, Whelmed … But Not Overly
This is the most mainstream, least alternative comedy album here. Nealon is of course the regular from many years at Saturday Night Live and on Weeds, and he seems like he would be born your average comedian. A kinda mooky white dude, smart but unambitious, avoiding cliche but not anything in particular either. The least gimmicky comic going right now. Yet this is one of the funniest albums in this list, just because he wants to make you laugh so badly he never stops shooting them out. It's like he caught you laughing at a funny of his at a party, and then bludgeons you with dirty jokes, impressions, exaggerations, make-believe situations, at high-speed and volume, till you either throw a joke in his face or pass out. Okay, yeah, there's probably a lot of cliches here, and not much subversion, but this is still a classic, and classical in its form.
Amy Schumer, Cutting
Amy Schumer now has a show on Comedy Central (it may have been cancelled! I can't keep up), and her working class decadence and confessed hedonistic excess seems to mess up the straight-laced. Like Sarah Silverman, she arguably plays at being (you think maybe) "Accidentally Racist," the whole wizened misanthrope thing. Silverman's pokes seem more pointed and ambivalently satirical, while Schumer's has to do with being a greasy-mouthed fabulous hot mess. I prefer (the underrated) Silverman, but there's room for Schumer in my collection too, though I admit the familair (negative) tropes could use upgrading. Titles: "Assh*le," "Drinking," "Masturbating," "Jews," "Mexicans." She's a bit of Jim Norton's spastic contrarian with a less old school Kevin Nealon approach to topics. This sort of giddy, playful profanity has always been the boon and bane of comedy albums; if you dig a ribald night out with some dirty talk and aren't too politically correct, she's a good waste of time.
Okay, now I gotta go watch season two of Homeland. Detox all these with my dramas!