Comedy Albums of Yore

It wasn’t that many years ago that a primary method of taking in comedy was to listen to it on long-playing records.

In the era of HD TV and DVDs and YouTube and MySpace, it seems quite strange and archaic to have listened carefully to comedians on a battery powered record player.

But I remember how it could even be a social occasion.  In the wilds of northern British Columbia, I can remember my mother inviting the neighbours over one time for a bite to eat and to listen to our latest comedy LP.  Although I ‘m not certain what album — George Carlin? — I do recall the subtle dismay of the neighbours after listening to it, “that’s why you asked us over?!”  Perhaps the moosemeat roast was not all that great that night either…

bn.jpgBob Newhart was a big hit on vinyl:  “The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart (The Most Celebrated New Comedian Since Attila the Hun)”, “The Button-Down Mind Strikes Back”, and “Behind the Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart”.  I’m not sure what this button-down thing means exactly, but it had something to do with his comedic persona of an anxious accountant or typical commuter everyman dealing with chaos, delivering his deadpan patter with a slight stammer.  His first Button-Down album appeared in 1960 and beat out Elvis and the cast recording of the Sound of Music for a Grammy.  This was well before Newhart’s several TV sitcoms, of course, after which he became much better known. 

Some of the bits on these albums are still pretty funny: Abe Lincoln Vs. Madison Avenue — “Abe, do the speech the way Charlie wrote it!” — and Nobody Will Ever Play Baseball — “Eight-eighteen people? That’s a hell of a lot of people.”  To me, he was always funnier on these albums than he could sustain on TV, although admittedly he had his moments there too.

Bill Cosby was another favorite, again in the many years before he became a TV fixture. “Why Is There Air?”, “I Started Out As A Child”, and “Bill Cosby is A Very Funny Fellow, Right?” are just three that my brothers and I enjoyed as kids.  The latter album has the very funny “Noah” which covers Noah’s incredulous relationship with God about the coming flood.

cosby-silverthroat.jpgBill Cosby was a media hit at this time in the 60s with the great old TV spy series, “I Spy” with Robert Culp and he even put out an album or two of serious recordings.  We had one: “Silver Throat – Bill Cosby Sings” with him looking like some kind of old-time black Mexican on the cover and making a serious attempt at mostly R&B numbers.  I especially remember “Mojo Workout.”  This album has been described as “a wierd little record.”

And we had a whole series of Smothers Brothers albums.  This was before they became really hot on TV and then were “banned” by the networks at the height of the Vietnam War, somewhat similar to what happened to the Dixie Chicks in more recent times.  My brothers and I really loved them because they had a lot of brotherly rivalry going: Albums like “Curb Your Tongue Knave!” and “The Two Sides of the Smothers Brothers” are still in my old LP collection. 

smothers.gifTheir music was a big part of their success.  Typically they would start performing their version of a folk song, Tommy on guitar and Dick on bass and then they’d get into an argument.  Tommy would usually have a ridiculous take on things and Dick would have to set him straight.  And then they’d both get pretty silly: “Hangman, hangman, slack your rope; Slack it full an’ free…acchh!”  We got a big kick out of them.

Another bit we liked was “I Talk to The Trees.”  They would start this cover of the show tune to Paint Your Wagon but then Dick has to stop almost every line to explain to Tom what the song’s about. Tom thinks the guy in the song sounds like a nut.

There were others of course from this era that played on our turntable: George Carlin, who brought a more adult element to the comedy we listened to as we entered our late teens; Lily Tomlin, “one ringy dingy, two ringy dingies,” the great Tom Lehrer (in the song “Pollution”, he sings memorably about “hot and cold running crud)”, and the wierd and brilliant Jonathan Winters (also known as Maude Frickert, one of his favorite characters).

One amusing note about George Carlin.  He invented the religion Frisbeetarianism, which has as its basic tenet that when you die your soul goes up on the roof and you can’t get it down.

It’s struck me as I nostalgify, that gathering around and listening to these records was something that helped tie families together in laughter and good cheer.  It’s another strand that’s parted in our modern life and I’m not sure what’s appeared to take its place. 

I know on cold winter evenings, to three boys and their mother gathered around the phonograph after reheating the batteries on the oil heater to get another half-hour of play, all those albums meant a lot to us.

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2 Comments on “Comedy Albums of Yore”

  1. sputnki Says:

    Now that’s something I can relate to. I still remember Bill Cosby describing what life was like as a kid:

    “We never saw the belt. But we heard about it…. Eight feet long, nine feet wide, with hooks that would tear the flesh off your body!”

    And Tom Lehrer I came to later in life, but appreciated so much I actually bought the CD’s when I found them. “The Vatican Rag”, “Poisoning Pidgeons in the Park” and “The Masochism Tango” are faves.

    Instead of listening to LP’s though, I remember having an old tape recorder my folks gave me one year. I would tape the sound from Star Trek episodes and listen too it on the long drive during summer break from where we lived in Wabush, Labrador to Walton, Nova Scotia. About the same distance as driving to the moon, or so it seemed…. I could do everybodies lines by the time we got there. I annoy my Significant Other (She who must be obeyed!) by speaking the lines to Star Trek episodes (or Monty Python skits) as they happen. I still break into “The Philosopher’s Song” at the oddest moments…

    Doug

  2. fencer Says:

    Hi Doug,

    Wow, that’s dedication. I remember those old reel to reel tape machines… we had lots of fun with those.

    It’s interesting that Tom Lehrer is still so well appreciated, despite basically giving up on his music career in the 60s. Pretty funny those songs.

    Regards


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