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SPIN’s 40 Greatest Comedy Albums of All Time

Eddie Murphy Raw
American comedian Eddie Murphy performs onstage at Madison Square Garden during his 'Raw Tour,' New York, New York, October 13, 1987. (Photo by Gary Gershoff/Getty Images)

Comedy albums have come a long way since Thomas Edison etched the first recorded dick joke to wax cylinder (“Hey, want to see the wizard’s staff of Menlo Park?”). In the 1960s, comedy albums were totemic, regularly beating out Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett for Album of the Year Grammys. In the 1970s, guys like Richard Pryor and Redd Foxx inspired the flows of hundreds of rappers who rifled through their parents’ record collections. In the 1980s, the business was bustling enough to provide Emo Phillips with a major-label deal. With the recent rise of comedic podcasts like WTF with Marc Maron, The Ricky Gervais Show, and The Glenn Beck Podcast, people are listening to funny stuff more than they have in forever. In honor of our November 2011 “Funny” Issue, we assembled a crack team of comedy nerds to compile an authoritative, definitive list of the 40 best comedy albums of all time. Here’s 40 artists who deserve to sell more units than Jeff Foxworthy.

40. Andrew “Dice” Clay – The Day The Laughter Died (1990)

Andrew "Dice" Clay - The Day The Laughter Died

The free-associative filth masquerading as jokes on the Diceman’s two-disc debut is one step below bathroom graffiti. But the unique production, mostly perpetrated by master “reducer” Rick Rubin, makes this an immortal document of raw humanity: small club, small crowd, unsuspecting victims, the day-after-Christmas malaise. Swinging from “juvenile” to “politically incorrect” to “unrepentantly sexist and racist,” Dice performs a 102-minute tightrope act where his porno talk falls flat, he’s forced to shout down requests for famous bits, and he causes heckling tourists to flee the room in disgust. “This show’s not about laughter,” he says, “it’s about comedy.” CHRISTOPHER R. WEINGARTEN

39. The Smothers Brothers – At the Purple Onion (1961)

The Smothers Brothers - At the Purple Onion

When it comes to lambasting the preciousness of folkies, A Mighty Wind gets all the accolades, but the Smothers Brothers deserve most of the credit. While remaining astonishingly family-friendly, Dick and Tom’s points of interest were ribbing the newly birthed counterculture: beatniks, jazzbos, drugs, women’s lib, and generally those who grew their hair and turned in/out/off in the ’60s. Recorded at the epicenter of the San Fran movement in 1961, this debut album catapulted the Smothers into lefty icons, with a sound that positioned them as bickering contemporaries of neo-folk revivalists like the Kingston Trio. HENRY OWINGS

38. Robin Williams – A Night at the Met (1986)

Robin Williams - A Night at the Met

Mork unbound! Two nights in New York, one of which aired as a comparatively sedate HBO special, boiled down to 65 minutes of borderline-Tourettesian short-attention-span theater, with Williams fast-forwarding from substance abuse to sobriety to fatherhood to Reagan (“Don’t you see? He was Disney’s last wish!”) like his chest hair was on fire — and using language far filthier than “Shazbot!” to do it. A master, captured before his Salad Shooter-ish schtick turned self-parodic. His tendency toward twinkly-eyed earnestness took care of what was left of his appeal; the most sentimental bit here involves a child saying “Fuck it.” ALEX PAPPADEMAS

37. Bobcat Goldthwait – Meat Bob (1988)

Bobcat Goldthwait - Meat Bob

By the late ’80s, Goldthwait’s vocal tic of careening between fragile Emo Phillips manchild and mid-sentence death-metal growls was as much albatross as calling card. Yes, the voice was earning him that Police Academy and Hot to Trot money and fulfilling two-drink minimums in comedy clubs, but it was also at odds with his junior Bill Hicks, self-described “left-wing lunatic” agenda. By the end of side one, Goldthwait’s largely dispensed with the schtick in favor of clearly-voiced Reagan and Swaggart tirades, presumably to some audience members’ chagrin. Anyone who was surprised by the acid genius of Shakes the Clown four years later never heard this. STEVE KANDELL

36. Martin Mull – Martin Mull and His Fabulous Furniture in Your Living Room! (1973)

Martin Mull - Martin Mull and His Fabulous Furniture in Your Living Room!

The joke is that it’s milquetoast Mull — whom you may remember (depending on your age) from Fernwood 2-Night or Roseanne or Arrested Development — stage-bantering like a terminally laidback rock star who’s just slunk down from Laurel Canyon in a haze of earnest self-satisfaction, name-dropping “Elton” and blathering about the blues. The bigger joke is that the joke-songs, featuring solid ’70s sidemen like “Sneaky” Pete Kleinow and David Grisman, actually work as songs. (“Billy One-Eye” could be a Mirror Traffic N-side.) The missing link between Steve Martin’s Let’s Get Small and early Randy Newman. A.P.

35. Mike Nichols and Elaine May – An Evening With Mike Nichols and Elaine May (1960)

Mike Nichols and Elaine May - An Evening With Mike Nichols and Elaine May

“Alternative” comedy from an era when anything slightly to the left of Ozzie Nelson’s starched suit jacket was considered out-there, Mike Nichols and Elaine May were a surprise mainstream hit that lit up Broadway, earned a Grammy, and found their way into millions of pretty starchy American homes. Nichols and May looked like nice enough kids and struck a chord with a lot of other bright young things who wondered why they couldn’t just be honest (and funny) about their families and their relationships, at a time when honesty was kept behind closed doors. More playful and less political than the humorists of the day, but weirdly more subversive for their scrim of button-down respectability. JESS HARVELL

34. Redd Foxx – Uncensored (1980)

Redd Foxx Uncensored

Foxx was the godfather of “blue” humor, taking frank sex talk out of the clubs and into American living rooms on dozens of his gleefully profane “party records.” That wasn’t all of Foxx, though, and Uncensored is a document of the don’t-give-a-fuck freedom that African-American comedians were exploring in the’70s, where politics and anger bounced against unrepentant ribaldry and old-fashioned yuks. Recorded during Foxx’s post-Sanford & Son transition from “adults only” icon to beloved institution, and lo-fi enough to make you feel like you’re listening to someone’s private bootleg of a particularly classic club set, Uncensored plays out like The Many Moods of Redd Foxx: a little funky nastiness, some plain silliness, and a lot of wry ruminating on America as it was then (and still is sometimes today). J.H.

33. Stan Freberg – The Very Best Of (1998)

Stan Freberg - The Very Best Of

More than a comedian, Freberg was an author, musician, voice actor, puppeteer and, yes, even ad man. The multi-talented Freberg wore all of those hats starting in the late ’40s (and still wears them today) and this smartly compiled hodgepodge naturally runs the gamut between song parodies and sketches, hitting Tin Pan Alley, Broadway, Elvis, vaudeville, and plain nonsense with razor-sharp chops. When radio was king and television was in its infancy, Freberg was the right man at the right time, a flawless mixture of variety showmanship, theater-of-the-mind scene-building, and childlike silliness. H.O.

32. Dick Gregory – In Living Black & White (1961)

Dick Gregory - In Living Black & White

If you had to point to one comedian who had the TNT that blasted down the door for Foxx, Pryor, Murphy, Rock, Chappelle and, er, Sinbad, that man would be Dick Gregory. In a time when comedy was as segregated as the clubs that hosted comedians, the politically charged Gregory shared stages with Lenny Bruce and inspired George Carlin’s future direction. An inspiring document of Gregory’s everyman hard-thinking, this set at the Playboy Club in Chicago skewers the duplicitous media for calling him the “black Mort Sahl,” continues on about JFK (calling him “my president” in present tense), and discusses his newly inherited right to vote. Possibly the comedy equivalent of the “I Have A Dream” speech. H.O.

31. Sam Kinison – Louder than Hell (1986)

Sam Kinison - Louder than Hell

On which the most notorious fallen Pentecostal preacher of the ’80s (save Jimmy Swaggart) pokes holes in the story of Jesus’s resurrection, critiques Charles Manson’s logic, and wails like he’s already roasting in Hell… which he figures won’t be half as bad as the institution of marriage. His eventual forays into novelty-metal seemed redundant because he was already a rock star, with enough cackling, demonic charisma to make repugnant ideas funny, even compelling. Axl Rose circa “One in a Million,” let’s say, but with a sense of irony and a brain. A.P

30. Eddie Izzard – Dress to Kill (1998)

Eddie Izzard

Eddie Izzard grew up in Europe, “where the history comes from,” which is why he can get away with being more raconteur than traditional standup. Also why he can do an act in make-up, heels, and a sort of kimono/leather pantsuit. Ultimately, it’s not how he’s dressed that kills, it’s his performance that’s encyclopedic in scope and kaleidoscopic in spirit. The act is part Python, part Carlin, part BBC documentary, but still a wholly original way for one man — or “executive transvestite” — to entertain a crowd. STEVE CIABATTONI

29. Lily Tomlin – This is a Recording (1972)

Lily Tomlin - This is a Recording

Once upon a time, AT&T was an omniscient, omnipotent monopoly, and Tomlin’s Ernestine the Telephone Operator embodied its cruel power. At the height of Nixon-era paranoia, her snorted amusement at customers’ privacy concerns and her officious manner (“Is this the party to whom I am speaking?”) reminded us that the most faceless bureaucracies are staffed by ordinary, error-prone human beings just like you, me, and G. Gordon Liddy. In the age of Google Street View and the Patriot Act, that fact remains equally terrifying and reassuring. KEITH HARRIS

28. Neil Hamburger – Great Phone Calls (1992)

Neil Hamburger - Great Phone Calls

The prank phone call is the lowest of the lowbrow; but even the most debased art form occasionally churns out a masterpiece. Circulated anonymously for years before alt-comedy legend Neil Hamburger’s name was finally (and vaguely) attached, Great Phone Calls is the apex of telephonic pranking. No one has ever kept a straighter face or taken a premise further into the realms of the uncomfortable than the perpetrator(s) herein. Tormenting hapless call-center operators, vexed take-out joint proprietors, and customer-service victims of all stripes, the longer they hang on, the more it becomes a journey into the deadpan, surrealist, skin-crawling, and just plain creepy. J.H.

27. Robert Klein – Child Of The ’50s (1973)

Robert Klein - Child Of The '50s

Take the brainy observations of Woody Allen and the improvisational characters of Jonathan Winters, drape them in a tweed jacket and give it all an Ivy League education and you’ve got this ground-breaking debut. As far as the comedy class of ’73 is concerned, Klein was probably the least jokey, while keeping a unique lean towards the most boyish and silly. Multi-character on-air radio bits, topical monologues about politics and everyday life happenings in New York are the lion’s share of Klein’s most popular and best-selling album. H.O.

26. Monty Python’s Flying Circus – Another Monty Python Record (1971)

Monty Python's Flying Circus - Another Monty Python Record

More famous bits were still to come, but Monty Python’s most biting satire appears on their second album. Here, classics like “The Spanish Inquisition” and “Spam” run second on a record dedicated to brutalizing middle-class cultural pablum. From the graffiti that adorns its fake Beethoven sleeve, to the BBC announcers whispering non sequiturs between tracks, to the Gumbys shouting Chekhov, to a sketch where a violinist boils in fat during a concert, Another Monty Python Record defaced British cultural pretensions and institutions so completely that it helped the group become an institution in its own right. And no one expected a Python institution. JESSICA SUAREZ

25. Dennis Miller – The Off-White Album (1988)

Dennis Miller - The Off-White Album

Sure, he became a grand-mal, war-pig douchenozzle after 9/11 — as Miller himself might have put it, we haven’t seen anybody transform into a hawk so cheesily since they cancelled Manimal, babe. But this live set is a reminder that, much like Dubya, Miller was funny before the towers fell: snide, literate, able to make the most obscurantist word-clusters imaginable (“some bizarre B.F. Skinner hoedown,” “Ansel Adams on peyote buttons,” “Sao Paulo north-slope trip-weed”) land like actual punch lines. Why anybody thought that made him Monday Night Football material, we’ll never know. A.P.

24. Bruce McCulloch – Shame-Based Man (1995)

Bruce McCulloch - Shame-Based Man

It’s a shame comedy albums are expected to make you laugh, because you may not even crack a smile at McCulloch’s debut collection of wide-eyed monologues and humiliation-intensive songs. That’s due to the Kids in the Hall member’s semi-autistic delivery and second-person-directed narrative, deployed in the manner of his best-known KITH character Gavin, which allows him to speak truths with knowing naivete. No matter his subject (fat people, bored housewives, closeted traveling salesmen), the object always seems to be you and your loneliness. J.S.

23. Spinal Tap – This is Spinal Tap (1984)

Spinal Tap - This is Spinal Tap

A loving parody of bare-chested rocker excess, This is Spinal Tap’s, winking jokes about slobbering horndogs and blasts of bombastic heavy metal hooks isn’t all that different from, say, Licensed to Ill. The Tap braintrust simply strip-mined two decades of rock history for its most over-the-top bits and moldiest cliches, provoking belly laughs even when they were playing it straight. But while the band was smart enough to not take the genre’s mythologizing bullshit seriously, Spinal Tap never feels contemptuous of the good stuff. Especially the druids. J.H.

22. National Lampoon – Radio Dinner (1972)

National Lampoon - Radio Dinner

Decades before sketch comedy was everywhere all the time, there was National Lampoon the magazine, the live show, and this slab of weird, Negativland-style radio-as-comedy art bites, written by Lampoon savants Tony Henrda and Michael O’Donoghue. It’s very early-’70s (opening bit “Deteriorata” is a perfect slash at once-iconic hippie poem “Desiderata”), but it contains the roots of Saturday Night Live and therefore most humor that came after. Jokes ranged from tasteless-beyond-tasteless one liners (“Nagasaki: the art of Japanese body arrangement”) to a parody of John Lennon so spot on it reminds you he wasn’t always a deity by default. JOE GROSS

21. Chris Rock – Bigger & Blacker (1999)

Chris Rock - Bigger & Blacker

Rock’s hip-hop affinities may be somewhat cosmetic: Pen & Pixel album cover, Prince Paul-produced skits, Ol’ Dirty Bastard cameos, fascination with titty bars. But they allow him to escape the just-another-live-standup-album trap. Bits from his HBO special that mock post-Columbine hysteria (“What the fuck was Hitler listening to?”) and justify Bill Clinton’s infidelity (“A man is as faithful as his options”) are sharpened by proximity to the “Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen)” takeoff “No Sex (In the Champagne Room)” and a Biz Markie “Brown Sugar” takedown that lusts after “white bitches” — including Meryl Streep. K.H.

20. Firesign Theater – Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers (1970)

Firesign Theater - Don't Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers

Like jazz musicians, comics prize the serendipity of the live performance. Not so this L.A. comedy troupe, who instead manipulated studio effects to create artifacts impossible to enact in real time, much like their acid-rock contemporaries. Ironically, they updated the old-time radio show format in the process. This album-length sketch, in which former child actor George Tirebiter endures a dystopian post-America by channel surfing past surreal TV commercials, game shows, and televangelist spiels to watch reruns of his old Pudgy and Mudhead movies, captures pothead dementia at its most fertile, profound, and spooky. K.H.

19. Louis C.K. – Chewed Up (2008)

Louis C.K. - Chewed Up

Louis C.K.’s jokes about fatherhood are piercing, heartfelt, cathartically funny; he writes about being a parent like Bill Cosby blessed with Lenny Bruce’s compulsion to say the unthinkable: Pretty sure the Cos never compared the contents of his daughter’s diaper to “a 48-year-old alcoholic man’s shit.” But he’s the standup every other standup wants to be right now because he writes that well about everything, approaching even the observational bits about deer or Cinnabons or underwear as opportunities for dangerous truth-telling. Pick hit: “I Enjoy Being White,” as transgressive in its own way as onetime C.K. collaborator Chris Rock’s routine about the two types of African-Americans. A.P.

18. Jonathan Winters – The Wonderful World of Jonathan Winters (1960)

Jonathan Winters - The Wonderful World of Jonathan Winters

Winters begins his debut LP by stating that he was tossed in a mental institution after announcing his true extraterrestrial origins. That anecdote might seem a zany comic’s mere braggadocio, if not for the free-associative whirl that follows. His impersonation of Ohio hick Elwood P. Suggins and his expert dissections of TV western cliches are evident products of a hyperactive brain — you can hear how Winters’ manic improvisatory style would later impact the motormouth coke-shtick of Robin Williams. Don’t hold it against him. K.H.

17. “Weird Al” Yankovic – In 3-D (1984)

"Weird Al" Yankovic - In 3-D

Before In 3-D, music’s greatest parody artist still sounded like he was cranking out basement demos, an accordion-spill of low-budget sound, creatively cobbled arrangements, and jokes your goony pals might have suggested if you were a hell of a lot funnier. The not-as-difficult sophomore album, In 3-D was the birth of the true Al, a man who puts far more ambition and artistry than necessary into songs about sandwiches. With parodies that sounded (almost) as slick as their source material, In 3-D took Al mainstream: It’s still hard to hear “Beat It” without unconsciously hearing the faint echo of “Eat It,” a testament to Al’s preternatural talent for reclaiming hooks and the pinpoint mimicry of his spookily precise band. J.H.

16. Mitch Hedberg – Strategic Grill Locations (1999)

Mitch Hedberg - Strategic Grill Locations

Deep into Strategic Grill Locations, the laconic Hedberg laments that, as a comedian, he’s also expected to act and write screenplays. He never got to do much of either before his death in 2005, but no one else ever got so close to standup’s pure, raw ideal. You don’t notice that perfection at first, since Hedberg spends much of his set announcing his mistakes and bad punchlines, but his economical one-liners (“I used to do drugs. I still do, but I used to, too”) make up for any sloppy editing. The result is a messy, brilliant album that reflects the messy, brilliant Mitch. J.S.

15. Carl Reiner & Mel Brooks – The Complete 2000 Year Old Man (1994)

Carl Reiner & Mel Brooks - The Complete 2000 Year Old Man

Before he actually became an old Jewish man, Mel Brooks perfected the stereotype with his ageless, affable everyman. Anyone doing an old Jew today is basically knoshing Brooks’s style. This running character, appearing on four albums between 1961 and 1973, was super old but the bit never got tired, as Brooks riffed against master straightman Reiner on countless historical, religious, social, and political topics. Fifty years on, you can still hear how much fun these guys had milking the premise and writing jokes on the fly — required listening for anyone taking an improv class or visiting their pop in Boca. S.C.

14. Steven Wright – I Have a Pony (1985)

Steven Wright - I Have a Pony

One drawback to the comedy album as a medium is the sense you’re only getting half the story — missing a sight gag here or a deadpan eyebrow cock there, only telegraphed by phantom fits of audience laughter divorced from evident punchlines. Pony endures for that very reason: Take out the running joke that is Wright’s hangdog appearance, and what’s left is a barrage of vivid, sloganeering one-liners (“It’s a small world, but I wouldn’t want to paint it”), delivered in a trademark barbiturate monotone that makes for easy, if weird, listening. Hail the DJ Screw of stand-up. S.K.

13. Rodney Dangerfield – No Respect (1980)

Rodney Dangerfield - No Respect

In 1981, former aluminum-siding salesman Jacob Cohen, d/b/a Rodney Dangerfield, was 60 years old and at the very peak of his popularity — astounding when you consider the age of practically everyone else on this list. No Respect is two 20-minute sets of machined gunned one-liners, a punk feat that’s devilishly harder to write and perform than any long-winded story. It’s all delivered in an effortless churn that amplifies and hides his famous self-loathing streak, so pure that it scared other comics. J.G.

12. David Cross – Shut Up, You Fucking Baby (2002)

David Cross - Shut Up, You Fucking Baby

As a stand-up, Cross is a sharp social and cultural commentator and a sharp-enough political satirist, even if some of the Bush/Ashcroft material here makes it clear where Fred Armisen got his exasperated political-comedian character Nicholas Fehn. But as a raconteur, Cross is amazing, and the double-disc format of Shut Up gives his stories room to breathe, especially in a classic, 16-minute account of a boozy night with the terrible reality-show rock band Harlow and the nightmarish morning after. It’s like shooting the shit with your funniest friend. Except he’s actually funny and he’s not your friend. A.P.

11. Bill Hicks – Rant In E-Minor (1997)

Bill Hicks - Rant In E-Minor

Released a few years after his death in 1994, Rant in E-Minor is truth in advertising defined: hate, unfettered, unrelenting. On Rant, Hicks had the world and its countless hypocrisies between his crosshairs. Abortion. Drugs. Politics. The whole shebang comes crumbling down around his elaborately constructed jokes, a mix of literary attention to detail and white-hot misanthropy. Hicks’s cynical, anti-commercial approach was subsequently utilized to great, uh, commercial success by an entire generation of 1990s and 2000s alt-comedians. H.O.

10. Woody Allen – Standup Comic (1968)

Woody Allen - Standup Comic

Even earlier, even funnier stuff from the Nebbish God before he made his earlier, funnier movies. Allen is far looser on stage than he became on screen; his rambles have more in common with his hilarious, absurdist essay collections than any later work. There are hints of his mid-1970s persona, but he’s much more twentysomething hipster than angsty 40-year-old Annie Hall anxiety case. A shaggy dog story that ends with Jews stuffed and mounted at a restricted athletic club is the stone-classic, but his phrasing alone is enough for marveling: Anyone who can make “the death scene from Camille‘” into a sharp punch line is headed for the canon. J.G.

9. Albert Brooks – Comedy Minus One (1973)

Albert Brooks - Comedy Minus One

Filmmaker, actor, author, and father of the SNL short, Albert Brooks is a polyglot comic master. No comedy LP uses the “album” format any better than this: Even the packaging is part of the joke. The original vinyl included a script with built-in pauses and laughs for you to star in the cheesy, tongue-in-cheek sketch on side two. The back cover even had a mirror — look at you, you’re in show business! Mixing in studio bits with his live act (the Richie Havens story is golden) Brooks turns comic irony to 11 as he jump-cuts classic old school with the ’70s comic new wave he helped create. S.C.

8. Lenny Bruce – The Carnegie Hall Concert (1961)

Lenny Bruce - The Carnegie Hall Concert

Bruce’s rep as a pioneer of comedic cussing overshadows his legacy as a groundbreaking meta-comic. This two-disc recording of a performance in 1961, before bluenosed prosecutors drove him to embittered oblivion, showcases a compulsive fascination with what audiences find funny, rendered in an engagingly hip, Beat-inspired, Yiddish-flavored rhythmic patter. Though satiric bits like “Christ & Moses” (whose appearance at St. Patrick’s freaks out Cardinal Spellman) retain their bite, Bruce’s modest relativism and genuine faith that candor and laughter could overwhelm hypocrisy prevent him from indulging in the self-important anger that can hobble his would-be inheritors. K.H.

7. Steve Martin – Let’s Get Small (1977)

Steve Martin - Let's Get Small

Sure Cheech and Chong were stoner standard-bearers of the 1970s, but was anyone really more “far out” than banjo-pickin’, arrow-through-head, goofball Steve Martin? The Disneyland and Smothers Brothers alum created a one-man variety act that was escapist, absurdist, and just as big as Star Wars the summer it came out. Somehow, he managed to convey his spastic visual frenzy onto audio-only vinyl and had a post-Nixon, post-Vietnam generation bellowing the catchphrase “Well, excuuuuuuse me!” You didn’t need to be high (or “get small”) to get it, but it probably helped when you’re asked to sing along to “be oblong and have your knees removed.” S.C.

6. Bob Newhart – The Button-Down Mind Of Bob Newhart (1960)

Bob Newhart - The Button-Down Mind Of Bob Newhart

One of the best-selling comedy albums of all time, Button-Down Mind scored the most “Bob” man who ever lived the only Best New Artist Grammy ever given to a comic. A former commercial copywriter, Newhart captures his slick-talking, ad-age moment (not for nothing, the guys in Mad Men sit around listening to it), playing tracks like “Merchandising the Wright Brothers” perfectly straight-faced. Newhart’s one-way phone calls have aged shockingly well because of perfectly proofread punch lines, oddball concepts, and timing as tight as his haircut on the album’s sleeve. J.G.

5. Patton Oswalt – Werewolves And Lollipops (2007)

Patton Oswalt - Werewolves And Lollipops

In the comedy world, cynic laureate Patton Oswalt is our Biggie or Em figure, a new-school workaholic landing on the exact point where staggering chops don’t overshadow emotion. A former English major, every Patton line on this, his tightest set to date, seems like it was constructed on a granular level, each word picked over microscopically to find the most efficient way to take down KFC or George Lucas. This, of course, makes for astonishing moments, like when Oswalt freestyles a corrosive splatter poem taking the voice of an idiot heckler intent on ruining the recording: “When my body returns to the loam and the cities are but dust… the Neuromancers walking the wastelands will carry high my standard of douchebaggery!” C.R.W.

4. George Carlin – Class Clown (1972)

George Carlin - Class Clown

In the early 1970s, when Carlin flipped from clean-cut club act to campus cult hero, he blazed a dual path of success and subversion. Starting by tickling that immature spot that makes us all giggle (farts, etc.), Carlin stealthily unmasks religious bullshit, punks the war machine, and ends on the legendary “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television” (for which he was arrested that summer). Today it’s amazing how “un-dirty” it sounds, but it’s still the funniest first amendment closing argument of all time. Lenny Bruce may have skeched the blueprint, but Carlin was the master builder, a stunning verbal contortionist who endures today as comedy’s most eloquent motherfucker S.C.

3. Eddie Murphy – Comedian (1983)

Eddie Murphy - Comedian

While Murphy’s self-titled debut, released a year prior, is easily its equal in terms of material, Comedian is untouchable as a document of an artist’s supernova moment, arriving between Trading Places and Beverly Hills Cop. (At the time, the title scanned as a mastery of understatement, like Rolls-Royce: Car, yet he’s never released a comedy album since.) That this set considers a warning to “faggots” staring at his ass to be an icebreaker says as much about 1983 as it does Murphy (age: 22); and while the bit may not age well, the swagger does. Fifty minutes of pure star-power, grounded in humanity that would soon be swallowed and devoured by that leather suit. S.K.

2. Richard Pryor – Live on the Sunset Strip

Richard Pryor - Live on the Sunset Strip

A.k.a. “The One After Nearly Burning to Death After a Rum-Soaked, Freebasing-Related Likely Suicide Attempt.” Yet from sticky odes to fucking (“Women”) to “Prison” riffs (“Don’t fuck with the double Muslims”), hellish near-death only deepened Pryor’s singular rhythms. He famously asks his pipe permission to leave the room on “Freebase” and goes head-on into his accident (“You can really tell when you fucked up when the doctor goes, ‘AAAAAHHHH!'”). And it’s impossible not to tear up and crack up in equal measure as he relates his trip to Africa. He’s the king of ’em all. J.G.

1. Bill Cosby – To Russell, My Brother, Whom I Slept With (1968)

Bill Cosby - To Russell, My Brother, Whom I Slept With

Bill Cosby taught a country infatuated with sentimental myths of domestic tranquility that children and parents are natural adversaries — and that their absurd clashes help make family life worthwhile. Though Cosby’s own loyalties are divided, he’s most insightful when sympathizing with kids. His comic observations about his toddlers’ misbehavior are funny, but the title monologue, a theatrical, nearly half-hour reminiscence of Bill and his younger brother playing and squabbling in bed, then fearfully struggling to present a united front when their father storms in to impose discipline, is stand-up comedy’s masterpiece. K.H.