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.
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)
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)
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)
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
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.