Top 5: Without Pictures

The Mrs. and I have tickets for Jerry Seinfeld’s sold-out show here in Madison tonight. We’ve been Seinfeld fans since the early 80s, when we’d catch him on the old VH1 show Stand-Up Spotlight, so we bit the bullet in these recession-riddled times and bought the tickets the day they went on sale.

In 1998, Seinfeld released a comedy album, I’m Telling You for the Last Time. It seems to me that comedy albums have just about disappeared from the scene in favor of performance DVDs, although a few comics (Ron White and Larry the Cable Guy come to mind) still put out CDs. In the days before home video, however, comedians used the recording medium in various ways. Some would simply document their live performances, while others created elaborate theater of the mind. In my collection are examples of both, and here are five of ’em.

The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart/Bob Newhart (1960). Newhart got his record deal based on some radio comedy bits he’d done in Chicago. “We’ll record you at your next live gig,” said executives at Warner Brothers. At the time, however, Newhart’s next live gig, however, would be his first. It took a few shows before the label got tapes it could use, but the results were a smash. It topped the charts in 1960 and won the Grammy for Record of the Year. The Button-Down Mind Strikes Back!, The Button-Down Mind on TV, and three less-successful albums followed in the 60s before Newhart moved over to television in the 1970s.

Big Bambu/Cheech and Chong (1973). It’s been 35 years now since this album was all the rage—“Sister Mary Elephant” was an actual hit single, and stoner comedy was suddenly mainstream. As little as 10 years later (and down unto the present day), an album with similarly drug-related content would certainly not have been passed from hand to hand in school the way Big Bambu was, but parents and school administrators of 1974 either didn’t notice or didn’t care.

Matching Tie and Handkerchief/Monty Python (1975). I bought most of the Python albums on vinyl (and have since upgraded to CDs), and I’m convinced that they don’t get the recognition they should for just how inventive they are. Although many of the sketches across their various albums were also seen on the TV shows, they were almost always modified so they worked without pictures. In addition, the albums frequently included non-TV material. Most of the Pythons had worked for BBC Radio before coming together on TV, so it was natural for them to conceptualize their albums as if they were radio broadcasts.

Mud Will Be Flung Tonight/Bette Midler (1985). Mostly a stand-up album but with a couple of songs, including a musical production detailing the invention of the brassiere and a routine featuring Bette’s Sophie Tucker character. It’s all pretty funny, although most of the references to 80s culture are obviously a bit dated now.

Classic Gold/George Carlin (1992). This anthology is actually Carlin’s first three landmark albums, Class Clown, FM and AM,  and Occupation: Foole, on two discs. FM and AM is the sound of Carlin morphing from the necktie-and-sport-coat comic who appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show into the counterculture philosopher of language he would remain until his death in 2008; it, too, won a Grammy in 1972.

“Abe Lincoln vs. Madison Avenue”/Bob Newhart (the routine that started Newhart’s career; buy it here)
“Sister Mary Elephant”/Cheech and Chong (cracked the Billboard Top 40 this week in 1974; buy it here)
“The Background to History, Part 4″/Monty Python (never appeared on TV; buy it here)
“The Unfettered Boob”/Bette Midler (buy it here)
“Shoot”/George Carlin (buy it here)

4 thoughts on “Top 5: Without Pictures

  1. Oh, man! This post reminded me that my grandfather used to have a bunch of George Carlin stuff, and I should go digging through his (my grandfather’s) collection to look for it. So good!

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