Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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The Comedy Album Crop

In 1962, the fifth year in which the Recording Industry Association of America certified million-selling albums, three strange new names crept in among the Mitch Millers and Ernie Fords: Allan Sherman, Vaughn Meader and Bob Newhart. Although the three were far from the best comedians of their time--only Newhart has thrived since then--their significance was enormous. All three adapted the approach of the so-called sick comics--Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl and Shelly Berman--for the straight album-buying public. Their humor was situational and satirical--not even Newhart was a stand-up one-liner in the manner of Bob Hope and Jackie Mason. But unlike the sick comics, who attracted an audience as maximally faithful and minimally profitable as the jazz audience, they proved that the comedy LP might become a big seller.

But it turned out that one reason the comedy LP hit when it did was that it filled a vacuum. People were bored. The only vaguely exciting trend in music was folk, and its limitations were so obvious that Allan Sherman based a comedy career on them. In 1964, the Beatles proved that rock LPs might also become big sellers, and then some and so in the decade following the initial burst, million-selling comedy albums were rare. Allan Sherman had his successor in the Smothers Brothers and Vaughn Meader his in Welcome to the LBJ Ranch. An old Bob Newhart LP went gold in 1968, and a new Flip Wilson in 1970. And let us not forget Bill Cosby, who is likely to remain the comedy LP champ for many years to come. So far, he has six.

At first, it seemed unlikely that the rock subculture would produce many humorists. It called itself hip, but in Lenny Bruce's sense of the term it was anything but--its impulse was utopian and ecstatic, its mentality often credulous, not to say silly. Although every one of the great rock geniuses was blessed with a sense of humor, it was usually oblique, often accomplished through the music and obviated by its physical reality, a simultaneity. Humor was basically a verbal trip, after all.

But as the utopian promise of the rock subculture went tragically unrealized, it also became a joke. The pioneers were four actor-writers from Los Angeles who called themselves the Firesign Theater, who as long ago as 1968 were positing an American political system which bombed African nations with deadly payloads of William Burroughs novels and arrested suspects who didn't speak hip-talk. Utilizing the recording studio as no other comedians ever have, they created heady multi-punned mini-dramas that began where the radio serials of the '40s left off.

The Firesign Theater sells well, but the major comedy breakthrough was less startling artistically than economically. Cheech & Chong's second LP Big Bambu, went gold this year, partly as a result of a massive distribution push from A&M Records. Translating two traditional forms--drunk humor and ethnic humor--into mass-hip terms, Cheech & Chong (who will appear at the Westbury Music Fair Thursday and Friday) provide a safety valve for the self-doubt that even the most passionate adherents of youth culture must be feeling by now. They are in the forefront of a new wave of long-haired comics who draw ever-larger crowds to clubs and concerts, a boom that can be expected to continue until the next musical wave knocks it right out.

Meanwhile, a consumer guide to the current crop of comedy LPs:

ALL IN THE FAMILY: 2nd Album (Atlantic) Souvenir. Compares unfavorably with those shows I've seen (note verb) and makes me wish I'd seen (note verb) the ones I haven't. C (on a scale from A PLUS to E).

SANDY BARON: God Save the Queens (A&M) Proves that gay and gladsome do not necessarily go together, no matter what the thesaurus says. D MINUS

LENNY BRUCE: The Best of Lenny Bruce (Fantasy) and To Is a Preposition; Come Is a Verb (Douglas) Because of the way his intense humanism is balanced and sometimes overwhelmed by his tormented bitterness, Bruce is the father of modern humor, the man who transformed schtick into tragicomedy. Now that he's a totem, three labels (Fantasy, United Artists and Bizarre) have released multi-record, live concert albums, but they tend to drag. I suggest the two edited collections above, the Fantasy for a notion of his roots, the Douglas for his rich middle period. A

GEORGE CARLIN: Class Clown (Little David) I much prefer the organic humor of this LP to the contrived bits and pieces of Carlin's Grammy winning AM and FM. Like Bill Cosby, Carlin seems genuinely good-natured--his takeoffs on his old parochial school buddies are affectionate and respectful. This is probably why his political humor tends to go a little flat--he can't muster the sustained hostility it requires. That is, he may end a parody of "America" "from sea to oily sea," but he'll never echo Robert Klein's suggestion that what one man can do to stop pollution is put his mouth over the exhaust pipe--if the one man is the president of Amoco. Great in person, he'll be at the Westbury March 30. A MINUS

CHEECH & CHONG: Big Bambu (A&M) The National Lampoon asks: "If dope smoking doesn't damage your brain, how come so many teenyboppers think Cheech & Chong are funny?" Answer: Because they are, in a cheap way. They are the Red Skelton of marijuana--the dopes they mock are so wasted that your everyday teen toker can feel superior without bothering to get straight. But they're effective physically, and they made the National Lampoon record possible. B MINUS

THE CONGRESS OF WONDERS: Sophmoric (Fantasy) This one ought to be marked with a sic. They probably spell it humour too, just like the phlegm in medieval medicine. E PLUS

BILL COSBY: Inside the Mind of Bill Cosby (Uni) Hip, schmip--Cosby is a genius. Whether he is creating legends about growing up in the Philadelphia ghetto or embroidering his own ordinary experiences as a parent or working for the Electric Company, Cosby has one great subject--the minds of children. Asking him to become a satirist would be like asking Charley Pride to sing the blues. His ability to delve the fantastic convolutions of the non-adult imagination has no parallel. Like so many of the most widely popular artists, Cosby is blessed with a style of sentiment that is never dishonest--Will Rogers must have had a similar gift. His albums don't sell the way they used to, but they're still very funny and this is recommended. A MINUS

RAY D'ARIANO: Are You on Something? (Kama Sutra) Second generation hip comedy. The third time I listened to this record, the first side destroyed the two comedy albums I'd just heard--it includes the best-ever Woodstock, Cheech & Chong and FM radio bits. It's very subtle, though, no yock-yocks. Potential. B PLUS

MARSHALL EFRON: The Nutrino News Network (Polydor) The hip mocking the straight isn't even as funny as the straight mocking the hip. D MINUS

THE FIRESIGN THEATER: Not Insane (Columbia) At their best, these four men represent the pinnacle of recorded comedy--multi-leveled both aurally and intellectually, almost silly-funny and very serious at the same time. Their second and third albums (How Can You Be in Two Places at Once When You're Not Anywhere at All? and Don't Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers) present their basic thesis--that the US lost World War II. Their fourth, a two-LP set of radio tapes entitled Dear Friends, is more conventionally ha-ha, albeit devastating. But on I Think We're All Bozos on This Bus, they abandon humor for sci-fi middle seriousness, and this one, recorded mostly at one of their rare live performances, is mostly sight gags. Nos. 2 and 3 are A+, No. 4 an A, No. 5 a B-. This one, C MINUS.

HARRISON & TYLER: Try It--You'll Like It (Dore) Feminist mis-schtique. E PLUS

IMUS IN THE MORNING: One Sacred Chicken to Go (RCA Victor) Souvenir with a difference. As WNBC radio's morning man, Imus is attuned to a kind of off-the-wall ear comedy that translates well to record. As a deejay, he is genuinely outrageous--he recently announced the time and hour later than it was for an entire show--and the tapes that capture his on-the-air bravado work best here. Other bits seemed designed only to prove that he can use naughty words when he's not broadcasting. B MINUS

ROBERT KLEIN: Child of the '50s (Brut) In person, Klein is quick, energetic, nasty, compassionate--very New York. This record captures about half of that, which isn't bad, and I bet the next one is better. B

GROUCHO MARX: An Evening with Groucho (A&M) I know it's sacrilegious to say this, but they should have gotten to him about five years earlier. C

MONTY PYTHON: Another Monty Python Record (Famous Charisma) Inspired cover and some very funny internal jokes, plus Karl Marx trying to win a living room set on a quiz show, but overall too British subtle-eccentric. C PLUS

NATIONAL LAMPOON: Radio Dinner (Banana) Except for one stupid bit about a car that runs for president, this is funny throughout, and often savage. As usual, the Lampoon crew raises bad taste to the level of masochism--what's remarkable is that they do even better on record what they have demonstrated they can do in print. The Bangladesh tragedy team that closes the LP exemplify the limitations of bleeding-heartism. A MINUS

MURRAY ROMAN: Busted (United Artists) Roman has spent some time in jail, which does not in itself make you a comedian, as David Harris has long since proven. Lenny Bruce felt sorry for himself sometimes, but he never invited the audience to weep along. E PLUS

JERRY STILLER AND ANNE MEARA: Laugh When You Like (Atlantic) I never liked, not even once. At least at Bridget Loves Bernie I grimace a little. D

N'day, Mar. 11, 1973