Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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New Kind of Comedy Served on a Platter

The canned laughter that opens side two of the Credibility Gap's A Great Gift Idea is interrupted as it gurgles to its premature climax by the hard nasals of yet another oldies ad. But this one isn't for music: "The Funny '50s--and the Snickering '60s--when the world still knew how to laugh." To receive the Laughmasters' re-creation of 16 Golden Bits, from Jose Jimenez to Mort Sahl to the First Family, you just send blank check or money order to Box 683, Mail Drop, Minn.

The fade is to pizzicato strings behind a more cultivated announcer. "And now, PBS, the Paid Broadcasting System, presents 'An Evening with Sly Stone,' an intimate and often surprising glimpse of the private life of one of youthful America's most prominent musical families." One surprise is that Sly is rather cultivated himself. After bantering with George Kirby, who does a Jimmy Cagney imitation, he discusses Gershwin with his brother and sister. Then he squelches William F. Buckley, Jr. in a discussion of African art. The visit ends right on time--Sly doesn't want to be late for his "recital" next day.

"An Evening with Sly Stone" is the most outrageous and abstract--yet laughworthy--cut on a comedy record that does literally antiquate all those funny, snickering bits of the past. If its humor isn't unprecedented--and although I am no historian of humor, I think it may be--it is at least radically different from Jose Jimenez, Mort Sahl and the First Family. Its content is different, because it avoids gags, and its form is different, because it is molded to the phonograph record. In other words, it is new comedy--post-FS.

FS refers to Firesign Theater, who if they didn't invent this kind of humor were the first to get it on record. Not that it has no antecedents. Harry Shearer of the Credibility Gap mentions the radio comedy of Bob & Ray and the production values of Stan Freberg. Firesign cohort Steve Gillmor thinks the troupe goes back to the Goon Show of Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan. As it happens, the Goons also qualify for 16 Golden Bits, but then, so do Nichols & May, whose dry situational humor presages the post-FS style, as do the aural impersonation skits of Vaughn Meader's First Family. Improvisational theater satirists like San Francisco's Committee and Chicago's Second City also count as influences, as does Lenny Bruce, whose committed irony is still the definition of hip comedy.

Note that of these pioneers, only Bruce, whose influence was least specific, functioned primarily as a standup comic. The others worked within a radio or record context that eliminated the visual or were compelled to be funny in dramatic interplay with other comedians portraying other characters. These are the kinds of limitations that encourage creativity by concentrating it. Group comedy is taxing--Phil Austin of FS: "Every word goes through four heads for approval. We therefore write very slowly. Our energy level is very intense. Grown men leave the room when we fight with each other"--but affords the participants a vast situational advantage over the most flexible monologist. And while the disadvantages of working strictly in an aural dimension are self-evident, the discipline is obviously a useful one for anyone who wants to make records.

It would be silly for me to suggest that monologue, the staple of American comedy, doesn't translate well to vinyl--not with all those Lenny Bruce and Bill Cosby records lining my shelves. But it is true that the posthumous theatrical transcriptions of Bruce drag because no one moved in to edit them. And on Bill, a recent two-record set by Cosby that was recorded live, there are frustrating holes where the master is obviously moving his face or body in a funny way. Monologists like George Carlin and Lily Tomlin and Richard Pryor have such good material that you forgive their sight gags, but such gaps are not forgivable in a David Frye, whose face is his fortune. And, of course, nothing salvages skimpy jokes although it is significant that Steve Gillmor, who has done production work for FS, talks wistfully about "putting some stuff" on the recent David Steinberg LP.

Not that new comedy records have been much better. The memory of the Ace Trucking Company, the Congress of Wonders, even the first Credibility Gap album, Woodschtick, is enough to make a person cry. But at least when they succeed, they don't have the built-in disadvantage of the funniest old comedy albums, which is that there isn't much temptation to listen to them more than once. A strange kind of investment, a Bill Cosby album. You buy it and bring it home and play it and laugh, but then what? Who really plays it again? With a special record, maybe very occasionally. But the way it usually works is that you wait until someone who loves comedy comes over, and then you put it on, hoping that his/her enjoyment will revitalize the humor for you--which in fact it often does.

In contrast, new comedy records strive for structure and dimension that rewards repeated listening. There are sound effects and music; there's a plot; two or three things go on at once. Even Cheech & Chong, new comedy's answer to Milton Berle or the Flintstones--adolescent dopers howl at them while everyone else cringes--hype up their tracks with background noise. And to be fair, their most recent album, Los Cochinos, includes one genuine masterpiece.

In "Basketball Jones," Tyrone Shoelaces, the unstoppable four-foot-11 center, documents his life-long addiction--"that basketball was like a basketball to me." Lou Adler backs Tyrone's vocal with the Rap Brown Jr. H.S. Band, including George Harrison and Carole King, who lay down a convincing soul track. The song has now been transformed into a four-minute cartoon that closes with Tyrone trying to dunk the moon, a suitably absurd and cosmic gesture. This proves that Cheech & Chong can be sublime. They should learn how to be ridiculous once in a while.

The best album of comedy songs since Stan Freberg is probably the National Lampoon's Lemmings, the original cast version of the Lampoon's Dead in Concert. Unfortunately, like so much live comedy--and live music--it was better in person. More impressive is the Credibility Gap's patriotic Jackson 5 (or Osmonds, more likely) song, "You Can't Judge a Book by Its Hair" and the shafty music behind the ad for "Kingpin," a "blaxploitation" movie based on the life of guess who. (Produced by Kareem Abdul Fetchit. Executive Producer: Samuel Hirschorn.) As with Tyrone Shoelaces, the level of craftsmanship is so high, and the parody so subtle, that the music provides not laughter but some kind of rarefied humorous enjoyment time after time.

But an even more enduring trick is the property of the Firesign Theater. The Credibility Gap, whose specialty is an oblique cut of satire, got their radio training doing mock newscasts for a station in Los Angeles. The Firesign Theater, in contrast, got their radio training doing anything they wanted, which came to include a lot of absurd plays, all with a touch of sci-fi futurism. The FS's basic idea is that the U.S. lost World War II. They have been predicting food shortages for years--on Don't Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers, still their funniest and deepest record, people were eating things like chicken fingers and groat cakes with 30-weight. ("Don't eat with your hands, son. Use your entrenching tools.") Several of their records have been nominated for Hugos, science fiction awards normally reserved for books.

The humor in this world is achieved through diction--both FS and the Credibility Gap excel at parodying the stilted speech patterns of not-quite-articulate public figures--more than characterization. The FS are shameless punsters, too, whether waxing Shakespearean--"stuffed like an anchovy with last night's capers"--or plumbing sumpholes of humor like the following straight flush: "It sounds dangerous. Will you go for me?" "Only if you lose a little weight." "Oh, I'll wait forever." "All right, wait here." "Waiter!" "Oui, monsieur." But the humor is also an essential component of one of the most coherent artistic overviews in the world of phonograph records.

The odd thing about this overview, which is profoundly pessimistic if you ignore its comic element--FS seems to find it genuinely funny as well, which may or may not be a relief--is that it doesn't get more interesting as it begins to seem more real. Maybe it's just that FS is tired. Solo albums by both Proctor & Bergman (T.V. or Not T.V.) and David Ossman (How Time Flys) spurred rumors of a break-up while preventing the real thing, but the full FS album that followed, a Sherlock Holmes take-off with energy crisis overtones called The Tale of the Giant Rat of Sumatra, was old and not an especially powerful or funny work. I find myself wishing for one dullish character instead of eight brilliant caricatures, or for a woman who isn't a male falsetto, or even for an end to puns. Ossman's LP comes closest, especially with Mark Time, a space traveler who leaves an earth of heroic achievers and returns to one run on simulasers. But How Time Flys is the one that escapes its plot by positing a black hole in the center of the universe. Maybe they'll do better eventually.

Nevertheless, any uninitiated with a taste for comedy is directed to Don't Crush That Dwarf or Dear Friends or How Can You Be in Two Places at Once When You're Not Anywhere at All? And especially to the Credibility Gap's A Great Gift Idea, which I think is the funniest and deepest--a combination that keeps popping into this discussion, you notice--comedy LP in several years. There's a Johnny Carson take-off on that record that's so to the point you'll never face Ed McMahon straight again.

N'day, Mar. 3, 1974