Lessons in Laughter

Tracing comic history with gut-busting CDs.

If you survived McCarthyism, changing tastes, and capricious commercial sponsors, you could get very rich as a successful American comedian in the first half of the 20th century. But what about today's senior comics, the sketch artists and satirists who found their first success in the '50s and '60s? Outlets were fewer for them, but the work was generally more abstract and thus intensely focused: in nightclubs, on talk shows, Ed Sullivan, college dates, Broadway, and, of course, comedy albums. The vinyl platters may be gone now, but the comedy album phenomenon is still thriving. A true afficionado of the form can't live without 1960's The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart (Warner Bros., $9.98) or Lenny Bruce's 1961 Carnegie Hall Concert (Blue Note, $23.98), making comedy CDs great holiday gift fodder.

Let's start with the original An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May (Polygram, $11.98). The official 1960 cast album of the Chicago duo's legendary, Arthur Penn-directed stint on Broadway, Evening features four brilliant pieces, including the smart "Adultery" and hilarious "Telephone," in which Nichols plays a fellow begging for his lost dime. All four tracks—and eight others—can also be found on a recent anthology, In Retrospect (Polygram, $17.98).

Nichols and May's contemporary, Bill Cosby, happened to be America's most popular and influential comic during the Civil Rights era, his broad appeal rooted not in political humor but in the universality of his point of view on ordinary experience. The 1963 live album Bill Cosby Is a Very Funny Fellow—Right! (Warner Bros., $9.98) nails some of Coz's earliest, beloved hits ("Noah: Right!"), while the 1967 Revenge (Warner Bros., $9.98) finds his incisive material at new heights of poignancy.

Cosby peer Bob Newhart is well represented by a two-disc retrospective, Something Like This . . . The Bob Newhart Anthology (Rhino Records, $19.98), culling good bits ("Introducing Tobacco to Civilization") from Button-Down Mind and its several sequels. The underappreciated Phyllis Diller, godmother of female comics, broke into comedy 50 years ago at age 37 and burns up the road on The Best of Phyllis Diller (Phantom, $17.99). Included is some of her most famous, punchline-driven material ("Don't Eat Here," "The Way I Dress").

Somewhat more obscure by 2002 standards, the vital Mort Sahl—a crucial bridge between the political humor of the placid '50s and contentious '60s—released his best album, At the Hungry I (Phantom, $17.99), a month before the election of JFK to the White House. Inside Shelley Berman (Phantom, $17.99), the finest work of an outstanding monologist, was the no. 2 album in America for five weeks in 1959. It holds up well.

Across the Atlantic, of course, the Brits were experiencing their own growth spurt in postwar comedy. Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers, and Harry Secombe collectively changed the rules of sketch humor as the Goons, a rapid-fire ensemble with a couple of available imports, The Goons (EMI, $15.99) and The Goons V.2 (EMI, $14.99), gathering late-'50s material produced by the pre-Beatles George Martin.

The Goons, of course, launched a solo Sellers—don't miss his amazing Classic Songs and Sketches (EMI, $14.49)—and also inspired two-plus decades of beloved Oxbridge comedy. Apostles include the estimable Beyond the Fringe, whose three-disc Beyond the Fringe: 1961 Original London Cast (EMI, $56.99) is currently their best recording showcase. The group boasted a startling concentration of talent: writer Alan Bennett (The Singing Detective), director Jonathan Miller (the Jack Lemmon-starring Long Day's Journey Into Night), and future partners Dudley Moore and Peter Cook, who, as "Derek and Clive," released a pair of astonishingly perverse testa-ments to improvisational genius, Come Again (EMI, $13.99) and Ad Nauseum (EMI, $13.99).

The way of the Fringe leads, naturally, to Monty Python, who wrote, produced, and performed on several of their own albums with the same stream-of-consciousness inventiveness they brought to their television show. No Python collection is complete without the stellar, 1971 Another Monty Python CD (Caroline, $11.99) and its follow-up, Monty Python's Previous Record (Caroline, $11.99). If you're looking for a career overview, and don't want to invest in a huge box set, try Python's The Final Rip-Off (Virgin, $17.98), a two-disc compilation of famous stuff.

Back on these shores, a self-designed American Masters collection ought to include Richard Pryor's nine-disc box set, And It's Deep, Too! 1968-1992 (Rhino, $79.99), a monument to a now-silenced genius. Pryor pal Lily Tomlin's 1971 debut album, This Is a Recording (Phantom, $17.90), is still the best testament to the Laugh-In star's early, formidable powers in the building of characters.

Don't forget Gilda Radner's bittersweet masterpiece, Live from New York (Warner Bros., $9.98), released just after her Saturday Night Live years but full of lovely moments with alter-egos Lisa Loopner, Emily Litella, and others. Several of Radner's SNL chums figure prominently in the omnibus Buy This Box or We'll Shoot This Dog: The Best of the National Lampoon Radio Hour (Rhino, $49.98), a huge collection of inspired, baby-boomer-themed radio sketches from the 1970s.

Less heady than National Lampoon but irresistible in its own way is the eponymous Cheech and Chong (Warner Bros., $11.98), exemplary stoner humor from another America.

Leaping ahead to more current days, comedy buffs can't get by without Chris Rock's 1997 Roll With the New (Dreamworks, $18.98); the late and great Bill Hicks' concert album Rant In E-minor (Rykodisc, $16.98); Jerry Seinfeld's mid-career summary I'm Telling You for the Last Time (Universal, $11.98); Ellen Degeneres' infectious Taste This (Wea/Atlantic, $13.99); Robin Williams' recent, madcap Live 2002 (Sony, $19.98); British drag-act comic Eddie Izzard's winning Glorious/Dress to Kill (Phantom, $27.99), and David Cross' new, brutally funny Shut Up You Fucking Baby! (Sub Pop, $16.99).

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FIVE ESSENTIAL LAUGHS

1. Lenny Bruce, Carnegie Hall Live (Blue Note, $23.98):

The prodigious, doomed satirist at his most penetrating.

2. Woody Allen, Standup Comic (Rhino, $17.98):

From "the moose scored" to "and Hemingway punched me," this is vintage, New Yorker-era Allen.

3. Don Rickles, Hello, Dummy! (Warner Bros., $9.98):

Before we all got overly sensitive about our dignity, Rickles was America's champion of insult humor.

4. Bill Cosby, Wonderfulness (Warner Bros., $9.98):

This one's got "Chicken Heart." Enough said.

5. Stan Freberg, Stan Freberg Presents the United States of America Vol. 1, the Early Years, and Vol. 2, the Middle Years (Rhino, $30.98):

The Renaissance Man of American pop culture at his masterful best.

 
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