Karen, when I get that faraway look in my eyes, this is where I go. Sorry. Love 'ya.
In my teens, it wasn't unusual to get together with friends and listen to comedy albums. I remember doing it in the family room of a good friend in junior high; I remember doing it with 15 people crammed into a college dorm room. Does anyone still do that? Or does it sound as antique and exotic as a malt-shop sock hop to someone under 35 or 40? Or was I just hanging out with freaks and weirdos all along (a real possibility)?
My prime comedy listening years were pretty much the 1970s, though I heard and appreciated material from before my time. In the mid-'70s, San Francisco AM radio station KSFO had a wonderful block of nighttime programming. As I recall, the evening started at 8 p.m. with Radio Mystery Theater, which broadcast modern original dramas. At 9 p.m. came old programs from the 1930s through '50s, a rotating mix of classic dramas such as "The Shadow" and comics like Fred Allen and Jack Benny, as well as occasional obscurities. Then at 10 p.m. came comedy, hosted by D.J. John Gilliland, and oh was that terrific! All the great stuff from the '50s and '60s. There were probably a good two or three years there where I disappeared into my room after dinner every night to listen to old radio programs and cuts from comedy albums. Most parents of teenage boys worry about them because they don't know what they're up to; I imagine now how my parents must've worried about me because they did know.
On top of that were comedy albums that friends and I bought, shared, swapped. A terrific mix of old and new. I loved Bob Newhart's button-down mind, both Bill Cosby's high-concept and well-observed family stuff, Allan Sherman, Nichols and May, Spike Jones. Tom Lehrer. Monty Python put out some albums that played with the vinyl medium as much as their films and television programs played with theirs. I knew a girl in junior high whose parents were so cool they let her play George Carlin loud! Richard Pryor. And poor Bill Dana . . . Mr. Dana came out of the Danny Thomas-Spike Jones-Steve Allen school of comedy and had the misfortune to play a dim-witted character named Jose Jimenez just when it became obviously wrong to do so. When I was 13, I didn't know Jose Jimenez was racist; I just thought he was very funny. (Mr. Dana later retired the character with apologies and received an Image Award from the National Hispanic Media Coalition.)
Comedy wasn't just an obscure niche of the recording industry. "The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart" was Number One on the Billboard pop chart in 1960, ahead of Elvis Presley. The last comedy album I'm aware of having a significant cultural impact was Steve Martin's "Wild and Crazy Guy" from 1978, which hit Number Two on the album charts and went double platinum. Everybody had it. Looking over the list of Grammy winners, I don't see much in the 32 years (!) since: some Weird Al, PDQ Bach (which I love), Chris Rock, welcome little blips from veterans like Carlin, Jonathan Winters, and Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner, and a new generation rising with Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart. Some good work, but nothing explosive and universal. Certainly nothing I can imagine college freshman huddling around an mp3 player listening to.
Is that it, then? Is the comedy album a relic? Cable television doubtlessly stole a lot of their steam; whereas Bill Cosby put out at least one record a year between 1963 and 1973, today someone like Lewis Black produces HBO or Comedy Central specials at the same rate. Then there's the obvious fragmenting of culture, so that you and I could go our whole lives unexposed to each other's artistic and entertainment touchstones.
Maybe I'm becoming a cranky old coot (check that: I know I'm becoming a cranky old coot, I'm just not sure whether it applies to this issue), but it seems like something valuable has been lost. Something communal, some secret clubhouse conjuring the theater of the mind. It's hard to put a finger on it. I didn't even notice it'd gone missing until this morning.