The end of the golden age of comedy records
More than 25 years after his death, there’s nothing like the sound of Lenny Bruce’s voice. Rambling and jabbing like a borscht-belt comic on speed, the self-destructive king of beat humor is still a marvel to hear on The Lenny Bruce Originals, Volumes 1 and 2, two CD reissues of Bruce’s first four albums. For sobering comparison, ”Weird Al” Yankovic’s Off the Deep End and Andrew Dice Clay’s 40 Too Longoffer something else: concrete proof that the decline of the comedy album over the last two decades is no joke.
The comedy album was doomed with the dawn of the video age: It makes more sense to watch a comic in action than to listen to a record. At one time, though, these albums stood on their own. From the affectionate slice-of-black- life tales of Bill Cosby to the freak-flag humor of George Carlin and Cheech & Chong, comedy records were an art form in themselves. Relying on crack timing and sound effects, comics had to sustain interest in a full LP — no easy trick.
Bruce’s records were never chart toppers, but such late-’50s LPs as The Sick Humor of Lenny Bruce and Interviews of Our Times (volume 1 of Originals) and Togetherness and Lenny Bruce — American (volume 2) planted the seeds of the stand-up revolution. His humor is dated but still pointed: Playing a boorish white guy in ”How to Relax Your Colored Friends at Parties,” Bruce asks a partygoer, ”That Bojangles-Christ, could he tap-dance. You tap-dance a little yourself, huh?” His meandering stories have few actual guffaws, but Bruce’s satire remains unsurpassed: Check out one-man tours de force like the 20- minute ”The Palladium,” about a slimy American comic in London, and vignettes like ”The March of High Fidelity,” which mocks stereo dweebs by equating them with junkies. And the drug jokes and parodies set the stage for the cutting-edge likes of the Firesign Theatre.
You don’t need a concert video to appreciate Bruce’s wit, but it always helps with Yankovic, whose humor is so visual that Off the Deep End seems like half the joke. His glib takeoffs of Hammer’s ”U Can’t Touch This” (”I Can’t Watch This”) or Gerardo’s ”Rico Suave” (”Taco Grande”) are crying out for videos. There’s no better example than the video of ”Smells Like Nirvana,” a parody of Nirvana’s ”Smells like Teen Spirit.” From lyrics that mock Kurt Cobain’s garbled delivery to the sight gags (the long-haired grunge-rock fan who spins his head so hard it flies off), it’s an old-fashioned laugh riot.
The Dice Man sings on 40 Too Long, too, but in this case the songs — a lounge-act rocker and a mawkish ballad — are a welcome relief. According to his label, the concept is to show that ”America’s top comic rips men just as hard (as women).” Yes, he can, especially if the men are gay, Asian-Americans (”gooks” to him), overweight, or redheaded. Attempts at soothing his critics aside, he’s still the same old hateful moron, complete with sex jokes (”I didn’t hurt you, did I?”) that come off like date-rape fantasies. If the genre has degenerated into this, then take my comedy albums… please. Originals: Volume 1: B+ Volume 2: A- Deep End: C- 40 Too Long: F