Required Listening: 10 Influential Comedy Albums


Opening today in limited release, American: The Bill Hicks Story is an excellent documentary profiling the now-legendary stand-up comic and social satirist. Hicks was very much on the rise when he died of pancreatic cancer back in 1994 (he was only 32); in the years since his untimely demise, his reputation has only continued to grow. Much of that is due to his nine scathingly brilliant comedy albums — seven of them released posthumously, all among the most beloved stand-up discs of recent years. In celebration of his legacy, we decided to take a look at some of the most influential comedy albums of all time; take a look after the jump, and add your picks in the comments.

Bob Newhart, The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart

THE ALBUM: Newhart, a former accountant and copyrighter, had a distinctive stand-up style, in which he would frequently perform one-half of conversations (often over telephones), realistically portraying a fundamentally silly situation. His first album for Warner Brothers, The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart, was an absolute sensation; it went to number one on the pop charts (unseating Elvis Presley) and winning both Album of the Year and Best New Artist at that year’s Grammys — not exactly a common occurrence for a comedian.

INFLUENCED: Newhart’s straight-laced, profanity-free mix of silliness and observation influenced countless comics, from Robert Klein and Jay Leno to Jim Gaffigan and Ray Romano.

SIGNATURE BIT: “Abe Lincoln vs. Madison Avenue,” in which Newhart plays a slick adman advising the President on how to cultivate his public image.

Lenny Bruce, The Carnegie Hall Concert

THE ALBUM: Bruce was a hot young comic — but not yet the cause celebré he would become — in 1961, when he was booked into Carnegie Hall for a special midnight show. And then the snow came. New York City was crushed by a spectacular blizzard in early February; a driving ban was put into effect, and Bruce barely made into town himself (he was driving in from Miami). He worried that no one would show, but nearly 3,000 fans braved the snow to take in this legendary performance.

INFLUENCED: Pretty much any comic who took on political comedy or social satire in the half-century that followed: Hicks, George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Jon Stewart, David Cross, you name ‘em.

SIGNATURE BIT: “Las Vegas T*** and A**,” a comparison of what they give you in Vegas — and what you’re there for.

Bill Cosby, Wonderfulness

THE ALBUM: Wonderfulness was Cosby’s fourth stand-up comedy album, but it was the first to showcase the kind of extended storytelling that would later become his stock-in-trade (his first three focused on tighter, more compact bits). Two of the cuts run over ten minutes, while the others run considerably shorter; all are as funny today as when the album was released in May of 1966.

INFLUENCED: Scores of comics grew up listening to Cosby; Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, and Mike Birbiglia have been particularly vocal in articulating the influence of his early albums.

SIGNATURE BIT: “Chicken Heart,” a hilarious memory of being scared out of his wits by horror anthologies on the radio.

George Carlin, Class Clown

THE ALBUM: Carlin began his career as a night club comic in a suit and tie, performing TV-friendly pop satire for mostly upscale audiences. Those bits were captured on his first solo album, Take-Offs and Put-Ons, but his next record, FM & AM, showcased his metamorphosis into a youthful, taboo-tackling comic in denim and long hair. That switch was complete by the time he recorded Class Clown in 1972, in which he mixed off-color observational humor with satires on organized religion, language, and (most famously) broadcast standards.

INFLUENCED: His off-beat observational comedy influenced artists like Jerry Seinfeld, Louis C.K., and Steven Wright, while his anti-authoritarian outlook was later seen in Hicks, Sam Kinison, Chris Rock, Bill Maher, Lewis Black, and many others.

SIGNATURE BIT: The album’s most notorious cut was “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television” (it starts at 1:42 in the clip above), a hilarious examination of profanity (and the double-standards therein). Carlin was later arrested for obscenity after performing the bit at a Milwaukee outdoor festival; his follow-up routine, “Filthy Words” (on his next album, Occupation: Foole) led to a Supreme Court case when it was aired uncensored on a New York City radio station.

Richard Pryor, Is It Something I Said? ?

THE ALBUM: Richard Pryor’s fourth album was the first that truly crystalized the wide variety of his skills — from social satire (“New Niggers”) to racial commentary (“Shortage of White People”) to drugs (“Cocaine”) to sexual politics (“When Your Woman Leaves You”) to character comedy (introducing the character of Mudbone, an old street-corner philosopher).

INFLUENCED: Eddie Murphy, of course. Also Chris Rock, Martin Lawrence, Robin Williams, Bernie Mac, Sarah Silverman, Margaret Cho, Eddie Izzard, and on and on.

SIGNATURE BIT: Hard to pick one, but “Mudbone-Little Feets,” aside from being an inspired bit of near-surreal storytelling, also includes one of Pryor’s most famous punch lines: “Yeah, and it’s deep too!”

Steve Martin, A Wild and Crazy Guy

THE ALBUM: Martin’s stand-up days are so far in the rearview that it’s easy to forget what a huge act he was — in his heyday, he was selling out arenas. A Wild and Crazy Guy was the second of four comedy albums he released between 1977 and 1981, and trafficked in his trademark brand of post-modern silliness (topics included college intellectuals, charitable giving, and the larcenous habits of his cat). It also included his hit single, “King Tut” (above).

INFLUENCED: Judd Apatow and Paul Rudd reportedly first bonded over their love of the album; you can hear echoes of Martin in Eddie Izzard, Brian Posehn, Steven Wright, Mitch Hedberg, and (don’t blame him) Dane Cook.

SIGNATURE BIT: By this point, all Martin had to say “Because I am a wild and crazy guy!” to make the audience go insane. But he continues, with a hilarious series of tips for being a “swinging sex god” who can “make love up to one time a night.”

Eddie Murphy, Comedian

THE ALBUM: That’s right, kids of today who only know Eddie Murphy from Shrek and all of those terrible family comedies: Eddie Murphy used to be funny. Really, really funny. Dirty too! His 1983 album Eddie Murphy: Comedian was taken from two performances at Constitution Hall in Washington, DC, which were also the basis for his HBO special Delirious . While his notorious homophobia remains troublesome (and intriguing, in light of a certain incident with a transvestite prostitute years later), most of the album is non-stop hilarity: his thoughts (complete with spot-on impressions) on famous singers, his memory of the joy of a visit from the ice cream man, and a few brief but penetrating jokes about racism and politics.

INFLUENCED: Chris Rock was famously helped along by Murphy, who became something of a mentor for the young comic. Martin Lawrence, Dave Chapelle, Dave Attell, Eddie Griffin, Robert Schimmel, Aziz Ansari, and Tracy Morgan all have some Murphy in their comedic DNA as well.

SIGNATURE BIT: “The Barbecue,” an extended and rather brilliant bit in which Murphy transforms into his angry, drunken father letting loose at a family cookout.

Bill Hicks, Rant in E-Minor

THE ALBUM: According to American, Hicks worked at a furious pace in the months between his diagnosis and death, recording enough material for several posthumous albums. The best of the bunch is Rant, a 36-track mini-masterpiece that covers most of the comic’s favorite topics — politics, smoking, the culture war, religion — with a stark viciousness that still cuts. It’s an incredibly funny record; it’s also a dark and bitterly angry one.

INFLUENCED: Most famously, Denis Leary — whom many accused of swiping his stand-up persona (and even bits of his act) from Hicks. Lewis Black, David Cross, and Patton Oswalt have also pinpointed Hicks as a major influence.

SIGNATURE BIT: One bit from Rant experienced a bit of a viral renaissance after NBC’s PR nightmare in handing off and taking back The Tonight Show last year: “Artistic Roll Call,” a brutal take-down of Jay Leno.

Chris Rock, Roll with the New

THE ALBUM: Several of the albums on this list appeared in the opening sequence of Chris Rock’s Bring the Pain special, as his shout-out to the records that made him want to be a comic; the recording of that special, Roll with the New, would quickly join them on the list of great moments in recorded comedy. Rock, who had appeared for several season on Saturday Night Live, found his fortunes falling when he left that show; In Living Color was cancelled shortly after he joined that cast, his film CB4 flopped, and he was no longer pulling crowds as a stand-up. Rock realized he’d lost touch with his audience, so he started going to smaller clubs, working leaner, tougher material; the resulting album and special quickly established him as one of the smartest and funniest comics in the game.

INFLUENCED: Chappelle, Aziz Ansari, George Lopez, and most of the young comics who you haven’t heard of yet, but will.

SIGNATURE BIT: “Niggas Vs. Black People” describes a “civil war going on with black people”; the routine, which quickly became his most famous and oft-quoted, is as funny, provocative, and genuinely thoughtful as the best of Pryor or Bruce.

Mitch Hedberg, Strategic Grill Locations

THE ALBUM: The most recent album on our list, this 1999 release by the late Mitch Hedberg is basically an inspired series of one-liners delivered by Hedberg, who is (at first listen) something of a stoner Henny Youngman. But there’s a surrealist streak to Hedberg’s comedy, which folds from simple observation into oddball wordplay with grace and ease. Sadly, Hedberg would only release two albums before his death of a drug overdose in 2005 (a third, posthumous album was released in 2008). He didn’t leave much material, but what he left was golden.

INFLUENCED: Mike Birbiglia has frequently mentioned his idolization of Hedberg, for whom he opened early in his career (and even filled in, telling Hedberg jokes, when the comedian took a bathroom break in the middle of his act)

SIGNATURE BIT: His stream-of-consciousness style doesn’t really make for tight routines; just about any bit pulls out nicely, so here’s “Six People Isn’t Convincing,” a series of, in his words, “throwaway jokes” like “a severed foot is the ultimate stocking stuffer” and “I like an escalator because an escalator can never break, it can only… become stairs.”

Those are ten of our favorites — what comedy records would you put on the list?