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Spinning Laughs Into Gold?

Although the '50s and '60s were the heyday for comedy albums, the genre is alive in limited market.

April 19, 1998|Paul Brownfield | Paul Brownfield is a Times staff writer

Comedy albums were a potent, talked-about part of the hipster culture of the 1950s and '60s, a time when Lenny Bruce records were passed around like so much contraband and people could instantly recite the routines of Woody Allen, Bob Newhart and Nichols and May.

It was an era when comedians could legitimately wear the tag "comedian-commentator." And a time when comedy albums could sail straight to the top of the Billboard chart.

"People could listen to those albums a second and third time and find something they hadn't heard," Newhart says today, reflecting on the golden age of comedy recordings. "We became the young people's nightclub. Somebody would put on a comedy album and get beer and pizza and people would sit around listening to it."

Sustained by the super-stardom of Richard Pryor and Steve Martin, the comedy record kept its stature through the 1970s, but by the '90s, with the explosion of cable TV stand-up showcases and sitcoms featuring stand-ups, the idea of a comedy record seemed redundant. Or irrelevant. Or both.

Today, comedy recordings--now CDs--live on, though with sharply reduced expectations. They've become a niche enterprise, with independent recordings of relatively unknown or edgier acts at one end and the nostalgia business at the other, with classic recordings occasionally re-released on CD by the major labels.

This month's releases typify the split market. From the independents there's John Pinette's "Show Me the Buffet," Richard Belzer's "Another Lone Nut" and Bobby Slayton's "Raging Bully," among others.

Warner Bros., meanwhile, is re-releasing five Bill Cosby records, Bob Newhart's two top-selling "The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart" albums, and Steve Martin's "Comedy Is Not Pretty" while Relativity has "The Very Best of Redd Foxx."

For Pinette, there's still a value to making a comedy album. "People have been trained to believe that comedy is the five- and 10-minute segments that you see on TV," says Pinette, who was in town recently to tape a guest-starring role on the final episode of NBC's "Seinfeld."

"But in 10 minutes, you can't really talk about yourself."

No one involved with these CDs should have high hopes for a blockbuster hit. While every now and then a Chris Rock, Sam Kinison or Jeff Foxworthy (a two million seller who has another CD due in May) comes along to prompt an article or two on the "resurgence of the comedy album," most remain on the fringes, selling modestly--often in the tens of thousands.

On the surface, the reasons for this seem self-evident. Why, after all, would anyone buy a CD to hear something they can get for free from television? Adding to the problem is radio. Once a welcome forum for comedian appearances and sound bites, the airwaves are today dominated by disc jockeys under the impression that they're funny enough without help from the professionals.

Newhart concedes that he and other comics like Mort Sahl, Jonathan Winters, Shelley Berman and Allan Sherman didn't have television raiding the stand-up ranks so tirelessly back then. But no matter the era, Newhart says, the artists are ultimately what make comedy albums vital.

"Our material had relevance to people," Newhart says, noting that there was an entire segment of young, college-educated people overlooked by many of the dominant nightclub acts. Newhart's "Button-Down Mind" album was so popular that it reached No. 1 on the Billboard chart in the 1960s.

Now generations of Newhart fans, weaned on reruns of "The Bob Newhart Show" on cable TV, don't even realize his classic one-way conversational skills (most famously as a driving instructor and submarine captain) were something Newhart developed 40 years ago.

"I would get letters saying, 'I enjoyed "The Bob Newhart Show." So what did you do before this?' "

By reissuing "The Button-Down Mind" albums, Warner Bros. no doubt hopes to turn on a younger generation of fans to Newhart's early comedy.

For Rhino Records, that strategy has had limited results. Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks' "The 2000 Year-Old Man in the Year 2000," has sold 30,000 copies since being released last October.

Even Reiner, who along with Brooks will have a "2000-Year-Old Man" book and CD signing April 28 at Book Soup in West Hollywood, admits he doesn't listen to comedy albums anymore. "There's too much media vying for your attention," he laments.

Maybe the problem is that the 2000-Year-Old Man, for all his knowledge of mankind, forgot to ask God to give him a sitcom or cable special.

"Television has made [comedy] too accessible, so that there doesn't seem to be this sense of adventure about hearing salacious material," says Bill McEuen, who produced Steve Martin's records in the '70s. "If you look at the long history of comedy, at people like Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl, in those days the language was hard to get exposure for. It was almost underground. That's changed. This fear of words is gone."

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