Like relics from a simpler time, two new comedy albums showed up on my desk this week: Artie Lange's Jack and Coke, a switchblade-vicious assault from Howard Stern's sidekick; and The 2000 Year Old Man: The Complete History, a deluxe packaging of Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks' classic bit. Although Lange is the funniest barfly you've ever feared and Reiner and Brooks are nothing short of legend, it felt weird, foreign listening to them. And then I realized what was wrong. • I'm not 13 anymore.
Maybe my theory is totally fakakta here, but a comedy album is never as funny or as vital as when you're 13 years old. Then, it's taboo, dangerous, a new secret language. It's not TV or a movie or a concert; it's just a voice feeding you great gags to regurge on the playground. In 1983, my friends and I smuggled tapes of Eddie Murphy's Comedian. Because we were incapable of saying anything clever ourselves, we basically just quoted from Eddie's infamous barbecue sketch. "Aunt Bunny is comin' to get me!"
Back then, we still bought laughs on vinyl and cassette. But things changed. Fledgling cable channels a la HBO were loaded with on-the-cheap must-tape specials from Caroline's in New York or the Comedy Store in L.A. They featured Sam Kinison, Bill Hicks, Andrew "Dice" Clay, Jim Carrey, Bobcat Goldthwait and Jerry Seinfeld. Modern comics Adam Sandler, Jeff Foxworthy and Dane Cook would thrive via the Internet. The days of Bob Newhart, Redd Foxx and Flip Wilson were long gone.
Lately, there's been a comedy-album renaissance. HBO's folk-spoofing Flight of the Conchords had the highest charting comedy record since Steve Martin's in the late '70s. I like the Conchords now; but I would have loved them when I was 13. So with that in mind, here are my favorite comedy albums — or whatever I could get my hands on in 1983:
Bill Cosby, To Russell, My Brother, Whom I Slept With (1968) The funniest 26:43 in standup history. I'm talking can't-breathe funny. The Cos gives a punch-by-punch breakdown of sleeping with his sib. "You made my eyeball fall out!"
Steve Martin, A Wild and Crazy Guy (1978) Martin wasn't so much a joke-teller as a postmodern phrase-turner. You cheered the setup; you rarely understood the punchline. "Many people come to me and say, 'Hey, how can you be such a swinging sex god?' "
Rodney Dangerfield, No Respect (1980) The late Jacob Cohen could lift you out of a bad day . . . or at least wallow along with you. "When I was a baby, I was breast-fed by my father!"
Bob & Doug McKenzie, Great White North (1982) SCTV comedians Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas played lovable Canadian "hosers" who drank their way into hosting a talk show. "Take off, eh?"
Eddie Murphy, Comedian (1983) Murphy merged Cosby's ear for familial nuance and Richard Pryor's violent rebellion. If you want to know why so many 39-year-olds are still waiting for a Murphy comeback, this is it. "Now that's a fire! . . . Roll Charlie around in there, he'll be all right!"
Joan Rivers, What Becomes a Semi-Legend Most? (1983) Before "Can we tawk?" was wince-inducing and her face became a Picasso, the platinum-topped comedian (who once performed as Pepper January) was a wicked social commentator. "Rock stars are so ugly! Mick Jagger is the only man in the world with child-bearing lips!" Trust me: In '83, that killed.