I remember back in the day when people would listen to Robert Klein, Woody Allen or my own favourite, Steve Martin’s Let’s Get Small, for an entire hour in a rec room surrounded by friends. Comedy and chill, I think we called it.
Comedy albums have had their ups and downs, and lately the tide has turned again as Netflix has become the primary distributor of comedy material.
At this year’s Grammy Awards, all five nominees in the Best Comedy Album category are from Netflix specials. But let’s get to the albums themselves.
Life Before Seinfeld, Jerry Seinfeld
This is a wonderful curiosity. He taped it at the Comic Strip, which is where he started out in the ’70s, and had the club redecorated to look like it did in 1978. There’s a theme here, and it’s what Jerry Seinfeld’s life was like before he was famous. Lots of great material about growing up in Long Island, being a teenager at the time and a lot of stuff that will make you nostalgic if not hysterical.
A Speck of Dust, Sarah Silverman
I was sceptical of this entry. Although I’m a huge fan of hers, I thought she never matched the quality of her first outing. But I was nicely surprised by this recording. Mining her usual naughty Jewish girl character, Silverman takes us in some weird and absurd directions. She starts off a bit about cats, and you think it’s a safe and hacky piece until she twists it into a chunk about crucifying animals, which only the lightness of her persona rescues from being a repellent bit.
Cinco, by Jim Gaffigan
If you like Jim Gaffigan, the amiable Midwestern family man, you’re going to like him here on his fifth album. But he might as well have called the album More of the Same. Same riffs about being fat, being a slacker father, eating, food, napping, travel. There’s nothing groundbreaking here. But his off-the-cuff rhythms are infectious, and his comedy goes down real easy.
What Now?, by Kevin Hart
I do not get the Kevin Hart phenomenon. The bombast and arrogance sink his set with a self-importance that’s undeserved. His riffs, which start with a 20-minute time waster on animals attacking humans, feel forced. He shouts every line, indicates every thought, and punctuates his jokes with a wail, which I thought had been retired around the time of Chris Tucker.
The Age of Spin and Deep in the Heart of Texas, by Dave Chapelle
Finally, there’s Dave Chapelle, who came out of retirement to release not one, but two recorded specials, which make no mistake in announcing his return. The Age of Spin might be criticized for being softball comedy. But it’s like seeing an old friend for the first time in years. He ends with a bit on Bill Cosby that ties into a throwaway joke earlier in the set that shows his brilliance. Deep in the Heart of Texas, on the other hand, reveals the Chappelle we expect: obsessed with race, a bit foul-mouthed, but with his signature sly attitude. If you took the best parts of each album, it would easily be the recording of the year.
I don’t know who’ll win, but I’m excited to see that our own Junos have finally reinstituted the comedy category for 2018. The nominees are yet to be announced.