I listen to a lot of stand-up comedy. In compiling this list of the best albums, I tried to ensure my choices were not only very funny, but had, over some amount of time, ensconced themselves in my mind as unique and important pieces of comedy. The latter requirement excluded some of my recent favorites--albums by Todd Barry, Paul F. Tompkins, and Patton Oswalt--that haven't gestated enough since their release to really have a place here. And the former requirement, that the albums had to be really funny, excluded lots of "important" comics like Lenny Bruce, Steve Martin, and Woody Allen. Sorry to be a dick or whatever, but no single album by any of those guys holds up like these do:
Bill Cosby nowadays is associated with a lot of things--the TV show, of course, and ugly sweaters, and Jell-O, as well as a certain type of black conservatism. But Funny Fellow was recorded before all of that, and it stands on its own as, very simply, a great piece of comedy writing and performing. Bill Cosby is certainly not a social commentator or satirist here--he's not eviscerating religion with his bits on Noah, he's just finding a funny, human angle to take on the Biblical story, and executing it flawlessly. Cosby, really, is all about humanity, and especially being a kid. Coaches give pep talks to kids, cows talk to each other like kids (dialogue that could easily have been written today by Simon Rich), and even Noah has a sort of youthful flippance in his repeated "Right!"
Seinfeld, by contrast, though he's no satirist either, is all about evisceration. There is some popular alt-comedy conception now of "observational comedy" as being hacky, and I couldn't disagree more. The Seinfeld examinations of what we all do every day, and why it's stupid, are really, as cliché as it is to say, funny because they're true. Seinfeld is quotidian comedy, and it's fucking excellent. Those who have seen every episode of the sitcom (and who hasn't?) already know most of these routines, and may miss some of the best that didn't make it on--the edgiest Seinfeld bit, about suicide and featured in The Suicide, is sadly missing. But most everything on here is gold, Jerry, pure gold:
Carlin, of course, unlike Cosby or Seinfeld, does have that cultural caveat of being remembered as a genuine social critic. And he is--but really, he's good because he knows how to shape that criticism into jokes. As Carlin got older, sometimes he'd forget about that, and playing to an audience that already loved him, shout preachy shit just to get easy laughs. The earlier Carlin has all the same anger but works harder to channel it into jokes. He rips into stupid annoying radio DJs way before David Cross did it, and Carlin's funnier. And if you ask me, the dissection of the word "shit" on FM & AM is funnier than any part of Class Clown's famous "Seven Words."
Izzard is a little out-of-place on this list, as his free-form, semi-improvised, hyper-educated comedy would be when compared to almost any other stand-up. He plays with past stories the way Cosby does in his Noah bit--in fact, Izzard has a Noah bit himself--but Izzard is a lot freer, more unpredictable, and more whimsical than Cosby ever gets. Izzard packs a lot of different types of comedy into Glorious, and as a result, it isn't quite as focused as his second-best recording, Dress to Kill. But it's got more memorable jokes per minute than just about any album ever recorded--and you never know when a bit on the Trojan War will unexpectedly become a bit of home-appliance-related observational comedy:
Tom Leher seems even more out-of-place than Izzard here, and maybe I should have excluded him for being too far in the "musical comedy" vein and away from traditional stand-up. But Lehrer really is very traditional in the setup-punchline mold, he just manages to hide that formula so perfectly in his lyrics that it doesn't stick out at all. In addition, That Was the Year that Was manages to be darker, more cynical, and more politically aggressive than anything on here so far while being older than Carlin by seven years! Such is the advantage of putting your message in a more innocent-sounding medium.
5. Dylan Moran - Monster (2002)
Dylan Moran's Monster is the most recent release I have on here, but I feel confident putting it on, and I even feel confident that its stature will increase with more time, at least for me. Why? Simply put, Monster makes me laugh harder than any other stand-up album I own. The influences are a hazy--you can hear some Izzard, some Carlin and Hicks, maybe--but the voice seems completely Moran's. He's world-weary even though he's not old, angry at things that deserve anger, and surreal, but never in a way that seems calculated, just real in Moran's head. He's probably the least-known comic on this list, and he needs more attention.
Bob Newhart's comedy is fascinating to me because of how utterly not-dated it feels. The one-side-of-a-conversation idea is something that millions of others since have done, and it's a great technique. Newhart essentially leaves the audience to fill in the other side of the conversation and thus the punchline. Perhaps the only things that feel old are how clean Newhart is and how long he spends on each bit (a long time), but both of those are barely noticeable when you're laughing. This was essentially the stand-up comedy album that made stand-up comedy albums a bankable concept--it hit number one on the charts and won the Best Album Grammy. Both in influence and in general financial support of comedy albums, everyone else on this list owes a lot to Newhart.
Comedy nerds who criticize this list may note the absence of Mitch Hedberg, and also, perhaps, if you're a big fan of this type of stand-up, Zach Galifianakis or Demitri Martin. But Wright and I Have a Pony came before and were better than anything ever released by those comics. Wright seemed to rediscover the idea of word economy for stand-up in the 1980s--who else had ever written an original setup and punchline as tight as, "I bought some used paint--it was in the shape of a house"? It's surreal, cerebral, and reliant on wordplay without being stupid and pun-riddled. It changed stand-up forever, and it's still one of the best albums ever recorded.
As Wright the representative best of the absurd one-liner comics, Bill Hicks is, for me, representative of the heights to which political comics (like David Cross and Lewis Black) aspire. Hicks doesn't just make jokes about serious topics, he tears them apart, leaving anyone he's mocking looking genuinely stupid about genuinely important things. He's easily the most vulgar comic on this list, and also easily one of the funniest. People make a lot of noise about how Hicks told the truth--personally, I don't agree with him on every point politically, and I think he's something of an unfounded conspiracy theorist, but good Lord, is he funny. The anger is real and the comedy is intelligently put-together. I personally prefer Arizona Bay to Rant in E-Minor, which to my mind has more anger but less intelligence. But I do love them both.
1. Richard Pryor - Bicentennial Nigger (1976)
Seinfeld once called Richard Pryor "the Picasso of our profession," which I've usually thought is a bit strange. Pryor is a comic whose comedy goes just about everywhere and can get almost anyone to laugh if you find the right bit, somewhat unlike the self-conscious strangeness for which Picasso is known best. On one hand, I think that maybe "the da Vinci of our profession"or "the Michaelangelo of our profession" would have been better. But on the other hand, Pryor was an aggressive experimenter--none of his albums are quite alike, and in each one there are steps towards new types of comedy and new, unattacked frontiers. Maybe Pryor's bits on race and forays into meta-comedy seemed just as wilfully odd as Picasso's cubism at their respective times. In any case, almost any angle that any comic since him has taken, Pryor did it first, and often did it better. It's can be tough to choose the best Pryor album, but the presence of "Our Gang" on Bicentennial Nigger made it relatively easy for me. The two-minute dissection of a poorly-told joke may be the funniest stand-up bit ever recorded. I can't find it on YouTube, so instead I'll put here one of the darkest bits on race-relations, also on the same album.
And, for good measure, maybe the funniest drug story ever recorded, also on the same album.
Yep, Pryor is God.