#52ComedyAlbums Week 3 -- Steve Martin's "A Wild And Crazy Guy"

Comedy Superstardom. 

It's always been such a weird phenomenon to me. There haven’t been too many comedy superstars - comics that sell out ridiculous venues night after night after night. 

  • Dane Cook taking a whole young generation by storm in a Beatles Madness kind of way. 
  • Russel Peters selling out amphitheaters in every corner of the globe. 
  • Kevin Hart filling fucking football stadiums across the country. 

These are some of the few instances of comedians becoming something bigger than just stand up comics. It stops being a show where people are paying to see a person tell funny jokes and becomes a show where people are paying to see a person. Period. 

And this concept of comedy superstardom was nonexistent until the famous rise of Steve Martin in the late 1970s. And none of his albums portray this rise as beautifully and well-produced as A Wild And Crazy Guy. 

Here’s the Tale of the Tape:

  • Recorded: 1978 
  • Venues: Side A: The Boarding House, San Francisco, CA || Side B: Red Rocks Amphitheater, Denver, CO
  • Label: Warner Brothers 

I love this album. First of all, it’s actually funny. I know I’ve said it before, but sometimes even “good” comedy from back in the day just doesn’t sound funny to us anymore because rehashing through generations has taken out the surprise in punchlines. 

But Steve Martin is the God of Goofy; the Saint of Silly. You feel like a kid again as he talks to you like a clown - even when he’s talking about pussy. 

“I WAS TALKING ABOUT HER CAT, PEOPLE! Jeez, you can’t say anything anymore…That cat was the best fuck I ever had.” 

But the really interesting thing about this album is the way it was produced. You get a two for one deal with this one. 

On side A, you get to hear Martin being a real stand up comedian - with thoughtful, well-timed jokes. It’s pretty crazy how much of a Louis C.K. tone he has in some of these bits - next time you listen to it, note his cadence when telling the bit about dying and going to heaven. 

And then on side B, you get to hear Martin be a Comedy Rock Star. And the way it transitions is beautiful. Side B starts with him reading a bogus financial disclosure to the audience at the intimate Boarding House in San Francisco, and as he gets to calculating concert revenues, he reveals his desire to make over $2 million on a single show.  A great bit. And as the small crowd reacts, the audio transitions to the loud roars of the open amphitheater at Red Rocks in Denver.

In the late 70s Steve Martin had become a rock star. I’ll be honest, the Side B of this album is not nearly as good, because it’s less laughs and more screams of joy. Martin does less jokes and more characters that he had turned into national sensations. But it is cool how he call this out - almost mocking his own celebrity. The album hams that celebrity up too. The album itself folds out to reveal a full spread portrait of Martin. And inserted in the sleeve is an “autographed” headshot with a backside image of Martin’s scribbled joke notes. 

I’ve never understood how stand up can be enjoyed in a venue as big as an amphitheater. One of the most enjoyable things about stand up is how personal it is. But like I said, when someone has risen to that level of stardom, it really stops being a stand up comedy show. Is it an event? I’m not sure. I’m still in awe that Kevin Hart can sell out football stadiums. Those people in the back are just watching the show on big screens. Why wouldn’t they just wait until the special comes out? 

That’s the power of celebrity. And acts that have risen to that level have Steve Martin to thank for leading the way. But according to his memoir Born Standing Up — which is fantastic by the way (one of the few books to ever make me cry) — stand up comedy was “just an accident” for Martin. He wanted to get into films. And boy did he. 

Steve Martin left the stand up world when he co-wrote and starred in one of the funniest movies of all time, The Jerk — directed by comedy legend Carl Reiner. After that, the rest is history. Martin went on to have a comedy film career that only Robin Williams can rival in terms of the sheer amount of hilarious, likable characters he could transform into. 

Martin wouldn’t return to the stage for 35 years. On Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee he said, "My act was conceptual. Once the concept was stated, and everybody understood it, it was done. It was about coming to the end of the road. There was no way to live on in that persona. I had to take that fabulous luck of not being remembered as that, exclusively. You know, I didn't announce that I was stopping. I just stopped.”

But in the short time that he did it, he was a monster. I highly recommend A Wild and Crazy Guy to hear both sides of his talents. There’s a reason it went double platinum, won the 1979 Grammy for Best Comedy Album, and was deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" by the Library of Congress and selected for inclusion in the National Recording Registry. Whether he’s making silly, but thoughtful, quips on philosophy and language, or hamming up his TV stardom with hit routines like The Wild And Crazy Guy, and King Tut, Steve Martin knows funny.  

Monologue Jokes -- Week of January 9th, 2017

At the Golden Globes on Sunday, the hit musical La La Land won a staggering 7 awards, including best picture...

- La La Land is, of course, the heartbreaking story of a young man with a stutter attempting to say the word Land. 

 

Thursday marked the first day in two years that there were no recorded murders in El Salvador....

- Unfortunately, this was due to the murder of the man in charge of keeping up with that sort of thing. 

 

According to a new consumer report, Comcast remains America's most hated company...

- To celebrate the honor, Comcast decided to sacrifice the blood of an innocent. 

- We asked Comcast to comment on the report, but they put us on hold indefinitely. 

 

This week, in an attempt to turn the tides, Yahoo has decided to rebrand itself with a new name - Altaba...

- As in, Alta-bet this doesn't make a bit of a difference. 

 

A new report shows that Millennials earn an average of 20% less than Baby Boomers did at the same stage in life...

- That's right, Millennials can't even afford a bootstrap to pull themselves up by. 

#52ComedyAlbums -- Week 2: Dick Gregory's "In Living Black & White"

When you think of comedians getting arrested, the first thing that comes to mind is probably the iconic image of Lenny Bruce being patted down... 

But if there is a comic who's time spent in jail is probably the most historically impactful, it'd be none other than St. Louis' own, Dick Gregory. From May of 1963 to May of 1964, Gregory was arrested eight times, spending a total of two months incarcerated. However, his time behind bars had less to do with what he was saying on stage and more to do with what he was saying in the streets -- give Black America the same basic civil rights given to White America.  

This week's album is Dick Gregory's premier special In Living Black & White. Here is the tale of the tape: 

  • Recorded: 1961 
  • Venue: The Playboy Club - Chicago, Illinois 
  • Label: Rhino Entertainment Company 

1961 was a very different time. I think we, as a country, have an insanely short memory when it comes to the crazy shit we've done. 1961 was only 56 years ago. That's not even retirement age. That means that the older black dude you work with was born as a genuine 2nd class citizen. Institutionalized racism wasn't something hidden in complicated laws back then. It was right there in your face. White people can do this, and black people have to do this. 

Joe, we know all this. And quite frankly, we don't ever like to be reminded about it. What does this have to do with a comedy album? 

In Living Black & White was the first album of Dick Gregory's. He was 28 years old and had just opened the door for every successful black comic to come after him because he was a black comedian who had just started making good money performing in clubs full of white people.

Before this, the only black performers paid to do their acts in white clubs were the best singers and dancers. Black comedians weren't able to break out of the Chitlin Circuit - a national network of clubs, theaters, and other venues in which black entertainers were allowed to perform. 

But this all changed one fateful night, when the boob-man himself - Hugh Hefner - stopped into the black-owned Roberts Show Bar in Chicago and saw Dick Gregory standing on stage and telling hilarious jokes about being a black man in white America. No other black comics had really addressed the civil rights struggle directly.  Hefner ran The Playboy Club franchise and it was the most significant circuit for stand up comics in the 1960s - It's what gave George Carlin a national platform and made stand up comedy a viable living for many.

Gregory got the call to come work The Playboy Club in Chicago on January 13, 1961, and the story is pretty incredible, as he puts it in Kliph Nesteroff's The Comedians: 

"They called my agent. He said, 'It pays fifty dollars for one night.' I couldn't believe there was that much money in the world. I had never been in downtown Chicago and I didn't have but a quarter. I got on the bus. I got off at the wrong stop. There was a blizzard that night. I'm supposed to be onstage at eight o'clock. I'm running and I'm slipping and I don't know where I'm going. The blizzard was so heavy you couldn't see -- and then I saw PLAYBOY and that was like seeing heaven." 

As it turns out, while Gregory was trying his hardest to get to the gig, his phone was ringing at home because the club was packed with a convention of white businessmen from the Deep South. Playboy had decided to cancel his show and pay him off rather than inflaming a racial situation. Dick Gregory never got the message and he killed. He continues in the interview: 

"Twelve o'clock I was still talking. Twelve-thirty Hugh Hefner came by. Two o'clock I was finished. From that they hired me for two hundred and fifty a week, seven days a week." 

[I just want to point out here that I'm pulling this whole anecdote from Kliph Nesteroff's The Comedians. It's a fantastic book and I highly recommend it.] 

Gregory instantly became a national headliner. Suddenly he was getting called for interviews in major publications and getting booked everywhere in the country. He had been the perfect voice at the perfect time. With the fight for civil rights just coming to a boiling point in the 60s, white America was ready to hear a black comedian's take on living in racist America. 

Now before we talk about what came of his career shortly after, let's talk about this album. I couldn't find much writing on the creation of In Living Black & White, but it was recorded in The Playboy Club the year that Dick Gregory blew up. So it was the most fresh material of his breakthrough. Let me first start off by saying that the material is hilarious. Truly. Sometimes with these old comedy albums, you have to listen to them with an ear for the time because a lot of the old material is just too predictable in this time and age. 

But Gregory is so cool and calm with his cadence while popping out funny anecdotes through his act. And his jokes are thoughtful and deep - even if they're just goofy. In fact, even with his more racial material, he never lets himself get too emotional with his delivery. White America wasn't going to listen to that just yet. He had to ju-jitsu his message into these jokes. He's mentioned in numerous interviews that he had to "learn the White man's jokes." In his 1964 memoir, Nigger, he writes: 

“I bought white man’s joke books to figure out what whitey was laughing at — you know, mother-in-law jokes and Khrushchev. Then I made a mixture — twenty percent black, eighty percent white.”

By doing this, he was able to talk about racial problems in America without angering the people that could take his voice away. He was making fun of the institutionalized problems, not by aggressively making fun of white America, but by getting white America to make fun of themselves. And you hear it on the album. 

But there is still that cringey white supremacy of the time stamped on the album. The entire album is presented by a broadcaster by the name of Alex Drier. The back cover is a presentation written by Mr. Drier as a way to introduce the world to Dick Gregory. He talks about Gregory in a way to reassure whites that this is not "negro humor" or "shock humor that will jar you or shake you up." 

From what I could find of Alex Drier, he seemed like a man of principle for the time. He was known as Chicago's "Man on the Go" for his news reports all over the world on Chicago's ABC affiliate station. That was, until 1964, when he did a piece on air that criticized white neighborhoods that discriminated against black families wanting to move in. After that, he was driven out of town. He moved to Los Angeles and went on to have a somewhat decent career as an actor. 

But as good a man he seemed to be, his role on this album is hard to listen to as a comedian. His big, broadcaster voice cuts in to introduce EVERY. SINGLE. BIT. It's almost like he wants to prepare white people for another joke coming their way from a black voice. It's ridiculous. 

But the material on In Living Black & White is still good. And it holds up. I highly recommend it. 

Gregory's success as a comedian didn't last too long, and it wasn't because he wasn't good enough either. The sixties brought a lot of change, and a fight for civil rights was underway. More and more, Dick Gregory decided to use his voice more for educating rather than entertaining. If he had a opportunity to attend a rally in the South at the same time as a club booking, he was choosing the rally. And this led to a lot of blowback. He was getting arrested - a lot. When he spoke at the legendary March on Washington in 1963, he opened with: 

"I never thought I'd be giving out more fingerprints than autographs." 

He continued to try and mix the two worlds together until 1968 when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. At that point, there was no reason to try and be a full-time comedian. There was more important work to finish. He stayed on the campus circuit doing speaking engagements and would open with: 

"In case you don't know it, America is the number one racist country in the world! Brother, I'm going to tell you straight and true, this nation is insane!" 

It's really a shame that we didn't get to have more of a full time comedy career from Dick Gregory. Listening to him, I not only wonder how the careers of Red Foxx, Bill Cosby, and Richard Pryor would have fared if he hadn't broken down racial barriers, but I also wonder how far they could've gotten if Gregory would've stayed more in the game and held onto the king status that he achieved. 

These days, Gregory still performs. He's now 84 years old, and recently, I just missed him performing at the Hollywood Improv. I was bummed that I missed it, but from what I heard, the man's still got jokes. 

See you next week.