Sunday, September 28, 2014

Adventures in recordland, post #1: the As, part 1

Hello, Blogspotters!
I started digitizing my LPs today. I decided to do somewhere between 3 and 5 per day, depending how much time I have. At this rate, it will take maybe five or six months to do, but... I expect to be alive six months from now, so why not?
I did five today. Here's what they were.

#1: Abbott & Costello: "When Radio Was King", 1974

 I bought this album when I was maybe ten years old. You can see it still has the price sticker on it from the dearly missed Plastic Fantastic record shop in Bryn Mawr, which I used to go to every now and then. Got a lot of great stuff there, too.

Being a comedy nerd with OCD, I have copies of all of Abbott & Costello's movies and just spent the past summer watching all of them, so I've learned quite a bit about them. I'd have to agree with the consensus that radio was not their best medium- although they had their moments, and the show on this disc is enjoyably silly. It's about the boys going on safari to hunt big game. Costello meets a lion, who turns out to be a misanthropic hermit wearing a lion skin to fool people. He lets Costello take the skin, Abbott thinks Costello has successfully killed the lion, he eventually finds out the truth and Costello's in trouble again. That's about all you need to know.  Oh, and there's a gratuitous musical number about what a hero Costello is. Anyway, it's an amusing show with some good lines. Trouble is that, where most record companies give you two half-hour shows on a record, this one stretches the half-hour show over both sides and only gives you a so-so version of the team's classic "Who's On First?" routine as a "bonus", so it's hardly their best representation on vinyl. But hey- not a bad way to start off. I'm glad I have it.

#2: Don Adams- self-titled album, 1963

Comedy albums were a fairly new phenomenon in the early '60s. Of course there had been comedy records of some kind going back to the dawn of recorded sound in the 1890s, but they were primarily of a musical nature, such as the 1940s records by people like Spike Jones or Danny Kaye. It wasn't until long-playing records became popular in the 1950s that two new kinds of comedy records came into being: radio-style concept albums recorded in a studio- the most famous of those being Vaughn Meader's famous "First Family" album from 1962- which I'll be discussing in a later blog- and recordings of a nightclub stand-up comic doing their act. The latter particularly was a whole new experience in the 1950s. Remember, this was long before the internet or hour-long cable specials could bring famous stand-up comics immediately into our homes. The whole idea of a "live album"- sitting around listening to a recording of a comedian doing his act in a nightclub- was brand new. Mort Sahl was among the first to release a live comedy album- Shelley Berman won a Grammy for it. They were followed in rapid succession by Lenny Bruce, Jonathan Winters, Bill Cosby, Bob Newhart, and many others. (More on all of those talented gentlemen in later entries.) Just about every nightclub comic gave vinyl a try back then. Among them was a young up-and-comer named Donald Yarmy- known professionally as Don Adams.
Of course you all know him as Maxwell Smart on the "Get Smart" TV series, but that didn't start until a couple of years after this album was recorded- but the liner notes mention that he had already been on television, on Steve Allen's show among others, so he was certainly becoming famous by this time.
What's interesting about this album is how different it is from today's comedy. Adams is relaxed and confident, and, instead of having to hit the audience over the head with a comic attitude right away, he just starts talking, conversationally, really taking his time, and leads the small but appreciative audience into some very funny, very well-crafted jokes. I grew up listening to the albums of this era, and because I'm a curmudgeon who doesn't like modern comedians very much (with some very notable exceptions I might discuss some other time), I wish today's audiences had the attention span to appreciate the humor of an act like Adams'. His opening series of monologs, lasting a full 13 minutes, is wonderful.
Unfortunately, the rest of the album is rather mild in comparison. A lot of the bits involve parodying the clich├ęs and characters found in old movies, so you have to be a real movie fan to get some of the humor. This being an album from 1963, of course audiences at the time would have recognized names like Edward Arnold, Conrad Nagel or Chester Morris, but it's a bit dated now. Adams' talent is obvious, and there are some good lines here and there, but aside from the opening, much of this album isn't his best work- that would come later.

#3: Kip Addotta: "The Comedian Of The United States", 1985


Another album I've had since I was maybe 11 or 12. The reason I knew who Kip Addotta is- and this is probably the case for many of you- was because I heard his song "Wet Dream", a funny song involving about 40 or 50 puns about fish- on a Dr. Demento compilation tape. Of course I was too young then to even know what "wet dream" meant, but... I digress.
I love puns- if you read my blog long enough, you're bound to see many of them here- so I still find that song amusing. Unfortunately, the rest of the album doesn't have anything nearly as clever. A few bits of average '80s standup (though I admit I laughed at a couple of the jokes) combined with mediocre studio-recorded songs. Really nothing very memorable. The opening "State Of The Humor Address" (in keeping with the presidential theme established by the album's title and cover, which otherwise has nothing to do with most of the album) is cute, but that's about it.

#4: Dayton Allen: "Why Not?", 1960

Back to the innocent, whimsical humor of the late '50s, a style I really enjoyed as a kid and still do now. I only got this record a few years ago, but it's a fun one.
Dayton Allen, for those who don't know, was a comedian and voice actor, probably best known for doing cartoon voices for characters such as Deputy Dawg and Heckle and Jeckle. At this time, he was a regular on Steve Allen's TV show, and this album compiles some of his appearances there.
He delivers a series of goofy, slightly surreal monologs in a cartoony voice, in the guise of an expert on various topics- criminology, surgery, the military, etc. There's some good material here (interestingly, his satirical lines about early television have not dated), but the album does run out of steam after a while. His shtik was meant to be taken in three-minute bits, and in that small dosage, it's very funny, but a full half-hour of that stuff wears thin. But there's still a lot of fun to be had, and I enjoyed this one.

#5: Fred Allen: "Down In Allen's Alley"

 I know I have at least one or two younger readers here who may not be entirely familiar with who Fred Allen was.
Fred Allen was a vaudeville comedian who found his greatest success in radio with a cerebral, sarcastic brand of humor. He was on the air from 1932 to 1949 when, much to his dismay, he was replaced by a quiz show, a genre of radio programming he found idiotic and often ridiculed mercilessly on his own show. He tried to adapt to the new medium of television, but never really found his niche, and then died suddenly in 1956.
So unfortunately, because so few people today remember or appreciate the kind of purely radio-based humor which Fred did so well, his remarkable wit and talent have been largely forgotten except by a few comedy devotees like myself. I've been listening to him since I was ten, so it's hard for me to review his work in an objective way- all I can do is describe.
The most famous and best-remembered element of Fred's radio shows was the "Allen's Alley" segment, where Fred would stroll down an imaginary street and interview a group of recurring characters about their opinions on things that were in the news that week. Many characters came and went over the seven years that Fred wrote "Allen's Alley", but the best-remembered group consisted of the Southern loudmouth Senator Claghorn (played by Kenny Delmar, a character who partially inspired the famous Warner Brothers cartoon character Foghorn Leghorn), dour New England farmer Titus Moody (Parker Fennelly), Jewish housewife Pansy Nussbaum (Minerva Pious) and excitable Irishman Ajax Cassidy (Peter Donald). Many other memorable characters with names like Falstaff Oppenshaw and Socrates Mulligan were featured in the segment over the years, but only the four I mentioned are featured on this record.
The album features four "Allen's Alley" segments which are all delightful and funny. Side 2 has something a little different- a 1949 radio show with Fred discussing the history of American humor, and where he thought it was going at the time. His comments about the decline of radio comedy and the lack of originality in television comedy, again, are not entirely outdated in lieu of the lack of quality comedy material around today, and very interesting to a comedy nerd.
One other very important point about Fred for those who don't know- he had a long-standing "feud" with Jack Benny (if you don't know who Jack Benny was- shame on you!). The two comedians insulted each other constantly on their respective shows for almost 20 years. It was all for the audience's amusement, of course- in real life they were close friends who respected each other greatly. But of course that made the insults even funnier. So this record closes with a wonderful six minutes of Fred roasting Jack Benny at the Friar's Club in 1951.

That's all the records I did today. See you tomorrow for more.

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