Friday, October 31, 2014

Adventures In Recordland, post #16: The Bs, part 13

#1: Foster Brooks- "The Lovable Lush" (1973):

Many of you reading this blog probably are old enough to remember Foster Brooks. But if you're not- he specialized in an act which you could probably never do today, but which was a staple of comedy for many years- the "drunk act." He played the part of a man who was a bit loaded but trying to hide it (and not hiding it very well, of course).
He was unusual in that he didn't become famous until he was well over 50. However, his act as recorded on this album is really just typical comedy of its day- he tells the same jokes that any Vegas comic could have told around that time, just with the drunk schtik to give it a bit more punch. There are some laughs, it's not a bad album, but it's a bit dated.

#2: Big Bill Broonzy- "Big Bill's Blues" (1956):

Big Bill Broonzy at the time this album was made was one of the last survivors of the first generation of recorded blues musicians. He passed away just a couple of years after he made this album.
It's not a typical music album in the sense that it's not a polished production- it's more like a jam session, with Big Bill playing what he felt like playing and telling some stories between songs. The informal nature of it makes it fun. If you're a blues fan, I'd recommend this one.

#3: Lenny Bruce- "The Berkeley Concert" (1968):

Lenny Bruce is such a mythic figure in comedy history that I hardly need to introduce him. But I think it's unfair that history seems to have essentially labeled him "the first dirty comic." Yes, he used profanity, but unlike many of today's comics, he used it for a purpose- and definitely unlike today's comedians, in this two-record set which is 80 minutes long, the word "fuck" is only used once.
There was a lot more to him than just using dirty words. He was a satirist and a social commentator, trying to provide some insight into human behavior in this country. His material was, if not always hilarious, at best thought-provoking, something which is definitely missing in comedy today. That was Lenny Bruce.
By the time this posthumously-released album was recorded, he'd been arrested several times, and while he's not yet reading the transcripts of his trial onstage, he does spend a considerable amount of time talking about and analyzing laws and the way they work. He also talks about Lyndon Johnson, Jews and gentiles, men and women, drugs, and many other things. It's not his funniest album, but even when he wasn't being "ha-ha" funny, it's always interesting to me to simply listen to a man with a unique mind exploring ideas. He would get up there and say whatever was on his mind, bluntly and honestly. This was what made him an innovator and one of the most important figures of the late '50s/early '60s comedy revolution- there was so much more to him than just the four-letter words.
I have quite a few of his albums and will be going over them the next few days. Stay tuned for that.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Adventures In Recordland, #15: The Bs, part 12

I tried to do three records today. Turned out one was cracked and I had to do throw it away! So here are the two I got done today.

#1: Oscar Brand- "For Doctors Only", 1960:

Oscar Brand (who, I found out, is still with us and 94 years old at the time of this writing) was a folk singer who released an impressive number of albums in the '60s. This album consists of a whopping 14 songs, all humorous ditties about various aspects of the medical profession. As the title implies, I'm sure it's funnier if you're actually a doctor- not all of the humor is quite knee-slappingly hilarious for a layman like myself. And while some of the tunes are clever and generally enjoyable, a full half-hour of this sort of thing is a bit much. The humor is a bit on the corny and slightly naughty side (a line about a gynecologist "starting from the bottom"- which is used in just one, but two different songs). I find it wears out its welcome after a while- 14 songs concerning one general topic is more than enough- but fortunately the songs are all about 2-3 minutes long, so even the one-joke songs are not completely run into the ground. There are some cute moments.

#2: Fanny Brice- "Baby Snooks And Daddy", 1974:

Coincidentally enough, today is Fanny Brice's birthday. She was one of the great stars of vaudeville for many years, but I find it unfortunate that she's best-known today, if at all, for the child character Baby Snooks which she played on radio for many years.
In small doses, these routines are fine, and a good showcase for Brice's good comic timing, and Hanley Stafford as Daddy was a solid straightman. They can be funny- I got some laughs out of this album- but I was never a big fan of the character. Neither one of them is really likeable or sympathetic- Snooks is a rather obnoxious brat, and Daddy gets easily frustrated with her and yells at her a lot. There's not much more to it than that. Not to mention that most of the routines end with Daddy giving Snooks an abusive smack- certainly something which is uncomfortable to hear today. But it's never been my favorite of the old-time radio shows. I'm surprised it lasted as long as it did.

Adventures In Recordland, post #14: The Bs, part 11

#1: Eric Bogosian- self-titled, 1983:

I'm not that familiar with Mr. Bogosian's work, to be honest. But according to Wikipedia, he's quite an accomplished and talented man- an actor, playwright, novelist, and so on. So I'm sure he must have some talent. But this album, recorded when he was just starting out, doesn't show much of it. As Ronald L. Smith points out in his guide to comedy records, there's a reason he's called a "performance artist" rather than a comedian. This record contains a long series of monologs in which he impersonates various characters who ramble on a bit about nothing particularly amusing- DJs and radio announcers on one side, several other characters (a preacher, a drunk, a hillbilly, a child, etc.) on the other.
I'm really not sure why I bought this album many years ago, and now that I've heard it, I'd be better off getting rid of it. As an actor myself, I admire his versatility in playing all these different character types, but the writing is just bad. There's an occasional funny line, but much of it is just blather, either boring or just downright annoying. It's a waste of time. If this was the beginning of his career, I just hope he's improved since.

#2/3: Victor Borge- "Comedy In Music" and "Caught In The Act", 1954 and 55:

I might as well put these two albums together, since they come from the same source. They're both recordings of Mr. Borge's hugely successful one-man show on Broadway, "Comedy In Music." It was a record-breaker at the time, running for more than two years and well over 800 performances. The format was simple: Victor Borge and his piano, ad-libbing, taking audience requests for songs he could clown around with, doing a few prepared set-pieces, and sometimes playing "straight" piano pieces. These albums demonstrate his talent very well. They're about 50/50, half comedy and half serious music, both of which he does wonderfully.

These are actually the records I did yesterday- I was too busy with other things last night to write about them then. So I've got to catch up and do today's records. I'll be back later.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Adventures In Recordland, Post #13: The Bs, Part 10

#1: The Amherst Saxophone Quartet- "An American Classic- Eubie Blake", 1981:


James Hubert "Eubie" Blake was one of the great ragtime pianists and composers. He lived a long life, 1887 to 1983, and there seems to have been a resurgence of interest in his work in the 1970s and '80s as he became an elder statesman of American popular music. This album consists of the Amherst Saxophone Quartet playing a wide selection of Blake's work- not only some of his classic rags, but semiclassical pieces, and songs from his Broadway shows (the most famous of which is the perennial vaudevillian tune "I'm Just Wild About Harry"). Personally I prefer the classic sound of ragtime played on piano, but the quartet has an amusing style that's fun to listen to.

#2: Eubie Blake- "Live Concert", 1974:

This is the man himself- Eubie Blake at 87 years old, still full of life and energy and good humor. It was the first, perhaps only, live concert album he ever made, and it's a delight. He only plays a handful of pieces, but does quite a bit of banter and storytelling between numbers which is equally entertaining.

#3: Bob and Ray- "Mary Backstayge, Noble Wife", 1976:

If you're reading this, it must be because you're a friend of mine. And if you're a friend of mine, you're probably the kind of person who already knows Bob and Ray and has been a fan of theirs for years. But just in case you're not...
Bob Elliott (still living as of this writing) and Ray Goulding (deceased) were satirical comedians on radio, and occasionally stage and television for more than 35 years. They specialized in somewhat understated, deadpan humor- they were perhaps not traditional "comedians" in the sense that they were not broad or zany, not always going for the biggest laughs, but their subtle absurdist wit has gained many devoted followers over the years, myself included.
One of the regular features of their shows over the years were parodies of golden-age radio soap operas. There used to be a soap called "Backstage Wife" about a character named Mary Noble- Bob and Ray switched it around and did sketches about "Mary Backstayge, Noble Wife." This album collects a bunch of those sketches. I think they exemplify the genius of Bob and Ray's humor very well. If one were to record an average conversation among human beings and transcribe it literally, one would find everyday speech filled with oddly humorous things that don't make sense. Bob and Ray are brilliant at taking the inanities of normal speech and behavior and exaggerating it just enough to accentuate the absurdity and make it funny. And decades before Seinfeld, Bob and Ray were experts at presenting sketches in which nothing really happens. Characters discuss a situation, mull it over, try to solve its problems, maybe express mild concern, but don't really accomplish very much. Which is particularly funny considering this is supposedly a dramatic soap opera.
So I got a lot of laughs out of this album, and I think I should definitely add more Bob and Ray to my collection.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Adventures In Recordland, Post #12: The Bs, part 9

#1: Herschel Bernardi- "An Evening With Herschel Bernardi (Chocolate-Covered Matzohs)", 1960:

Herschel Bernardi, a Jewish actor, singer and comedian, spends this album doing humorous monologs about Jewish assimilation and family life, and singing Yiddish folk songs. It's a delightful, funny, nostalgic album for those of us with Jewish roots. The monologs are very entertaining, and the songs are wistful and delightful. I have several records of Jewish humor- similar performers like Sam Levenson and Myron Cohen come to mind- but Bernardi's is one of the most enjoyable.

#2: "Beyond The Fringe", 1962:

"Beyond The Fringe" was a satirical revue featuring four very talented English university students: Peter Cook, Dudley Moore (may they rest in peace), Dr. Jonathan Miller (still living) and Alan Bennett (also still living). It was a big hit in England- John Cleese recalls it being the funniest show he ever saw, and a major inspiration to Monty Python several years later- and equally successful when it crossed the Atlantic and played on Broadway.
Unfortunately, I think this album fails to capture the magic of what was a very important show in its day. Highlights include Cook's classic monolog "Sitting On The Bench" about a coal miner who laments that he never became a judge, the closing "End Of The World" sketch, and Dr. Miller's "Portrait From Memory", a satire on philosopher Bertrand Russell. But much of the rest of it just comes across as dated and not especially funny now, at least to my ears- and in the case of Dudley Moore's piano solos, I'm sure they were much funnier when you could see the visuals. So while I love British comedy and I respect "Beyond The Fringe"'s place in its history- not to mention I think Peter Cook was one of the great comic geniuses- it just doesn't hold up on disc. Of course, the album only contains about 40 minutes of what I assume was about a two-hour show- it seems the editor just made some bad choices.

 #3: "The Bickersons", 1962:

"The Bickersons" was a radio sitcom that lasted for a few years in the late '40s, starring Don Ameche and Frances Langford as John and Blanche Bickerson. Long before the Bundys, the Ropers, even the Kramdens, the Bickersons were the original married couple who insulted each other and fought over.. just about anything. Writer Phil Rapp created it as an antidote to all the squeaky-clean happily-married couples one heard on the radio at the time- and while I like a bit of cynicism in my humor as much as anyone else, the Bickersons can get tiresome after a while. Ameche and Langford were very good actors and they work well together, and the gags and one-liners can be funny- they're not only cynical, but often vaudevillian, which I also like- but the constant yelling can get unpleasant and tedious. There are funny moments, but I'd say this is a pretty good album, not a great one.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Adventures In Recordland, post #11: The Bs, part 8

#1: Shelley Berman- "New Sides" (1963):

This was Berman's last standup album before an incident that showed him in a bad light caused his career to go downhill. (Some documentary footage was taken out of context to make him appear more temperamental than he really is, which gave him a bad reputation as a result.) It's not a bad ending. I don't feel it's as strong as some of his previous albums, but there are some very good bits. Probably my two favorites are "The Complete Neuroses" about a psychiatric patient whose amnesia is triggered by the word "porcupine", and "Lost Dog" about a man calling a little boy who has accidentally stolen the man's dog. It's pretty solid stuff, but doesn't quite reach the heights of his previous work.


#2: Shelley Berman- "Outside Shelley Berman" (1959):

This is one of the classics. After a few opening remarks, Shelley goes into one of his phone routines (in my opinion one of his funniest), "Franz Kafka At The Telephone." It sounds like most of the audience had never heard of Kafka- certainly I hadn't when I first heard this album at age 10- but the Kafkaesque frustration of trying to get a phone number in the days of operators and pay phones is certainly understandable, and rendered very funny by Mr. Berman's writing and witty performance. The highlight, which takes up nearly the entirety of side 2, is perhaps one of his most famous bits- "Father And Son", a monolog dramatizes, from his father's point of view, young Berman's attempt to convince his father to give him a hundred dollars to go to acting school in New York. It's not so much a comedy monolog as an acting piece, exploring the personality of a character in a very human situation. It's funny, well-acted, and ultimately poignant. It's one of Berman's masterpieces. In fact, there's a YouTube video of him performing it just a year or two ago, and even after 55 years, it was extraordinary to see an old master still giving a beautiful performance of something I grew up listening to. He then closes the album with a few minutes of audience-participation improv in a game of "PTA"- Berman plays a child psychologist and the audience asks him questions. It's a quick, fun closer to a great album.


 #3: Shelley Berman- "A Personal Appearance" (1961):

I'm glad this one happened to come last alphabetically. This is Berman on all cylinders- it's a passionate, delirious, brilliant performance. There are some phone-call bits just to please the crowd- and they're very good- but the highlights are when Berman just talks to the audience, in "confessional" mode- and muses on black specks in glasses to milk, dentists, folk singing, television advertising, and other things. As a comedian, he's very funny, and as an actor, he's more energetic and extraordinary than ever before. I don't think my words can describe the experience of listening to such a great show- go out and buy it yourself and I'm sure you'll see what I mean.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Adventures In Recordland, post #10, The Bs, part 7

#1: Shelley Berman- "The Edge Of Shelley Berman", 1960:

I think it's fair to say Shelley Berman is one of my comedy heroes. I grew up listening to his albums, and somehow found them funny even when I was too young to understand references to Gertrude Stein or Franz Kafka. So I've heard them many times over the years, and it's always a pleasure to revisit this brilliant performer every few years.
For those of you who may only know him from his, for lack of a better word, "comeback" as a member of the cast of "Curb Your Enthusiasm", I should explain that Mr. Berman had a career decades before Larry David did. He was an early member of what became the famous Second City improv group in Chicago, and went from that to doing standup comedy (or sit-down comedy in his case, as he usually sat on a stool), dramatic acting, a great deal of writing, and in recent years has been teaching college writing classes.
His comedy records in the early '60s were truly groundbreaking. First of all, they proved that comedy albums were a viable and profitable medium- his first album, "Inside Shelley Berman", went gold and was among the first comedy records to win a Grammy, and the followup, "Outisde Shelley Berman", was an equally big success. I mentioned this in an earlier blog, but the idea of recording a nightclub comedian's live act and putting it on an album was a brand new and somewhat revolutionary idea in record production in 1959. Mort Sahl got there first, but it was "Inside Shelley Berman" that created a sensation and made record companies pay attention to this new concept.
What was even more groundbreaking about Berman was his approach and subject matter. Of course, the previous generation's comedy had been ruled by vaudeville performers who told one-liners (although there were exceptions, of course- the character-based humor of Jack Benny comes to mind). In the '50s and '60s, a new breed of comedians came along- Berman, Sahl, Jonathan Winters, Lenny Bruce, Bob Newhart, etc.- who were smart and satirical and, instead of reciting old jokes, took more chances by expressing their individual personalities and being honest about who they were and what they felt. All of today's comedians have been inspired by this revolutionary group- their attitudes, their subject matter, their delivery, even the way they dressed. Those performers changed the game forever, and Berman was one of them. He was the most vulnerable- the hapless, neurotic everyman who seemed tortured by the embarrassments and frustrations of everyday life. He presented his fears and insecurities nakedly to the audience in ways that were relatable, sometimes even poignant, and always hilariously funny.
His delivery and performance style were different too. He was not a vaudeville performer who had to get to the next joke quickly. He didn't tell jokes. He was, and is, first and foremost a very talented writer and actor, and so his performances consisted of carefully honed and polished theatrical pieces delivered very skillfully. They were not mere comedy monologs, they were literate performance pieces., whether he was talking directly to the audience in his more confessional pieces, or portraying various characters engaged in imaginary telephone conversations- the latter of which became his trademark and was later emulated by the aforementioned Bob Newhart.  To my knowledge, no one had ever done quite that sort of thing in a nightclub before, and I can't think of anyone who's done it since.

But to get to this particular album. Unfortunately, the title is a bit misleading- the material is hardly edgy. After two hugely successful albums, Berman found that when he performed live, the audience knew the routines by heart and therefore wouldn't laugh. So he had to keep coming up with new material, and I'm guessing he was a bit burned out by this point. The routines here are amusing, but very mild compared to the creative peak of the "Inside" and "Outside" albums. The highlight is the closing monolog in which he confesses to the audience that he needs them there because hc couldn't be funny without them. It's a bold thing to admit to an audience, and as a comedian myself, I understand it all too well.

#2: Shelley Berman- "Inside Shelley Berman", 1959:

As I mentioned, this is one of the great and most important albums in the history of recorded comedy. I listened to this album many times as a child, so it's rather nostalgic for me, and it still holds up as one of Berman's masterpieces. He starts off with a 14-minute monolog about airlines which, while slightly dated now, is still very funny, encapsulates his stage persona perfectly right from the start, and really shows his craftsmanship as he starts off slowly and then builds it into an exploration of just about every comedic angle one can find in the subject. He later said it was this monolog more than anything else that made him famous, and I can see why. It's one of his best.
There are a few "confessional" routines here, but those are fairly brief. The highlights are the phone call routines- whether he's a harried everyman trying to alert the staff of a department store that a customer is hanging from their window, a hung-over slob who finds out what an ass he made of himself at last night's party, or a man whose young nephew doesn't quite understand how the phone works yet, these are all great pieces of comedy. "Outside Shelley Berman" has some equally great moments- I'll get to those next time- but it's easy to see why "Inside" made him a star. This is brilliant stuff, even 55 years later.

#3: Shelley Berman- "Let Me Tell You A Funny Story...", 1965:

There's actually not much to say here. This is just a "best of" compilation, mostly consisting of bits from "Inside" and "Outside", with a few brief comments from Shelley introducing the bits. His comments contain a small amount of interesting trivia, but really, if you have the other albums, you don't need this one. I've hung on to it anyway just because it was given to me when I was a kid.

Next time: three more Berman records, all very good.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Adventures In Recordland, Part 9: The Bs, part 6

#1: Jack Benny- "Jack Benny's Golden Memories Of Radio", 1969:

A very nice nostalgic six-record set covering the many aspects of radio as it was in the golden era of the 1930s and '40s. And who better to narrate it than the star of arguably the greatest American radio comedy show of them all, Jack Benny? The set covers comedy, drama, commercials, sports, and of course news (WWII material takes up 3 of the 12 sides). And to top it all off, the 12th side presents several veteran radio actors in a chilling 20-minute drama called "Cat Wife", a "Twilight Zone"-ish tale of a man whose nasty and abusive wife turns into a cat- quite a stirring finish after marathoning through all six records. It's a very interesting set, and a good education for anybody who wants to know why radio is an important medium, and what it meant in its heyday. I grew up listening to an abridged version which I think was three records instead of six, so it was nice to get the full set these many years later.

#2: Edgar Bergen- "The Edgar Bergen Show", 1974:

This album has two full half-hour Bergen shows- one from 1952 and one from '42. The 1952 show is notable for being perhaps the only radio appearance made by a young up-and-coming actress named Marilyn Monroe. The show was broadcast in late 1952, right after her breakthrough roles in "Don't Bother To Knock" and "Niagara", so she wasn't quite the superstar she would be just a couple of years later. She very rarely made guest appearances of any kind on either radio or television, so this is a nice collector's item if you're a Monroe fan- although at the time I bought this record, I was too young to know who she was!
Guests on the other side include Abbott & Costello, who appeared regularly on the Bergen show in the early '40s, and Edward Everett Horton, who did not. This show is amusing but mild, although A&C are a highlight- the Monroe show has better writing.

#3: Edgar Bergen- "Fractured Fairy Tales", 1979

Issued shortly after Edgar Bergen had passed away, this album contains a half-hour show on one side and three excerpts from various shows on the other side. The half-hour show is Bergen (with Charlie McCarthy, of course) appearing on the "Lady Esther Screen Guild Theater" in 1946 in an adaptation of Disney's "Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs." Bergen's performance is sharp and funny, and the supporting cast is good too. The second side consists of excerpts from Bergen's own show, where he tells a skeptical Charlie the stories of Little Red Riding Hood, the tortoise and the hare, and Jack and the beanstalk. All three are wisecracking vintage radio fun. I enjoyed this one very much.

#4: Hector Berlioz- "Symphonie Fantastique", played by the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra

Well, it's nice to have something a little different once in a while.
When I was a kid, I went through a phase of listening to a lot of classical music. Much of it didn't stick, and I've never been an expert on the subject- far from it- but there are certain pieces I like, and "Symphonie Fantastique" is one of them. I heard the fourth movement, "March To The Scaffold", when I was a kid and was hooked, and heard the equally colorful fifth movement, "Dream Of A Witches Sabbath", shortly thereafter. Those are still my favorite parts, but there's much to enjoy the whole symphony. And while I have no vocabulary when it comes to classical music, suffice it to say that I've heard some less-than-stellar versions of this piece, and fortunately this is not one of them. The San Francisco Symphony Orchestra plays it wonderfully. I love all my comedy records, but it's nice to have a little bit of high culture in my collection once in a while too.

Tomorrow: round 1 of 2 with a groundbreaking comedy legend.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Adventures In Recordland, post #9: The Bs, part 5

#1: Benny Bell- "Kosher Comedy"

Benny Bell is probably best-known today because of the Dr. Demento Show and the fact that the good doctor used to play "Shaving Cream" and a few other slightly risque songs Benny recorded. What people might not know is that Benny Bell spent many years recording in his first language, Yiddish. This album contains a dozen Yiddish comedy songs, originally issued on 78s in the '40s. Unfortunately, I don't speak the language, or at least not enough to really understand the lyrics, so I can't really comment on this record. I bought it because I'm Jewish and I've always enjoyed the colorful sounds of the Yiddish language. Benny's amusing delivery and the bouncy klezmer-style accompaniment make the songs sound fun, and I get the gist of what he's saying, but I'm sure a lot of the details of the humor are lost on me.

#2: Jack Benny & Fred Allen- "The Radio Fight Of The Century", 1974

For those who might not be familiar with two of the great radio comedians of all time- Jack Benny and Fred Allen were both vaudeville comedians who found their greatest success in radio (although Benny was also very popular on television later, a medium which Allen never quite found his niche in). Allen was known for his sardonic, often ad-libbed, wit, and for the "Allen's Alley" segment of his show (see blog #1 for more details on that). Benny was famous for many running gags throughout his long radio career, the most famous of which was his reputation as the world's biggest cheapskate. (All a gag, of course- Benny in real life was by all accounts an extremely kind and generous man). The two were great friends in real life, but they in 1937 they started to insult each other on their respective radio shows, knowing the other one was listening. The Benny-Allen "feud" became a running gag between them for 20 years. This two-album set collects a lot of highlights from the feud- guest appearances by Allen on Benny's show and vice versa, and various other appearances they made together.
Two hours' worth of this material is a bit much, but it's always great fun to hear them together, especially on Benny's shows where the writing was always first-rate- and even then, Allen's ad-libs are sometimes even funnier than the script!
I don't feel the need to go into great detail on this one. If you know about the Benny-Allen feud (and most of my friends reading this probably do), you love them both and have been listening to them for years like I have, and if you don't...well, you should start listening to those shows, because you're missing out.

That's about all for today. Tomorrow I have a six-record set coming up(!), so I'll have to split it over two days. See you soon.