Sometimes comedy illuminates hard truths with a pointed urgency that other means can’t quite achieve. Sometimes comedy is just funny. This series of posts is mostly about the former instances, but the latter is valuable, too.
It’s not accurate to call the nineteen-seventies the heyday of comedy records, not when the prior decade saw the smash-hit album The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart, elevating a guy who’d recently been a Chicago advertising drone to both Best New Artist and Album of the Year at the Grammy Awards. That doesn’t even get into the likes of Vaughn Meader and Allan Sherman tying up the top spot on the Billboard album charts for weeks at a time.
But comedy albums remained a very viable product in the Me Decade. From my perspective as a wee fellow trekking through my single-digit ages, comedy albums were a mark of adulthood. When I was dragged along as a necessary but largely ignored accessory at adult parties, I stealthily took note that there always seemed to be point when the chatter died down a bit and the room was turned over to a comedy record dropped onto the turntable. Usually the host — or, rarely, person who brought the record along — got to enjoy some transferred comedic glory, as if they were the one delivering the jokes.
A few years later, when I was finally buying my own records, that association between adulthood and comedy albums lingered. While my peers were devoting their music-purchasing pennies exclusively to whatever bands seemed cool at the moment — well, and Weird “Al” Yankovic, who occupied his own rare and prime place on the music world firmament — I made sure a portion of my modest budget went towards recordings of stand-up masters. That means one of the very first albums I bought with my own dollars was George Carlin’s Class Clown.
Released in 1972, the album is especially significant because of the inclusion of the routine that prompted me to pick this over other options: “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television.” Two months before the album hit stores, Carlin was famously — or infamously, perhaps — arrested at Milwaukee’s Summerfest for performing the bit, and six years later it stood a key evidence in the landmark Supreme Court case FCC v. Pacifica Foundation, prompted by a complaint about a DJ playing it on air. I didn’t really know all that when I bought the record. In the manner of the early teen boy I was, I just took pure delight in Carlin spending so much time talking about dirty words.
Now I can appreciate the levels of characteristic brilliance Carlin brings to it, including sly shots at ridiculous social mores, explication of the frailties of language, and the expert mix of bawdy and intellectual observations. Carlin delivered greater, more philosophically imposing material later in his career — in his inspired final phase — but the material contained on Class Clown still stands as compelling evidence in the argument for Carlin as one of the all-time stand-up greats.
Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Laughing Matters” tag.