As Netflix invests in Amy Schumer, Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld, what have been the most important comedy specials on stage?
2017 is set to be a big year in standup specials for Netflix Amy Schumers The Leather Special arrives on Tuesday, Dave Chappelles new hour will premiere on 21 March, and future specials have been announced from Louis CK, Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock. Only a few years ago, it would have seemed crazy that arguably the five biggest standups on the planet would all release specials on the same streaming platform. But the standup special itself has a long history, evolving with technology and norms in remarkable ways. Heres a look back at 10 milestone standup recordings that brought the form to where it is today.
In 1960, Bob Newhart brought clever comedy to the masses
Many people today remember Bob Newhart for his string of sitcoms, but he was originally launched into the spotlight with his album The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart. It featured Newhart doing a series of one-sided photo calls, an act that straddled standup, sketch comedy and theater. All you need to know about Newharts sense of humor is in the albums subtitle: The Most Celebrated New Comedian Since Attila the Hun. Today, doing one-sided phone calls as a live act would get a comedian associated with the alternative performance comics experimenting in Brooklyn, but in 1960, it got Newhart a Grammy and the No 1 album on the Billboard pop charts.
In 1961, Dick Gregory made white people listen
To modern ears, the most striking thing about Dick Gregorys In Living Black and White is the running commentary from the newscaster Alex Dreier, who introduces each track like a documentarian describing an animal on the prowl. Knowing the problems of the south as he does, Dreier intones at the beginning of one bit, warning the (presumed white) listener that Gregory is about to take on affairs political. The combination of Gregorys sharp, unforgiving wit and his integrated audiences was a unique combination in the early 60s even the New York Times recognized at the time that he appealed, in part, to the reasonably well-meaning, whose guilt at harboring prejudices can be temporarily assuaged by laughing with him in the safety of the chic night clubs. Gregory used this platform brilliantly, forcing uncomfortable ideas on his well-off audiences and becoming a civil rights icon.
In 1978, Steve Martin blurred the lines of standup and stupidity
Steve Martin became famous on Saturday Night Live and The Tonight Show, but he became a superstar with A Wild and Crazy Guy. And never has an album been such a perfect encapsulation of a comedians career. Side A is an intimate set at the Boarding House nightclub in San Francisco, where he had recorded his previous album and where he gets to excel in the weird, intimate comedy that made him a standout in the 1970s. Side B takes him to the Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Colorado, and the album becomes a stadium show that features his hit novelty song King Tut and an appearance from Georg Festrunk, the SNL-originated character who gave the album its title. The fluidity and polarity of the album lay clear how Martin could be so popular with mainstream audiences and also beloved by comedy nerds forever more.
In 1980, Rodney Dangerfield melded standup with shtick
I dont get no respect! Its hard to even come across the phrase without hearing it in Rodney Dangerfields Long Island accent, without picturing him sweating, shaking his head, pulling his collar. It was his well-worn shtick by the time Dangerfield won a Grammy for his 1980 album No Respect, and the character he created the schlubby loser with the goofy name had become a staple of pop culture. But while his one-liners harkened back to the Catskills era of comedy, his catchphrase-centric persona have echoes in successes of Andrew Dice Clay and Larry the Cable Guy, a creation of the standup Dan Whitney.
In 1982, Richard Pryor made comedy confessional
Richard Pryor was never a comic to shirk from controversy, and his commentary over the years on race, sex and politics garnered him well-earned recognition as one of the greatest comedians of all time. But in Live on the Sunset Strip, he turned his searing wit on himself in his unforgettable closing story, detailing the freebasing incident that left him severely burned in 1980. That he would later admit the accident was a suicide attempt doesnt diminish from the raw honesty on stage; if anything, it makes his candor about drug addiction more heartbreaking.
In 1993, Jeff Foxworthy turned personal identity into comedy
Its rare that standup permeates the culture as much as Jeff Foxworthys You Might Be a Redneck If album did in the mid-90s. The album itself sold more than three million copies and inspired billions of jokes, whether from mocking hipsters or genuine fans who saw their own lives reflected in Foxworthys breathless litany of one-liners. The simple premise If youve ever had to haul a can of paint to the top of a water tower to defend your sisters honor is an instantly recognizable ode to a cultural identity that appreciates a self-effacing joke if told with love, and would lead Foxworthy and his fellow Blue Collar comics to superstardom.
In 1996, Chris Rock reignited comedy as social commentary
Some people are old enough to remember the moon landing, W Kamau Bell once told me in an interview. I remember Bring the Pain. With this kingmaking HBO special, Chris Rock proved himself one of the smartest political minds to ever pick up a microphone. Pacing around the stage in his leather jacket, he fused political theory, righteous anger and pure frustration tired, tired, tired of this shit, he spat into the microphone with exquisitely written and powerfully performed jokes.
In 2000, Margaret Cho made comedy on her own terms
Like many comics of that era, Margaret Chos rise to fame in the 90s was a mixed bag her popularity as a standup led to her short-lived sitcom All-American Girl, the failure of which pushed her into a downward spiral of addiction. So when she returned with her boundary-ignoring one-woman show, Im the One That I Want, Cho wasnt taking a stab at fame and fortune; she was re-establishing herself as a comic uninterested in sacrificing even one iota of her personality for mainstream acceptance. Out it all poured her bisexual liaisons, her suicidal feelings, her mothers opinions about gay porn and with it she secured herself a loyal fanbase that remains with her to this day.
In 2006, Louis CK made comedy cathartic
Theres no shortage of ink spilled on the phenomenon of Louis CK, whose career over the last decade has shot him from popular club comic to global sensation. It really all started with his special Shameless, when he pivoted from the goofy observational material that marked his early career and delved into his personal life his crumbling marriage, the stresses of fatherhood, and his four-year-old being an asshole. This unflinching approach to the supposedly sacred areas of life would become a cornerstone of his comedy.
In 2014, Maria Bamford made comedy into therapy
Maria Bamfords comedy has always been in its own column. Generally considered part of the alternative comedy scene, she rejected the conversational style of many of her peers, instead writing tight, carefully paced bits full of pitch-perfect impressions and facial expressions. Over time, this precision allowed her to write meaningful, thoughtful jokes about her own mental health that were both brilliantly hysterical and heartbreaking. Thats why her self-released The Special Special Special, recorded in her living room with only her parents in the audience, works so brilliantly she doesnt need a huge audience to give her jokes the energy she needs. She does it all herself.
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