I love LPs, especially of the late 1950s and early 1960s, not because of some luddite fetish, but because they are a great example of a medium trying to figure itself out. What are the consequences of being able to put more than five or eight minutes on a side, or close to an hour over two? You can look elsewhere for the history of that discovery in music: the immediate embrace by classical music ('Western art music' as my ethnomusicologically-oriented peeps refer to it) with its already established long forms; the experimentations in jazz both of live recordings and longer studio work; and of course with rock and popular music, where it subsumes the single as the dominant delivery method and then you get Ummagumma and fuck you kids in my high school who tricked me into starting Floyd with that one.
Comedy benefited from it as well. First of all, comedians excluded for whatever reason (race, gender, 'obscenity') from the incredibly few opportunities for broadcast could get their performances out there (for example, Totie Fields or Pigmeat Markham). But comedians who had access to broadcast, where their routines would be limited to just a few minutes, could now present their material in longer forms. In A Vulgar Art I write about how Bill Cosby's albums transformed from the series of short monologues on Bill Cosby is a Very Funny Fellow - self-contained, character-driven, replete with sound effects, and fading between tracks - to longer, integrated works like To Russell, My Brother, Whom I Slept With or 200 MPH, both of which have (eponymous) routines that take up an entire album side and clock in at over 20 minutes.
But in the late 1950s that hadn't happened yet, and everyone was trying to figure it all out, and trying to sell them to an audience.
Last week I went to the only used book store in Sydney, Ed's Books and More. There are records in the back, and someone with good taste must have died because among the treasures were four of the first five Shelley Berman albums, which I got for $2 a pop. (I also picked up an almost mint paperback of Dick Gregory's From the Back of the Bus, an early example of routines transferred to print cum manifesto, like The Essential Lenny Bruce. So much to write about.)
If you don't know who Berman is stop reading because you suck and I hate you. (If you don't know who Gregory is stop reading because you suck and are probably racist and I hate you.) If you feel you don't know enough about Berman, you may continue, although I'm not going to tell you much about him.
Because back to why I love LPs: with a lot of real estate to cover on the front - a square foot, if my math is correct - you get some fun with fonts and as much variation as you can have with nothing but a white dude in a suit with a stool and a cigarette. (Legs crossed! Leaning! Legs Splayed! Close up and not a photo but a charcoal sketch! In a club! In a studio!) The album I didn't get that day, The Edge of Shelley Berman, is no different. Also Christmas is coming. Cough.
Ian Inglis has written about album covers that
But the backs of the album had the same amount of space to fill, although they wouldn't be looked at until someone picked it up and turned it around. And it's in black and white, presumably because why wouldn't it be? (Has someone written on the economics of album-cover printing?) That 'silent salesman' needn't be so subtle. The writerly text of the image that needs decoding, however simple that decoding may be, can be augmented by a very readerly text: an essay that tells you what the thing inside contains. And so many comedy albums have little essays written by someone you - yes you, late 1950s hipster - would know telling you about the person you might not know whose work is contained therein, and about the art-form they practice.
Here are the backs of the Berman albums. Look at them. Just blocks of text. Even skimping on the fonts. So when I titled this post "Reading" I meant it literally and not in some douchebag literary-theorist-looks-at-a-suitcase sort of way. That's a lot of text.
Inside Shelley Berman (Verve MG V-15003) wasn't the first comedy album but was one of the first phenomena. He is introduced by two separate essays, one by "KUP" (aka Irv Kupcinet, columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times) and then by Verve label-mate Mort Sahl.
KUP contextualizes Berman for the listener and defends the title.
Hipster references abound, but speak to the culture of the time. He - KUP - can vouch for Berman, and thus the goodwill you may have for KUP is being asked to extend to Berman as well. He describes the method of the material.
A list of his various nightclub appearances (Hungry i, Blue Angel, Avant Garde) is followed by his various TV appearances (Jack Paar, Steve Allen, Ed Sullivan), which show his credentials. KUP's essay is essentially an emcee performance. Jason Rutter identifies six “turns” evident in the compère’s talk: contextualization (giving background details), framing of response (directing the audience to greet the comedian with a certain attitude), evaluation of comedian (commenting on performance skills), request for action (typically applause), introduction (naming), and audience applause (466). KUP is doing most of these in essence, although the essay changes the form. Similarly, I have written about the role of established comedians in showcase tours, using the specific example of Cedric the Entertainer and his Starting Lineup special.
But the greatest thing is the last paragraph, where KUP explains the whole concept of the comedy LP to the potential purchaser.
So this is what I am holding? I get it now.
I'm not (trying to be) a prick about this, because I do have fifty years of precedent that began more or less with this album (actually, less) to build on. But the very concepts of what the comedy LP is or might be needed at one point to be patiently explained to an audience: by extension, what the comedians or the record company thought they were producing is now more explicit.
Mort Sahl's essay is less a straightforward introduction and more an impression of Berman, replete with his own jokes and demonstrations of inside knowledge.
Here a comedian with a notably different style, one emerging as more cutting edge, perhaps, gives his imprimatur to a comic who does "prepared material." (Although if one thought that Sahl was ever unprepared for a performance one would be sadly mistaken: his great contribution was emphasizing the illusion of extemporaneity.)
His next album, Outside Shelley Berman (Verve MG V-15007) has less text. There is a short note by Norman Granz, the head of Verve and one of the leading voices in jazz. He doesn't speak to the comedy itself but instead to Berman's character.
I would imagine that Granz is building on his years of working with jazz musicians and the conviction that live performance is its true performance context. He grounds his critique in audience perception, not as market but as contributor to the performance. Berman's note is indeed in praise of Ami Hadani, the engineer.
Berman indeed praises the engineer but by doing so he reinforces the liveness of the event. He is emphasizing what may be obvious to us but was perhaps novel to the original listener: that the audience is part of the performance, that the comedian's performance does not exist without the audience's reaction. However much his performance is prepared it is done so with the expectation of an audience's response because that response closes the circle and completes the text. Granz's and Berman's notes attest to a singular point: this is a live performance medium, so any recording of it must contain the audience's reaction.
The Edge of Shelley Berman (MG V-15013) is an odd duck. Granz returns and seems to do nothing but blurb, the very opposite of which he praised Berman for on Outside.
And that's exactly what they do: KUP's and Sahl's from the Inside and the first paragraph of Granz's from Outside with a new sentence: "And no performer today exemplifies this more than Shelley Berman."
A Personal Appearance (Verve V-15027) reverts to the older format of an introduction by an authority, in this case the poet and critic Louis Untermeyer. He solemnly intones that
He praises Berman's skills at observational humour (never referring to it as such) with descriptions of the routines, much as KUP did. (The whole thing is too long to excerpt, and you can probably imagine it: if you can't, read it here.) He ends with
Berman's own contribution is but a paragraph, but again emphasizes the audience context.
So that's the first four. What about New Sides (Verve V-15036)? I don't know where to start. Berman appears to be apologizing for the quality of his material even before the purchaser can listen to it. It is defensive and odd. He may be referring to his last album or this one.
And then he does so: one by one, how each routine is kind of like one before it. It is mind-bogglingly passive-aggressive.
I'm going to do a follow-up post very soon where I listen to all the albums (The Edge is available through three different labels on iTunes, so I'm guessing it's officially public domain), and maybe track down the elusive sixth Sex Life of the Primate and Other Bits of Gossip (Verve V-15043), which is not available on iTunes in Canada. But I hope I have made my main point - that once upon a time there weren't comedy albums, and upon their eventual coming into being people had to be told how to listen to them.