While lazily thumbing through your record collection, how often are you struck with the urge to put on some Bobcat Goldthwait, or to reacquaint yourself with the whimsy of Gabe Kaplan?
The record album has always been a dubious medium for stand-up comedy. Face it -- once you've heard the punch lines, the thrill is pretty much gone. And because that kind of humor -- nightclub humor, essentially -- is so reflective of its times, a comedy record can become merely an artifact for archaeological study. (For example, we can determine from a number of old jokes that men's suits used to come with two pairs of pants.)
Sometimes it's difficult to perceive an old stand-up routine the way audiences did when it was fresh. Listen to a recording of Steve Martin's "embezzling cat" bit -- one of his killer bits, you'll recall -- and try to figure out, in the cool light of reason, why people laughed. And modern sensitivities get in the way of appreciating Bill Dana's ethnic mockery ("My name Jose Jimenez"), though it was very popular in the early '60s.
By now, cable television and the VCR should have obsoleted the comedy album. Videotape is the ideal medium for recorded stand-up -- 30 or 60 minutes of a comic doing his or her unexpurgated set. Even after you know all the jokes, you can still enjoy watching the performance. With an album, it never seems like you're really in the audience.
So what happens? Andrew Dice Clay comes along and sells half a million albums, proving there's still a market for these things. Go figure.
Robin Harris: 'Be-Be's Kids' After a concert last March, Robin Harris died in his sleep. His heart just gave out. He was 36, an expectant father, a beloved figure in black Los Angeles. Hollywood was just opening up to him. His rambunctiously profane, down-home style had earned him an HBO special, a record deal, bigger and bigger movie roles and a proposed sitcom.
Death couldn't put an end to Robin Harris. Long before the release of the album "Be-Be's Kids" (Wing/PolyGram) -- named after his most famous routine, about four dangerously unruly youngsters -- bootleg "Be-Be's Kids" T-shirts became a street vendor's staple. Reportedly, illicit copies of Harris's HBO special and the movie "House Party," in which he starred, were available in many black video stores. And now the Hudlin Brothers, makers of "House Party," are developing a pilot for NBC -- a prime-time cartoon series based on Be-Be's Kids.
What is it about Robin Harris that resonates? Partly, it's the fact that he is so decidedly rooted in black comic traditions. This album is full of old gags and old-fashioned ones. His wife catches him fooling around with a midget. She tells him, "I thought you said you were going to stop messing around on me." He says, "Can't you see I'm trying to cut down?"
Harris even tries (less successfully) to update a segregation-era one-liner most identified with Dick Gregory. "We don't serve colored people," he is told. "Well, I don't eat 'em," he responds.
With Harris, it's not like he's stealing. It's like he's curating a museum of African American humor. Offstage, he was known to study voraciously the work of such comedians as Richard Pryor, Redd Foxx, Moms Mabley and Pigmeat Markham.
That wouldn't count for much if Harris weren't such a commanding performer. His street-corner exuberance enlivens old material and puts the force of punches behind his own commentaries on sex, drugs, crime and drippy Jheri-curl hairdos. The delivery is the thing.
Audio alone, unfortunately, can't capture his extraordinary rapport with an audience. You find yourself aching to see the look on a heckler's face after Harris shoots him down.
Sinbad: 'Brain Damaged' As a cast member on NBC's "A Different World," Sinbad is probably the biggest star to have gotten his break on "Star Search." As a live performer, he has a reputation for being able to riff for a couple of hours on real-life observations, hilarious stuff, all clean.
"Brain Damaged" (Wing/PolyGram) does not capture him at his best. Refreshingly, most of Sinbad's material emanates from human relationships. During the concert segments of this album, he speaks from the perspective of husband, father, grandson and big brother. Some of the material has a distinctive sharpness. "Women make us lie," he says. "How many times you come home, your woman's standing in the mirror: 'Is my butt big?' Have you ever told the truth on that one?"
But occasionally his tales come across as cut-rate Cosby, as when he describes taking his daughter to the emergency room after she has stuffed raisins up her nose.
The monologues are disrupted by a few slickly produced, mildly amusing rap songs, and by two studio-constructed skits. One of them is titled "Mike Tyson as a Substitute Teacher," a tired premise weakly executed.
More so than even Robin Harris's, Sinbad's act needs to be seen, not just heard. Too many times during "Brain Damaged" you hear a sudden burst of crowd laughter, and you must imagine Sinbad making a face.
Eric Bogosian: 'Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll' Eric Bogosian probably would resent being considered a stand-up comedian. The people who pay $30 to see him probably would resent it too. "Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll" (SBK) is a document of his most recent off-Broadway show, a 75-minute collection of hip, socially relevant monologues. Call it "theater," call it "performance art," it's still a guy with a mike trying to get laughs.
Densely worded and briskly delivered, Bogosian's character pieces tend to be hit-or-miss. But "Sex, Drugs" contains four extraordinary impersonations. A British rock star, oblivious to his own insincerity, speaks against drugs and for the Amazonian Indians; a Brooklyn Italian blue-collar guy recalls a night of alcohol-induced fun and violence; a young hotshot Jewish sleazeball lawyer arranges his life from his office telephone; and a crazed, confused fellow spews forth a spectacularly scatological tirade about pollution.
Bogosian has created some cutting-edge satires. And a few failures. Two of his characters -- a white Texas stud and a black New York street criminal -- are flat-out phony, from their accents on down. At other times, Bogosian, smug in his political correctness, lays it on thick about the homeless, or he does an easy, predictable bit on urban paranoia.