Today's young comedians aren't the showbiz types their predecessors were. The older comics, from Milton Berle to Bill Cosby, came up through the theater and the nightclub circuit and consequently tend to respect the conventions of the business. In fact, for many of them, the pinnacle of ambition wasn't simply being the funniest in the land, but rather to graduate from comedy to serious acting.
The younger comics, though, are creatures of the mass media and respect no rules or conventions. For them, the principal reference point in their humor is television, thanks to the common ground it gives them with their audience. But they don't really aspire to TV stardom; for many of the good ones, that's already a fait accompli. Instead, what these jokers really want is to become rock stars.
Take Joe Piscopo -- please! This refugee from "Saturday Night Live" is so desperate for vinyl success that he'll do anything, and that's the major problem with "New Jersey" (Columbia BFC 40046).
Would he pad out the album with guest stars? Sure; not only does Piscopo resurrect the voices of Rocky and Bullwinkle, but he throws in Eddie Murphy, Little Stephen and MTV's Martha Quinn for good measure. Would he steal jokes? Certainly. The title track is an attempt at satirizing Bruce Springsteen and that singer's home state, an idea that's turned up on record at least twice before (and that's not counting John Cafferty). Worse, Piscopo's big-budget production still fails to top the low-cost yocks generated by Bruce Springstone's "Meet the Flintstones."
A similar fate befalls Piscopo's "I Wanna Sound Like a Black Man," an idea Lou Reed explored with far greater success in "I Wanna Be Black." The difference between the two is instructive, because where Reed bitingly played on racial cliche', Piscopo simply pounds the premise: "If you wanna do it right, you can't sound white/You gotta have a little more soul." As a result, there is nothing funny about Piscopo's routine, because it sounds all too similar to what the bigots he should be bearding actually believe.
But then, that's a characteristic weakness of Piscopo's humor, for rather than play on the familiar to make a valid and distancing point, he simply goes for the gleam of recognition. That's the only joke in "The Nightclub," in which Piscopo, posing as a Mexican impression artist, jabbers nonsense Spanish in the styles of Jerry Lewis, Joan Rivers and the Three Stooges. There is no content to be digested; it's all mannerism, and what Piscopo expects is applause simply for being able to spit back the shticks of the famous.
Sadly, he barely even does that. Although his Ralph Kramden is good, and is cleverly parlayed into a rap number that uses scratching and hip-hop tape editing to make the most of Kramden's verbal ticks, it never goes any farther than that. His Andy Rooney, though, is postulated on the premise that Rooney is an annoyance, and does little more than simply assault the listener. Finally, there is his David Letterman, which is not merely unfunny but completely misses the nuances of Letterman's timing and delivery.
That's about par for "New Jersey," an album so hung up on mimetic technique that it may be the first comedy album to have forgotten to include any jokes. You're better off waiting for the video.
You won't have to wait for Sandra Bernhard's video; it was premiered on "Late Night With David Letterman" even before her album, "I'm Your Woman" (Mercury 824 826-1), turned up in most record stores. Having a video, though, makes sense for Bernhard, for unlike Piscopo, who merely wants to be treated like a rocker, Bernhard has actually made an attempt to become a rock star and therefore gives most of her album over to straightforward performances of rock songs.
As a singer, Bernhard is more than competent, possessing both a strong voice and a fairly winning style. But aside from the single, "Everybody's Young," she rarely invests herself in her music the way she does in her comedy. In fact, her generally flat approach to vocal characterization has almost the opposite effect. Where her comedy uses aggressive exaggeration to turn emotional discomfort into cathartic chuckles, the seeming baldness of her singing makes the occasional desperation of the lyrics genuinely disturbing, whether in the parodically vampish "Boys Come Running" to the utter pliancy of the title track. Unfortunately, her brief spoken bits, which precede each song, never quite deliver the needed balance.
Emo Philips is also fond of making himself the butt of his own jokes, but unlike Bernhard, there's no acid edge to his material. Instead, the one-liners he packs into "E = MO2" (Columbia BFE 39981) are along more traditional lines. "I loaned a friend $8,000 for plastic surgery," he laments. "Now I can't recognize him." Or later: "People come up to me, concerned that I'll reproduce."
Were Philips' lines delivered in the rat-a-tat style of a Rodney Dangerfield, his "poor little me" routine might have a little more punch. Instead, Philips relies on a painfully awkward delivery that sounds like Pee-wee Herman played at half speed. Maybe he thinks his audience needs the time to figure out when to laugh, but if so, he'd be better off simply relying on a laugh track.