Music

How The Grammys’ Best Comedy Album Category Became A Laughing Matter

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More often than not, the general pop-consuming populace struggles to accept that the voting body who decides the Grammys has any sort of authority over what constitutes “good” music. What the Best Comedy Album category presupposes is — what if they judged what’s “funny,” too? It’s no laughing matter: Since 1959, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences has strived towards a gold-statued mandate to “honor artistic achievement in comedy,” handing down a decree on all things gut-bustingly recorded in some form.

With 84 awards total handed out during Music’s Biggest Night, the Best Comedy Album award is but one of myriad categories that typically falls through the cracks — a figurative punchline in a sea of stand-up material — and as such they’re rarely televised. It remains to be seen whether this year’s nominees (we’ll get there) will get prime time air time, but last year’s award was handed out when (some of) the world was watching, with Dave Chappelle taking the prize for his The Age Of Spin: Live At The Hollywood Palladium. Naturally, the recently-returned-from-reclusiveness comedian’s acceptance speech kicked off with a joke of sorts: “I am honored to win an award, finally.” (Among other accolades, he’s a two-time Primetime Emmy winner, too.)

The history of the award is, like so much comedy itself, a little complicated. For the first eight years of its existence, the Grammys referred to it as “Best Comedy Performance,” a wide-tent qualifier that covered bases ranging from Alvin and the Chipmunks’ hula-hoop-coveting “The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late)” to a four-track release of excerpted bits from Hollywood legends Mike Nichols and Elaine May’s famed 1960 Broadway run. In 1960 and 1961, the category was cleaved in two to allow for “Musical comedy” and “Spoken comedy” honorees before rejoining as one — a brief schism gesturing at the category’s fickle nature that was to come.

From 1965 to 1970, Bill Cosby took home the award every single year — marking a prolific period for the disgraced comedian and alleged serial rapist during which his vile, infamous “Spanish Fly” routine was laid to tape on his last Warner Bros. release, 1969’s It’s True! It’s True!; the album marked a rare Cosby release from this period that escaped the nominating body’s attention — he instead won for its follow-up, Sports, from that same year. In the midst of Cosby’s crushing run, the category shifted nomenclaturally to Best Comedy Recording in 1968, keeping the designation until 1991. The shift was largely cosmetic in nature, as stand-up recordings continued to dominate the field save for the occasional win for the legendary “Weird Al” Yankovic (1981, for his brilliant Michael Jackson-parodying “Eat It”) and brainy parodist Peter Schickele’s P.D.Q. Bach project, who won a whopping four years in a row in the dawn of the 1990s.

1992 saw the category change its name again, to Best Comedy Album — its current designation, but that doesn’t mean it stayed that way from then to now. In fact, the award was only called as such for two years before being relegated to the Grammys’ spoken-word field, as Best Spoken Comedy Album. Ever a fickle-acting representative body, the Academy ended up occasionally recognizing recorded comedy works with musical elements regardless of the categorization; Chris Rock’s second of what currently stands as three wins was for his 2000 LP Bigger & Blacker, an album of which any child of MTV’s early-2000s days will recognize as featuring the hilarious “No Sex.” The single featured production by hip-hop and turntablist legend Prince Paul, who linked up with Rock previously for 1997’s Roll With The New.

In 2004, the category was restored to its current designation, encompassing both musical and spoken-word forms of comedy recordings—and who better to win during Best Comedy Album’s re-inaugural year than “Weird Al,” taking home his second award for Poodle Hat. Even though the playing field was yet again widened, however, allowing for a broader spectrum didn’t change the type of material that took home gramophone gold; since Poodle Hat‘s moment of glory, only one other musical act besides “Weird Al” (who won again in 2015 for his most recent LP Mandatory Fun) took home the Grammy (Flight Of The Conchords in 2008, for their Sub Pop-released The Distant Future).

And when surveying the current landscape, it’s worth asking whether the category should undergo another name change. Let’s set aside for a second the fact that, more often than not, musical works rarely win or even earn a nomination. (Not to be a Grammy hair-splitter — the worst kind of person, arguably — but the fact that The Lonely Island have only been nominated once and won zero times is a travesty.) Over the last decade, the nominees have increasingly resembled anything other than a “comedy album” in the strictest sense. Check out the 2019 nominations: Patton Oswalt’s Annihilation, Dave Chappelle’s Equanimity & The Bird Revelation, Jim Gaffigan’s Noble Ape, Fred Armisen’s Standup For Drummers, and Chris Rock’s Tamborine.

This year, only one of them can be found on streaming services — and it’s not even the nominee that features the most musical elements (that’d be Fred Armisen’s surprisingly funny Netflix special Standup For Drummers). Instead, it was Jim Gaffigan’s Comedy Central special Noble Ape, originally aired on a platform that has proven more amenable to re-releasing their broadcasts in album-length format than the subscription-reliant world of Netflix.

If this audio-recording-specific category has become a celebration of works in which their effectiveness is rooted firmly in the visual medium (Standup For Drummers, ironically, comes to mind here), why not open the field even wider? Why can’t podcasts be nominated, or TikTok clips? More broadly, is it even possible to quantify something as excelling in its targeting a human element so individually specific as a sense of humor? Could you not say the same about giving awards to achievements in popular music, as well as any other field of general entertainment? The mind surely boggles when heading down ideological rabbit holes — and, at the end of the day, it makes one want to just kick up their feet and maybe hear a decent joke or two.

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