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

02.07.19 7 months ago

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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.

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