The comedy category at the Grammys is a funny thing…
In a flash-and-pop show that's all about music, the comedy category has always been something of a square peg. But in the 1960s and 1970s, a heyday for comedy albums, the category was particularly reflective of the zeitgeist.
In that unwired, pre-cable era, comedy recordings on vinyl were a core way for comics to reach mainstream audiences. "The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart" not only won a Grammy in 1961, it beat every musical release for album of the year. Two years later, Vaughn Meader's Kennedy send up, "The First Family," did the same.
Now thanks to a quick-shifting mediascape, fewer comedians are recording proper comedy albums, on major labels, as an end unto itself. Instead, they're turning to myriad DIY options such as YouTube, Twitter and podcasting, as well as TV specials, to get their jokes out there. Or they're recording material for multiple media platforms at once: A live performance might be edited down into a shorter TV special, then the audio retooled and uploaded to iTunes as an album.
Of this year's nominees, Weird Al Yankovic's "Apocalypse" and The Lonely Island's "Turtleneck & Chain" are musical comedy albums; Louis C.K.'s "Hilarious," Patton Oswalt's "Finest Hour" and " Kathy Griffin: 50 & Not Pregnant" are all live stand-up performances recorded for TV specials and albums.
In an effort to stay current, the Recording Academy has broadened the terms of what's eligible for a comedy Grammy; two years ago it began considering audio material that originated on TV. But some in the comedy community feel the academy's standards are now too loose, and that the category lacks relevance.
"You shouldn't be able to take audio from a television show and call it a comedy album," says Dylan P. Gadino, editor in chief of Laughspin.com. "Original intent, editing and production should come into play."
Gadino takes particular issue with Kathy Griffin's current — and fourth consecutive — Grammy nomination, "50 & Not Pregnant," just over 43 minutes of material taken primarily from last year's one-hour Bravo special; as well as 2010's comedy Grammy winner, "A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift of All!," featuring songs from his Comedy Central special.
"They were produced and released on television … for television broadcast viewing. To me, that's not an album. It shouldn't be nominated," Gadino says. "Maybe [Grammy voters] think people won't care because it's comedy and not music."
Griffin, who puts out more TV specials a year than any other working comic — four last year, each featuring new material — takes pride in the multipurpose nature of her performances.
"I knew the recording would be lifted for the album; and, you know, it's another way for people to find the material. I absolutely write for all mediums at the same time — my live shows, as well as the TV specials as well as the album. And to me, it's all viable," Griffin says. "And, by the way, I really at some point would like a Grammy just for sheer volume!"
Oswalt and C.K.'s nominated albums, both released on Comedy Central Records, the largest comedy-dedicated label, are significantly longer than their related TV specials. Because TV has stricter standards for language, the albums are a chance "to get the extended, uncensored versions out there," says Jack Vaughn, head of the label. "The intent is absolutely dual purpose," he says.
The plethora of new media opportunities has sparked a comedy explosion that many feel is healthy for the Grammy category. And the Recording Academy, says Bill Freimuth, its vice president of awards, is keeping pace.
"Fewer and fewer comic artists are setting out to have the final product be an audio album," he says. "It tends to be more linked to TV specials and things like that. Our national board of trustees, in their wisdom, opened it up; and it keeps the category more healthy in terms of numbers and competition."
Which is important; because comedy is one of the smallest categories at the Grammys, with only 49 eligible submissions this year, compared to 760 for album of the year and 227 for rock album. The academy doesn't solicit material, so submissions are the only way into the Grammys. Entries are screened for eligibility, then voted on by the membership to cull five nominees. In comedy, anything that's at least five tracks and 15 minutes long, and sold commercially — even if just online — can be considered for a Grammy.
Ultimately, though, no matter how wide the net is cast for submissions, voting members of the Recording Academy are going to choose familiar names as nominees, says Lewis Black, who won last year's comedy Grammy for his "Stark Raving Black."
"It's all about access. I'm very lucky — I do a Comedy Central special and it becomes a CD. So it's out there," Black says. "This year, except for Lonely Island, they're all recognizable. Kathy and Patton and Louis C.K. … their faces are out there on film and TV. And Weird Al Yankovic is like a cultural institution. That recognition factor has an effect; in the end, it has an effect on the voting."
Of the sea of material swirling out there on the Internet without major media backing, says Black, some comics get lost in the shuffle. With 78 categories to shepherd, there's only so much attention Grammy voters can pay to comedy, he says.
"We're in the midst of a huge technological change. It affects how I do my specials, the variety of ways a comic could [be discovered], it's massive," Black says. "And it hasn't sorted itself out yet. I think there's material that's overlooked."
"I think the Grammy generally goes to whoever they think worked the hardest," says Margaret Cho, a nominee last year for her musical album "Cho Dependent." "I've done it both ways, and musical comedy is harder to produce. You have all of the machinations of making a music album, playing instruments and recording that — which is hard — but you need to be funny too. I think there should be two different categories, musical comedy and a stand-up category."
Shelley Berman, 87 and "weathering it very well," he says, was the first comic to win a nonmusical comedy Grammy for 1959's "Inside Shelley Berman." So he's understandably nostalgic for that simpler era.
"There was a time when it was phenomenal, when it suddenly became a very important medium," Berman says. "But TV took over, and the album performance lost its charm." Today, he says, "I don't think it's in vogue — there are too many other ways to be seen and heard."
Those opportunities however, through accessible technology and easy distribution, have nurtured what many feel is a comedy renaissance, promoting not just more comics with a greater number of outlets at their disposal, but more experimentation, comedic variety and a greater appetite among consumers for the art form. All of which energizes the comedy category at the Grammys.
"There are more comedians with distinct points of view than ever," says Comedy Central's Vaughn. "It's really opened up people's eyes. The comedy category [at the Grammys] went from the bottom of the list of categories, with polka and Hawaiian music, to getting much more respect as a category now."
Given last year's paring back of Grammy categories, many comics are, in the end, simply grateful that their offbeat, little category — which has been around since the first Grammy Awards in 1959 — is even still around.
"For such a renegade, very unique art form to be recognized in a way that's regarded so highly is very important," Cho says. "I think the Grammys are extremely relevant to comics — they always will be."