A Brief History Stand-Up Comedy Specials

Photo cred: Reese Turner

Photo cred: Reese Turner

On the eve of The Brunch Club's first stand-up comedy specialTranna Wintour Is Special presented by SiriusXMwe examine the history of this important rite of passage for comedians.

Without stand-up comedy specials, it's hard to imagine how comedians would have crept out of comedy clubs and into the cultural zeitgeist. There is no substitute for being in a room with live comedy because there is an energy even the most HD cameras can't fully capture, but would there be an audience in the room if it weren't for documentation of a honed act to get audiences familiar with the medium in the first place?

Though comedy recordings date as far back as 1897, the first comedy album of the modern age was Mort Sahl's The Future Lies Ahead in 1958. Before Sahl's album, technological constraints made it impossible for comedians to share more than a 3-minute bit or comedy song. Norman Granz, a jazz record producer, signed Sahl to record his routines in front of a live audience on long play records, allowing a full 45-minute set to be taken out of a nightclub and inserted into American living rooms for the first time. 

Sahl's contemporary Shelley Berman followed suit despite initial apprehension:

"Oh my God, put all of my material on a record? Forget about it! I'll never be able to do it. Because the surprise will be gone and everybody will know my stuff."

Good thing he came around because Inside Shelley Berman was the first hit comedy album and was also the first full album to win a Grammy for "Spoken Word Comedy" (the only other previous Grammy for comedy went to the single "The Chipmunk Song").

It now occurred to producers that there was a demand for the best 45 minutes of a comedian's set, which in turn would allow the performer to reach a larger audience than whomever happened to be at the nightclub the night they were booked. The innovation would change the life of a former accountant from Chicago who had been playing around with a tape deck: Bob Newhart.

I had three routines, I had the “Driving Instructor,” the “Submarine Commander,” and “Abe Lincoln.” So, a disc jockey friend of mine, Dan Sorkin, in Chicago, said that the Warner Brother record executives were coming through town, calling on Dan and some of the other top disc jockeys. Dan called me up, he said, “Put what you have on tape and I’ll play it for them.” So I put them on tape, brought it down there, they listened to it. And they said, “Okay, okay, we’ll give you a recording contract, and we’ll record your next nightclub.” And I said, “Well, we have kind of problem there, I’ve never played a nightclub.” So they said, “Well, we’ll have to get you into a nightclub.” So my first date was at Tidelands in Houston, Texas. It was the first time I ever walked out on a nightclub floor.

The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart was released in early 1960 and shot to the top of the charts. Not the "comedy" charts, but the Billboard charts for all popular music.

"It just went crazy," Newhart said. "I mean, a year a half before that I was doing a local man-on-the-street show in Chicago, and I put out this record album, hoping it would sell maybe twenty-five, thirty thousand copies, you know? I was just totally unprepared for the commotion they caused."

A sequel to Newhart's debut shot to Number One later that year and both Newhart albums occupied the top two spots for nearly 30 weeks, a record not surpassed until 1991 by Guns N' Roses. 

For mainstream artists, comedy albums were a way for audiences to recall favourite routines they may have caught on Ed Sullivan or on the radio. More importantly, if it weren't for these easy to produce and distribute albums, under the radar comics who didn't have a prayer of getting booked for TV appearances like Lenny Bruce or Redd Foxx were able to develop cult followings without compromising their comedic voice.

By the 1970s, television had replaced the comedy album as the standard bearer for fans to find comedians. The rare Johnny Carson co-sign or a chance to host the hot, new sketch show Saturday Night Live propelled comedians to new heights of stardom. After all, as good as comedy can be aurally, a silly facial expression or body language can be the difference between a joke landing and floundering, and this--obviously--can't be conveyed with just an audio recording.

However, at this time, TV was constrained by the FCC and network censors in a way that would seem totally foreign to our swear-happy, desensitized selves . When Richard Pryor hosted SNL on December 13th, 1975, NBC was so worried about obscenities that they utilized a 7-second delay (the only other time SNL has been broadcast with a 7-second delay was when Andrew Dice Clay hosted in 1990). In response to the censorship, Home Box Office stepped in.

On December 31st, 1975, HBO gave over an hour of uncensored airtime to Robert Klein, marking the first stand-up comedy special as we know it, something that HBO continues to produce to this day. 

The intention of a stand-up comedy special hasn't changed much since its inception. It is an--ideally--uncensored showcase of a comedian's material, persona, mannerisms, etc. And that's precisely why The Brunch Club has begun producing our own stand-up comedy special, starting with Tranna Wintour's on October 12th, 2016

We are surrounded by incredible talent that deserve better than to be Canada's best kept comedy secret. And with these specials, we're going to make sure the secret gets out.