What's So Funny About Music's Biggest Night?
Winning a GRAMMY in any category might make an artist feel like a conquering hero. But when comedian and rant extraordinaire Lewis Black won for Best Comedy Album in 2006 at the 49th GRAMMY Awards, he was thinking about a different kind of hero.
"I was so absolutely shocked when I heard my name announced that my blood sugar instantly tanked," says Black, who won The Carnegie Hall Performance. "As I was walking to the stage I was thinking that having the GRAMMY was going to be really nice, but what I really needed was a sandwich."
Black had to manage his glucose again at the 53rd GRAMMYs when he won in the category for his Stark Raving Black album, and he may need to have snacks on hand again this year as a Best Comedy Album nominee for In God We Rust.
"There are about 400 awards an actor can win before the Oscars roll around," says Black. "But for comedians the GRAMMYs are really the only thing that counts. It's the highest level of recognition in our field, so yes — it really is wonderful just to be nominated."
Comedic excellence has been a proud part of GRAMMY history. In fact, in the first five years of the awards' existence, Album Of The Year honors went twice to comedians: The Button-Down Mind Of Bob Newhart won at the 3rd GRAMMY Awards in 1960, and Kennedy-impersonator Vaughn Meader won with his First Family album at the 5th GRAMMY Awards in 1963.
Since then, the comedy award category has evolved from Best Comedy Performance to Best Comedy Recording to Best Spoken Comedy Album to the current Best Comedy Album. And while no comic since Meader has left Music's Biggest Night with an Album Of The Year Award, the list of GRAMMY comedy winners is a who's who of the funniest funny people.
Bill Cosby dominated the field through the '60s with an amazing and unparalleled six wins in a row (he picked up a seventh comedy GRAMMY in 1986 and has nine GRAMMYs total). Richard Pryor, working at his ferocious best in the mid-'70s and early '80s, won the award five times. (Pryor's consecutive streak was interrupted by a couple of back-to-back wins by Steve Martin.)
On the more tuneful side of comedy, the orchestral parodies of Peter Schickele's P.D.Q. Bach alter ego scored four consecutive Best Comedy Album wins in the late-'80s and early '90s. In more recent years, the Best Comedy Album statuette has gone to such hilarious heavyweights as George Carlin, Robin Williams, Chris Rock, past GRAMMY Awards host Jon Stewart, and Louis C.K.
The comedic competition has shifted somewhat through the years: at times stand-up comics have competed separately from comedic musical acts, though they now share the category. In addition to P.D.Q. Bach, musically oriented comedy winners include the Chipmunks, Allan Sherman, "Weird Al" Yankovic, and Flight Of The Conchords.
This year's nominees are equally talented but have different approaches to funny. Along with Black's In God We Rust album, this year's nominees are Jimmy Fallon's Blow Your Pants Off, Margaret Cho's Cho Dependent (Live In Concert), Jim Gaffigan's Mr. Universe, Tenacious D's Rise Of The Fenix, and Kathy Griffin's Kathy Griffin: Seaman 1st Class.
Griffin is certainly no stranger to the category — this year marks the fifth year in a row she's been nominated. She's also quick to cite past winners who've had an impact on her own comedic craft.
"When I was growing up it was all about those incredible Bill Cosby albums, and the Cheech & Chong albums, and the Pryor albums," says Griffin. "For someone starting to figure out how comedy works, those really were prized possessions. In the age of downloads and YouTube, the idea of a comedy album is a little looser now, but, given the history, I am truly honored to be nominated."
Still, the multiple nods have clearly not lessened Griffin's desire to take a win home.
"Look, only two women have won for Best Comedy Album," she explains. "Lily Tomlin and Whoopi Goldberg. It's two and a half if you count Mike Nichols and Elaine May. [Ed: In fact, it's three counting the 1960 win by Jonathan & Darlene, the latter a character played by Jo Stafford as a deliberately off-key singer.] I'd say it's time to make the ladies proud again. Over the past five years I think I've been beaten sometimes by people who didn't even know they were nominated. I'm there in the audience every year in my Oscar de la Renta ball gown ready to go. Come on GRAMMY!"
(Chuck Crisafulli is an L.A.-based journalist and author whose most recent works include Go To Hell: A Heated History Of The Underworld, Me And A Guy Named Elvis and Elvis: My Best Man.)