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Laugh Tracks

Spoken word comedy albums have seen better days

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Chris Rock’s Grammy-winning comedy album, “Roll with the New,” has already sold 187,000 copies. And a few other top comedians are doing even better: Adam Sandler sold more than 1 million copies of “What the Hell Happened to Me?” and Jeff Foxworthy’s “You Might be a Redneck If…” and “Games Rednecks Play” each sold 2.3 million. But when it comes to overall sales of comedy albums, there’s little to laugh about.

“Fifteen years ago, comedy records were a big deal,” says Scott Levin, director of marketing for the Musicland chain. “But with the growth of cable and satellite TV, people can see comedy any single day of the week.” Responding to the comedy glut in the late ’80s, record labels began giving comedians the hook. “It became the conventional wisdom that comedy records would no longer sell,” says Ted Myers, A&R manager for Rhino records.

In the face of low sales, Rhino has concentrated on rereleasing classics from such stars as Robert Klein, Albert Brooks and Bob Newhart. “We felt it was almost an obligation, if not a labor of love, to resurrect these,” says Myers. Some of these records have performed well, like a four-CD box set of the “2000 Year Old Man” records by Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner, which has sold 30,000 copies. But most tend to sell in the 8,000-15,000 range. “These older records cater to such a small audience,” says Musicland’s Levin. “I’m 39, and if you’re not at least that old, the thing you might know about Bob Newhart is that he’s the spokesperson for Norwest banks.”

Buyers may have lost interest in comedy albums, but comics have not. “I became a stand-up because of comedy records,” says comedian/actor Dana Gould (“Working”), who just released his first album “Fun House.” “My older brother had the first two George Carlin albums when I was in about fifth or sixth grade, and I just played the grooves off them.”

Gould, 33, a stand-up since 1982, has performed in four of his own HBO specials. Yet he’s convinced that his CD is the purest legacy of his comedy: “People look at my special from four years ago, and the material was funny. But what people say is, ‘Oh God, look, you’ve got sideburns!’ But if you listen to a George Carlin album, you’re not distracted by the fact that he’s wearing bellbottoms. You just hear the fantastic material.”