What do we expect from the Best Comedy Album Shortlist at the Grammys? In the past, I have not paid much attention to the award. The Edinburgh Comedy Award is more like my culture, and after dealing with the comedic tastes of the American Recording Academy, which is, well, a little conservative, I will run screaming back to it, the great carnival of imagination that it is. This is an award where only two of the last 15 nominees were women and Bill Cosby is their record champion with seven wins. The shortlist this year does not emit any shockwaves of novelty.
Repeat winners and nominees are included, the latter for the fourth year in a row, such as Jerry Seinfeld, Patton Oswalt and Jim Gaffigan. Add to that, Tiffany Haddish and Bill Burr, and you get a cast that doesn’t exactly advertise the freshness of American comedy, with an average age of 53. By contrast, Billie Eilish, Dua Lipa and Megan Thee Stallion are shortlisted for Music Album of the Year, and the nominees’ average age is 28. Maybe the issue lies in the word “album”: perhaps the hottest new comic talent is no longer releasing “albums”? But it can’t be that, because, as far as I can tell, the Grammy for Best Comedy Album no longer honors albums in the conventional sense. The more observant of you may have found an overlap between this Grammy shortlist and that of the Emmy Award for Best Television Comedy/Variety Special.
The Netflix specials are all five nominated “albums”. Three years ago, unannounced, the day before the Grammys deadline, the streaming company released a handful of its specials as a vinyl LP. Just vinyl, mind you: there was no streaming or CD release, so that the company could preserve its content exclusivity. Four out of five were – surprise, surprise – Netflix specials when the awards for Best Comedy Album were revealed. Ever since, at the detriment of many other independent comedy albums that might be deemed more genuine – or at least more likely to be engaged as audio – the channel has preserved its supremacy. Daniel Kitson’s It’s The Fireworks Talking or David O’Doherty’s Live in his Own Car During a Pandemic, to mention only two 2020 examples from this side of the Atlantic. Even if I’m foolish to think that indie releases could be remembered by a contest sponsored by a luxury Swiss watch brand, aren’t there more thrilling Netflix specials than Oswalt’s? Well, yeah – but from a prize that Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette famously skipped in 2019 – one of the few undeniable game changers in the last decade of comedy – what are the chances they’re going to find favor with? And so we’re left with an absolutely good, though not always thrilling, quintet of standup specials. Haddish’s Black Mitzvah would be the focus for many: if you can ignore the name-dropping and violent self-promotion, it’s worth a look at a raunchy sex comedy here. Paper Tiger is more convincing than some of the earlier work of Bill Burr (Sorry: worth listening to!). While, particularly in the first third of the season, he doesn’t skimp on his usual macho PC banter, it gives way to a reflective and surprising mood. The other nominees, as you would expect from standups with more than a century of performing experience, offer professional and funny comedy sets without doing anything to get the pulse going…. The three-year rule of Dave Chappelle, whom the Grammys continue to shower with awards even as the distinction between provocative and tinny blurs in his work, will be broken by anyone who wins at the end of the month.
But before a new generation of comedians have their turn at the Grammys, or even before the awards begin to appreciate the art form they are supposed to recognize, most comedy lovers will look elsewhere. The ceremony for the Grammys is Jan. 31.