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Thursday, May 29th, 2014

Jokes on Wax: Inside Comedy's Vinyl Resurgence

Marc Maron hasn't exactly built his career on happy memories. But when the WTF host thinks back on his comedy education, he fondly remembers sitting on shag carpet in his bedroom in the 1970s listening to Cheech and Chong and Richard Pryor albums on vinyl.

"I grew up with vinyl," says the 50-year-old, who frequently praises the format on his podcast and on stage. "You can hold the cover while you listen to it and open it up on your lap and look at the pictures. Vinyl wants you to sit down and focus."

Maron's Thinky Pain, which was released on CD, DVD, and digital on May 6, even includes the track "Vinyl Midlife Crisis," in which Maron obsesses over his record collection and the sanctity of tube amps for playing records. It's appropriate, since Thinky Pain also enjoyed the gatefold vinyl treatment from Comedy Central as a 180-gram double LP — something normally reserved for music releases and the audiophiles who gobble them up.

"There is a much bigger overlap between comedy and music than people realize," says Steve Raizes, senior vice president of enterprises for Comedy Central. "We've had requests from specific artists to do vinyl albums and it's a really fun canvas for all of us to paint on. You get more space to play with art, you can do something that is a bit more intricate, that pops, and I think that everyone loves the ability to hold and create something."

Until a few decades ago, before the rise of HBO, podcasts and standup radio, most recorded comedy was consumed on vinyl. Comedy fans of a certain age will recall poring over Bob Newhart, Jonathan Winters, Bill Cosby, Redd Foxx, and Steve Martin albums on wax, listening rapt with headphones, or stoned at parties, or anywhere that had a turntable and a decent collection. Despite the dominance of the digital format in recent years, vinyl's import and visceral impact remains.

As Raizes noted, Maron is not alone in championing it. Jim Gaffigan's latest album, Obsessed, debuted on vinyl last month. It will be joined on Comedy Central Records this year by vinyl albums from Nick Thune (Folk Hero) and Kyle Kinane (Whisky Icarus). Add to that vinyl releases over the last year from Dane Cook, George Lopez, Karen Kilgariff, Aziz Ansari, Rory Scovel, and Hannibal Buress, and vinyl's decade-long musical comeback seems poised to spill over into the comedy world.

But even with year-over-year growth, vinyl still only represents about 2 percent of all music sales. And given that comedy albums sell far fewer copies than music, standup LPs barely even register on the SoundScan charts.

"Comedy isn't a very significant genre in general when it comes to album sales, aside from the occasional breakthrough album from a Blue Collar Comedy tour or a Dane Cook-type artist," says Keith Caulfield, associate director of charts at Billboard. "But there's kind of a market for anything on vinyl if it's the right release, and I think [labels] are trying to test the waters with assorted projects and see if consumers will react."

Comedy Central, for example, released a limited edition 7-inch South Park picture disc last year as part of the annual Record Store Day retail event, which quickly sold out its 2,000 copies in stores around the country. But novel releases, one-offs, and reissues are different than bread-and-butter albums.

"A lot of vinyl operates as a piece of memorabilia," Caulfield says. "Especially on Record Store Day, where there are a lot of weird curiosities that people may never even open, like a 10-inch Ghostbusters glow-in-the-dark single. So if Dane Cook’s next album is on clear vinyl, why shouldn't he get into the game? If there’s a game to be had for him in that."

The vinyl format is dominated by music genres like rock and blues, which sell, at best, a few thousand copies per album. Even releases from mainstream comedy artists such as Cook and George Lopez barely crack the 1,000-copy sales mark on vinyl.

For perspective: There were 289.4 million albums sold (on all formats) in 2013, and about 6 million of those were on vinyl. Of those 6 million, only 7,000 were comedy releases. That means less than .01 percent of all albums sold last year were comedy vinyl records, according to SoundScan. Overall, there were 1.46 million comedy albums sold on any format in 2013, most of them via download, of which comedy vinyl still made up less than than one half of one percent.

So what's the value of it? Rolling a joint on a Cheech and Chong gatefold is great fun, but it doesn't pay for the manufacture of the product.

It's not about that, say comics and industry types. It's about putting out something cool, honoring the history of the format, and nurturing vinyl's comedy comeback.

"In the best of cases, it's a break even thing, where most new comedy issued on vinyl won't make it out of the red," says Dan Schlissel, owner of Minneapolis-based Stand Up! Records, which has put out 18 comedy albums on vinyl since 2001. "Vinyl is a niche market at best, but it's a market that cares about content."

"If you went to almost any comedian they would say, 'I got my start listening to comedy on records.' It's just part of their growing experience," says Carrie Colliton, co-founder of Record Store Day. "You don't want a great comedian's record to be in the background. You want to be immersed in it and pay attention."

Vinyl necessarily demands that, since no one brings turntables (however portable and cute) on trains, planes, or cross-town walks. Even indie labels like Sub Pop, which started releasing David Cross and Patton Oswalt albums over a decade ago and helped introduce standup to a younger, hipper music audience, allowed Stand Up! Records to release vinyl versions of its comedy artists.

"It's a badge, allowing comedy fans to visually show their support for the people they love," says Comedy Central's Raizes. "There's a great iconic nature to a vinyl release that we very much embrace and that the talent loves."

"Talent loves" might be code for "vanity release." But when indie labels are willing to take the chance — provided the run isn't too high — it's also more than that.

When Chris Gethard released his first standup album (My Comedy Album) last year on Don Giovanni Records, he had low expectations for vinyl sales. That didn't stop him from sweetening the deal by signing all 500 copies and including download codes for not only the album proper but "a slew" of bonus tracks unavailable anywhere else.

"Seeing it sell out was a great surprise," Gethard says. "The thing I liked most about doing the vinyl was I got to add art and a poster and the bonus material, and it really felt like a cool package for real fans. I got to do something more creative than just an album as a thank-you to them."

Maron similarly cites vinyl's artistic credibility as the motivation behind putting Thinky Pain on the format. "It's still easier to release digitally. Cheaper, too. People are buying records again but it's still kind of a novelty. So until everyone has a turntable again it's a small audience, but records are cool. So there's that."