The standup comedy album may be overshadowed by the televised special, but there's no better medium for preserving and celebrating the fine-tuned craft of telling jokes. Stripped of the visual pomp of a live performance, standup albums play out in the theater of listeners' minds, putting the emphasis on the strength of the material alone — which is why classic albums from Bob Newhart and Richard Pryor are continually rediscovered by new generations of comedy fans, while Gallagher's are happily forgotten. Smashing watermelons simply doesn't make for great audio.
Comedy Works, the subterranean downtown club with laugh-cradling acoustics and a well-earned reputation for enthusiastic crowds, is the ideal setting for capturing the experience of a live comedy show on an album, transporting listeners from their headphones or car stereos right into the audience. While it's no surprise that Denver-hewn joke juggernauts like Deacon Gray, Josh Blue and Ben Roy recorded albums in the comfort of their home club, even local comedy nerds might be surprised that Comedy Works is a highly sought-after destination for such tapings by national artists, too. Indeed, a number of renowned comics recorded classic and beloved standup CDs right here in Denver, including hugely popular acts like Joe Rogan and Amy Schumer. For proof, check out the the following five albums by comedians' comedians whose material has stood the test of time.
Shallow Happy Thoughts for the Soul
Kathleen Madigan is about as successful as a comedian can be while remaining categorically underrated by the public at large. She's equally at home sharing a bill with Lewis Black and Ron White; her jokes cut across party and class divides; and she's pulled off the rare feat of appealing to everyone without pulling any punches or sparing any targets. Though Shallow Happy Thoughts for the Soul is only her second album, Madigan's comedic voice is thoroughly established here on highlight tracks such as "Mexico," "Smoking" and "Aliens." A comic who can ridicule President George W. Bush — still a dicey prospect in the reactionary political climate of 2002 — yet delight patriotic USO audiences, Madigan is an ace joke writer who had the effortless rhythm of a veteran early in her career. Though she's often won gendered accolades such as the Phyllis Diller award for "Best Female Comedian," a more fitting honor came during her stint on Last Comic Standing, where she remains the only comedian that competitors were unwilling to challenge.
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Good Day to Cross a River
"I don't mean to sound sacrilegious, but you think the Pope performed miracles?" begins a typically incredulous Greg Giraldo bit. "He died of a urinary tract infection; he had less magic powers than cranberry juice!" A highly economical wordsmith with a singular facility for precise insults, Giraldo was particularly celebrated for his roasts. Though some of the references and topical material haven't aged well since this album was recorded in Denver in 2006, A Good Day to Cross a River remains an essential document of the comic in his prime, before an overdose in 2010 cut his career tragically short.
The Funches of Us
Ron Funches' rise from alt-comedy darling to a film and television star happened rapidly over the space of a few years. While his co-starring roles in Get Hard and the NBC sitcom Undateable have introduced an entirely new audience to Funches's singular charms, he shines brightest as a comedian. The Funches of Us unleashes an onslaught of punchlines, swaddled in his gentle lilt; his standup is infectiously delightful. Despite some behind-the-scenes strife between the club and Comedy Central Records, the result of their joint effort is a perfect auditory showcase for Funches' jokes, which would feel incomplete without the instantly recognizable guffaw of Denver comedy super-fan Dave Caldwell, whose contagious cries of "HA!" are preserved here for eternity.
Perennially clad in evening dresses and her signature opera gloves, Natasha Leggero brings much-needed glamour to the schlub-filled world of standup comedy. Fashion aside, Leggero has built a career mining the incongruity between her lavish appearance and her savage wit that brings peals of surprised laughter. On Coke Money, Leggero's jokes are sharper than a line-chopping razor, particularly on such standout tracks as "Girl, You Ain't Got No Arms" and "Crackheads." Recorded in 2011, Coke Money features Leggero at her fiercest and funniest, right on the cusp of her career breakout. After a series of memorable guest roles, early last year Leggero landed her own hilarious Comedy Central series Another Period, and released her latest one-hour special, Natasha Leggero: Live at Bimbos.
Skanks for the Memories
Dave Attell's Skanks for the Memories is fondly remembered as not only a career highlight for the quintessential New York club comic, but as one of the best standup albums of all time. Taking the Comedy Works stage in 2003, before a particularly soused and feisty crowd, Attell storms the dungeons of good taste, evoking guttural, almost involuntary chortles with his sneak-attack punchlines. While topical material about Girls Gone Wild hasn't aged well, Attell's legendary crowd work and punchy tales of drunken debauchery are timeless. After spearheading the sorely-missed cult favorite TV shows Insomniac and Dave's Old Porn, Attell seems less and less interested in mainstream media these days; he's content to stay just visible enough to keep selling tickets. It's television's loss but comedy's gain: Attell is one of the form's true purists, a degenerate laureate who's never more at home than he is here in Comedy Work's subterranean joke mine.