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Tig Notaro’s “Live” and the Future of Comedy Albums

by on October 17, 2012

75,000 purchased downloads and somewhere around a net profit of $250,000 are two figures that one wouldn’t normally attribute to a comedy album. Yet, Tig Notaro’s Live has done exactly that, matching sales from many top-selling, just-released music albums.

Hopefully, you’ve heard the amazing 31-minute set from Notaro which opens with “Hello! Good evening. Hello. I have cancer. How are you?” It’s thrilling, hysterical, and visceral in a way that hits a nerve. In my personal experience listening to Live, not only do I bellow in gut-busting laughter, but there’s an overwhelming comfort I’ve gotten, knowing that despite being in the darkest corners of life, it will all somehow be OK, even if that phrase is all you have.

All the accolades and financial success, still accumulating, are deserved. With such a great intersection between art and commerce, it’s almost stupefying that more comedy recordings, especially an audio-only album, aren’t like this. What makes Live special is not only its content, but the fact that it wasn’t supposed to be a comedy album. Most albums/specials, while being made, are heavily promoted, done several times, cut up, massaged, and smoothed over along the course of several months. This night was actually rescheduled and not mentioned in the L.A. Times as some special event that hip people should attend. Essentially, there were no stakes, which is when stand-up comedy is at its best.

When a comedian preps for any sort of half-hour to hour-plus recording, there is so much to worry about — what jokes to do in what order — often times dealing with those worries right in the middle of recording. That’s why it takes at the very least a year, and more frequently several, to come up with that much material for a recording. This thought process takes a performer out of the moment, out of the present where the audience is, resulting in something that isn’t representative of what a comedian is really like live.

Some comedy purists might argue that much of what makes a magical night of stand-up, especially crowd work and riffing, doesn’t translate to a recorded medium for someone to hear or see out of context, with plenty of examples to back that claim up. Yet, Live has presented a great counterpoint to that argument in that the technology exists to capture high quality recordings of every performance for cheap, then choose whether or not to produce an album out of it. If you listen to live editions of podcasts, the quality is not too far off, if at all, from a CD. Already, Paul F. Tompkins is releasing a special edition of his last hour special, Laboring Under Delusions, recorded at the Bell House in Brooklyn. The special already aired on Comedy Central earlier this year and is now available to buy as a DVD, but there is more riffing and less editing by network brass on the audio version, making for a possibly more appealing experience.

It would be surprising to me if in 2013, comedians didn’t follow Tig’s example and make albums from single shows they do while on tour. However, it’s not surprising that this potential wholesale change in comedy has something to do with Louis C.K. — Live is available exclusively through buy.louisck.net.