It's time to give a new generation of comics a crack at the Grammys

·3 min read

What do we expect of a shortlist for best comedy album at the Grammys? I’ve not, in the past, given the award much attention. The Edinburgh comedy award is more my world, and I’ll be running screaming back to it, great carnival of creativity that it is, after engaging with the comic sensibility of America’s Recording Academy which is, well, a mite conservative. This is an award only two of whose last 15 nominees have been women, and whose all-time champ, with a record seven wins, is Bill Cosby.

This year’s shortlist does not emanate shockwaves of the new. Repeat winners and nominees Jerry Seinfeld, Patton Oswalt and Jim Gaffigan feature, the latter for the fourth year in a row. Throw in Tiffany Haddish and Bill Burr, and you get a lineup with an average age of 53, which doesn’t exactly advertise the freshness of American comedy. The music record of the year shortlist, for comparison, features Billie Eilish, Dua Lipa and Megan Thee Stallion, and the average age of its nominees is 28.

Maybe the issue is in that word “album”: perhaps the hottest new comic talents aren’t releasing “albums” any more? But it can’t be that, because the best comedy album Grammy no longer, as far as I can gauge, rewards albums as conventionally understood. The hawk-eyed among you may already have noticed an overlap between this Grammy shortlist and that of the Emmy award for best television comedy/variety special. All five nominated “albums” are Netflix specials. Three years ago, the streaming giant released a handful of its specials as vinyl LPs, unannounced, one day before the Grammys’ eligibility deadline. Vinyl only, mind you: there was no streaming or CD release, ensuring the company maintained the exclusivity of its content. When the nominees for best comedy album were announced – surprise, surprise – four out of five were Netflix specials.

The channel has maintained its dominance since, at the expense of many other independent comedy albums that might be considered more genuine – or at least, more likely to be engaged with as audio. To name only two 2020 examples from this side of the Atlantic, Daniel Kitson’s It’s the Fireworks Talking or David O’Doherty’s Live in his Own Car During a Pandemic. Even if I’m being naive to think a contest sponsored by a luxury Swiss watch brand might recognise indie releases, aren’t there more exciting Netflix specials than Oswalt’s? Well, yes – but from an award that famously overlooked Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette in 2019 – one of the few indisputable gamechangers in the last decade of comedy – what likelihood is there that they will find favour?

And so we’re left with a quintet of perfectly decent but not always thrilling standup specials. For many, Haddish’s Black Mitzvah will steal it: if you can get past the name-dropping and aggressive self-promotion, there’s some swaggering sex comedy here that’s worth a watch. (Sorry: worth a listen!) Paper Tiger is more compelling than some of Bill Burr’s earlier work. While he doesn’t stint on the trademark macho PC-baiting, particularly in the show’s first third, it does give way to something more reflective and surprising. The other nominees deliver proficient and funny comedy sets, as you’d expect from standups with more than a century of performing between them, without doing much to set the pulses racing.

Whoever wins at the end of the month will break the three-year reign of Dave Chappelle, whom the Grammys have continued to shower with prizes, even as the line blurs in his work between provocative and tin-eared. But until a new generation of comics gets a crack at the Grammys – or maybe until the awards start respecting the art form, audio comedy, they’re meant to be honouring – most comedy-lovers will be looking elsewhere.

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