Pray To Booty. Big Dead Dick. There’s a Mouse in My Pants! While these could be the latest trending videos on Pornhub, they are, actually, the names of comedy records that were released from the 1960s through 80s by independent label Laff Records. Helmed by David Drozen (current CEO of Uproar Entertainment) and his father, Louis, the label worked with artists like Redd Foxx, Richard Pryor, LaWanda Page, and George Carlin. Laff is notable for giving a platform to some of the bluest comedy around — this was long before 1985, when the Parental Advisory sticker became mandatory, but even so, each Laff album came wrapped in a brown paper sleeve with the words “Adults Only” emblazoned on it. Customers browsing in record stores would find these in a similar same way they’d stumble across a pornographic VHS or DVD that’s carefully shielded from young eyes. Many of Laff’s albums had alternative covers that featured naked women splayed in different positions; this was not the comedy of Charlie Chaplin or smiling Buster Keaton.
Laff Records was visionary in releasing albums that, by today’s standards of decency, would probably be panned — but more significant was Laff’s inclusion of a broad symphony of comedic voices.
Foxx, Pryor, Page, and Carlin were the record’s big names (though Carlin only cut Killer Carlin with them, and Pryor had most of his Laff-owned records released after he ended his cotract), and the label did not spend too much energy trying to breed a system of highly polished superstars. The albums, often recorded live in bars or at parties that Laff hosted, featured all kinds of audio eccentricities that would make some seasoned music producers cry. The noise of the comedy clubs (glasses clinking, chairs rustling) can be found on many of their recordings. Listening to a record produced by Laff feels like the the comic told the label, “I’m having some friends over tonight” and they replied, “Great, just tell jokes for 30 minutes and we’ll bring the one microphone we own!”
While the label was not worrying about high production quality on their records, it invested its energy in growing diverse talent. Laff’s discography features a very strong stable of black comedians, like Leroy Daniels, Jimmy Lynch, and Skillet and Leroy. The label did not shy away from gender inclusivity, with female comedians like Tina Dixon, Pearl Williams, and Belle Barth (one of Bette Midler’s influences) all cutting records with them. Laff also saw diversity in the style of comedic talent it showcased. While it traded heavy in traditional stand-up, it featured funny music like Kip Addotta’s “I Saw Daddy Kissing Santa Claus,” a parody of Jimmy Boyd’s “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.” The label had a ventriloquist act, Richard and Willie. And one of the most rewarding members of their discography is the stand-up of Baroness Bobo, a black drag queen from the 70s, proving the label worked with young and old comedians alike (Barth was in her 50s when she recorded with Laff).
Laff came along shortly after the rise in popularity of recorded stand-up specials. For years, there had been fear that putting the performances on wax would hurt the ticket sales of live shows, which comedians made their money on. But after Redd Foxx’s Laff of the Party sold 250,000 units, the medium was solidified. What made Laff really stand out was the fact that the label worked with black comics who were touring through the Chitlin’ Circuit, performers that larger labels were ignoring — albums featuring those wildly popular artists had a market, and Laff proved that. For years, the label was successful in finding distribution for independent artists that might otherwise slip through the cracks at a major label.
Recently, the recording industry has been knocked on its head by social media — labels have been so concerned with selling their products outright that they’ve missed the great democratization of albums, comedy and and music alike, that the internet has provided. Today, the more plays you get, the better off you are — album sales are secondary. “Put your energy into your product, and the people follow” is a motto that Laff followed, and its one that continues to guide successful indie labels — and tools like Bandcamp and Soundcloud, that instantly give artists a platform to release whatever they choose. The DIY feel of digital media makes it easy for artists to orchestrate pop-up shows, and to self-release specials and albums on a whim, no label required.
The internet has given the world a relatively unbiased way to discover new artists — coming a long way from the 60s, when labels (who were often denying minority voices) controlled who got airtime and shelf space. In that era, Laff Records and its open-minded approach to recording and distribution helped challenge the status quo — making the label a true pioneer, with a business model that took the earliest steps towards today’s wide-open playing field.