13 January 2015

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Music and Humor

Flight of the Conchords

Music and humor can intersect in one of three ways.

The first way is when serious artists get clever. This would be The Who's "Squeeze Box," The Ramones "I Want to be Sedated," or Aerosmith's "Dude Looks Like a Lady." Basically, a band or artist takes a break from singing about important subjects-like sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll-to show us they have a sense of humor.

The second time music and humor converge is via quirkiness. This is when serious musicians write and record offbeat and weird material but yet still maintain a smattering of professionalism. Examples of these types of artists include Captain Beefheart, Frank Zappa, Primus, Ween, and They Might Be Giants.

Then there are the artists that try to be funny all the time. Examples of these musical comedians include Spike Jones, Benny Hill, "Weird Al" Yankovic, The Bloodhound Gang, Flight of the Conchords, and Stephen Lynch. Regardless of their talent level, these artists forgo being taken as serious musicians just so they can make us laugh.

Of course there's a fourth type of musical humor-unintentional. This category would include just about every album released by a television actor, all music from countries where women aren't allowed to reveal their face in public, and any pop song featuring a synthesizer worn as a guitar.

You'd think music and humor would be more intertwined. After all, they both elicit primal, emotional responses and, at least in regards to rock music, they are both rather destructive. Rock music is all about rebellion and remember what Steve Martin said, "comedy isn't pretty."

Yet, music and humor, while they have their moments, don't seem to conjoin as often as one might expect. Part of the reason is a lot of comedy is self-effacing or at least paints the singer in a bad light. This contradicts the driving force behind popular music since Big Joe Turner sang "Shake, Rattle and Roll," that is of course getting laid.

Also, comedy isn't timeless. The Rolling Stones' album Exile on Main Street sounds like it was recorded yesterday and still has the power to capture the imagination. But Steve Martin's "King Tut" was dated the second it was pressed onto vinyl.

Maybe if he had sung about something other than the commercialization of a dead Egyptian Pharaoh his catchy tune would still be relevant. As it is now, "King Tut" is only slightly less worthless than Cheaper by the Dozen 2.

Paul McCartney's original lyrics for "Yesterday" were "Scrambled Eggs." That song most certainly would have not been covered a gazillion times had it been about breakfast food instead of despair and heartbreak. A similar thing probably happened to Bobby "Boris" Pickett. He was going to call his song "Lover's Bash" but instead opted for "Monster Mash." Sure, his song went to number one like McCartney's but who wants to cover a song about monsters?

One of the earliest examples of music and humor were opera buffa, developed in the 18th century. These works first appeared as short one-acts that catered to the "common folk." They featured local dialects, familiar stock characters, and patter (an early form of rap). These light hearted musical pieces would take to the stage in between acts of opera seria. Today it would be equivalent to switching to Dancing with the Stars when American Idol went to a commercial break. Opera buffa eventually evolved into a full fledge genre before fading away.

The funny was then picked up by a couple of hilarious Englishmen (if there is such a thing) in the late 19th century named Gilbert and Sullivan. This duo, the Tenacious D of their day, wrote 14 comic operas including H.M.S. Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance, and The Mikado.

In 1984, Weird Al Yankovic released "Eat It," a parody of Michael Jackson's "Beat It." The world of music and humor would never be the same again. Yankovic's version reached number #12 on the charts and established the accordion player with a bad perm as music's crown prince of jocularity.

It should be noted that besides his highly skilled parodies, Yankovic also does these wonderful polka medleys of current hit songs. They are "roll out the barrel" funny.

In the 21st century, the banner of music and humor is being carried (literally, they had one made at Kinko's and they take it with them everywhere they go) by Flight of the Conchords. This duo, Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement, are from a place called New Zealand. We're not sure but we think they made it up.

The twosome has released some hilarious songs like "Think About It," "Ladies of the World," and "The Most Beautiful Girl (In the Room)." Okay, they don't sound funny but trust us, their songs are hilarious.

Music and humor has greatly benefited from the personal computer and the internet. Now amateurs can channel their inner Stan Freberg or Sheb Wooley to write and record their own comedy songs and post them on hip networking sites like YouTube, Facebook, or the Drudge Report.

Popular music still remains a rather serious place (thanks mainly to the "humorless cabal" of U2, Pearl Jam, and Sting). Those who mix humor and comedy get a quick fifteen minutes of fame and then are either cast aside like an ex-girlfriend of John Mayer, or regulated to a novelty act like the current girlfriends of John Mayer.

However, I strongly believe, and you may laugh at this, but the future of music and humor looks hilarious.

 Copyright (c) 2010-2015 

Benny Hill

About Today's Contributor:
Ryan Hogan is a music writer who contributes to eMagineMusic.com a site all about music, such as how music and humor intersect.

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