10 of my favourite musical comedians

21:24, Apr 04 2013

Well, in most cases, musical comedy seems to be a good way for those who were never that funny and not talented enough to make it as a serious musician to fluke a career attempting bits of both. With one leg in comedy and one in music most of them end up pissing all over humour and struggling to do anything innovative or even interesting with the music.

Musical comedians have a tough gig - because for it to really stand up they need to be good at both. And most aren't all that good with either.

You only need look at people like Andy Samberg and Jack Black to see what the public will settle for.

I thought I'd share some of my favourite musical comedians. And you can then do the same.

In no particular order here are the people I think actually rate a mention in the crazy (and sadly often unfunny) world of musical comedy.

1. Tom Lehrer: A genius. His album, An Evening Wasted with Tom Lehrer still stands up. It was recorded in 1959. With just a piano, his huge brain and the ability to send up a range of musical genres while referencing history, commenting on the society of the time and creating memorably absurd rhymes is, for me, unparalleled. It's made all the better for the fact that he knew when to get out; when to move on. (His other albums stand up too, I've collected them all but I started with An Evening Wasted, so it's the one I always return to first.)

2. Steve Martin: Recently I reviewed this box-set of Steve Martin's TV stuff. It was a reminder of what a great comedian Martin had been; it's too easy to write him off now for pratfall laziness, for weak family-friendly DVD fodder. Martin was cutting edge. And he was a rock-star of the comedy world, releasing albums that were huge hits, filling concert halls and theatres. He is a seriously great banjo player - something he's been exploring more in recent years, but it was always part of his act, often put to use brilliantly as a prop in a range of settings. And, hey, even if he'd only ever done King Tut, in terms of music-related comedy, he'd deserve to be on the list for that.


3. Monty Python: I'm including the whole troupe for their songs across the live shows, TV series and films - most of which I learned from The Final Rip-Off album and then focused in on the streamlined, song-focused Monty Python Sings. And though he hasn't been funny for about as long as Dan Aykroyd, at one point Eric Idle was an impressive comedic talent with a decent gift for writing comedy songs. Neil Innes helped shape so many of the great Python music moments too. He deserves his own spot on the list though. So...

4. Neil Innes: Outside of Python there was the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band and The Rutles. And Innes has kept all of that music alive by touring as a one-man-show over the years, hilarious, and from I'm the Urban Spaceman to How Sweet to Be an Idiot and so many more, he wrote great tunes.

5. Jimmy Fallon: Seeing Fallon fail on the big screen was something of a spectacular disaster. Seeing him corpse all over SNL didn't help in faith restoration. But the best of his work on Saturday Night Live - even if you had to look closely - was inspired. And he has carried over that energy to his chat show. His recent album of song parodies exists only as TV show-related merchandise. It's hit and miss, ultimately. But the best of his song parodies show musical skill and enthusiasm and just enough in terms of satire/humour to get a pass mark. He's subversive and when compared with the likes of Jack Black/Tenacious D, Andy Samberg/Lonely Island and Flight of The Conchords it's Fallon all the way for me. No contest. He's also, through the TV show, giving valuable employment to one of the world's greatest bands (The Roots) and allowing them to show some comedic talent too (viz: Black Simon & Garfunkel).

6. Reggie Watts: Exciting for his use of the surreal and absurd and his genuine gift for improvisation, Watts deserves to be on any list of great musical comedians. Check this out.

7. Bill Bailey: When Bailey last played Wellington the newspaper's reviewer seemed almost surprised that Bailey played instruments. That's somewhat embarrassing. The reason his musical comedy is so good is because Bailey can really play. And that playing extends to a bunch of instruments. And has done his whole career. Both on stage and famously in Black Books.

8. "Weird Al" Yankovic. It was a great pleasure to interview "Weird Al" Yankovic. And to attempt to put across that it's been a remarkable feat working as a song parodist for over 30 years. He's got chops, a great band, brilliant video ideas and you watch the best of his stuff - the TV work, the chopped-up interviews, the man's got comic timing. (Sample song: Amish Paradise.)

9. Martin Mull: I have a 45 of novelty single Duelling Tubas (b/w 2001: A Space Polka) and I was listening to this, baffled but amused, before I knew Martin Mull's other great work. He's a little bit Weird Al, a bit Steve Martin, a bit Bill Bailey and then a whole lot of Martin Mull. His songs are funny and odd and though they might seem dated now his cynicism is sharp. His smugness was oddly magnetic. His writing was spot-on.

10. Victor Borge: A serious musician who found ways of showing that the instrument itself could be funny, or at least the approach to it, sending up musicians, musical convention and classical stuffiness. A genius.

So I'm sure I haven't included your favourite/s - and that's okay because we've arrived at the part where you add those now. What do you look for - and listen out for - when it comes to musical comedy? Is it ever done brilliantly or is it poor-man's humour, safe, obvious, relying on rudimentary puns? Are there some flashes of genius within the (sub) genre? Who are your favourite musical comedians? And, yes, it's true I haven't included Tim Minchin. That's because I think he's f**king annoying.

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