Musical comedy is a unique subset of both types of performance. It requires songwriting as well as joke-writing skills, which means that a surprisingly slim number of comedians foray into the genre of musical comedy. Those that specialize in it must find a balance in each song between listen-ability and comedic value. The following five artists have walked that line with remarkable finesse, resulting in successful careers in music, comedy, and a variety of other areas.
It’s hard to talk about musical comedy without at least mentioning Tenacious D. Critics have described their music, which is a fusion of vulgar absurdist comedy and rock, as “mock rock”. They employ satire to great effect in many of their songs, which invoke many heavy metal clichés. For instance, they often refer to themselves as “The Greatest Band in the World”.
Tenacious D consists of Kyle Gass and Jack Black, two veteran comedians and musicians who met in 1989. Gass purportedly taught Black how to play guitar in exchange for acting tips. Dave Grohl of Nirvana and the Foo Fighters has played drums on every studio release, with Brooks Wackerman of Bad Religion replacing him when the band is on tour.
Tenacious D’s first, self-titled studio album peaked at 33 on the Billboard 200 in 2001 and achieved platinum status in the United States. Before that, they gained fame in their 1997 Tenacious D television series. The film The Pick of Destiny premiered in 2006, with an accompanying soundtrack. Their third album, Rize of the Phoenix, was released in 2012.
Stephen Lynch reached prominence on several Comedy Central specials, and has opened for a variety of legendary comedians, including Jeff Foxworthy, Lewis Black, and Mitch Hedberg. His songs focus on mocking daily life and popular culture.
Often, as part of his act, he acts as though he is addressing an audience of children. The humor in many of his songs is that they start off relatively innocently and escalate into R-rated verses. For example, in “Superhero” the first verse is quite innocuous:
If I could be a Superhero,
I would be Awesome Man.
I’d fly around the world fighting crime
According to my Awesome Plan.
He adds superheroes to the list as the song goes on, throwing in eyebrow-raising details to each, before the song culminates into his wish to be “Justice Guy”, a hero whose M.O. is to exact revenge on his wife who ran off with a guy named Bob:
You could skin them and drain them of blood ‘til they die,
Then you would be Justice Guy.
Lynch branched out in 2006, starring as Robbie Hart in the Broadway musical The Wedding Singer. He was nominated for a Tony for his performance. He returned to comedy soon after, and his third studio album, Lion, was released in November of 2012.
Flight of the Conchords
Flight of the Conchords is a New Zealand-based comedy duo whose comedy and music became the basis for a BBC radio series and a television series on HBO. The band consists of Jermaine Clement and Bret McKenzie.
The band’s songs were often woven into episodes of HBO’s Flight of the Conchords. For instance, in the pilot episode (“Sally”) featured “The Most Beautiful Girl (In the Room)”, otherwise known as “Part-Time Model”. The song revolves around a guy’s misguided efforts to pick up a girl, where he constantly qualifies his compliments, for instance:
You’re so beautiful,
Mmm, you could be a part-time model,
But you’d probably have to keep your normal job.
The episode also features the songs “Robots” and “Not Crying”, the latter of which features such gems as “I’m not crying, it’s just raining on my face.”
Bo Burnham holds the record for the youngest person to have been featured on Comedy Central Presents, at the age of 18. He achieved fame when his YouTube videos took off, receiving over 70 million views since October 2010.
Burnham has received praise for his ability to oscillate between intellectual jokes and inappropriate humor. He is one of the only musical comedians who raps, firing off one clever pun after another and throwing in self-deprecating remarks to offset the boastful language that often accompanies rap ideology. He also plays guitar and keyboard, such as in “New Math”, in which makes jokes that would impress even the most accomplished of Calculus students:
And what’s the opposite of ln(x)?
Duraflame – the unnatural log.
Burnham’s most recent release is Words Words Words, a live performance that paralleling a Comedy Central special of the same name. He has worked with famed director Judd Apatow, and won the Panel Prize at the 2010 Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
Garfunkel and Oates
Garfunkel and Oates are a relatively new comedic songwriting duo. Kate Micucci (Oates) and Riki Lindhome (Garfunkel) met at the Upright Citizens Brigade in Los Angeles. They decided to work together to turn a short film that Lindhome had written into a musical. In February of 2009, one of their songs was featured in the Scrubs episode “My Lawyer’s In Love”, which featured Micucci in a supporting role.
Garfunkel and Oates named themselves after Art Garfunkel and John Oates: “two famous rock-and-roll second bananas”. One of their best songs is “The Fade Away”, which is available for listening on YouTube. It details the way in which women break up with guys, doing “the fade away” instead of being direct. They use a number of similes to illustrate their point, including:
Now I’m fading like chalk on a sidewalk,
Or the polio virus after Jonas Salk.
Like a Jewish guy at Arby’s on Yom Kippur;
The Whig party post-Millard Fillmore.
Garfunkel and Oates have released four studio albums. Micucci plays the ukulele, and Lindhome plays the guitar. They are currently on tour, following the release of their 2012 album Slippery When Moist.
Songwriters occupy a little-explored niche in comedy. The world of comedy can expect great things from all five of these comedic songwriters, whose careers are alive and well.