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From Al to Zappa: can music be funny?

Music has always found a way to make people laugh. Go and randomly slap your hands around on a piano right now, and you’ll probably crack a smile. I’m sure that three-hundred years ago baby Beethoven would have laughed just the same. This wasn’t documented, of course, but it’s likely that the human mind still finds very similar things amusing these days as they did all the way back then. 

However, we live to totally different standards of humour now. Classical music fans now have access to the back catalogue of the likes of Schoenberg and Webern - something people of hundreds of years ago couldn’t dream up - but I’m sure many people would describe much of their work as no different to ‘randomly slapping your hands around on a piano’. But does it remain funny? Is it always funny? And what makes us take humour from music in different ways? Nowadays we’re more accustomed to lyrical comedy: Ben Folds and Randy Newman take the storytelling approach, while Weird Al Yankovic exists exclusively to parody. Frank Zappa certainly uses lyrics, but that isn’t to say his bizarre music can’t conjure up a smile. Before we dive into the modern day humour of music, we should travel all the way back to the 18th century, where Mozart and Hayden were crafting ‘musical jokes’ left, right and centre. 

One of Mozart’s many attempts at musical humour was very on-the-nose. A Musical Joke was exactly that- a musical joke. It has no words, so it doesn’t exactly uncover Mozart’s hidden talent as a sitcom writer. What it does do, is effectively mock those with an inability to compose. There are issues on the surface that any listener could pick up on: extremes of bitonality that make the violins sound completely out of tune and jarring discords in the horns that sound almost accidental. Similarly, the fourth movement of Hayden’s Eb Major Quartet (lovingly nicknamed The Joke) would apparently cause audiences to erupt with laughter at the coda and its abrupt changes of tempo and bizarre structure. 

Fast forward 150 years and these once hysterical techniques had become commonplace. Mahler had been using bitonality for dramatic effect throughout his entire career and Schoenberg was devising a technique that existed exclusively to subvert tonal expectations. One can imagine that Mozart and Hayden would have found this, depending on context, either amusing or deeply offensive. Schoenberg certainly didn’t. The extremes of chromaticism, dynamic and rhythm were the tools he used to create as much emotion as physically possible, and their extremity was something Mozart and Hayden would hardly have been able to comprehend. 

This is because the music of the late 18th century was propped up by antiquated rules. It was a period of time that had only recently moved beyond the idea that the tritone was the musical embodiment of Satan. Breaking rules was no longer something punishable but audience expectations were so specific, that breaking them would simply leave your music as nothing more than bad. Wrong. Unintelligent. Sub-par. As such, an audience with a knowledge of Mozart’s compositional skill knew these were not mere accidents, and as such, his intentional rule-breaking led to periodically poor music that an audience could laugh at, while mocking those who may have produced this music unintentionally. The work of Schoenberg, of course, comes from a completely different time: the musical rule book had been completely torn up, so once amusing (or even illegal) extremes were very much fair game, and no longer a source of comedy. This suggests that context had a major impact on where humour was found in classical music. 

One of the more difficult to grasp aspects of Mozart and Hayden’s use of musical comedy, however, is their reliance on the audience’s understanding of compositional theory. Parallel fifths; misplaced secondary dominants; failing to resolve to the tonic- these don’t exactly sound funny on paper. You couldn’t list them and pass them off as a Spike Milligan poem. In fact, it’s likely that only a small number of readers will even know what they are. And why would you? There is no use in knowing that leaping by the same interval in two voices placed a fifth apart was bad compositional practice once upon a time, because music no longer has rule-abiding expectations. On top of that, the likeliness of a non-musician noticing anything like that is incredibly small either way. A higher percentage of Mozart-listeners at the time were likely to have a grasp of compositional technique then than now (due to many factors, from the much greater prominence of classical music, to the class divide that suggests that those who could attend a concert could probably afford a piano too), so these were probably picked up on and appreciated by some, but surely not all. This means that even at the time, the more subtle elements of Mozart and Hayden’s comedy were rather unappreciated. 

Having said that, a similar thread can be seen in the serious music of Schoenberg and his contemporaries. Much like how any 18th century audience could hear the discords and out of tune playing of Mozart’s A Musical Joke, a 20th-century audience could pick up on the emotional intensity and drama of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Luniare. However, a much smaller minority could find humour buried within Mozart’s compositional techniques, and a much smaller minority could find the compositional genius within Schoenberg’s composition. While some will be able to look at the way he intertwines tone rows around an orchestra as a remarkable feat of intelligence, the majority of listeners will hear total randomness. It’s probably rather frustrating to Schoenberg, but it’s true: many listeners would simply be unable to take his work seriously. As such, it seems that humour in classical music can be both unintentional and unintelligible. 


Patricia Kopatchinskaja / St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, “Pierrot Luniare”, Schoenberg (extract)


While the instrumental humour of the classical era is unlikely to maintain its impact on a contemporary audience, the introduction of words changes everything. Returning to Mozart once more, his 1782 piece Leck Mich Im Arsch has maintained its comedy for reasons that should be pretty obvious. As you might have guessed, it translates literally to ‘lick me in the arse’, which is a phrase that is unlikely to ever stop being funny. Of course, if you look at it idiomatically, the translation comes closer to the less-extreme phrase ‘kiss my ass’, but this turns the piece into a poignant example of comedy taking on new life with a new context. A combination of the directness of the literal translation and the idea of Mozart (a figure we typically associate to seriousness and the upper classes) writing this, is funny on the most basic of levels. Composers continued to use words to add layers of comedy to their music for many years to come. Erik Satie filled his work with surrealism and humour, writing pieces such as True Preludes For A Dog, Three Pear Shaped Pieces and Desiccated Embryos. Rather than needing context to give musical elements their humour, these are examples of direct humour that ages well, and, in the case of Leck Mich im Arsch, it seems that it’s possible for a piece to become even funnier in retrospect.

Humour in popular music takes a variety of approaches. Certain genres (progressive rock in particular) allow themselves musical extremes and polystylism that could be perceived as humorous, while many pop genres are focused so heavily on lyrics that this is all they need.

Despite truly experimental popular music only really emerging in the late 1960s, Frank Zappa was heading up the movement as soon as he got a whiff of its existence. In fact, he is often credited as the first to take popular music in an overwhelmingly experimental direction. His first album, Freak Out! (1966), paved his way towards extremes, but it was his second, Absolutely Free (1967), that really explored the limits of comedic composition. Amnesia Vivace quotes a multitude of Stravinsky pieces in a context that one would certainly not expect to hear Stravinsky, while Brown Shoes Don’t Make It remains one of the most extreme examples of polystylism in all of music. The question to ask about Zappa, really, is to what extent was his composition supposed to be funny? 


Mozart, “Leck mich im Arsch”


It’s an interesting one, because the answer surprisingly has a lot in common with Mozart and Hayden. Most listeners would hear the manic chromaticism of Stravinsky’s melodies within Amnesia Vivace and just chalk it down to Zappa’s compositional style and get on with their day. Mozart would hide parallel fifths in his work with the hope of hearing a hearty chuckle from a fellow composer, much like Zappa’s use of Stravinsky was intended to be picked up on by his more classically-inclined listeners, not everyone. This shows that one avenue of musical humour is very much reserved for the most committed of listeners.

His unprecedented use of quotation was just one factor in the compositional genius of Zappa. He had an incredible ability to merge classical ideas with extremes of complexity (in terms of everything from rhythm to harmony) and displays of virtuosity. This was something he shared with his contemporaries in the progressive rock scene. The difference, however, was the way they played. It’s difficult to put a finger on it (unless you involve lyrics, which we won’t do quite yet), but something about Zappa’s style was tongue-in-cheek, light-hearted and sarcastic. His genius was almost overshadowed by the fact that he didn’t take himself too seriously. As such, listeners would laugh at Zappa’s work because he wanted them to. Perfect. 

The problem within progressive rock came from the emergence of unintentional humour. While the technical accomplishments remained front and centre, bands like Yes, King Crimson, and Emerson, Lake and Palmer often let the tongue-in-cheek attitude fall to the wayside. 

ELP might have been virtuosic performers and compositionally sublime, but their music was (mostly) a serious affair. While on paper their approach was similar to Zappa’s (polystylism, compositional complexity, classical reworking), they ended up falling down a pit of pretentiousness. In the words of Robert Christgau, “These guys are as stupid as their most pretentious fans”. The idea of Keith Emerson sweating over his ten keyboards while nailing every note of a very serious rock rendition of Bartok’s Allegro Barbaro is certainly something that could make one laugh. The consensus seems to be that Zappa’s parodical, self-aware complexity is amusing, while many (of course, not all) listeners might end up laughing at ELP, and their perceived pretentiousness. 

And that’s without even mentioning lyrics. Here’s an extract from Zappa’s Uncle Remus: 


I can't wait till my Fro is full-grown

I'll just throw 'way my Doo-Rag at home

I'll take a drive to Beverly Hills

Just before dawn

An' knock the little jockeys

Off the rich people's lawn

An' before they get up

I'll be gone, I'll be gone

Before they get up

I'll be knocking the jockeys off the lawn

Down in the dew


Sarcastic, parodical and satirical, these lyrics don’t take themselves seriously. Words are shortened, made up even, and jokes are woven in with clear intent. The composer clearly isn’t going for anything deep and poignant, so the idea of pretentiousness is hard to suggest. Obviously this is Zappa. He fills his albums with characters (Suzie Creamcheese, for example), bizarre Dadaist storylines and surrealist titles that make sure the comedy is kept at the forefront. He wants his fans to know that they’re supposed to laugh. Now take a look at ELP’s Tarkus: 


Clear the battlefield and let me see

All the profit from our victory

You talk of freedom, starving children fall

Are you deaf when you hear the season's call?

Were you there to watch the earth be scorched?

Did you stand beside the spectral torch?

Know the leaves of sorrow turned their face

Scattered on the ashes of disgrace


Melodramatic words and a very distinct sense of seriousness persists throughout, and upon looking deeper, it seems to basically be full of intensity for the sake of it - it sounds like something David Brent would write. It’s lyrics like these that really haven’t helped ELP in their quest to be taken seriously by all. A listener might be confused as to whether they’re actually supposed to laugh or not. 

Progressive rock isn’t the only place in which this exists, either. Someone could hear death metal and turn into a headbanging maniac, while another might guffaw at the man screaming at them through their speakers. Similarly, a certain listener might enjoy the beats and rhythms of ‘mumble rap’, while another might find it amusing that the vocal line is intentionally unintelligible. It all comes down to preference, making some humour in music appear differently from listener to listener.

Progressive rock also isn’t the only place loaded with intentional humour. Storytelling over ‘normal’ music has existed forever, but it is the likes of Randy Newman and Ben Folds who have become known for their lyric-driven comedy (though not exclusively, both have their fair share of beautiful love songs). Take All U Can Eat, from Folds’ 2003 Sunny 16 EP: 


Son, look at all the people in this restaurant

What do you think they weigh?


There’s no build up and no context whatsoever; these lyrics are heard immediately, but it takes just seconds for humour to appear from many different angles. The casual conversation with his son, the mundanity of the restaurant setting, and the completely out-of-nowhere question all combine to make the line look more like a comedy script than a song lyric.


Ben Folds, “All U Can Eat”



Moving back in time to Uncle Walter from Ben Folds Five (1995), Folds demonstrates basically the same approach again: 


Last night he flew to Baghdad

In his magical armchair

Cigarettes and a six pack, he just got back

Now the spit's flying everywhere.


All the hallmarks of classic comedy are present, from surreal exaggeration to sarcasm and an overly-graphic description. Randy Newman’s social and political commentary is arguably even more subversive, but still undeniably laced with humour. My Life Is Good from his 1983 album Trouble In Paradise, for example, makes the following bold claim: 


And this one guy's wife

Is such a pretty little brown thing

That I'm liable to give her a poke or two

Whaddaya think of that?


On paper, Folds, Newman and Zappa aren’t worlds away from each other. They all move into the realms of surrealism, sarcasm and subversive mocking, taking the ordinary and taking it to places that could be viewed as offensive, rude or simply nonsensical. Of course, Folds and Newman don’t retain the same level of experimentalism in their music, so they aren’t approaching comedy from that angle, but there is still a huge amount of similarity on paper and it all comes down to one thing: expectation. 

This is what Mozart had going for him too. He could throw in an unexpected key or a blast of dissonance and confuse the audience, who are expecting rules to be abided by. This can also explain why Mozart’s A Musical Joke doesn’t exactly hold up these days: moderate dissonance isn’t going to be ‘unexpected’ anymore. Ben Folds telling us that his uncle “flew to Baghdad in his magical armchair”, or Randy Newman explaining his plans to give a “pretty brown thing... a poke or two” is certainly not something you’re expecting to hear over music that could just as easily be telling a simple love story. Again, the idea of expectation can also apply to unintentional musical humour. ELP’s melodramatic lyrics might just be funny because the listener can’t take such a grand, cinematic tale seriously. 

We might be able to explain a lot of lyrical humour through the idea of breaking expectation, but there is one subgenre that moves beyond this. Straight up ‘comedy rock’ (which defines itself specifically as existing for its humour) can’t be caught out by expectation, because the only expectation an audience has is that it should be funny. The approach taken by the likes of Tenacious D and Weird Al Yankovic is that comedy comes first. 


Oh, the dragon's balls were blazing as I stepped into his cave

Then I sliced his fuckin' cockles with a long and shiny blade

'Twas I who fucked the dragon, fuckali sing fuckaloo

And if you try to fuck with me, then I shall fuck you too.


See what I mean? Kickapoo (the title alone explains a lot) comes from Tenacious D’s 2006 album The Pick Of Destiny, which doubles up as the soundtrack to the film of the same name, starring Jack Black and Kyle Gass. It’s pretty clear where the humour is coming from, right? Then again, go back through and remove the multitude of expletives and you’ve got... an ELP song? Well, not quite, but while the graphic exaggerations and swearing make up the overt humorous aspect, Black and Gass simultaneously mocking the melodrama of the music that inspired their own. 

Speaking of parody, Weird Al Yankovic is synonymous with the concept. His work combines lyrical parodies of pre-existing music with parodies that intentionally rework the style of a band, without necessarily copying one of their compositions. This puts him into a strange box of his own. His parody of Chamillionaire’s Ridin’, is pretty clear in its intent: 


I'm nerdy in the extreme

Whiter than sour cream

I was in AV club, and glee club

And even the chess team

Only question I ever thought was hard

Was "Do I like Kirk, or do I like Picard?"

Spend every weekend at the Renaissance Fair

Got my name on my underwear.


But then the likes of I’ll Sue Ya are a little more complex. Musically, it’s a Rage Against The Machine-style parody, but quite a good one. Cut the vocal track and you might just be listening to RATM on an off day, but let the vocal take centre stage and you’re in the middle of a multi-layered piece of stand-up comedy. The sarcasm, clear exaggerations and surrealism are there for everyone to see and understand: 


I sued Taco Bell

'Cause I ate half a million Chalupas

And I got fat!

I sued Panasonic

They never said I shouldn't use their microwave

To dry off my cat”


However, to get the full impact of these lyrics, the listener has to understand Rage Against The Machine’s heavily anti-establishment politics which fill each and every one of their tracks. Eating “half a million Chalupas” is overtly funny to anyone, but putting it in the context of RATM’s trademark outrage and it takes on a whole new meaning. With that, we seem to have moved straight back to the dual layers of comedic understanding that permeated the quotations of Zappa and the compositional issues of Mozart. 


Weird Al Yankovic, “I’ll Sue Ya”, Volcano Records


On the whole, it seems that humour in music is a whole lot deeper than it seems on the surface. It can be layered in dual meaning that will only have its desired impact on a select few people, it can lose most of its impact over time as its content simply stops being funny, and it can be completely unintended in the first place. It seems that the one thing that connects almost all of it, however, is the idea of messing with the expectations of the listener. Whether it’s Weird Al impressing Rage Against The Machine fans by pretending to be them, Frank Zappa letting musicians laugh to themselves as they recognise a Stravinsky quote, or Mozart slowly losing his comedic streak as a parallel fifth becomes less outrageous, there seems to be a consistency in just how music makes itself funny. 


Dan Peeke has balanced writing about music, film and culture for the likes of Kerrang! and GamesRadar with work as a composer and photographer. Find him at his website or at @danpeeke.