2015: The Year Comedy Music Broke
In late December 2015, like at the end of each calendar year, Barret Hansen, better known for nearly half a century as top-hatted madman Dr. Demento, unveiled his annual Funny 25, a countdown of the most-requested comedy songs of the last twelve months. Hansen’s The Dr. Demento Show, once the nationally-syndicated hub for funny music on terrestrial radio, has been off the FM airwaves since 2010, but it has continued as a subscription-only online program since then. The program’s profile may be lower these days, but it still has loyal fans (“dementites and dementoids,” in the Doctor’s parlance) and there are still comedy artists making new recordings in the tradition of Allan Sherman, Spike Jones, and “Weird Al” Yankovic, in the hope of securing airtime on the show.
The latest edition of the Funny 25 boasted both new tracks and a smattering of classics. One of the all-time legends of comedy music, Stan Freberg, died in April 2015, so naturally a few of his best-known recordings, like “Banana Boat (Day-O)” and “Elderly Man River” (both from 1957), received some extra airplay in recent months. But, to its credit, the show’s most-requested songs have chiefly been recorded by current artists, many of whom likely grew up listening to “Weird Al” albums as kids and thought, “Hey, I’d like to do that someday!” Among the new and new-ish guard is Luke “The Great Luke Ski” Sienkowski, who like Al before him records both originals and parodies, plus comedian Steve Goodie (of “I Dropped My Phone In The Toilet” and “I Just Sneezed In My Pie” renown), and a band called Throwing Toasters, who recorded the social media anthem, “Unfriend (The Facebook Song).”
Much of the subject matter on The Dr. Demento Show these days is nerd-friendly pop culture stuff: movies, TV shows, video games, and the Internet in general. The biggest song on the show this year, for instance, was “Benedict Cumberbatch,” a thundering, name-mangling ode to the geekily-beloved British actor by Baltimore’s “Insane Ian” Bonds, who also serves as an administrator on the official Dr. Demento Facebook group. Bonds is an active participant at the Funny Music Project (FuMP), an online community of like-minded comedy musicians, most of whom cover the same basic territory, albeit in their own, idiosyncratic ways. Luke Ski is also a FuMP contributor, as is the indefatigable Bonecage, whose recent contributions to popular culture include a Labyrinth tribute called “Crotch Magic” and the self-explanatory “Olive Garden Butthole.”
It may seem like Bonds, Bonecage, Luke Ski, and the others are toiling in an increasingly marginalized and obscure corner of the music community. In a way, that’s true. In decades past, especially the 1950s and 1960s, comedic music was an accepted, normal part of the Billboard Top 40 much more than it is today. Serious and funny records were freely intermingled on radio playlists back then. Allan Sherman scored three #1 albums between 1962 and 1963. Roger Miller was a regular presence near the top of the charts with songs like “You Can’t Roller Skate in a Buffalo Herd.” Moving into the 1970s, even as rock grew more serious and aimed for relevance and topicality, lighthearted acts like Steve Martin and Cheech & Chong still landed hit singles, while Ray Stevens made a comfortable home for himself on the radio with songs like “The Streak” and “I Need Your Help, Barry Manilow.”
The relationship between pop radio and comedy music cooled off just a bit in the 1980s, though the occasional “Pac-Man Fever” or “General Hospi-Tale” might sneak in between John Cougar Mellencamp songs, and of course the Reagan years saw the true ascendence of comedy music’s all-time biggest-selling star, “Weird Al” Yankovic. (Al had been recorded since the 1970s, but his first Top 40 hit didn’t arrive until 1984.) By the 1990s, the decade of grunge and gangsta rap, comedy music had acquired a deeply uncool reputation and was largely absent from image-conscious Top 40 playlists. At best, it was shunted off to “morning zoo”-type programs. Al stayed in the limelight with tracks like “Smells Like Nirvana,” but he was basically grandfathered in, having already established himself as a radio and MTV presence. Since then, really only one new comedy music act has made a significant, lasting impact on the pop charts: The Lonely Island, Andy Samberg’s “fake rap” crew from Saturday Night Live. But with Samberg’s acting career taking up more of his time these days, and without SNL as a weekly platform for his group, even the Island has been increasingly dormant.
So is comedy music dead? Not hardly. Arguably, it’s more prevalent than ever. Way more prevalent. The venue has simply changed, as have the rules. Thanks to the Internet, music of any kind is barely a salable commodity anymore, and that extends to the humorous kind. Even “Weird Al,” unquestionably the biggest name in the game, has said that his most recent album, 2014’s chart-topping Mandatory Fun, would be his last. His income now comes from touring and merch, he has explained, not record sales. But Al has also recognized that YouTube has brought about an unprecedented explosion in comedy music. When a high-profile new pop song reaches the public these days, it’s a sure bet that a slew of parodies is mere hours away. Who wants to wait for months assembling an album? The video-sharing site allows for instant distribution of songs, immediate feedback, and near-effortless dissemination. Currently prominent comedy music acts like Garfunkel & Oates and Rachel Bloom both used YouTube to test their material out on the public before finding a wider audience. Bloom has lately leapfrogged to her own CW show, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, which regularly incorporates elaborate, choreographed musical numbers very much like the music videos she used to make for YouTube.
And then there are the vloggers and other YouTube stars, the ones who make their livelihoods from the site. It’s an under-reported phenomenon, but original comedic music has played a huge role in the success of many of them. Popular channels like Epic Rap Battles of History, Axis of Awesome, and Schmoyoho, all of which regularly rack up millions of views per video, are essentially delivery systems for new comedy music, even if few would think to lump them in with the acts getting airtime on The Dr. Demento Show. They’re all playing the same basic sport, though, just in different arenas. The comedy duo Smosh, long one of YouTube’s most-subscribed channels, mostly concern themselves with sketches, but they do enough songs to warrant inclusion here. Even vlogger Jenna Marbles occasionally does a musical number (usually about her doted-upon dogs) as part of her weekly video series. If there is a way to make money doing funny music in 2015, it is to partner with YouTube, nurture a subscriber base, and never really define yourself as a comedy or worse yet “novelty” music artist. Meanwhile, none of these people are getting much validation from traditional media, including pop radio. Whether that constitutes a problem is debatable.
When asked for his opinion on the current status of comedy music and the effect YouTube has had on the genre, Ian Bonds was pragmatic:
“I will say that, as in previous years, it is in a constant state of flux. The video and YouTube makers are riding high, but ‘mainstream’ success still lies outside their grasp, but the diehards of those within this group know what they like and speak with their wallets. Or their download and stream clicks, as the case may be. I think comedy music is expected to a certain extent to have a visual component to it, for those who don’t know enough to seek out the audio-only format. The FuMP has done well with audio-only, but is branching out to reach a wider audience by making more videos.”
Bonds also addresses the issue of media coverage and whether the pressure to do eye-catching videos is freezing out the audio-only acts:
“I will say comedy music doesn’t get enough coverage outside of the ‘mainstream’ artists. Some of the audio-only artists who consistently put out solid releases don’t get nearly the press they should in comedy, if only because they don’t have the video hits to back it up, which is a shame. Hell, even the mainstream doesn’t seem to get coverage on those sites either. Sometimes, it’s just Al and only Al.”
So there you have it. In 2015, comedy music is simultaneously more obscure and more prevalent than it ever has been. There is a vast amount of material being produced by hundreds of people and consumed by millions of people every week, even if traditional media hasn’t yet noticed the phenomenon. And while the traditional “novelty record” has largely gone the way of the rotary phone and the fax machine, the public’s appetite for comedic music continues to grow, unabated, in the new millennium.