Harnessing the Power of the Absurd with Musical Comedy Duo Sam & Bill
Sam & Bill is a comedy musical duo consisting of one half Sam Haft and one half Bill Bria. Their new album Sam & Bill Are Huge (available on Spotify, iTunes, and Amazon) recently hit #1 in Amazon comedy, and it’s easy to see why. The energy behind each of their songs speaks to the deep, personal enjoyment that the duo gets out of their music, and it’s seriously contagious.
The two have a knack for the absurd which, as we discussed below, that was something that they have learned to tame in the years leading up to this album. The urge to bewilder the crowd can be strong for many comedians, familiar as we are with the ins and outs of how comedy comes together and eager to see something truly novel. But the real beauty comes from taking the audience along for the ride, not just stringing them along. When performers manage to do that–as Sam & Bill have done with Sam & Bill Are Huge–the experience is one-of-a-kind.
I recently sat down with Haft and Bria to talk about how they came to harness the absurd for the benefit of all involved, how they obtained the very unique crochet work for their album cover, and what they wish more people understood.
How long have you guys been planning on putting together the album?
Sam Haft: I think it’s been since last July.
Bill Bria: We’ve always had the idea that, should this go forward in a big way, we should put together an album. And that started pretty soon after we started doing shows, just as, you know, “Hey, maybe eventually we’ll record an album.” It didn’t get really serious until I think about 2015.
Sam: Yeah. I also think that being in music comedy is different than being a comedian, in that a comedy album isn’t as necessary at certain points of a comedian’s career. But doing comedy music you’re expected to have albums that you can sell.
Bill: And I think that Sam and I both consider ourselves to be not frustrated, but nascent musicians or, you know, musicians on the side. So I think it’s been in both of our heads for maybe our entire life–I know my entire life, maybe Sam’s as well–to create an actual music album, whether it was comedic or not. It just so happened that we had this opportunity where we were in a position to do it, and that’s why I think our ethos is: let’s make the songs as good as we can, as well as the comedy.
Was there anything you guys were particularly concerned about going into it?
Sam: Just about it being funny enough, because I think doing comedy music at a comedy show, there’s sort of a “wow factor,” where an audience will be very receptive no matter what because you’re doing something very different. Part of it was seeing if it would stand up to someone who’s already approaching it knowing they’re getting comedy music.
Bill: Right, right. And all the shows that we’ve done… Most of the shows, not any more, but when we started we were kind of the fifth or the sixth on the bill that night, all standup comedians and then us. So we essentially provided the variety and there was always an inherent joy to that in the sense that, “Oh, we’re not getting another person walking up there and standing for 10 minutes and talking.” So it had been very easy for us to get easy responses and easy laughs, so we wanted to make doubly sure that yes, this would work as a listening experience if you never saw any of our shows.
Sure. I’ve heard of that, the idea that it’s a little harder for comedy musicians to be sure whether people are laughing at the material or responding to the timing.
Bill: Yeah, I think it’s very easy to fall into what I would call the “movie trailer mentality,” in the sense that you’d have that effect of a record scratch and the sound drops out and Owen Wilson says a line, and everyone in the audience kind of understands, “Oh, this is when we’re supposed to laugh, this is the funny part.” So we want to avoid that if at all possible.
Sam: And part of that is when we get to a point in the songwriting process where we’re worried that that is what we’re doing, we decide typically to take it into a completely different and absurd direction. So the audience–we would rather bewilder an audience than tell them to laugh.
Sure. So you guys both feel more predisposed to a more absurdist approach?
Sam: Oh yeah. For sure.
Bill: When we started this, our act was maybe too aggressive.
Sam: It was. When we started this, I would say our act was almost “dadaist.” We would go up and perform covers. We wouldn’t do original songs, but between the covers we would say the most absurd and aggressive things to each other and to the audience. There was one show where we sort of peaked in our absurdism. We did three covers and we would introduce them in weird ways, like we would sing “Space Oddity” and say “This is a song about pussy.” And then three songs in, the band would break up. And there would be another 20 minutes of our set. And for the rest of the show we would both have our own sort of breakdown, and we tried to put an emotional arc into the show where I become a vagrant on the street and I sell my guitar. Then I’m trying to play “Hurt” by Johnny Cash on a ukulele that I don’t know how to play. And Bill, because he doesn’t have an instrument, is relying on MIDI tracks.
Bill: Right. And keep in mind, we didn’t have any props, any set pieces or anything, costume changes, we didn’t have any of that. We were trying to convey all this completely through just us singing on stage. We basically took Triple Crown hostage for an hour.
Sam: Yeah. I mean, if you could imagine a UCB version of Brecht, that was the vibe that we put out there.
Do you think that now that you’ve established a more reined-in concept for yourselves you’ll ever go back to more absurd things like that?
Sam: I think we have one of those philosophies that’s like, you know, “write one for them and one for us.” That sort of thing. We’ll have something where we’re gonna say, “This is a perfect topic to write about,” and we’ll write a song. And then another will be like, “Wouldn’t this be stupid? Wouldn’t people hate this?” And we’ll find that hysterical, and that will be another song.
How do you guys go about collaborating on song concepts?
Bill: Well, I’m a ruthless dictator. So I tell Sam exactly how it should be, and if he doesn’t do well, then I definitely assault him physically.
Sam: And once in a while I worm my way out of the gimp suit and then we collaborate quite nicely. But no, of all the sorts of co-working processes I’ve had with other people and writing with others, this one definitely seems like the most egalitarian. I think it’s just because we’re usually on the same page so often. We’ve never really had anything to yell at each other about. And I also think we write a song from a more musical perspective than a lot of comedy musicians do. We’ll think of a premise and then it’s “What is the funniest genre to put this premise into?” Then we build the song, and the jokes come during the songwriting process as opposed to once we’ve thought of the premise.
Bill: Right. Exactly. And that way it helps keep us in that middle ground that we’re speaking about in the sense that we want the song to be as strong as the comedy. Or vice-versa. There’s not always a perfect balance, and we’re always striving for that, but we really want to make sure we’re taking care of both sides of that equation, ’cause that’s what makes us happy and hopefully will make an audience happy.
Is there any song that you’re particularly proud of?
Bill: I am particularly proud of “I Don’t Know What Sex Is.”
Sam: Yeah, me too, that’s the one.
Bill: We kind of knew that we had something that we both really enjoyed. It’s kind of the Platonic ideal of what we believe the act is, and what our comedy is.
Sam: Yeah. And it feels very true to us in that, of all the songs on the album, it is our most absurd, it’s one that starts in that zone of “This is accessible comedy music and fun music that is funny.” But then it gets to this point where where we suddenly change the entire song two-thirds of the way through. It becomes a completely different song. And then instead of returning to the original song, it becomes yet another different song before coming back to the original premise.
Bill: There’s a long tradition, I mean “Paranoid Android” is one, “Happiness Is A Warm Gun” is another, in that you have these songs that were lauded as several songs in one. And we applied that to a comedic trope, which we didn’t really even set out to do. It just sort of happened organically, and then the joy on people’s faces live.
Sam: Yeah. I remember the first time we performed it at the Highlarious Comedy Festival in Seattle. We weren’t even sure we’d perform it correctly. We barely had time to practice it, but we managed to execute it for the most part without a hitch. But once we got back to the original musical style that it starts in, after this musical journey of reductio ad absurdum, the audience, who knew the song wasn’t done, stood up and started clapping once we got back to the original musical style. Our goal was to get as far away from that as possible. So we go boyband to metal to alternative new wave, back to boyband.
Bill: When you don’t expect us to go there. And that’s what people really seem to respond to, is the joke of it obviously, but also just the sheer enjoyment of, “I recognize this, this is something that was happening before.” It’s musical theory, essentially, that we piggybacked on and made a joke out of.
Have you ever had everything go horribly wrong?
Sam: Oh yeah. Early on we played a lot of nightmare gigs. I feel like any comic can say that, but there’s a special kind of inappropriate that we hit at a couple points. There was one point very early on in that very aggressively absurd period in our career, where we were booked to do a benefit for starvation in Swaziland… That was a huge mistake. We were, at that time, basically just a very mean, aggressive cover act that would say these very dark things to each other and to the audience.
Bill: Yeah, this was early Sam & Bill. So again, no original songs at this point, we just did covers. So it was kinda like a standup duo with a guitar, almost.
Sam: It was kind of like The Muppet Show in that the music was done in earnest, but it was done in a context that was ridiculous. We had this bit and Bill had this line–
Bill: Well, we were talking about… Activia?
Sam: Yes. This was the same bit where I talk about Activia for a while. We’re talking about our rock star lifestyles, which for me, in this absurd period of our comedy, meant eating a lot of Activia. And for Bill it meant spinach, and I was like, “You mean the leafy green? That’s good for you.”
Bill: And so I said, “No, I mean the website Spinach.”
Sam: And I said, “What’s that?”
Bill: And Sam would say, “Is it about music?” and I said, “No, it’s just a website that’s a running slide show of pictures of dead people.” And then I would look at someone in the audience and point at them, and say “You were on it.”
Bill: Yeah. And it had that uncomfortable silence, and most times in most comedy venues we’d get some sort of laugh because it’s uncomfortable, it’s weird, it’s dark.
Sam: We used to be a very alt-y act.
Bill: Halfway through that bit at the Swaziland benefit I stopped.
Sam: We realized that there were people talking about people dying from starvation and we’re talking about food and them dying.
Bill: But I just barely stopped.
Was there any fallout from that with whoever booked the gig?
Sam: The gig really just ended with us taking a very awkward trip to the snack table, which was how we were paid. We were paid in cold cut sandwiches. So we just had a very sort of awkward stand at the table, assembling sandwiches next to, like, a violinist who composed an original piece on starvation. And we sang the song “Africa” by Toto.
Bill: And all this happened just because you were emailed out of the blue by a contact who knew about your stuff and just–
Sam: Yeah, I was emailed by someone I went to college with who said, “Hey, I’m doing a benefit. Don’t you do a perform-y thing?”
Bill: And he was just like, “Sure, we’ll just take whatever you have.”
Sam: This might have been one of the first gigs that we were really booked on.
A hell of a start.
Sam: I’m really shocked we did any more shows after that.
You guys also just put out a music video with the help of Victor Varnado called “Yes All Men,” which is a parody of the “plight” of men’s rights activists. Have you gotten any negative feedback in either direction about that?
Sam: Not really. We’ve gotten a few “dislikes” and on YouTube, but there has been nobody incensed enough to either call us “cucks” or take it at face value. But the video’s been out for less than a week, so the real answer is: we’ll find out. What is it, it’s Poe’s Law that if something isn’t ridiculous enough it might be taken seriously?
Bill: I do feel, though, and this is how we felt from the beginning with it, that at least in the video version, it’s so absurd–and we have some really great visuals in there–that people understand where we’re coming from.
Sam: I had a friend who played the album for a sort of a Libertarian friend of his who loved the album, and then despised that song.
Bill: But he loved the album, so we don’t care.
Sam: And you don’t get your money back if you hate “Yes All Men.” I’m sorry. It’s much more of a tightrope walk when we play it live, because until–there’s a lyric that is, “I’m a straight white man and I’m not used to being not specialer than you.” and until we hit that lyric, there are people who aren’t sure if the song is making fun of it or engaging with it. But that’s part of the fun of performing it, that it builds up this nervous energy until we get to that line, and there is this really fun release-laugh that happens at that point.
Bill: I mean, I think that it’s true that our comedy, we do like to have an edge with it, and not be too safe at this point. You know, my parents, who are very staunchly East Coast, middle-class Americans, they don’t get it. They’re a little embarrassed and easily offended. But not in a “We’re angry at you, we’re disowning you, Bill” way, but in like a “We’re proud that you’re having success, but we’re not gonna listen to this” kind of way.
Sam: I feel like that’s how Gene Simmons’ mother felt about KISS. She’s just probably some old Jewish lady from Queens being like, “Well, Gene does the makeup and he does the tongues, and they make the noise and they do the explosions…” I think early on my dad had some very critical things to say about the act.
Bill: But again, that was in our aggressively absurd period. We kinda feel like now we’re gonna sneak our way in there, so to speak. We’re gonna sneak in under the radar and subvert as many things as we can, but we’ll definitely be sort of popular-sounding.
You’re sort of taming your natural inclinations toward absurdity.
Sam: And I think part of it, too, is that it’s easy early on in comedy to say “I’m gonna be this thing that is deliberately uncomfortable for people, or deliberately unpalatable in a certain way,” because it’s also kind of an excuse for saying, “Well, if I didn’t get the response I wanted, maybe it’s too high-concept for them.” And in our case I don’t think it came from that place of ego, but I think it definitely came from a place of us having fun at the audience’s expense as opposed to with the audience.
Bill: Right. And now we’re kind of at a place of trying to sort of balance it between both.
Sam: Yeah. There are definitely songs in there–we have a song called “The Ballad of _____ & _____“, which we created deliberately to abuse a couple in the audience. I feel like one of the most uncomfortable things, and I say this as a person who enjoys comedy and crowd work, but I think one of the most uncomfortable things ever is couple crowd work. I feel like I’m always laughing because I’m uncomfortable for them. So, we decided to buy into that and make a love song for a couple in the audience that would potentially break them up. And at least on one occasion, it has actually done that.
What’s the story behind that?
Sam: We were at The Stand doing a variety show I produced for a while called “The Lemonade Stand.” We we picked out two people in the audience, and we basically play out their relationship as if the guy is a stalker and a creep, and she is basically being held hostage by him, and then at the end of the song we turn it so it actually has a nice romantic ending, but then we also turn it into a marriage proposal.
Bill: So we end the song essentially goading these people that we’ve never met into trying to see if they’ll marry each other or not.
Sam: I think, in this particular case, it was probably a Tinder date or something, you know.
Sure. That’s extra funny though, that’s in their court. Whatever couple you do that for should probably have the ability to look at it and just laugh and be like, “What an experience” as opposed to just being like, “Well now we can’t be together.”
Sam: But what’s funny about it is because there are two people involved, one of them may laugh and the other one may say, “But are we?” It basically exists to antagonize any couple that has ever said to each other, “Where is this going?” And it does, it really does.
Bill: It’s one of the vulnerable spots of any human relationship. And we just poke it.
Sam: And we’re just very mean about it.
Now that you have all of these songs recorded and on your album, do you have more locked-and-loaded for another album already?
Sam: Yeah. I’d say it’s probably half of our songs, the most polished half. We have a lot of songs that are like 80 percent finished.
Bill: Right. They’re in the demo stage, if you will.
Sam: We originally had another audience-abuse song called “Trigger Warning” on the album, but it’s like a 15-minute song.
Bill: It’s a 15-minute song because it’s very much a crowd working, delayed response song.
Sam: And that almost ended up on the album and it didn’t, and we ended up finishing a half-written song, which is our song “If Jesus,” our country song. We ended up finishing that song to replace “Trigger Warning” on the album because it was just too… It was too much to put a listener through a 15-minute song on a 40-minute album.
In the cases of songs that are more audience-reaction reliant, I mean how do you tailor that towards an album?
Bill: Well half of the album was recorded live, so we definitely try to replicate that experience on the record because it would be difficult to do a studio version of “The Ballad of _____ & _____.” I think at one point I pitched Sam the idea that maybe we should direct our banter toward the listener of the CD or album in that way, and it just didn’t work, ’cause it’s a little too funky that way.
Sam: Yeah. There’s some crowd work that really only works with strangers and not a person who has purchased your album on purpose.
Do you have other songs that you’re planning a music video for?
Sam: We have one planned: a music video for “I Don’t Know What Sex Is.”
Bill: Our magnum opus, if you will.
Very excited for it. What else do you have in mind for whatever’s next?
Sam: Our next two projects are gonna be EPs in the sense that they’re gonna be like four- or five-track albums. One is all for our geeky music, ’cause we have a lot of sort of niche/geek culture stuff–
Bill: And we’re geeks too, let’s put that out there.
Sam: We are geeks.
Bill: We’re not pandering to them like “We don’t understand their culture, but we’re gonna–,” no, we wrote a song about Pokémon ’cause we–
Because you genuinely had stuff you wanted to sing about on topics like that.
Sam: Exactly. And we’re putting it all in one album so that we don’t get teased for it. Stick it all together.
A wonderful self-defense technique.
Sam: Oh, absolutely.
Bill: From the time that I was thrown into a window for no reason in middle school…
Would you like to use this opportunity to call that bully out?
Bill: [Laughs] I didn’t know him. It was a dude that was just in the hallway and I guess they smelled weakness on me.
Sam: Take a sniff, he does smell like weakness.
Bill: And then the other one after that will be the holiday one.
Sam: Yeah. We’re gonna release a holiday album, like a Christmas album, but we’re gonna release it over the summer, and we’re going to call it Christmas in July. We’re really gonna corner the Christmas market over the summer.
Beautiful. And also I figured I’d mention the cover of the album. Where did you get those crocheted sock puppets? I assume they were custom-made.
Sam: That they were. The store was called “Jane Crochet Stuff” on Etsy. She is a delightful lady in Poland who crocheted the puppet likenesses of us that went on our penises for our album cover.
Bill: And they were comfortable.
Sam: They were very comfortable. And very reasonably priced! Let me tell you, if you’re in the market for a custom-designed penis sheath, Jane Crochet Stuff on Etsy.
Perfect. And just to wrap things up, is there anything you wish that more people understood?
Bill: I wish more people understood Inception. I still get so many questions from my friends. People will say “I saw that movie, Bill, and I don’t get what you like about it. It doesn’t make any sense.” And I said, “Well, it does.”
Sam: I wish more people understood that you can punch Nazis. Additionally, I wish I was a little bit taller. I wish I was a baller.
Bill: No, no. You’re on the wrong record for that.
Sam: I wish–
Bill: All right, all right, fine. We’ll do a Skee-Lo album next.
You can find Sam & Bill Are Huge on Spotify, iTunes, and Amazon.
Phil Stamato lives and writes in New York, where he may also be seen standing up and telling jokes. If you’ve read this far you are legally required to follow him on Twitter.