Music And Comedy Roundtable With Reggie Watts, Kinky Friedman, Dan Bern And More

Written by June 29th, 2012 at 11:21 am

(Kinky Friedman)

(Dan Bern)

(Tommy Womack)

(Brendon Small)

(Reggie Watts)

“Humor may be one of the best delivery mechanisms for the truth. It really is about sailing as close to the truth as you can without sinking the ship.” – Kinky Friedman

Who are some of your favorite funny songwriters?

Kinky Friedman (Songwriter, Politician, Novelist):
Bob Dylan is a funny guy. But that’s off stage, that’s not the image that he has. I didn’t know John Lennon but I’m sure he could have been a stand-up comic, a great one; Willie Nelson definitely could. A lot of stuff Tom Waits does is comedy. The idea that you can take a wrench and pound on a radiator and sell it to people and that becomes art. Country music has some brilliant humor in it. Townes Van Zandt was funny; that’s because he was so high needed a stepladder to scratch his ass. Townes’ lifestyle and his music blended perfectly. He modeled that on Hank. Shel Silverstein was a genius. He’s capable of writing something very funny and still very truthful. In fact, humor may be one of the best delivery mechanisms for the truth. It really is about sailing as close to the truth as you can without sinking the ship.

Reggie Watts (Musician/Comedian): I love Frank Zappa, especially the Hot Rats era. Someone had written a YouTube comment on my Conan performance a couple days ago that said ‘Reggie Watts is the new Frank Zappa.’ And then what was hilarious was two comments after that someone was like ‘Woah, woah, let’s not get ahead of ourselves [laughs].

Tommy Womack (Songwriter, Memoirist): John Prine’s the king. Either John or Randy Newman. Todd Snider’s really good. Robbie Fulks is really good. Todd’s a little more populist, so he can go over with a wider audience. Robbie’s more like the Zappa of country music. A lot of his stuff is too acidic for a broader audience. Roger Miller was of course brilliant. And I quite like “Weird Al” Yankovic. He doesn’t just do parodies of other songs. He’s written some hilarious original stuff. “One More Minute” is the funniest break-up song I’ve ever heard and it’s his own original composition, not a take-off of somebody else.

Dan Bern (Folk Singer, Co-Writer For Walk Hard and Get Him To The Greek Soundtracks):
Tom Lehrer, early Dylan, Woody, Ed Hamell. All these guys have great wit but also a pretty pointed message.

Brendon Small (Co-Creator, Metalocalypse)
: Christopher Guest and the Marx Brothers, because they both commit so hard to being great musicians first.


What are the elements that make for a good, or bad funny song?

Womack: Lyrics, first and foremost. And not trying too hard when you phrase and sing it. I hear people do funny songs and they overdo the delivery so much of the time, and make it burlesque. It’s almost always the more deadpan you deliver the lyric, the funnier it is. At least that’s how it works for me.

Bern: The unexpected. You are being set up for a serious song that takes a strange turn. For Walk Hard, Mike Viola and I wrote “Beautiful Ride,” which was meant to sum up Dewey Cox’s whole life. It was all pretty serious, except near the end when he’s listing the things that are important to him, like “music, flowers, babies,” and then says, “traveling not just for business.”

Friedman: Randy Newman is a good example of what to avoid if you can. Those are not funny songs and I think he’s kind of a tragic case. I don’t know the guy, but I’m not impressed. And I don’t say that about many people. I never liked that song “Short People.” Not that I’m short. I’m average to tall. But never confuse height with stature.

Rock lyrics often come automatically or extremely quickly. Do comedic lyrics need more deliberation?

Small: When I write funny songs I try to think of the characters in the show being dead serious about them, therefore I approach them very seriously. I think that’s the trick: to try not to be funny – commit as hard as you can.

Bern: Once you have the idea, they can bumble out. Mike Viola and I wrote “Furry Walls” for Get Him To The Greek in about 15 minutes, after Judd Apatow told us, “This is a song about a furry wall.”

Womack: For me, they come more naturally than any other lyrics. They’re often what inspire the whole song. That happens way more than the serious lyrics grabbing my attention first. I like songs with a lyric that’s just off-kilter enough to make you laugh or making you think “What is this guy going on about?” That attracts me. Music Row lyrics bore me. I like lyrics that take chances, and humor always is – or almost always – the first chances I find myself taking.

How important is rhyme scheme when it comes to a song being funny?

Small: You tell me – here are the lyrics to a song from Season 3 of Metalocalypse called “I Ejaculate Fire”: “I ejaculate fire/A venomous fluid/Cantankerous druid.”

I think we can all agree that ‘Cantankerous druid’ makes no sense but it certainly does rhyme.

Womack: It’s very important. Rhymes are the punchlines, and oddly they don’t have to be so cloyingly clever by themselves, but with the right delivery you can get a big laugh.

Bern: Sometimes you see the rhyme coming and then it changes. Like a rug being pulled out. Or you’re expecting something and it changes. Like Charlie Wadhams’ song for Walk Hard, “In my mind you’re blowing me … some kisses.”

What’s your most requested funny song?

Womack: This one goes back to my first band, Government Cheese. “Fish Stick Day” slayed everyone everywhere we went. It’s about the special Friday at school lunchtime, which was always fish sticks in deference to the Catholics. It was funny because everybody went through that in grade school. It was pretty universal. But boy, did I learn to hate that song.

You see, comedy songs take over the act. You could be playing the best Cheese song we had to offer, some deep, spiritual, lyrically compelling thing, and there were a dozen people all through that song yelling “Fish Stick Day!” We eventually stopped playing it in a bid to be taken seriously anew. But whenever we reunite for a gig now – as we do periodically – we play it with pride. If somebody likes a song you wrote, funny or not, well then – hell – somebody likes your song.

Small: I think it might be the “Duncan Hills Coffee Jingle.” It’s a minute long death metal song about coffee. And I think it became popular because it was on our 1st episode of Metalocalypse. And also the characters are very seriously telling you about how brutal they believe coffee to be. They even played it on the second to last episode of The Sopranos.

What are the first humor songs you remember being into as a kid?

Watts: There was certainly no shortage of funny songs growing up. Sesame Street, The Muppet Show, Hee Haw. I was a lover of anything absurd and strange. There was a bit on Sesame Street where they were trying to do the theme to the musical Oklahoma to try to teach kids about vowel sounds. And this cowboy lead guy kept messing up; when the music would start they’d be like ‘action!’ and he’d start to sing “AYK-Lahoma is a place,” and they’d be like ‘Cut! Cut! It’s OAK-Lahoma. OAK-Lahoma,’ and he’d say ‘Alright, alright, sorry.’ So they’d start the music back up and he’d be like “IKE-Lahoma is a…” [Laughs] It was just so dumb, but I definitely remember laughing pretty hard about that. That was my introduction to silly songs.


Small:
I always loved Emo Pillip’s “Animal Square Dance.” He’s one of the world’s funniest joke writers and the absurdity of the song keeps building. I heard it on Dr. Demento years ago and it made me laugh so hard. I also loved “Zoo Animals On Wheels” from Get A Life by Chris Elliot. If you haven’t watched that episode, seek it out!

Friedman: “Hello Walls” by Faron Young. A guy who’s really a mental patient lost his mind and is really talking to walls and talking to windows. When I heard it as a teenager, I thought it was brilliant. You just couldn’t write it again. You have to be at the end of your rope to be able to write that.

Bern: My folks were big Tom Lehrer fans. He’s still one of my favorites. A great musician and a great rhymer.

Do fans appreciate your funny songs more than your serious songs?

Friedman: Of course. For some, [being a funny songwriter] is the kiss of death. Guys like Willie and lots of others got away with it by doing a little bit. It’s like Judaism in music. Like my song “Ride ‘Em Jewboy.” Dylan loved it, Paul Simon loved it, Neil Diamond loved it, all these Jewish guys, but would they ever write or sing something like that? Hell no.

Small: Usually all of my songs come from a place of comedy and then begin to take themselves seriously so the end result is an over dramatic piece of ridiculousness.

Bern: Sure, sometimes. You want to bare your soul, but sometimes people just want to laugh.

Have you ever sang a funny song that bombed?

Womack: Sometimes it’s just not your night. You get an audience that’s just real reserved, or sometimes like serious Bruce Cockburn fans who laugh at nothing unless it’s a reference to Edna St. Vincent Milay or some esoteric shit like that. I did have a song about mom-and-dad child-raising called “We Haven’t Fucked In A Year.” I thought it was hilarious, but it just never went over well, or at least not consistently. Sometimes, I think something’s going to go over gangbusters and it just doesn’t, and you just make a mental note to read your audience over the course of the show and ask yourself, “Will they dig this one or not?”

Bern: I had a song called “My Little Swastika” that I sang for a group of rabbis. It was supposed to get us beyond the swastika as a symbol that causes pain. Didn’t really work though. Stunned silence…

Is it hard to sing a funny song night after night when you’re performing live and have it be fresh?

Bern: Well, if it’s topical, it starts to smell like old fish and you have to let it go. Otherwise, it’s like any other song, you have to keep it fresh somehow… funny songs are more dependent on the audience really getting ‘em though.

Womack: It used to be. It’s not anymore. It’s a job, you take pride in your job and do it well. If I do happen to get tired of a particular funny song after a while, I can shelve it, because I have others. I’ve written plenty of funny songs by this point. There’s plenty to choose from.

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