A day ahead of the drop of the artist’s full-length, ‘The Apparent Bias Against Comedic Popular Music,’ a new track + essay that argues for humor as art
The year is 2009.
I’m on a boat.
I’m on a boat.
Everybody look at me
‘Cause I’m sailing on a boat.
I got my swim trunks and my flippie-floppies.
I’m flipping burgers, you at Kinko’s, straight flipping copies.
I’m riding on a dolphin, doing flips and shit
The dolphin’s splashing, getting everybody all wet.
But this ain’t Sea World, this is real as it gets.
While obviously a piece of comedic work, Lonely Island’s ‘I’m on a Boat’ also, let’s be frank, fuckin’ rules. And it’s not just Andy Samberg and crew who are making tunes that sit in the intersection of haha and helllllllll yeaaaaaah.
After all, who hasn’t gotten weird to Weird Al or, I don’t know, gotten high and spent way too much time listening to Flight of the Conchords? Yet for some reason, while what bands like these and others are making is definitely music, we put them in a different category entirely than more straight-forward groups without slapstick or schtick. While comedy and music are both types of art, and these creators are skillfully combining both, we typically don’t consider them ~artists~.
It’s this disconnect that’s recently been explored in-depth by NYC musician Scott Greenberg, who convinced an unnamed university (cough-NYU-cough) to let him write his master’s thesis “investigating the aesthetic biases against comedy.” Or, to put it simply, to write about “why Tenacious D are the greatest band in the world and why They Might Be Giants deserve to be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.”
As part of his thesis, the musician also, of course, made an album. The Apparent Bias Against Comedic Popular Music drops everywhere tomorrow, and one day ahead of the release, I’m thrilled to premiere “My Boyfriend’s In a Gang” here—along with an academic excerpt of Scott’s very convincing argument for the artistry of integrating humor and art.
The artist, whose last EP featured a trio of songs inspired by dogs, says his “musical philosophy can be best summed up by the members of Spinal Tap who noted, ‘There’s such a fine line between stupid and clever.'” Read, listen and LOL on—
The Apparent Bias Against Comedic Popular Music by Scott Greenberg
By Scott Making Cents
When Marcel Duchamp dragged a urinal into an art gallery, it was the original shit post.
Art is dumb as hell and that’s why I love it.
I recently completed my master’s thesis on the phenomenon of humorous art failing to receive the same acclaim as less funny works. Now I’m releasing an album of witty songs called The Apparent Bias Against Comedic Popular Music on August 31st. My music is influenced by artists like They Might be Giants, Ben Folds, and Warren Zevon. The first single from the album, “My Boyfriend is in a Gang,” is an updated pastiche of 50s-60s doo woo music—an era where it was surprisingly OK to sing about domestic abuse.
In the film world it is easy to see evidence of this bias against comedy. The list of Oscars best picture nominees feature an appalling number of comedies. Is it truly possible that all of the comedies made in the last 80+ years were simply not as good as their dramatic counterparts or is there some other reason they were snubbed? Because we don’t categorize music like we do films it’s harder to show this bias through the same means. Some alternate datasets to look at are critical ratings and official-ish “canons” like the Grammy (and other) awards, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees, or lists like Rolling Stones 500 Greatest Albums of all Time.
Interesting sidenote: the Grammy’s Best Comedy album category is inclusive of both stand-up comedy and funny music. Is the implication that comedic music is NOT music? To further complicate the matter, Tenacious D’s album Rize of the Fenix was nominated for Best Comedy Album (2012) AND the band won the Best Metal Performance (2014) for a Dio cover. So they’re a “real” band when they play other people’s songs but something else when playing their own…
The artists included in these “important” lists are often not terribly funny. I believe that part of this is explained by the formerly low brow nature of pop music. The fine arts, on the other hand, being taught in universities and having their own dedicated museums give them a certain aesthetic prestige. Not until recent decades has popular music garnered much respect artistically and academically (though it still lags far behind other art forms).
All of this leads to a defensiveness (or self consciousness) on the part of pop music fans. It’s safer to endorse someone like Joni Mitchell, with her introspective poetic lyricism and socially conscious attitude, than They Might Be Giants—who are often accused of being inauthentic and writing novelty songs. Of course this is not to say that TMBG aren’t tremendously talented or that Mitchell is entirely humorless. Any outlying funny pop stars in the official-ish canon (Chuck Berry, The Ramones, Kanye West) either predate the acceptance of popular music as legitimate works or are from genres which are more free with humor. Countercultural genres like punk and hip hop were explicitly set up in opposition to, and mocking, mainstream pop norms (like overly serious tendencies).
One unexpected realization I had when researching this topic was that, despite the incredible breadth of humor across all eras of pop music, there is the tendency to label any music that is too funny as parody. Parody is only one of many strains of humor (satire, absurdity, etc…) and in particular it comes with some heavy aesthetic baggage. Literary theorist Linda Hutcheon, in her book Theory of Parody, wrote that the stigma associated with it comes from two sources: It threatens the Romantic notion of the individual artistic genius and the capitalistic notion of intellectual copyright. In addition, parody is also often perceived as mocking and unethical. Pitchfork writer Simon Reynolds even calls parody “intrinsically puerile.” While not all parody is necessarily mean-spirited, take “Weird” Al’s overwhelmingly positive catalog for example, there remains a certain taint to it. Again while not all comedic music is parodic, the tendency to associate any too-funny music with parody leads to a biased interpretation.
Along with the troubled implications of artistic parody, humor in general is often accused of being ethically questionable. The superiority theory of humor states that whenever we laugh it is at the expense of someone/something that we deem inferior (aka the “butt” of the joke). Although when Jerry Seinfeld asked “What’s the deal with airplane food?” do we really need to consider the feelings of travel-sized peanut bags before laughing? Some philosophers, like Berys Gaut, think so and therefore have trouble accepting that comedy can be art at all. Philosopher John Morrell who has written extensively on humor explains further why it is often seen as problematic:
“With all the ways in which laughter and humor involve the loss of self control and the breaking of social rules, it’s not surprising that most societies have been suspicious of them and have often rejected them. This rejection is clear in the two great sources of Western culture: Greek philosophy and the Bible.”(Taking Laughter Seriously)
While art does not live in a world beyond moral obligations, it need not be the primary concern of the artist. Have we not moved beyond this Puritanical conception of morals?
Yet there remains a defensiveness. The things you like say a lot about you and if you opt for seemingly “frivolous” art that makes you laugh, does that make you laughable? My goal academically and artistically is to draw attention to these unconscious (or self conscious) biases that persist to this day. Humorous art has just as much potential as any other works, and artists should never feel constrained to limit themselves to pre-approved topics and techniques. We have even seen a more widespread acceptance of it in the visual art world (much of Warhol’s output was parodic). But popular music has a lot of ground to cover in order to catch up. Artists must always push the boundaries in all directions, including stupidity. Art does not need to make a profound, existential statement to be good.
So please watch as I drag my metaphorical toilet into the gallery that is the internet streaming music world and flush it.
Grab The Apparent Bias Against Comedic Popular Music when it drops tomorrow and get ready to rock… plus probably snicker/chuckle/chortle/giggle/guffaw. And when it comes to music—or anything, really—what more could you want?
Feature image (still from an Impossible Colors music video) provided by the artist.