Comedy musicians are a strange thing to quantify: they exist and perform excellent music, yet have not reached the heights of recognition of chart-topping artists.
“Healing the world with comedy, the indestructible power of your comedy” – a quote from Bo Burnham’s latest smash-hit special. But it rings true; comedy can help brighten a situation. As can music. Add the two together, and there’s a really special creation! It can be a difficult thing to achieve: being funny and musically talented, and able to stick the two together.
This piece will take a dive into what comedy music is, along with a concise list of some of the best comedic musicians of recent years that are definitely worth listening to. Note, this list is based on musicians, not comedians, and also may mention some rude words and topics in the song titles.
Comedy musicians and comedy music are exactly what they say: musicians that make music that is funny. Both bands and singular artists create entertaining music, spanning a lot of genres – often rock and hip-hop, among others. Originating centuries ago, amusing music has been very popular for a very, very long time.
Musical theatre and counterculture also come into play here – comedy musicians are often part of one or the other world, going against the ‘norm’ with their strange music, or bringing that work to a stage as part of a production.
There tend to be two types of music involved with the comedy sphere; parody and novelty. Musical parody can be classed as its own subgenre, but really it is a type of song. The reworks of popular songs keep the basics the same: the beat, the song structure, and background. By changing the original structure, lyrics, or instruments of a song, parodies create an amusing time. Some artists have built their career on this alone (more on this later)!
A recent example of a parody song is ‘My Corona’ by Chris Mann, where the original lyrics to ‘My Sharona’ were funnily replaced with ones related to the current situation in the world.
Novelty songs are another almost subgenre – but we’ll keep it as another type of song here. ‘Novelty’ encompasses the new and/or the unusual, so songs with this label tend to sound different from most popular music; they are niche, but have their own fans. There will be some odd hook to the song – be it a phrase, or gimmick.
The concepts of the songs are often odd and strange, but nevertheless amusing. ‘Monster Mash’ is classed as a novelty song, given its creative and intriguing subject and silly sound. Novelty songs are timeless, cheesy classics that people will probably not admit to liking readily.
Where to begin! The history of comedic musicians is a long one: it can be traced way back to ancient Greece, and Rome! Playwrights and poets entertained the public by incorporating puns, and wordplay, into their acts. These works even parodied the high society of the time – politicians, artists, and more.
This evolved in the Medieval era where jesters and other performers picked up the style and added musicians. The annoying bard trope came from a true place! This gave way to the composers of the classical era incorporating comedy and mockery into their work too, juxtaposing their work on stage.
Fast forward to the 20th century, and we find artists like Spike Jones creating music with silly sound effects to make people laugh, paving the way for artists in the 60s and beyond to create comedic careers. Beyond this, comedic bands have become a sort of mainstay on festival line-ups and in chart positions – many rock festivals have opened their stages to the likes of Steel Panther as a mainstay act.
Comedy musicians are recognized as their own category, with fully-fledged tours and gigs as well as performances like stage shows and stand-up. In fact, Spinal Tap – who you’ve no doubt heard of – was a fabricated band made up by comedians purely for the fun of it. The band made fun of the music industry and certain practices that were popular within the rock world.
As with any genre or type of music, there are certain characteristics involved in comedy music that defines whether an artist or song can be classed as such. Warning: there will be a lot of Weird Al Yankovic references from here on out.
The most obvious characteristic of any satirical song is the amusing lyrics within it. This is perhaps the crux of all comedy, not just the musical side of it. Using funny notations or words and sounds conveys the hilarity: why would it be funny if there was no joke involved?
The use of such language can be traced back centuries, but it is seen strongly today in all comedy music: parody king Weird Al Yankovic frequently takes a chart-topping song’s melody and structure, and changes the words to something silly and humorous.
Parodying things is a cornerstone of comedy. Doing a silly impression of a friend on the playground, through to seeing cover artists and comedic imitators on stage – it all includes doing a take-off at someone else’s expense. Comedy music is often based on covering other, usually popular, songs – see Weird Al’s huge hits like ‘EBay’ and ‘Amish Paradise’.
Tempo can play a huge part in music. It can convey a myriad of things: the mood, a style, even denote the character or emotion of a song or the content of the lyrics. Comedic music takes tempo into its own hands and changes it in different ways.
An example of tempo modification is, again, in Weird Al Yankovic’s mash-up cover songs like ‘Polka Face’. The tempo is made faster than most of the original songs, adding a hectic and funny aspect to them. Not only the tempo of songs but the length of words or phrases can be altered – both of these techniques can make dramatic and unexpected changes and turn into a song and keep the listener intrigued. This is especially important for an off-beat genre like comedy music.
This one may seem obvious. The style in which a song or piece is performed can add a lot to the comedic aspect or the mood. Silly actions, dancing, and pulling faces are all included in a performers’ way of showing their work.
Often, comedic musicians make fun of other styles in their work, or celebrities and other singers. Something that is a great example of this is, yes, Weird Al’s song ‘White And Nerdy’, although the parody is aimed at himself – it does highlight the absurdity of the original Chamilliionaire song.
Using unusual instruments or sounds can cause the element of surprise, or change the tone of a piece quickly. Not only instruments are used in comedy songs: more often than not, performers use a wide array of sound effects in their music. This includes animal calls, technical sound effects, or just plain nonsense noises.
For example, Weird Al Yankovic employs this in songs to go along with the lyrics, such as in his brief cover of ‘Scream And Shout’ by Black Eyed Peas in the song ‘NOW That’s What I Call Polka!’.
There are truly hundreds of comedy musicians, all creating fantastic music, and worthy of being on the best-of list. But we don’t have time for that. Here are the top ten comedic musicians relevant to today and still definitely worth listening to!
Weird Al Yankovic is probably the biggest name in musical comedy. A well-established career built on polka-flavored covers of popular songs, as well as quirky originals, Yankovic has has a fruitful few years in the business.
Using his trademark accordion and a full polka band, Yankovic has entertained audiences the world over. His career started in his teens when a self-made tape got played on the radio, and it went from there. After recording ‘My Bolongna’, Yankovic met The Knack of original ‘My Sharona’ fame and was introduced to a label. The song was officially released and earned him a record deal. Since then he has created many glorious albums featuring parody hits and reworked comedy covers like ‘EBay’ and ‘Eat It’.
Though the sound of his cheesy polka and quirky voice may not be for everyone, Weird Al cannot be denied as one of the kings of comedy music.
Probably known best for his wild hair, Tim Minchin the Australian comedian and musician is one of the best comedic musicians around.
Describing his work as ‘funny cabaret shows’, Minchin has toured the world with his piano-based songs. He built his solo shows up from inspiration from his performance at the Melbourne Fringe Festival – incorporating poems, songs, and sketches. Minchin’s work took him on tour around the world and gained him substantial success: the juxtaposition of the orchestra and the comedy was something not many had seen before.
Esteemed actor, comedian, musician and singer, Bill Bailey, has been renowned as a creative genius for a long while now. Appearing in sitcoms like Black Books and on comedy panel shows gave him an audience for his funny work.
In terms of his music, Bailey has perfect pitch and an array of musical instrument abilities to show off. His songs cover a wide selection of genres and include many instruments including kazoos, bongos, and theremins. Bailey even played at UK rock festival Sonisphere in 2011, earning even more musical fans – he then released the songs from the set as an album afterward.
Don’t let the quirky name deter you – Ninja Sex Party is a fantastic band. Made up of Dan Avidan of YouTube stars Game Grumps, and theoretical physicist Brian Wecht, the two songsters go by Danny Sexbang and Ninja Brian.
This sets the tone for their discography – often focusing on forays with women, duels with dastardly monsters, their songs have a whimsical twist along with the funny side. They also do some absolutely great covers, too! Their music spans genres between rock, metal, and electronic – and does so very well.
Their second album, Strawberries and Cream, debuted at #9 on Billboard‘s comedy charts, and their success has only grown. NSP has collaborated with fellow musicians Tupperware Remix Party, Steel Panther, and Flula Borg, along with playing shows at San Diego’s Comic-Con. They even had Finn Wolfhard of Stranger Things fame in one of their music videos!
Like the comedic counterparts on this list, Bo Burnham has also gravitated from stage to screen with his Netflix specials, the most recent of which is Inside.
Burnham’s career started on YouTube as a teen, making skits and songs. Since then he has gone on to become a producer, filmmaker, singer, and actor – but his biggest achievements are still his comedic specials. These have been released as albums, too, so those that didn’t catch the live shows can revel in the comedic prowess whenever they choose.
His musical offerings usually focus on sex, class, and the trials and tribulations of the human mind. 2021’s special Inside took Burnham’s fame to new heights, ranking high on the UK and US charts, and becoming a widely watched and relatable piece of media. Filmed entirely alone, Burnham created the entire special from scratch during the 2020 pandemic-related lockdown – and has some ridiculously good songs in it. We recommend the whole thing, but especially Welcome To The Internet and Thirty.
Kiwi duo Flight Of The Conchords is made up of Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement. They rose to fame in the homeland of New Zealand with their live comedy act – which then morphed into a radio show, and hit HBO television series.
Their music incorporates many genres – noted by the musicians themselves. The “the almost award-winning fourth-most-popular folk duo in New Zealand” has gained massive success the world over with their kooky work, including songs about women and feelings.
Everyone knows Jack Black, and most people know his iconic rock band – Tenacious D. Formed in 1994 with fellow actor Kyle Gass, Tenacious D was a band that was meant to be a good time – and it was!
The band had a successful TV show on HBO, acting as a preview into their music career. Their debut single was ‘Tribute‘, a song that has become an absolute classic and remains on the playlist at every rock club to this day. The early 2000s were the peak for Tenacious D, having films produced featuring the duo as well as successful tours of their so-called ‘mock rock’. Mock or not, fans love it and there is true talent involved here!
Steel Panther is definitely not a band for everyone. Their raucous and heavy glam-metal is for fans of the 80’s classics, but with a twist: their lyrics are rude, silly, and focused on an overstuffed stereotype of metal musicians.
Their songs often focus on women and drugs, but the lyrics are backed by solid drum beats and impressive guitar solos, accompanied by Michael Starr’s soulful wails. You may recognize him outside of his music career – he had a cameo in the 2001 film Rockstar. He also did guest vocals for previously mentioned Ninja Sex Party, too!
Steel Panther’s career has taken them to worldwide fame, being a recurring name at festivals across the world after a huge debut album with ‘Feel The Steel’.
The world of comedy music is surely a wild ride and spans so many topics and genres that it is hard to know where to start. We hope this brief history and quintessential list of musicians is enough to help jump-start your newfound appreciation for the genre!
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