Humor in Music

Humor in Music

Daniel Felsenfeld

Paul Bowles wrote, in his autobiography, of watching his friend John Cage listening, for the first time, to an acetate of one of his own string quartets—and laughing inconsolably. For years, we have been swallowing Cage and the PR machine around him as a truly serious presence, as a composer in the great lineage, and for years avant people have been attending concerts of his music and nodding sheepishly, or basking, or acting (perhaps actually being) profoundly moved, and all the while Cage viewed his own music as hysterically funny. Was he stoned when that first acetate was played? Or was Cage some sort of court jester for the avant-garde, wreaking havoc on the institution, and laughing over the desiccated body of European Classical music. Years, and a few thousand hours of recorded music later, there isn’t much of an answer.

A Serious Explanation of Jokes

First, to define what is funny, and to then ask the question: why is something funny? As a too-academic starting point, Arthur Koestler (a decidedly unfunny philosopher) in his book The Act of Creation coins an excellent term I intend to make good use of: Bisociation. This is, according to him, the ability to perceive an idea or situation “…in two self-consistent but habitually incompatible frames of reference.” Meaning that two separate but equal ideas, seemingly incongruous, outline what makes something funny (and also, according to him, the other two of the three great, uniquely human endeavors: the Scientific Theory and the Work of Art). To go one further, these “self-consistent” frames of reference are received products of the culture from which they come.


To parse, for a moment, let’s take a classic joke—Henny Youngman saying “Take my wife, PLEASE”—and Koestlerize it, exploring the bisociation and thereby breaking down why on earth that is (supposed to be) funny. It is, of course, about delivery, about timing (like music is), so simply reading it on paper is hardly even deserving of a slight guffaw, much less a laugh (and, for the purposes of this article, only what draws laughs is what is to be considered funny). So a great Borscht-Belt comedian can walk to the lip, and in a conversational way, say: “Take my wife,” to be heard as: “I would like to introduce my wife as an example.” The “zing,” being the thing that makes it funny, is not only to say the word “Please,” but to deliver it in an imploring way, punning on the double, bisociated meanings of the word “take” found in the previous sentence. So the joke, “Take my wife, PLEASE,” is a signifier for “I would like to introduce my wife as an example, and please remove her from my life.”

Of course, there’s more to it than this. There must be, in order for the joke to work (and this explains why this joke, were it to be brand new, would get no laughs today) a receiving cultural climate where making a mockery of one’s wife—even wishing she were not the person to whom you were married; she being, just by her very presence, the thing which fetters your freedom—was an acceptably funny thing to do. Larger, more potent sociological riffs could be made on this point, but suffice it to say that these jokes are no longer part of our particular culture, hence they aren’t at all funny.

Music is also a received cultural idea—it is as difficult for us, without serious study, to wrap our ears around African scales as it is for us to appreciate humor from the United Kingdom (and anyone who has visited, as I have, their equivalent of a Hallmark store and browsed the so-called “Humor” section will immediately understand)—and so being funny in classical music isn’t too common, or, in fact, something that is easily done. Even one of the post-classical terms coined for what we do says it all: serious music.

Is music actually funny?

Of course there is plenty to laugh at in our little art music subculture: from The Marriage of Figaro to the Barber of Seville to Xerxes to Menotti‘s The Old Maid and the Thief (which, when one character hears a bump which frightens her, the reply line is: “That’s just part of the orchestration) to P.D.Q. Bach to David Rakowski, David Lang, and Phil Kline, music can actually cause laughter. But all of the composers mentioned above are funny in three distinct ways: 1) they set a funny text, or dramatized a comic story, or set a text which inherently seems inappropriate for musical treatment; 2) they use funny, ironic titles or 3) they bisociate various musical elements in an ironic way, placing music or a particular musical style within parameters where, ordinarily, it would not be.

For the purposes of this article, I am going to omit some truly funny things, such as the above mentioned operas, plus some hilarious songs like Samuel Barber‘s “Promiscuity,” Phil Kline’s fantastic Zippo Songs, and even Frank Zappa‘s The Adventures of Greggery Peccary. All of these things are indeed funny, but the words carry the humor, not the music itself. Berio‘s Opus Zoo is cleverly constructed around an ironic and mildly humorous text, and without it the music wouldn’t be bad by any means, it just wouldn’t be funny. Even Carl Stalling, the mastermind behind the best of Bugs Bunny, gets lumped into this category: his music is there to make a story happen, though his sense of comic timing is as impeccable as any great comedian, and as an artist it is nice to finally see him get his due—just not here.

Funny titles get the laughs, and there are some truly great ones out there: Lee Hyla wrote a fantastic piece (of a deeply serious nature) called Riff and Transfiguration, which bisociates a famous work by Strauss with a non-correlative, the usually rock ‘n’ roll term, “riff.” David Rakowski has countless funny titles, like Roll Your Own (an etude on rolled chords), The Third, Man (etude on thirds), Fourth of Habit (etude on fourths), and Take Jazz Chords, Make Strange, among others. His music is technically precise and very serious (for the most part), but there’s something funny about his presentation. Perhaps the “King of the Funny Title” is David Lang, part of Bang on a Can (itself, funny), whose pieces like Bonehead, Spud, and Eating Living Monkeys are all works of a thoughtful, powerful composer, but, like the pieces of Hyla and Rakowski, are given more casual titles, perhaps to set the listeners at their ease.


Possibly the largest and most profligate use of the “funny” in “serious” music is stylistic bisociation—that is, quotes or styles which composers use. John Zorn, a truly funny composer, is might be the contemporary who makes the most generous use of this, sort of “channel surfing” through various periods, ideas, and styles, wherein the utter lack of strong compositional development in the strictest sense actually becomes the ethos of the work: Zorn is at his best, when he is at his most manic—he mocks the acceptable tradition by doing anything but what is expected of a so-called “serious” composer. The other end of that spectrum is P.D.Q Bach née Peter Schickele, whose genius lies in mocking the tradition from the other end, through the lens of a fictional son of Bach. His music is only for lovers of the Great Tradition, at which he cloyingly takes jabs. His funniest pieces—like “Throw the Yule Log On, Uncle John” (to be sung with murderous emphasis on the “on”) to the 1712 Overture to the Concerto for Horn and Hardart—presuppose a certain knowledge. After all, you have to be a bit seasoned in some kind of musical analysis to appreciate his narrating of Beethoven as if it were a football game. Zorn’s music, on the other hand, doesn’t require one to be nearly as steeped.

Even Arnold Schoenberg, fin de siècle Vienna’s crowned musical expressionist prince, manages to be funny once or twice—his Second String Quartet features, in the cello, a quotation of a German drinking song better known here as “The More We Get Together,” and in Schoenberg’s able hands it’s actually hysterical. Of course, he never reached this level of humor again—even when he tried to write some comic pieces, like The Laughing Hand, Three Satires, or his Cabaret Songs; his music was just better suited to great, underlying agony than to mild, divertimento-like entertainment.

Zorn’s downtown mocking has forebears in the fantastically peripatetic Polygraph Lounge, a downtown duo which likely does today what Spike Jones and his orchestra did in the middle of the prior century—they poke a lot of fun, but do it with a fantastic degree of technical musical excellence. Nothing is safe from their well-intentioned barbs; everything from Johann Strauss to Gershwin to Stravinsky to Italian opera to car alarms to Ricky Martin to The Beatles to George W. Bush to Governor Schwartzenegger comes under their knife—they are deviants, along the lines of Lenny Bruce in a more deviant-friendly era (though perhaps not for long), with chops to spare.

Some composers, notably Shostakovich and Prokofiev, were products of the Russian Revolution, and as such had to cow or turn to irony to make their point. Thus, in writing overtly optimistic, state-centered music, they were, in fact, poking fun, not only at their government, but at themselves. But this is by no means intended to be funny—calling this sort of thing comedy is like lampooning those who endured the Cultural Revolution (or, in our own terms, someone who survived a blacklisting by the House of Unamerican Activities Committee). Ironic, perhaps, in a tragic, T.S. Eliot-like way (who liked to superimpose two opposing yet equal ideas not for giggles, but for horror—he called it the Objective Correlative).

Frank Zappa is an odd case, and one who deserves serious mention in this discussion. He was a muckraker, a liberal lunatic (who all seem to be comedians) trying to get a little justice in the world through his music. In all of his records, there appears not to be many serious moments (Zappaheads will—and should—argue with me about this), save for those done with irony. His instrumental music lacks the power of the music wherein he sang, and by all means quotations were part and parcel to the whole Zappa experience. Two excellent records recorded a decade apart by the Ensemble Modern show this clearly—from the odd, grooving orchestral pieces (no easy trick to play) on the Yellow Shark to the uproarious posthumous pieces (rescued from the jaws of a synclavier hard drive) on Greggery Peccary & Other Persuasions, Zappa is, as always, laugh-out- loud funny. He engages the bisociation on all levels, with funny words, funny titles, and ironic correlation of disparate musics—it is, after all, really screaming rich to watch an orchestra in Carnegie Hall try to play a Dick Dale-style surf groove, while the singer speaks of an acid trip. But unlike just about every other composer mentioned in this essay, Zappa had a hard time being serious, touching, or even profound; his method was a constant birdflip to the old, and to the young, and to himself and his family, and basically to everyone who didn’t think exactly like he did—and also, to those who did. Nobody escaped Zappa’s wrath, not hippies, not trained composers, not jazz musicians, not nobody, and after a while, after a few dozen of his hundred or so records, it begins to wear just a little.

Rakowski also engages in ironic quotation, gleefully cribbing everything from "Smoke on the Water" to the 39 lashes music in Jesus Christ Superstar, but nowadays, in the post-postmodern era, quotation is losing its irony. Rock has entered the academic pantheon, hot on the heels of jazz, which makes for little irony in the truest sense of the word—a lot of composers take their blues or Zeppelin quotations seriously, removing the camp and therefore the humor. This isn’t inherently bad, it’s just not funny.

Throughout the ages composers have often sought out to be amusing—or at least witty—in their bisociation of musical styles. Much of what we know about Turkish music comes from Mozart; Brahms had his way with Hungarian gypsy music; Glinka and other Russians were fascinated with the Orient, as were Debussy and Britten; Charles Ives made some of his most hilarious pieces out of his own nostalgia for childhood, particularly when he outlined the horrid music-making which apparently went down in his home town (see the “Putnam’s Camp” movement of Three Places in New England for the most amusingly raucous young Ives experience). But the kind of funny these composers are (or perhaps were) is unlikely to engage our “Ha-Ha” mechanism any more than saying, “Take my wife, PLEASE.” Charming, sure; amusing, perhaps; witty, absolutely; giggle-funny, by no means.


There are, of course, a few notable exceptions. Haydn’s “Surprise” Symphony, with its unexpected sforzando crash, no doubt caused a titter amongst the royalty, as did the “Farewell,” which featured departing musicians throughout the piece. (An aside: once I heard the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra open a concert with the first bars of the “Surprise,” but rather than the loud crash, they went straight into the Bugs Bunny Theme; I thought to myself that perhaps this is the only way to approximate the effect the piece had once upon a time.) But this is more wit than belly-bust (as Charles Rosen, in his fantastic book The Classical Style, will tell you: “wit” is probably the most often used word in this text, second, perhaps, to “and”) and wit has never caused anyone more than the occasional guffaw. Perhaps Milton Babbitt‘s pieces like The Joy of More Sextets or Robert Ceely‘s Group Sax fall into this category. Who among us, as clever as these composers are, has ever laughed at this? Just like puns, nobody realty finds them any more than mildly amusing. (Think about Proust, in his novel Remembrance of Things Past, speaking of the legendary Guermantes wit—the Guermantes being a fashionable high-society salon which the narrator frequented—as if it were gold, reveals the joke: someone is called a “teaser,” and Mme. de Guermantes says “then he must be teaser Augustus.” Anyone laughing?)

Perhaps the only composer who manages to be funny in a laugh-out-loud way without being dramatic, ironic, or using a cheeky title is Gyorgy Ligeti, whose odd, quirky, quacking sensibility is one of the most singular examples of a latter-day comedian working his charms—and if you don’t believe me, listen to his Chamber Concerto, or the opening bicycle horns of his opera Le Grand Macabre. He rivals the wittiest of Haydn, or the most off-kilter and quirky of Stravinsky (think Circus Polka) but does them one better. Not all of his music is serious—he does know how to let his hair down, especially for a high modernist. Even Cage, for all of his hilarious irreverence, is taken too seriously to be considered funny—though once, when performing 4’33” for a group of non-initiates, I got the idea: they laughed—and were “shooshed” by the class proctors.

Why Do We Laugh?

Ultimately it boils down to this: we laugh at someone else while really laughing at ourselves. The legion of people who find Woody Allen funny are laughing because they see, in him, an exaggerated version of themselves. It is the “Human Comedy” that gets us to giggle (or to weep, or to think, or to pursue an abstract idea) and music is only indirectly human. Stravinsky said that music was powerless to express anything except itself, and I am inclined to agree with him, unless it is serving as a signifier to either another music (like a quotation) or a texted story. Other than that, it doesn’t spell out the great tragedies in our lives and give us an arena to laugh at them; we don’t see in musical figures our own contemporaries the way we do in Beavis and Butthead, The Simpsons, or the prose of David Sedaris; and it cannot allow us to slough off anxiety, or raise an important political issue in a palatable single sentence like our deviant comedians (Al Franken, Michael Moore and Jeanine Garofolo, to name a few). Concert music, like it or not, is abstract, and there really is nothing funny that isn’t vaguely real. This is by no means to say that nothing in classical music is ever funny—quite the opposite. It is just funny simply by association or cleverness, not bust-a-gut raucous in and of itself.

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