Classical Comedy

November 5, 2010 at 10:32 pm | Posted in Humor | Leave a comment
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Although it’s true that a symphony orchestra is most often seen in concert wearing black tuxedos and formal dresses, it isn’t true that classical music is all formal and serious all the time. The sometimes odd and dogmatic conventions of western classical music, combined with the often outrageous and sometimes unbelievable personal lives of classical music’s greatest names, provide a surplus of fodder for comedians. Those who combine their love and knowledge of music with gut-wrenching comedy are a breed apart. Here are some of the best.

Spike Jones and his City Slickers

When I was in elementary school, someone bought me a three-record set of Spike Jones’s recordings. I wish I could remember who bought it for me so I could thank them now. Spike Jones and his City Slickers recorded through the 1940s and early 1950s a comedy show that often used “arrangements” (deconstructions might be a better word) of popular and classical tunes. His band, though, wasn’t a normal band. Playing on  beat-up wind instruments and accompanied by kitchen utensils, workshop tools, and, well, junk, his City Slickers presented their brilliant, hobo-ified renditions of well-known works.

When I first started listening to those records, I didn’t know what I was hearing. It turns out that I was getting my first exposure to classical mainstays like Liszt’s Liebestraume, Bizet’s Carmen, Ponchieli’s Dance of the Hours, and this gem, Rossini’s William Tell Overture (including the parts NOT associated with the Lone Ranger) set against the backdrop of a horse race:

Victor Borge

Perhaps the father of classical music comedy, Victor Borge is well-known (at least to people of a certain age) outside the musical sphere as the creator of Phonetic Punctuation, a fun little way to read in which you “pronounce” all the punctuation. But if that’s all you know of Victor Borge, you don’t know the half of him. Borge began his career in Denmark as a concert pianist, and when he made the move to comedy, he brought his piano with him. He won the award for Best New Radio Performer of the Year in 1942, had his own show on NBC in the late 1940s, and warmed the couch next to Johnny Carson a number times on The Tonight Show. He received Kennedy Center Honors in 1999, at the age of 90.

My favorite schtick of his is the assimilation of the “Happy Birthday” song into the writings of well-known composers. Here’s one version of it:

As a parent, one of the most impressive things I’ve found about Victor Borge is that his act is both painfully hilarious and completely family-friendly. Let your kids listen to Victor Borge. Better yet, make them listen to Victor Borge.

Peter Schickele, aka P.D.Q. Bach

Peter Schickele, self-proclaimed “Musicolologist,” is both a musician and a comedian, but more importantly, he’s an educator. His classical music education radio show, Schickele Mix, ran for 169 episodes on public radio before eventually being canceled in  the late 1990s for lack of funds. (A sad day in music education.) What was great about his show was that he seamlessly blended comedy and education to create a truly enjoyable and educational show.

That knack for combining musical comedy and musical education extends to his albums. It’s true that much of the comedy behind the albums of Schickele’s alter ego, P.D.Q. Bach (the 24th of J.S. Bach’s 23 children), consists of musical “inside jokes,” but they’re still funny — or at least witty — to everyone. With Schickele, and with P.D.Q. Bach, the more you know about music history, the funnier it gets.

Here’s a bit of classic Peter Schickele comedy from the album Report from Hoople: P.D.Q. Bach on the Air. This is the famous performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony with a football-like play-by-play that pits the orchestra against the conductor. The beauty of this piece is that practically everything the announcers say is musicologically accurate, once again melding comedy and education.

Igudesman and Joo

Relative newcomers Alek­sey Igudes­man (violin) and Hyung-ki Joo (piano) met at age 12 at the Yehudi Menuhin International Music School and soon became friends and writing partners. In 2004, they collaborated on their comedy/musical show “A Little Nightmare Music,” which became a YouTube sensation. (You can get the full DVD here — it’s well worth it.) Since then, according to their Web site, “they have per­formed with major sym­phony orches­tras around the world and have played at some of the world’s biggest stages and festivals.” Their routines combine classical music, pop culture, and comedy. Here’s a clip in which the music of Mozart meets the music of James Bond:

For those of you playing the musical version of Six Degrees of Separation, this is the same Hyung-ki Joo, aka Richard Joo, who performs on Billy Joel’s Fantasies & Delusions: Music for Solo Piano.

I’m sure there are some other music-comedy combinations out there that I’ve left off or forgotten. Who isn’t listed here? What is your favorite bit from these or other musical comedians?

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