Sean Nelson (Harvey Danger) Talks the Comedy-Indie-Rock Complex

A funny notion occurred to me at the recent Sasquatch! Festival. As I squeezed among the teeming horde up on its tiptoes in the hopes of catching...

“I should be drinking a toast to absent friends/Instead of these comedians.”

— Elvis Costello

“A comedian is someone who tells jokes.”

— Cass McCombs

A funny notion occurred to me at the recent Sasquatch! Festival. As I squeezed among the teeming horde up on its tiptoes in the hopes of catching a glimpse of Nick Offerman and later Tig Notaro and Mike Birbiglia doing daytime stand-up sets in the comedy tent while popular bands played (sometimes to club-sized crowds) on three music stages, I wondered if maybe comedy hadn’t caught up with and to some extent usurped music. Not in terms of pound-for-pound popularity, but in that vague, general sense of what young people — who inexplicably but inextricably remain the arbiters of cultural relevance (said the recently-turned-40-year-old) — relate to. I wondered: if I were 18 today and wanted to assert my existence and say something to my cultural milieu, would I be more likely to start a band or a sketch group? Would I be more likely to record an album or a weekly podcast of wry musings? A 45-minute set of rock songs about feelings vs. a 20-minute set of stand-up, etc. In 1993 this wouldn’t even have been a question. Nor in 2003. But now? Major music festivals such as Bonnaroo, Sasquatch!, and FYF Fest feature comedy stages whose capacities are increasingly insufficient to contain the fans who swarm to them, and big ticket events like Tenacious D’s Festival Supreme and Jesse Thorn’s Atlantic Ocean Comedy & Music Festival cruise make it an interesting proposition.

You don’t have to look very hard to notice that whatever cultural barrier once separated rock music and comedy has collapsed like Chevy Chase playing Gerald Ford.  Which might not be a bad place to start. The original Saturday Night Live was an early example of comedy leaning toward the hipness that music has always tended to monopolize. There were obvious forebears — Lenny Bruce’s explicit jazz afición, Beatles and Dylan films and press conferences, The Monkees, Groucho Marx’s LSD-friendly third act — but the first few seasons of SNL were clearly a gateway drug. SNL’s comedy pulled off the then-rare showbiz coup of becoming popular by being cool, while allowing musicians in rock’s most self-important era to lighten up while still being safely in on the joke. (Paul Simon singing “Still Crazy After All These Years” in a turkey suit might not be your cup of tea, but it’s hard to imagine him doing it on Ed Sullivan.)

Nearly 40 years later, though, music and comedy appear to be overlapping more than ever, and if anyone is complaining about it, their gripes are drowned out by the sound of laughter and applause.

Why is this happening?  With the advent of YouTube, the ultimate entertainment equalizer, it’s become exactly as easy to see every comic who ever lived as it is to hear every song ever recorded. As a consequence, one form has been liberated from a kind of subcultural ghetto, while the other has gradually relinquished its stranglehold on the job of mattering.  As one industry has declined, the other has mushroomed. Stand-up’s exodus from the ghetto of comedy clubs, coupled with the rise in popularity of live and filmed improv, the multiplicity of cable and on-demand video, and a comedy album renaissance have been concomitant with a quantum shift in music culture from the luxury of standoffish mystique to the Darwinian imperative of total, 24-7 availability and naked solicitude. And it can’t be just a coincidence that Comedy Central began broadcasting its bounty of short-form stand-up clips and cult signifiers like Mystery Science Theater 3000 at exactly the same time MTV shifted its focus away from music videos and towards episodic offal. Plus Twitter, also. Now, everyone is equally famous on a podcast.

There’s that cliché that says all comics want to be rock stars, and vice versa.  (And then there’s the cliché that clichés are based in truth. To say nothing of that cliché of pointing out that cliché. And they told two friends, and so on.)  Witness the weirdly durable trend of novelty songs tacked onto the end of comedy albums in the hopes of airplay.  Most times they were just the comedian’s best-known catchphrase or persona set to a canned tune: Rodney Dangerfield’s “Rappin’ Rodney,” Billy Crystal’s “You Look Mahvelous,” Howie Mandel’s “Do the Watusi,” Joe Piscopo & Eddie Murphy’s “Honeymooners Rap.” Sometimes — Murphy’s “Boogie in Your Butt” vaults to mind — they were inexplicable aberrations that verged on the avant-garde. Every once in a while, however — as with the guitar interludes and “Chicks Dig Jerks” song on Bill Hicks’s albums, or the very specific pastiche that informs the best Spinal Tap and Rutles songs, or Sandra Bernhard’s ingenious cabaret persona — they reveal the comics’ secret longing to be a “real” musician, just as sure as the interstitial comedy sketches on rap albums and between-song banter demonstrate the reverse in musicians.

But musicians being funny is dicier territory. Randy Newman never made any bones about writing funny songs. In a 2002 interview, I asked him if he thought funny lyrics were an impediment to reaching an audience. “I write other kinds of stuff,” he replied, “so I have an outlet, but comedy would be good enough for me. I mean, if I could make people laugh all the time, I believe that would satisfy me.”  And yet, despite Newman’s many powerful, emotional songs, I can no longer count the number of times I have pleaded the case for his towering genius to friends who still, despite all evidence, consider him a novelty songwriter who loves L.A. and hates short people.

The rock & roll era was full of figures whose senses of humor tended to be subsumed under the more serious aspects of their music. Though John Lennon, George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Keith Richards, Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Paul Simon, David Bowie, Johnny Rotten, Patti Smith, Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, Chrissie Hynde, Morrissey, and Michael Stipe (to name a few) wrote/write with dazzling wit, they usually saved the funniest bits for interviews. This is not to suggest that any one of them should have done anything differently, only to say that their reputations as serious — and in some cases humorless, even miserable — artists prevail in some measure because the audience consciousness during that era had a harder time reconciling the idea that a great artist could also be silly sometimes. As if it diminished not only the seriousness of the art, but the worth of the consumer’s investment. And people wonder why rock & roll is still dead. Rock’s Serious Period seemed to be predicated on the artist’s dread of seeming like a clown. But the artists who survived that phase, both literally and artistically, from Dylan on down, seem to have realized two related things: 1) that trying not to seem like a clown is by no means the same thing as not being one, and 2) there are worse things to be than clowns. On reflection, Devo gets my vote for most subversive truly great rock band of all time, and they made clowns of everyone.

But by the ‘90s, it seemed rock music had gotten more comfortable with being funny, or at least clever. Magazines (remember them?) told us it was the age of irony, but it was also the aftermath of a decade in the post-punk wilderness, during which the wide readership conspicuously ignored so much great music that it went from being not even funny to being hilarious. Or at least hysterical. Bands/songwriters like Pavement, Liz Phair, Smog, Will Oldham, the Breeders, Guided by Voices, Superchunk, Silver Jews, Aimee Mann, Flaming Lips, Beck, Yo La Tengo, Magnetic Fields, Mountain Goats, Pulp, and pop-period Sonic Youth, to name but 16, were and are flagrantly, if sometimes cryptically, comical — not only in their lyrics, but in their song and album titles, their onstage personas, their whole approach. The only irony was that the very point at which it stopped being in any way cool to aspire to bigness was the very moment (and it was almost precisely one moment) cool bands like this became big. At the very same moment, hip-hop, which has never had any difficulty reconciling humor and seriousness, became much, much bigger, which it remains.

It was a small thing that felt really huge when, in the later part of that decade, David Cross hinted at an indie-comedy alliance when he wore Superchunk and Creeper Lagoon t-shirts on Mr. Show (which became available on DVD around the same time laptop DVD players started becoming fixtures in tour vans, as opposed to tour buses, where it was an obvious staple). Not long after that, the kinship became even more plain. Cross, Patton Oswalt and their cohorts started regularly doing stand-up in music clubs. Aimee Mann and Michael Penn hired them to provide the between-song banter on tour in 2000. Sub Pop started putting out records by Cross, Oswalt, Eugene Mirman, and Flight of the Conchords — and those records started being quoted incessantly by people in bars, pretending the jokes were their own — it was clear that the then-re-ascendant indie audience was happy to get a bit of chocolate in their peanut butter.  Characteristically, Chicago’s Drag City label had beaten them to the punch, releasing Neal Hamburger’s first LP America’s Funnyman in 1996 — though fewer people were heard quoting it in bars. (I realize that this is threatening to look like the beginning of an effort to be encyclopedic, so I’ll just quickly add Tinkle, Comedy Death Ray, the Comedians of Comedy, Matador Records’ “Escandalo” newsletter, Fred Armisen’s infamous 1998 SXSW videotapeChunklet magazine, the Scharpling & Wurster compilation CDs from “The Best Show on WFMU,”  the old Largo, the new Largo at the Coronet, Subaru’s “this car is like punk rock” ad, Tenacious D, Girls Guitar Club, the LCD Soundsystem song “Losing My Edge,” and Todd Barry’s Fugazi joke).

As is usually the case in music, British people were doing much the same thing, only better, on a parallel track. Radiohead thanked Bill Hicks in the liner notes to The Bends in 1995. Ten years later, the intimidatingly brilliant Chris Morris’s sitcom Nathan Barley popped the bubble of vacuous hipsterism (and announced the rise of the idiots) before it was on most people’s radar. The set of Graham Linehan’s The IT Crowd featured conspicuous posters for Guided by Voices and My Morning Jacket. Even Noel Gallagher of Oasis, after a decade-plus as one of the least sympathetic figures in rock, managed to redeem himself through comedy via his recurring role as third banana on Russell Brand and Matt Morgan’s short-lived but indelible BBC2 radio show (2006-2008).

And then there is The Mighty Boosh. Julian Barratt and Noel Fielding’s surrealist comedy and music TV show is full of inspired references to musical tropes and nearly always features songs that, despite being brilliantly silly (“Ice floe, nowhere to go…”), are also really good — the kind of snippets you’d like to hear the rest of. Boosh was popular enough in the U.K. to warrant its own festival in 2008, featuring musicians and comedians — a clear inspiration for Tenacious D’s Festival Supreme, where Barratt and Fielding are scheduled to perform.

But if the membrane between music and comedy was always more permeable than purists would acknowledge, there were also certain fundamental differences that no amount of mutual admiration could eradicate. For example, Albert Brooks’ story about the nightmare of being an opening act for Woodstock rocker Richie Havens, as heard on the former’s (ludicrously out-of-print) 1973 Comedy Minus One LP, is a fantastic evocation of how impossible it was for a comic to ride the hormonal wave of a rock audience’s expectations during rock’s heyday.  In 1987, shriek-era Bobcat Goldthwait’s transformation into Joshua Tree-era Bono onstage was Andy Kaufman-level stunning, but in ’93, his manic antagonism proved a poor fit in arenas as an opening act on Nirvana’s final North American tour. (Nirvana was the prime example of a band whose sense of humor seemed utterly lost on its audience.)

The principle works in reverse, too. When Marc Maron interviews musicians on his addictive podcastWTF, which he does with increasing frequency, the lacerating irreverence baked into his comedy persona disappears, and the fame guard he keeps raised in conversation with fellow comics and movie/TV people lowers. He says “yeah” a half-beat sooner, drops gear names into the conversation, makes exclamations that sound just one notch too eager. In short, he becomes a fan — not necessarily of the artists themselves (the Iggy Pop episode was a notable exception) but of music as a path distinct from that of comedy. Maron is a stand-up lifer, but also a devoted hobbyist guitar player, with a leaning toward blues, which means that at some point, he probably nursed and abandoned the rock & roll dream. The guileless admiration and yearning for identification that comes out when he talks to musicians can be a pleasure or a drag depending on the guest, but it’s significant because it reveals a distinction between formal spheres that feels almost Old World.

In 2013, that distinction is increasingly hard to perceive. There’s a George Carlin quote you see on Twitter every so often: “Comedy is a socially acceptable form of hostility and aggression.” True enough, especially in his case. But it wasn’t so terribly long ago that popular music (rock and hip-hop alike, to say nothing of jazz and blues before them) did that job just fine, and without the need to be socially acceptable, either. But everything about the words “social” and “acceptable” are different now from what they were even when Carlin, whose records were as important to my developing brain as any rock band’s, was alive and kicking. Or maybe the real difference lies in our relationship to “hostility” and “aggression.” If rock & roll always prided itself on the refusal to be polite, while comedy always managed to say “thanks, you guys are the best!” at the end of every set, both forms have taken an evolutionary step towards each other because they both realized that their convictions, to paraphrase the late, sainted Mr. Hicks, are no longer relevant.

Back in 1998, when Sleater-Kinney was the most thrillingly confrontational band going, not even the wildest imagination could have imagined that Carrie Brownstein was on a course to be the co-star and co-creator of a cable TV sketch comedy show popular enough to land her in an American Express commercial.  But Portlandia almost certainly reaches a bigger audience than Sleater-Kinney and Wild Flag combined, and no one seems to be questioning Brownstein’s rock & roll credentials. It doesn’t hurt that she’s a fine comic actress/writer who also happens to be one of the greatest rock & roll performers alive, but her hyphenated reality presents no apparent contradiction because the generation that appreciates it would never stop to wonder why an indie rock star wouldn’t want to be on TV wearing a funny wig. And why, indeed?

When I interviewed Randy Newman a second time, in 2011 (like being on TV, it’s an experience you should never turn down), he noted that the pop landscape had changed a lot. The same old objections could still be heard, but it had gotten easier not to listen. “Some people,” he said, “they take music very seriously, like it’s a sacred experience, and they don’t want the extra element of humor. And I understand that, I think. But then, why have a closed mind about music, of all things? You listen and if it’s funny, you laugh.”

Hard to argue with that.

Sean Nelson is a writer, musician, and actor. His solo album, Make Good Choices, is available on Really Records. He is an editor at The Stranger. He currently lives in Seattle. You can follow him on Twitter here.