So, it begs the question: If rockers are so side-splittingly hilarious (albeit, inadvertently), why isn’t the music they make any, well, funnier? There are many descriptives that can be applied across the rock genre, and just a few that spring to mind are: turgid, pointless, vapid, derivative, lifeless and avoidable-at-all-costs. Laugh-loaded isn’t an adjective that pops up very often, but it’s always welcome when it does.
We aren’t talking about song parodies, novelty tunes, imper-sonations (sorry, Neil Innes; you’re good, but no Rutles need apply), or sound-effects gags as employed by the nephews of Spike Jones and his City Slickers. Neither are we characterizing as merely amusing, such misunderstood geniuses as Frank Zappa or Randy Newman, though they are both accomplished jesters. Likewise, musical acts that appear genuinely oblivious to their own funniness, including the Shaggs and Richard Carpenter, are disqualified — as are bands that seem to think they’re a lot funnier than they really are. Calling you out, Barenaked Ladies.
Anyone lacking a gram of wit, from Weird Al Yankovic to Dickie Goodman, to the most amusing laddie in your country club or high-school cafeteria, can get cute with a popular song, and the result is seldom anything other than cringe-making. Perhaps for that reason, incidents of funnymen strapping on Stratocasters, and taking to the glare of the standup spotlight, are few and far between. But, on rare occasions, a work has been produced that elicits chuckles commensurate with the urge to shake your booty. Here are five such mirthful masterpieces of rock ‘n’ roll.
5. Jackson Browne – Lawyers in Love (1983, Asylum)
Not usually known as a joker, Browne’s enduring claim to fame is having allegedly assaulted his girlfriend, the actress Darryl Hannah. He did have his jolly side, however, as you’d expect from a fellow whose parents named him for a running gag Phil Harris used on the Jack Benny radio program. Browne sings, “Am I the only one who hears the screams, and the strangled cries of lawyers in love?”, and his best lyrics from this CD make you want to respond, “Heckuva job, Brownie.” Unfortunately, he quickly sunk under the weight of his own earnestness, and ain’t funny no more.
4. Joe Walsh – But Seriously, Folks… (1978, Asylum)
When you have to work as hard at being funny as Walsh does — he ran for the US presidency in 1980 as a spoof — the results don’t usually pan out. However, as the title of his solo record telegraphs, the Eagles’ resident merryman developed a well-honed gift for laugh-making, after quitting his gig with the power trio, the James Gang. This record includes the comedy standard “Life’s Been Good,” which Walsh promised to make the national anthem of the US, if elected, and a track titled “Theme from Boat Weirdos,” which is a self-contained caper in itself.
3. Sparks – Kimono My House (1973, Island)
“This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us,” sings Russell Mael, kicking off a 35-years-and-counting career as the rock god with a thoroughly subversive sense of humor. His brother Ron is the band’s mordent lyricist, and serves as deadpan George Burns to Russell’s manic Gracie Allen. The Maels changed their act’s name from Halfnelson, which is borderline funny, to Sparks, reportedly as an homage to the Marx Brothers, anarchic movie comedians.
2. Martin Mull – Martin Mull & His Fabulous Furniture In Your Living Room (1972, Capricorn)
Mull initiated his career as a self-proclaimed rock ‘n’ roll comic, and began with great promise. His 1972 recording is a high-water mark, containing inspired silliness such as the track, “A Tribute To Bert Parks.” However, Mull eventually took the path toward easy bucks, accepting a long string of acting roles where he performed as a slow-burning American answer to John Cleese. Now he is content to appear on TV sitcoms as a latter-day Gale Gordon, which makes former admirers wish he’d go back to his musical roots, just so we could hear “(How Could I Not Miss) A Girl Your Size” one more time.
1. Jack E. Leonard – Rock ‘n’ Roll Music For Kids Over Sixteen (1957, Vix)
It was a different world back in 1956, when these sides were waxed. Rock was a brand new phenomenon assumed to be a passing fancy, and was better known as Teenage Music. Therefore, the thought of 44-year-old Jack Lebitsky, a nightclub comic whose marquee name was Jack E. Leonard, or “Fat Jack,” warbling and twitching away like a pre-Graceland Elvis, was intended as a one-use disposable gag. Indeed, the record is packaged as a lampoon, depicting Jack E., horn-rimmed, plump and hairless, in full Marlon Brando biker regalia. The platter has all the earmarks of a no-class put-on. To my considerable shock, however, Jack E. Leonard is an extremely adept interpreter of the earliest genres of rock, and his album is a superb collection of the rockabilly, do-wop, and rhythm ‘n’ blues styles, and what would now be called garage-band. It’s also a regular riot, as Jack serves up a couple of choice bits from his club act (‘Now if we can get the band together… let’s leave!’), before ripping into a full-throttle Presleyian version of the poem ‘Daffodils’ by William Wordsworth (1770-1850), backed by the rompin’ beat of Will Stomp and his Canonneers, featuring the Needleman brothers as sidemen, with vocal assistance from the Four Fives. The LP liner notes are contributed by none other than Jackie Gleason, and the Great One accurately depicts the spirit of the project: “This is a proud man who tells his musical stories with rare feeling… There is sadness mixed with delirious happiness in all his ditties… It’s hard to describe, uh, it’s hard to describe, for their impact takes your breath away, and you can’t think.” You tell them, Jackie. Because if the sight of a stoned rock singer is enough to make a movie audience laugh, where does it say that professional comedians can’t reciprocate by mastering the art of rock ‘n’ roll? [Click here for a sample of Fat Jack’s vocal magic.]