They go by different names: Musical stand-up comics, comedy-folk duos, two-man novelty bands, or perhaps they’re simply comedians with a penchant for songwriting. Call it what you like, but using music for comedic purposes is nothing new. Writing a joke and writing a song may seem at opposite ends of the storytelling spectrum, yet time and again musical comedians have shown songs are an ideal form ripe for the laughing.
Some musical comedians play music their entire set while others may pick up instruments here and there to punctuate their more typical joke telling, but whatever the case may be, musical comedians have provided audiences with a unique type of wit. Whether it’s a clever way to get their voice across and differentiate them from other stand-up comics, or a way to make fun of a song’s form a la Lonely Island, here are some of the best the business has ever seen, in no particular order.
1. Tom Lehrer
A precursor of sorts to Lonely Island, Lehrer’s work exploded song forms. Drawing upon the period’s popular music, he wrote his own satirical versions, adding in sharp commentary about the 1960s. With his rollicking piano and vocalist styling, his music softened the blow to many of his politically astute points. Singing about everything from censorship to Nazi scientist Wehrner von Braun, who drew Lehrer’s ire in a biting song lambasting the man’s wartime activities, it all seemed funnier—and easier to take—thanks to Lehrer’s music. The comedian was particularly adept at breaking down lyrics to play with an audience’s expectations, briefly delaying a syllable in order to land a punch line. Released in 1965, Lehrer’s most popular work That Was the Year That Was remains a classic comedy album to this day.
2. Garfunkel and Oates
Kate Micucci and Riki Lindhome are each comedians and actresses in their own right, but together they’re a formidable team. A counterbalance to many of the male musical comedians out there, they provide a female’s point of view on all manner of things from pregnant women (those smug jerks) to figuring out the difference between hand jobs and blowjobs. Their sweet demeanor and folk song structure contrast much of their subject matter, so don’t let their wide-eyed, seemingly innocent look fool you. Theirs is an honest take on life as a 21st century woman. The two became so popular they landed their own TV show on IFC, which followed their struggles to break into stand-up by way of their music.
3. Bo Burnham
At a whopping 24 years old, Burnham has already blazed a serious trail in stand-up. With four comedy albums under his belt, Burnham has the kind of career one expects from a veteran comic. Make no mistake about it: Burnham is a veteran, even if his age suggests otherwise. In addition to other non-traditional musical bits like when he knocked a bottle of water off his stool and then danced to a pre-recorded song informing the audience he meant to knock the water over in 2013’s what, Burnham integrates guitar and keys into his set. As a result, his show seems more in line with the variety kind than any stand-up special. Oscillating between sensitive and asshole, Burnham finds the comedy in between, exposing things audiences may think but never say. His song “Sad” talks about genuinely horrible things, but the way his stage presence sells the bit makes the difference. In a lot of ways, Burnham is comfortable making fun of the comedian type who exploits pain and suffering for laughter.
4. Spike Jones
Like other musical comedians in the late 1930s, Jones began as a musician before branching out into comedy. A studio band percussionist, he also performed on radio shows, where he realized that bigger sounds were needed to emphasize or punctuate a moment. He began integrating sound effects and other wacky instruments into his music, which set him apart from other performers at the time. One of his more famous “novelty” songs was a special rendition of the romantic “Cocktails for Two.” Jones turned the croon about a lovely evening out on its head with horns, bells and percussive effects, all of which delighted listeners with their whimsy. Accompanied by his band the City Slickers, Jones went on tour as the Musical Depreciation Revue in the early 1940s, playing “Cocktails for Two” and his other hits like “Der Feuhrer’s Face.”
5. Stephen Lynch
Armed only with his guitar, Stephen Lynch has a stage presence that at the outset may look like your typical singer-songwriter, but his songs and comedy inevitably turn dark. His strongest humor oftentimes comes from the juxtaposition between his melodic strumming and the lyrics’ increasingly messed up humor. In one of Lynch’s more popular songs, “Lullabye (The Divorce Song),” he softly and sweetly sings about divorce and all the reasons why his wife left him, each one becoming more and more awful and as a result hilarious. With big hits like Little Bit Special in 2000 and the live album Superhero in 2003, Lynch had huge momentum. His follow-up albums haven’t hit the same mark his earlier work set, but he continues offering his trademark musical lampoons.
6. The Smothers Brothers
Usually seen dressed in matching suits, Thomas and Richard (Dick) Smothers may not have seemed like comedians at the outset. Their straight-laced appearance fit their sweet harmonies and folk melodies perfectly, aligning with other big folk acts at the time like Peter, Paul & Mary. The fun began when their songs often devolved into a fight. Watch their classic “My Old Man” and see how a seemingly sweet song quickly devolves into carefully controlled chaos. “My old man is a cotton-picking, finger-licking, chicken-plucker. What do you think about that?” sings Dick. “You better not make a mistake,” Tom seriously advises, hinting at the inherent wordplay. In the late 1960s, their variety show The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour aired sharp satire aimed at the mounting political issues of the time, especially racism and the Vietnam War; despite its popularity, CBS cancelled it in 1969 due to these controversies.
7. Flight of the Conchords
New Zealanders Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie sing about all manner of subjects from the robot revolution to denying the fact that they’re weeping, but no matter the content, their songs all have an absurdist tone. The pair adroitly uses their nerdy, quiet personas to explore things like relationships, sexual expectations and what day of the week is best for sex, but that focus on life doesn’t stop them from singing about Bowie being stuck in space or a racist dragon. It’s all a toss-up, but it works so well thanks to their clever wordplay and catchy melodies. Their novelty songs were such a hit they were able to turn them into their HBO series by the same name.
8. Adam Sandler
Mention Adam Sandler’s name in the same sentence as “musical stand-up comedy,” and many people may jump to his classic “The Chanukah Song” and its eight crazy nights. More than a one-hit wonder, though, Sandler has a large oeuvre of comically minded songs. Between the song bits he wrote for his time on Saturday Night Live, or the songs he played exclusively for his stand-up, he’s laid a lot of ground word for today’s modern day musical stand-up comic with his one-man, one-guitar shtick. Employing funny voices or a funny spin on genres like reggae, Sandler didn’t limit himself to any one way to do musical stand-up. Many of his comedy albums released throughout the 1990s like They’re All Gonna Laugh At You! and What’s Your Name? seem more like a variety show, weaving together jokes, “scenes” and songs like the great “Food Innuendo Guy.”
9. Tenacious D
Unlike most other acts on this list, Tenacious D has a heavier rock sound that they use to full effect in order to parody and somehow still pay tribute to classic rock. Jack Black and Kyle Gass know how to play their roles, the latter straight man to the former’s wild card. And that’s what works so well for their particular style. With now-classic songs like “Kielbasa,” which has less to do with the actual sausage than what Jack and Kyle have in their pants, the pair composes some truly memorable songs that are equal parts funny and great music. Their banter in between songs helps reveal these two goofballs for the rock nerds they are. Their 2001 self-titled album became a hit among the college set, and Tenacious D followed it up with another album and film Pick of Destiny and their most recent album Rise of the Fenix.
10. Allan Sherman
A song parodist from the early 1960s, Sherman hit it big with a series of comedy albums titled My Son, the Folk Singer, My Son, the Celebrity, and My Son, the Nut. The last included the instant classic “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh!” sung from a young camper’s point of view as he writes his parents about the horrors of summer camp. In addition to parodying popular tunes the way Weird Al does today, Sherman also concentrated heavily on classical music; “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh!” is set to Amilcare Ponchielli’s “Dance of the Hours,” which provides a sweet if mischievous background to contrast the young boy’s complaints. For all his popularity as a song parodist, Sherman initially got his start as a comedy writer before discovering his talent for applying his wordplay to music.
11. Tim Minchin
With dark eyeliner and wild hair, the British-born Australian comic looks more like a rock star than your typical comedian. It makes sense then that his shows have more in common with a rock concert than any kind of traditional stand-up. Underneath the stage production replete at times with a full backing band and light show, Minchin’s songs are funny. Hilarious, actually. They work because of his particularly witty wordplay, rhyme scheme and ability to use both to ridicule life in the twenty-first century. In the song “Prejudice,” Minchin breaks into a rap rhythm and sings about how “Only a ginger can call another ginger ‘ginger’” before launching into the trials and tribulations of being a ginger. “Ginger,” of course, cleverly standing in for that other forbidden word starting with an “N.” Minchin put his songwriting ability to good use by writing the music and lyrics for Matilda the Musical, which went on to win five Tony Awards in 2013.
12. Zach Galifianakis
If anyone can make a living from being awkward, it’s Zach Galifianakis. Before he made it big in projects like The Hangover or his fake interview show Between Two Ferns, Galifianakis was known for his dry humor at the piano. He tinkled the ivories with a sarcasm that contrasted the soothing melodies he used as background music. Alongside traditional stand-up, he would take a seat at the piano and quietly play music while continuing to share his observations about life. Unlike other musical comedians on this list he didn’t perform true songs, but his brand of musical comedy worked well because his instrument worked like a prop that further juxtaposed Galifianakis’ already twisted comedy.
13. Demetri Martin
Where most comics on this list rely on one or two instruments, Demetri Martin employs more. A lot more. Using a ukulele, a harmonica, or even a glockenspiel at times, Martin uses these quirky instruments to augment his goofy sense of humor. Adding to this quirky style, Martin brings in all kinds of props to the stage instead of relying solely on the mic. In his 2003 special If I…, he drew out pictures and used them as site gags. Like Galifianakis, Martin at times talks over his music, using the background strumming of his guitar to share his humorous observations, but he does perform songs, too. It’s a smorgasbord, containing a little bit of everything as Martin both explores and pushes what it means to perform stand-up. He took his off the wall style to Comedy Central for the show Important Things with Demetri Martin which lasted for two seasons between 2009 and 2011.
14. Judy Tenuta
With her trademark voice and accordion, Tenuta had a brash stage personality that prodded audiences right in their funny bones. It didn’t matter if she insulted her crowds, growled out punch lines or sang lewd songs about her desires, she approached her craft with such vivacity and originality that audiences ate it up. She epitomizes “madcap.” In the stand-up special Ladies of the Night, she comes twirling out in a dress and approaches the mic, greeting her audience with “Hi, Pigs.” Whether using her accordion to punctuate her jokes or singing full songs like wanting to fall in love with the cowboy-esque Pope John Paul, she found ways to integrate music into her act and accentuate her comedy in different ways. With lyrics like “I just want a cowboy in a long white silky dress,” she took the stage as much to shock as to get laughs.
15. The Lonely Island
The comedy trio may now be known for their hilarious SNL Digital Shorts and the three comedy albums they released as a result of their popularity, but the group actually didn’t start in music. Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone first grew their high school comedy group by doing short films and writing. Their sharp wit landed them at Saturday Night Live’s doorstep, where all three wrote and Samberg performed. Their unique send-up of contemporary pop, hip-hop and electronica song forms (and the celebrities they attracted to participate in their hyperbolic-absurdist fun) quickly became one of the show’s most popular elements. From the now classic “Dick in a Box” to the equally popular “I Just Had Sex,” Lonely Island created hilarious spoofs that made fun of both a song’s style as well as its subject matter.
16. Steve Martin
It makes sense that while writing for The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, Martin became exposed to the kind of musical comedy that would go on to influence his own routine. Hearing The Smothers Brothers and their musical guests perform, and opening for bands like The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Martin evolved into a versatile stand-up comic. Part of his routine involved humorous songs, including one of his most famous, “King Tut,” which details the famous Egyptian king’s funk factor. Where other musical comedians favored a guitar or piano, Martin tended to go for the banjo, using it to play songs as well as bits. One in particular involved performing “Dueling Banjos” for the crowd with the second banjo noticeably absent. It’s a moment that showcases Martin’s comedic timing and musical prowess to full effect. Despite being one of the leading stand-up comics in the 1970s, Martin eventually left that world behind to pursue other acting projects, but he continues to play music, especially bluegrass, to this day.
17. Eric Idle and Neil Innes
Together, Idle and Innes are perhaps best known as Dirk McQuickly and Ron Nasty, respectively. The two men created The Rutles, the famous Beatles’ parody band. Initially, The Rutles performed as part of Rutland Weekend Television, Idle’s post-Python project with Innes, which included sketches and other comedic songs, some with a humorous political bent and others absurd in the vein of Monty Python. For instance, the show’s first episode features a song about a man who stars in dirty movies, but in all other aspects of life looks like your average guy. The Rutles were their biggest hit, however, and eventually the parody group filmed a TV special called All You Need is Cash and actually went on tour. The pair’s story ends on a sad note, as Innes filed a lawsuit in 2014 against unpaid royalties for music used in the theatrical production Spamalot.
18. Victor Borge
Known as The Clown Prince of Denmark, Borge had a teasing wit that always seemed one step ahead of everybody else. Oddly enough, it was a quickness he achieved mainly by playing dumb. He often pretended to be confused, like when he would approach his piano and exclaim it only had one big black key for him to play before realizing he needed to open its cover. Often appearing in a suit or a tux, his poised, well-dressed exterior belied the crackling wit underneath, which emerged in both physical and intellectual ways. At times Borge waxed comedic about Mozart or Beethoven, at others he seemed very much the elementary school class clown. In between stand-up bits where he read audiences stories including every piece of punctuation, he tended to play a mix of classical pieces. Not one to let a funny moment go to waste, he would often interrupt his playing with explanations or stories about the composer or composition. It may seem high-minded, but Borge made it all accessible, showcasing why he isn’t the average musical comedian. He was a musical prodigy who saw life’s humorous side.
19. Henny Youngman
If you’ve ever heard the one-liner, “Take my wife…please,” then you’ve heard Henny Youngman. He may have started out as a musician in the mid-1930s, but his sharp tongue quickly brought him other opportunities. Rather than choosing between music and comedy, Youngman wove the two together, playing violin in between his routine. The instrument’s almost wistful sound contrasted his straightforward, irreverent sense of humor, and made for a distinct act at a time when comedians tended to build up a story over time. Youngman instead fired one-liner after one-liner, landing numerous jokes in a short span of time and earning him the nickname “The King of the One Liners.” With a career spanning seven decades, Youngman proved he had staying power despite the changing nature of comedy. In fact, his approach to stand-up influenced some of the industry’s greats, including Rodney Dangerfield.
20. ”Weird Al” Yankovic
No list would be complete without the man himself, Weird Al. Regarding that old question about the chicken and the egg, it’s up for debate what came first for Weird Al: music or comedy. His ability to parody popular songs into memorable new ones is a talent unto itself. Performing since the early 1980s, he’s parodied some of the biggest names in music, including Michael Jackson, Nirvana and Lady Gaga. It doesn’t matter how the music industry shifts, he continually offers listeners a fresh take on the radio’s most popular songs. It’s no wonder then that he’s remained such an iconic and beloved figure to this day, known as much for his funny music videos as his songs. Despite Weird Al’s many Grammy awards and other accolades it took his 2014 album Mandatory Fun to earn him the number one spot on the Billboard 200 list for the first time in his career.
Amanda Wicks is a writer specializing in comedy and music, and now the place in between where they make sweet musical laughter. Follow her on Twitter @aawicks.