We may have a hard time imagining this now, but a century ago comic songs were an absolute staple of popular entertainment. The British music hall teemed with tunes poking fun at working-class life and the hardships of World War I, and American vaudeville was populated by singers who spoofed romance or ethnic characters. Jazz Age composers like Cole Porter (“Be a Clown”), Gus Kahn (“Makin’ Whoopee”), and Harry Ruby (“Hooray for Captain Spaulding”) brought enormous style and sophistication to the form, and for every performer who made the transition to radio and talkies—like Fanny Brice (“Second Hand Rose”), Eddie Cantor (“If You Knew Susie”), or Jimmy Durante (“Inka Dinka Doo”)—there were hundreds more still plying similar material onstage. The traditional comic song hung on well into the 50s, as the last vaudeville stars finished out their careers on TV variety shows and younger performers like Danny Kaye and Jerry Lewis carried the torch.
In the 50s the record business developed a niche market for novelty songs like “The Flying Saucer” or “The Chipmunk Song,” which often capitalized on sound effects, samples of hit records, or other gimmicks. (It lives on in the records of Ray Stevens, Adam Sandler, and “Weird Al” Yankovic.) But after rock began to colonize the record charts, the traditional comic song became hopelessly square; hip performers like the Smothers Brothers or Steve Martin might have incorporated music into their acts, but usually they were subverting the songs for comic effect. American vaudeville and British music hall lived on in the musical numbers of Mel Brooks and Monty Python, but they were exceptions to the rule. Nowadays, when performers like Sarah Silverman, Tenacious D, or Flight of the Conchords break into song, the whole enterprise is usually framed by ironic quotation marks.
This weekend brings the inaugural Chicago International Movies and Music Festival (see our cover story for background and a schedule), and two of the more prominently featured movies offer interesting perspectives on comic songwriters, one American and the other British. Winner of the audience award at this year’s Slamdance Film Festival, Punching the Clown is a consistently funny comedy about a young singer-songwriter with a satirical bent (Henry Phillips, playing himself and performing his own material) who’s trying to break into the LA music business. And The Seventh Python warmly (and rather indulgently) profiles 64-year-old Neil Innes, who got his start with the wacky Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band in the 60s, wrote songs for Monty Python in the 70s, and collaborated with Python’s Eric Idle on the Rutles, who parodied the Beatles in the priceless 1978 TV movie The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash. Innes is more rooted in tradition than Phillips, but each man in his own way carries the DNA of those who came before him.
In fact, Innes’s first band was steeped in the music hall tradition. As he remembers in The Seventh Python, he and his art school pals used to shop for old 78s in London flea markets, and when they turned themselves into the Bonzo Dog Dada (later Doo-Dah) Band and signed with Parlophone Records, their 1966 debut single paired covers of two vintage comic tunes from the 1920s: “My Brother Makes the Noises for the Talkies” and “I’m Going to Bring a Watermelon to My Girl Tonight.” Innes quickly became the primary songwriter, and his biggest hit with the band, the 1968 single “I’m the Urban Spaceman,” located itself firmly in the music hall tradition of satirizing city life with its brilliantly punning last line: “I’m the urban spaceman, babe, but here comes the twist/ I don’t exist.” Innes brings to his songs an old-fashioned craft and musicality: as fellow songwriter Aimee Mann notes in the movie, he succeeded in parodying the Beatles better than anyone else because many of his Rutles numbers were good enough to stand on their own as songs.
Unfortunately the video makers decided to forgo the expense and hassle of clearing film clips, so The Seventh Python has to make do with footage of Innes rummaging through his back catalog in March 2003 as he rehearses and plays his first LA shows in nine years. There are no clips of the Bonzos performing in the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour (as the house band during the strip-club scene) or on the 60s children’s show Do Not Adjust Your Set, which became a cult favorite among adults; there’s no footage of Innes as Sir Robin’s minstrel in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, cataloging all the ways his boss could be dismembered, or as Rutles founder Ron Nasty in All You Need Is Cash, holding a press conference in a bathtub, under a running shower, to announce his impending marriage to a neo-Nazi. Director Burt Kearns hits his theme insistently, coming back again and again to Innes’s dislike of fame, yet the movie dwells on Innes’s friendship with the Beatles and leans heavily on Python’s Terry Jones, Michael Palin, Eric Idle, and John Cleese as talking heads.
The hollowness of fame presents no imminent threat to Henry Phillips, the folk troubadour of Punching the Clown. A battle-weary veteran of the bar and coffeehouse circuit, he’s lured to Los Angeles by his younger brother, who offers him a couch to crash on, and upon arriving sets out to get some professional exposure. Phillips cowrote the script with director Gregori Viens, and they get a surprising amount of comic mileage from the old music-biz stereotypes as Henry acquires a dogged, low-level agent (Ellen Ratner) and, through an elaborate misunderstanding, signs a recording contract with a phony, grasping A and R man (Guilford Adams). Musically, Phillips comes from the folk tradition, marrying finger-style guitar with wildly individual lyrics, but there’s a vaudevillian brio in the way he rolls into town after town, presents himself to strangers, and tries to pull them into his world. As he explains to a DJ in the radio interview that frames the story, he started writing comedy songs mainly because they got people’s attention.
They certainly got mine. In the opening number, Phillips begins with a lyrical motif that might have been sung from the boards a hundred years ago: “You are the blossom/ I am the vine / You are the blossom, I am the vine / Sweet little blossom of mine.” But with each passing verse he drives the metaphors farther into absurdity: “I am the host organism / You are the unicellelar dinoflagellate algae... Letting me use your chloroplasm I can photosynthesize/ Providing me with carbon in exchange for the nutrients you obtain from my metabolic pathways / Sweet little unicellelar dinoflagellate algae of mine.”
Gus Kahn might be turning over in his grave. But in this century Phillips kills.v
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