That’s Not Funny

November 5th, 2006

I frequently find myself sorted into the “funny songwriter” bin. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this – some of my songs are funny, and most of them have at least one chuckle in them somewhere. There’s no doubt that I find it far easier to be funny than to be serious. That, in itself, is a characteristic of many funny songwriters, and it’s something which many people seem to find unfathomable. And of course, it’s been previously established that I can’t write love songs.

Nevertheless, there comes a time when a serious song is called for – for instance, now, as my family deals with my mom’s death. So the question naturally arises: what chance does a funny man have in these circumstances?

Artists can surprise you. Two of the funniest men I’ve ever read, Dave Barry and Colin McEnroe (go look him up if you never have – his book, Lose Weight Through Great Sex with Celebrities: The Elvis Way, is one of my prized possessions), each wrote astonishingly poignantly about the death of one of their parents. Not merely workmanlike and honestly felt, but truly, deeply moving. It was way out of character for both of them, and all the more effective for the surprise, I think.

On the other hand, sometimes there isn’t any surprise at all. Funny people who have been in the limelight for a while tend to get the “relevance disease”. Witness: Dennis Miller; Woody Allen’s Scandinavian morbidity period; and, of course, the last four seasons of MASH, or, for that matter, as my bride points out, “a very special episode” of just about anything.

And then there are the actors who think they can dance, the singers who think they can act, and the athletes who think they can sing. Not to mention the classical musicians who think they can play jazz, the big band musicians who think they can play rock’n’roll (Frank Sinatra singing “Mrs. Robinson”, anybody?), and the rock’n’roll musicians who think they can play, well, anything else. For some odd reason, people who have achieved noteworthiness in one field of endeavor think, what the hell, I might as well try another one. Even athletic skill can be painfully specific: yes, Michael Jordan, I’m talking about you.

There’s nothing wrong with trying to stretch your boundaries, of course. Just don’t expect to be successful. I don’t know whether Michael Jordan ever expected to reach the major leagues, or whether he just wanted to see whether he could play baseball. Similarly, many of my fellow musicians will try a different musical genre, or even a different medium, as a horizon expanding exercise, or a serious activity – poetry, for instance, or, I don’t know, writing an essay every three weeks for a newsletter.

But there are limits. Among the musicians I listen to, I can think of a couple people who should stick to their knitting – their funny stuff isn’t as good as their serious stuff, or or their serious stuff isn’t as good as their funny stuff, or they just need to stop it already with the hip-hop. Eventually, you owe it to your fans to be as good as you can be, and sometimes that means that you don’t get to indulge yourself the way you’d like.

You might think me a hypocrite, since I have a good deal of faith in my own versatility, clearly. I claim to be able to write a great newsletter or essay, sing a wildly funny song, and reveal deeper wisdom, all in turn. But I do have my limits. I don’t do rap music. I don’t try to channel Mel Torme. I don’t – can’t – act my way out of a paper bag. My poetry, quite frankly, rots. See, I do stick to my knitting – I just like to think I have a lot of knitting. And perhaps, I share this frailty with the rest of the world.

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