Is classical music funny? The Witty Ditty Industry, made up of (mostly) white men in their 30s, would probably reply singing “Of course not!” Their retort would be snappily harmonized, with enough panache to make whoever questioned their authority look a bit silly; but not quite enough commitment to suggest this retort is entirely ironic. These Ditties, like “F Sharp” by Tim Minchin, or Bo Burnham’s “Art Is Dead,” ultimately seek to retain the bashful, self-effacing performativity of a group of musicians secretly gagging for a “quiet genius” tag.
Comedians like Minchin and Burnham have made that niche their own over the past decade. While Burnham’s flash production and pervasive unease have all the hallmarks of the 21st century–“Look I made you some content / Daddy made you your favorite, open wide” is a lyric that strikes at the heart of the modern creative anxiety–it’s a format that has its roots in a rather establishment form of comedy. Transport yourself back to the 1960s, to Dudley Moore in black-and-white, parodying a Beethoven Piano Sonata. Moore sits at the piano, playing a minor version of Kenneth J. Alford’s march “Colonel Bogey,” made famous as the song the soldiers whistle in the war movie “The Bridge Over the River Kwai.” Moore escorts the theme through the form, with all the trappings you might expect from a sonata: a tempestuous Allegro with hand crossing, German sixth chords, an elaborate Alberti bass and impulsive harmonic switches. It’s clever humor, and both the audience and the performer are in on the joke.
Has this form of classical music comedy changed much since then? Compare Moore’s performance with British stand-up Bill Bailey’s turn on “The One Show” from 2012. Moore’s skit works very obviously on two levels (maybe there’s a drearily convoluted postwar subtext involving Moore turning the Kwai theme, a tune synonymous in Britain with rude songs about Hitler, into a tongue-in-cheek heroic-Teutonic musical journey. Maybe not…), but the overarching comedy derives from something we know in C major appearing in C minor. Consider then Bailey’s magnum opus, a version of the soccer roundup show “Match of the Day” theme tune re-imagined as a Klezmer folk dance, which, you guessed it, turns from C major into C minor. Moore’s parody requires more knowledge of the form (Is it really a parody? Or more an elaborate demonstration of a detailed knowledge of classical form, good enough to drag any random tune through?), but the crux of the joke stays the same. A thing becomes funny, essentially, because it changes mode.
This genre generally gets more interesting when the proceedings move away from pure pianism, although Victoria Wood’s “The Ballad of Barry and Freda” lives on with its ragtime accompaniment and bawdy lyrics (“Not bleakly, not meekly / Beat me on the bottom with a Woman’s Weekly”). There’s Alastair McGowan on Satie, a vivid history of a colorful character punctuated by impressions; and Kieran Hodgson’s show “Maestro,” which also turns to character work as it seamlessly combines a passionate personal narrative with extended skits about Sprechgesang. To his credit, Bailey’s live orchestral show, “Remarkable Guide to the Orchestra,” is a marvelous affair, its crowning achievement coming as Bailey buries a reedy rendition of The Bee Gees’ “How Deep is Your Love” under an entire Baroque trumpet concerto. Bailey’s musical predecessors Richard Stilgoe and Peter Skellern also manage to show the genre’s potential in their deliciously concise satire “Chant,” from their 1985 album, “Who Plays Wins.” “Chant” is a 30-second intro to a song that imagines a conversation between two warring clergymen; it ends with a lament to their mutually dwindling congregations. Its satire is brief, focused, and has a sense of punching up, as it mocks the verbose conventions of the Psalms heard at Evensongs all over England.
By and large, these examples work because they use their intricate and creative music as a vehicle to poke fun at external subjects, be it the church, the psalter, the idea of a Baroque bassooning Beegee, or the fantastical notion that the Match of the Day theme tune will ever be changed. Even Moore’s performance, where the form is the fun, only draws laughs from the audience at two points: the introduction, when we first hear the modally mixed subject, and the final torrent of cadences, repeated over and over with a knowing look at the audience.
Music theory might be fun, in the isn’t this satisfying / nourishing sort of way, but music theory in and of itself is not funny. While some of the forms of Classical Music Humor have hardly changed in years, our idea of what’s funny has slowly adapted–we as a society have moved past the need for the “shut your F-A-C-E” t-shirts of yesteryear.
But is this shift reflected in the dominant creators of classical music humor online? NPR Classical in the US and Classic FM in the UK are two of the most popular accounts committed to sharing these kinds of jokes (both have over 100,000 followers). Neither heed the advice of the comedians above, who either shift the focus away from music theory and pedagogy, or mine the details of the history for bizarre oddities. Is it any wonder then, that their humor falls like the proverbial miner under a piano: depressingly flat?
Let’s be clear: Some of the time it’s because the jokes simply miss the mark, like this example. It prompts more questions than answers: Why is the child a smaller-forte, and not, say, an mp? And what might it suggest about the family’s internal relationships that the father is fortissimo, and the (assumed) mother and child are both fortes? Worrying.
Here’s another that just doesn’t make sense. This falls into the “violas are shit” category of musical humor (Q: What’s the difference between a trampoline and a viola? A: You take your shoes off to jump on a trampoline, repeat ad. lib ad. nauseam). Viola jokes are an open goal; this one misses a sitter. Why is the punchline that “ransom hackers have taken control of everything,” and not that “the viola parts have been spared”? Daft–or, if you’re feeling generous, structurally subversive.
We are all the woman in this cartoon, waiting for the inevitable mansplain-y did you know that John Cage wrote a piece called “‘4’33’” that’s actually just a recording of silence and it’s considered one of the triumphs of experimental music making in the 20th century schtick we’ve all borne witness to.
This is the Boss Level of Classical Music Humor: adding musical notation to codify the fun, with a subtext presumably derived from an 80s laugh-tracked sitcom. NPR Classical, you’re under a rest.
Luckily (or unluckily if, like Burnham, you’re worried as #content invades every area of our artistic lives), there has been a small but noticeable change in the memes of production. A number of meme pages have sprung up in recent years dedicated to the specificities of the classical music community, from the simple (Daily Updates on Hildegard von Bingen’s Health Condition) to the complex (Art Music Memes for Wagner Hating Teens) and the accidentally influential (the Welsh Government mistakenly included a spoof recommendation from @QuireMemes in the June update of their Coronavirus guidance for musicians).
This has rubbed off somewhat on the most popular accounts. Whereas NPR Classical still employs a resident cartoonist, Classic FM, formerly a Bach-to-the-Future-in-Impact-font-Size-32 sort of organization, has pivoted to ironic delivery (note the Buzzfeed-styled title for 28 cringe-worthy classical music jokes that you need in your life), and pieces resharing viral tweets from musicians in amusing situations. The Buzzfeedification of their online offerings might be worrying for the next generation of classical “content creators,” but it does give the output a somewhat populist feel, reducing the overbearing How Do You Do, Fellow Kids mode of NPR’s engagement, and suggesting both a flattening of hierarchies and a direction of satire that casts its eye up rather than down.
The idea of good humor punching up is key. But mocking the conventions of a musical culture which is fundamentally a bit silly–people dress up in old-fashioned outfits to play music from ages ago for a group of people sitting in complete silence–comes with a warning. While it’s easy to mock classical music’s foibles, those gags can easily be perceived as jibes or slights, which can then underpin whole ecosystems’ oddly negative behaviors.
I remember buying Jim Green’s 2007 publication, The Musician’s Joke Book, when I was 14. It’s a stocking filler that you find among the other bits of musical paraphernalia at your local music shop. I had hoped to keep it in my trombone case, to whip out at a youth band rehearsal and cause delirium in the brass section. It didn’t quite fit in the side pouch of my case (probably just as well).
In it, jokes are arranged by section–there are viola jokes, yes, but there are trombone jokes, trumpet jokes, French horn jokes, conductor jokes, pop music jokes… The blurb explains the book’s get-in-there-first manifesto, as if it’s designed to be kept in musicians’ back pockets and weaponized at any opportunity.
Some examples of the humor include:
Q: What is the definition of perfect pitch in a piccolo?
A: When you throw it in the toilet and it doesn’t hit the rim.
Q: What do you throw a drowning lead guitarist?
A: His amp.
Q: Why was the clarinettist staring at the orange juice bottle?
A: Because the label said concentrate.
Maybe I’m being overly precious, or no fun. But sometimes these jokes overlap with real life. In 2017, fury came from students at the Royal Academy of Music in London over lecturer Francesca Carpos-Young’s circular email of “career advice,” parts of which could have been lifted directly from Green’s joke book. Carpos-Young instructed students to use the standard slang (including referring to violinists as “gypos”), and to “join in with the sectional humor.” Besides the strange sections on how to win prestige among your colleagues, the email is chocked full of clangers: “Brass is pubs and pond life [string players, apparently] is tea queues” is a classic Green stereotype, as is referring to the other orchestral musicians as “the boys.” (Carpos-Young appealed, and was later awarded £180,000 at an employment tribunal for wrongful dismissal over the case.)
It’s easier to say what makes classical music humor bad than that makes it good. A manifesto for Good Classical Music Comedy would be as useless as a chocolate fire guard, or, I don’t know, a violist with a metronome, a trumpet part with dynamics or a trombonist with a diary. You see? It’s everywhere, and deploying it is ridiculously easy. Much like how we question the music we inherit, you’ve got to ask: Do we have to settle for viola jokes and I’ll Be Bach? I can’t Handel it any more. ¶