My songs can be mistaken, sometimes, for novelty songs.
There is a lot of humor in country music, no question about it, but it needs a huge shrubbery of reality to hide in. Otherwise someone shoots it down.
“That’s cute,” your Nashville gatekeeper will say.
“That’s not gonna get cut,” is what they mean.
So all I have to do is avoid the “e” at the end of the word “cut.”
(Damn. That was too clever. Too wordplay-for-the-sake-of-wordplay. Too cute.)
I have to watch it.
You can’t look like you’re trying to be funny, or it’s not funny.
I’ve spent years trying to get that down.
When I was in third grade I told my mom I wanted to be “a piano player and a comedian.”
(Advertising is pretty close to that childish career plan, actually.)
Mom took it literally and suggested I listen to pianist/absurdist Victor Borge. She went to the big metal shelves that held all the vinyl albums she’d gotten for free as an entertainment writer for the Indianapolis Star, and we put on some of his routines. Victor Borge was a little esoteric for a third grader.
But not Allan Sherman, whose album titles were all variations on the same phrase: “My Son, the Folk Singer;” “My Son, the Celebrity;” and my elementary school favorite, “My Son, the Nut.” His Jewish humor (even the bits that went way over my head) was at that point, to me, simply “humor.”
He’s up there with Mad magazine as an influence, turning a central Indiana schoolyard gentile into a Yiddishy comedy nerd. What, me Methodist?
It wasn’t just Jewish humor, though. I loved all Mom and Dad’s old comedy albums—Spike Jones, Homer and Jethro, the Guggenheimer Sauerkraut Band. Am I somehow warped by all this? Yes. Yes, I am.
A friend of mine recently dove into the state library microfiche for a project, and happened on a 1962 article my mom wrote before I was born. She was reviewing a comedy album of deliberately awful performances called Sing Along With Jonathan and Darlene Edwards: “…Jonathan and Darlene also record under the names of Paul Weston and Jo Stafford, but on these albums, Darlene sings as if she had never heard of a key, and Jonathan plays the piano as if it were being carried out of the room one step ahead of him.”
My mom, the critic.
By seventh grade, she had abetted the amassing of a huge collection of comedy albums: Stan Freberg, Monty Python, Bill Cosby, National Lampoon, George Carlin, old radio shows heavy on the Jack Benny—and my favorite (and my first ‘rock’ concert during his “Wild and Crazy Guy” tour), Steve Martin.
In college, when I saw Steve Martin’s “Best Fishes” poster in my future wife’s dorm room, I knew I’d found The One.
Years later, I was able to sing along with a copywriter friend who also grew up with Smothers Brothers Live at the Purple Onion: “Oh, you better not shout/You better not cry/You better not pout/I’m telling you why/Santa Claus is dead.”
Later still, standing in a hallway, I sang along (to the tune of “Down By The Riverside”) with another copywriter friend, a nice Jewish boy from Cleveland, who had also memorized the Allan Sherman catalog: “Well, if you go to the delicatessen store/Don’t buy the liverwurst…”
Decades-old comedy hovers over my relationships.
So perhaps my comedy geekiness guided a decision I made one mild January day when I was trying to figure out where to sit for a Nashville country music seminar.
You know how you can walk into a room of strangers sometimes and, either because of wardrobe or age or bearing, or something, it’s kind of obvious the person you should go sit next to?
That day, it was Steve Goodie. A normal-looking guy. Somehow it just made sense to say, “Somebody sitting here?”
Turns out, Steve’s a professional comedian. His songs are unapologetically capital-F Funny novelty songs.
Generally, Nashville’s not that interested in Funny songs.
I’ve discovered that, if you’re really trying to sell a song in Nashville, you have be aware of “trip wires,” things that are always, always going to elicit certain remarks. We smart alecks have to guard against stumbling into this comment: “Well, that’s funny, but who’s going to sing it? Brad Paisley? He writes his own songs.”
Yes yes yes. We know Brad Paisley writes his own songs.
But here are some funny non-Paisley songs, just off the top of my head: Joe Nichols (“Tequila Makes Her Clothes Fall Off”), Blake Shelton (“Some Beach,” a double entendre sung as if he’s slurring the phrase “Son of a Bitch”), Lee Ann Womack (“I’ll Think of A Reason Later,” one of my favorites), Mark Chesnutt (“Going Through the Big D and Don’t Mean Dallas”), Randy Travis (“I’m Moving Up To A Better Class of Losers,” written by Alan Jackson). Even Kenny Chesney (“She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy”).
Paisley does regularly release novelty songs (with choruses like “I’d Like To Check You for Ticks;” “I’m So Much Cooler Online;” or, “When You’re a Celebrity, It’s ‘Adios, Reality’”). But those are mixed in with songs that aren’t funny: touching ones, a few tough ones. Still, he deserves his reputation for releasing a certain number of novelty tunes.
And it sure seems like maybe he’s got the market cornered.
Those other hits, funny but camouflaged as “regular” songs, have a down-home Southern poker-face observational wisdom to the humor. They’re more human than goofy, which sort of makes people forget they’re funny. “Those panty hose ain’t gonna last too long/If the DJ puts Bon Jovi on,” sings Joe Nichols in the tequila/clothes song: I think the realism of that line trumps its Allan Shermanosity. I’ve seen that woman in a bar yelling “Woo!” as “Livin’ On A Prayer” started up.
So the goal is to get people to imagine Joe Nichols singing the song, not Brad Paisley. And the test for the humor is if it “sounds real.”
I must pass that test. I must avoid having my songs labeled as comedy.
Steve doesn’t sweat it.
“Steve Goodie’s in our seminar,” said one of the other writers during a break, as if there were a star among us. “He’s great, have you ever heard his stuff? He’s got one song, The NASCAR Song—the chorus is ‘Go straight, make a left, make a left, go straight, make a left, make a left, go straight…’”
Steve’s very serious about being funny, like most professionally funny people. It’s a stereotype, but it’s real: recently I had a conference call with New Yorker cartoonist Leo Cullum, whose work I’ve loved for years (he draws those people with parentheses-looking lines around their eyes). He was civil but very serious about the cartoon he was doing for one of our clients. “Look, I have to be able to draw what we’re talking about,” warned Leo at one point, barely patient.
He ended up making us a very funny cartoon.
Steve never actually said anything particularly hilarious while we were grabbing lunch and generally hanging out together. It was chat, y’know. He’s got a full life outside of being Funny—stepdad, multi-instrumentalist, small studio owner, demo producer.
And yet: for years he’s been part of a comedy group called The Wizenheimerz.
I thought maybe we’d mesh as co-writers. Maybe aim at something clever but not novelty.
So I asked him, over an instant-message chat. He had just performed his presumably last-ever Wizenheimerz show (one of the key members was leaving town).
Here’s that conversation:
ME: How did the final Wizenheimerz show go?
HIM: Purty good. The Sunday show at the Bluebird was awesome…
ME: I feel a pang of remorse on your behalf.
HIM: Thanks. It was what it was… I’m okay with it ending. I’ll just miss my friend. He’s been in Nashville for 26 years, and he’s had enough… He’s decided to give up, basically. And he’s depressed about it. But I think he’ll very likely enjoy his life more now… and he’ll probably visit Nashville fairly regularly.
ME: (I’d gone to his website before this IM conversation and discovered stuff he hadn’t told me in person) So you’ve been on Showtime, Comedy Central, The Today Show and Dr. Demento? Geez. That’s a great resume.
HIM: Truly. You’d think I’d have some cash. I mean, thanks!
ME: It was great meeting you and Barbara [his wife].
HIM: You too… you are one of the few songwriters at the workshop whose songs actually did something for me. And I’m not just saying that.
ME: Thank you, Steve, and likewise… there’s an influence I thought I might have heard strongly in your songs, and that’s Tom Lehrer. Your songs are like his—tightly written, new clever twists at each turn, conceptual, a bit dark…
HIM: Wow… thanks! Very high praise. I love Tom, and I wish he were still writing.
ME: I’d say he’s an influence of mine. I actually went through a comedy-album collecting binge when I was in 7th grade and my mom took me to a lot of garage sales. It even predates Beatles as an influence on me.
HIM: Yep, I can hear that.
ME: It probably goes without saying but if you’re interested in trying to write something sometime, just say so. I think it’d be fun.
HIM: That sounds like a very worthy idea to me. Are you planning to be in Nashville again soon? Though we could try it over the Internet, I think we’ll have better luck in the same room, at least to begin with. What do you think?
ME: Let’s try.
HIM: … In about 6 weeks I might have a piece of my brain available for writing. [He was in the process of moving his studio.] Meanwhile, I’ll jot down ideas, and if you’ll do the same we might have a go at it.
… and that was the end of the IM conversation. It’s been a year or so. We still might get together, but we haven’t yet.
Funny how time slips away.
Not funny funny, of course.
What am I, Brad Paisley?