The Sound of Laughter: Why the music business lends itself so well to comedy


Music and comedy have gone together for ages, ever since the first little ditty with nonsense words, or a dirty limerick put to music, all the way up to the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan, vaudeville and even “Weird Al” Yankovic. Comedies have used music to great effect in the past, whether it’s the crooning of Nick Rivers in “Top Secret,” the lip-synching to Queen in “Wayne’s World,” or the John Farnham sing-a-long turned riot in “Hot Rod,” and many others. But there is a subsection of comedy films that is particularly obsessed with music, parodying a specific brand of music and musician to great effect.

The obsession with pop culture fads is nothing new, with Hollywood chasing the music scene for laughs arguably beginning with The Monkees (see our interview with Michael Nesmith). The accompanying sitcom that poked fun at Beatlemania while aping the look and feel of “Help!” and “A Hard Day’s Night” was an early shot in the battle between comedy and music.

It helps that the songs themselves are very catchy (with ringers like Neil Diamond and Carole King brought in to pen the tunes), but the parody of a Beatles-like band was mostly harmless (though incredibly popular; there was a brief time when the Monkees were outselling the Beatles in the UK). But taking that same approach of aping a film style and matching it with a popular brand of music would soon take off in film thanks to the incredibly influential “This Is Spinal Tap.” The mockumentary (or “rockumentary,” as it’s dubbed early on) is different from “The Monkees” in that it wasn’t creating a pre-fabricated Fab Four but instead skewered rock outfits like Led Zeppelin, The Who and many others for their outsized personalities, inflated sense of self-worth and overly elaborate stage antics.

“This Is Spinal Tap” is a watershed film on many fronts, but one way that made it a trailblazer was its take on the music industry. Full of vultures and opportunists who are happy to milk an act for all that it’s worth, the film doesn’t just lampoon the various hangers-on surrounding (and suckling on) the band, but the actions of the band itself comes under scrutiny. Whenever something causes shockwaves through the culture, it draws the attention of satirists. What makes the music industry even riper for parody, besides its cultural domination, is that it is a weird intersection between commerce and artistry. Moreso in recent times, where the act has to be photogenic and synergize with commercialization of its songs, but there’s always been an uneasy balance between the sincerity of the music and the need to push the product. Christopher Guest and Rob Reiner use that inherent tension as a source of comedy in “This Is Spinal Tap” between musicians that just want to create art and a brand being pushed out to the masses. Taken to extreme lengths where an artistic vision is catered to, and usually bungled by some member of the entourage, it finds hilarity in these pampered personas that should be all about the music but are also showmen and showboats, which ends up undercutting the seriousness of their convictions.

As trends change in music, so do the comedies about the music business. With the rise of rap came Chris Rock’s “CB4,” about a supposedly hard rap group that is, in fact, a bunch of posers. Rock uses groups like N.W.A., 2 Live Crew and others as the template for the type of music the group makes and shenanigans that they get into. But here’s another example of why there’s so much comedy to mine from the music business: there’s usually a disconnect between the public and private personas of the musicians. Since the musicians themselves are part of the product being sold to audiences, they have to live up to that expectation all the time. That creates disparity between personalities, between a lie and the truth, which is a breeding ground for comedy wherein someone is forced to live two lives and appropriates a certain persona just to appease the masses.

Something else that comedy films focused on the music business do well is mock the style of films about music. There’s the classic mockumentary approach found in “This Is Spinal Tap” and “CB4,” which is akin to many music documentaries and “Behind the Music” approaches to various musical acts. Guest’s “A Mighty Wind” is filled with oddball characters and funny songs, but it also makes a mockery of the concert film, like Jonathan Demme’s “Stop Making Sense” or Martin Scorsese‘s “The Last Waltz.” By taking on the language of film itself and making it appear legitimate like those other films, it grounds the comedy and makes it even funnier because it’s recognizable from these serious movies.

One film that perfectly mocks both the music industry and a subgenre of film is “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story.” Based in part on biopics like “Ray” and “Walk the Line,” the film is a recounting of a beloved and influential (fake) musician who helped shape music history while also dealing with personal demons (and lots and lots of drugs). The film offers lots of deep cuts to musical references while also wallowing in the tropes of the beleaguered musical genius tortured by his own regrets, shortcomings and addictions. It plays up the clichés beautifully and hilariously while also delivering some excellent musical references, like this one to “Smile”-era Brian Wilson trying to craft songs out of impossible instruments:

As new pop stars are manufactured and their lives enter a new realm for voyeurs to ogle via social media, a new sort of docu-film has arisen like Justin Bieber’s “Believe” or Katy Perry’s “Part of Me” that offers a concert experience alongside a glimpse at the “real” person behind all of the stage lights and costume changes. Complete with catchphrases, stupidly large entourages and attempts at either being scandalous or an “Aw shucks” humble pose, these films are boring to anyone not already a fan of the music and seemingly reveals the facade to be as made-up and corporately designed as commonly believed (or feared). That cardboard cutout persona matched with nonsensical music bred a perfect template to be mocked in “Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping,” which follows these films and their two-dimensional subjects to its insane conclusion by creating an inept musician who adds gimmick after gimmick to boost record sales, grow audience sizes and attempt to be anything more than a forgotten one-hit wonder.

The music industry is the perfect target for comedy because of the inherent conflicts within it. There’s the intersection of the serious and the ridiculous, as artistry has to pair up with gimmickry in order to become popular. It’s not enough that a song is good; it has to be marketed the correct way for it to find its audience. There’s also the fact that with millions of adoring fans listening to the song and coming to concerts, giving immediate positive feedback to the artist, it’s no wonder that so many develop ego problems (or, for a select few, necessitates some form of bravado on their part). Even though these performers are just cogs in a corporate machine, spinning out product to make record companies and other industries rich, many artists still see themselves as delicate snowflakes deserving of praise and worship. A musician can write a deeply personal song, but by the time it ends up in a Target commercial or on stage with a ridiculous foam shark dancing to it, that personality has become a part of a grander capitalist scheme. These conflicts are inherently funny, and the personalities involved just make it more exaggerated and perfect targets for parody.