When director Scott Jacobson asked comic Marc Maron to appear in a video for ironic pop singer Nick Lowe’s song "Sensitive Man,” Maron didn’t think twice about starring. "What drew me to the video was being asked to be part of it," jokes Maron, host of the wildly popular and revelatory WTF podcast and the upcoming IFC series Maron.
Maron, whose persona is that of deeply introspective if not outwardly acerbic guy, is exactly the type of misunderstood character Lowe wrote about. And as the white-haired Englishman sings earnestly into the camera in the video, Maron awkwardly works his way through a group therapy session guided by a be-turtlenecked flautist (Tim & Eric’s Tim Heidecker) and involving rainbows, role-playing, flower-sniffing with members of Wilco, and “Rollover Whispers.”
"You gotta love Nick Lowe," Maron says. "Although, the Lowe song wasn’t funny per se, it was lighthearted and retro, sweet even. I think the video was a play on a man trying to get in touch with his feelings in a ridiculous way but thematically appropriate."
Maron says comedians can help complete the personalities of musicians who either acknowledge their own comedic weaknesses or, in Lowe’s case, are looking for a way to reveal their hidden hilarity.
"Musicians are notoriously unfunny," says Maron, "especially in stage banter. Now, the ones who are funny are showing it more. If they are fans of comedy or friends of comedians, why wouldn’t they want to explore that relationship and dynamic?"
2012 was, in fact, a standout year for rockers finding their funny. Comedy became the story of the year’s most memorable—and hilarious—videos by non-comic songwriters such as Aimee Mann, Nick Lowe, and Ben Gibbard. The most popular of the bunch peaked around a quarter-million views at the time of this post, but everywhere you look, black-clad hipsters seem to be latching on to comedy again as the spoonful of sugar to make their strong medicine go down.
While Mann brought designated funny people like Heidecker and John Hodgman to her videos, Lowe got top-line comics like Paul F. Tompkins and Maron for his. Even on television, it now seems impossible to imagine a time when Elvis Costello wasn’t a semi-regular on The Colbert Report.
Two people who came to embody the latest wave of the rock-humor marriage are Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein. Both were musicians before they were partners in the sketch comedy series Portlandia, which recently began its third season on IFC (Brownstein still fronts the band Wild Flag). "Comedy has run alongside rock and indie rock for a long time," Armisen says. "John Lennon was funny, so were David Bowie, Ween, Lou Reed, and Devo. The Clash even wrote hilarious liner notes for Sandinista. I have found that even the most serious of bands have had their own inside jokes."
At the forefront of the latest surge in the humor video field is director Tom Scharpling, who is also host of WFMU’s The Best Show and one half of the comedy duo of Scharpling & Wurster with Jon Wurster, the drummer for seminal indie rock band Superchunk. As one of the principal directors at Production Company Productions, Scharpling’s specialty has been stretching his shoestring budgets by featuring hip comics like Tompkins or Hodgman, or putting dramatic actors like Jon Hamm and Laura Linney in funny cameos. His clip for Mann’s "Labrador," for example, featured Hamm and Wurster in a shot-for-shot recreation of the 1985 clip for "Voices Carry" by Mann’s former group 'Til Tuesday.
And in Scharpling’s clip for Mann’s song "Charmer," Hodgman offers Mann a creative solution to touring; a robotic Aimee, played by Linney. In Scharpling’s clip for Ted Leo’s "Bottled in Cork," Tompkins played a theater promoter opposite comedian Julie Klausner’s dance instructor.
In addition to making them a hoot to watch, Scharpling says bringing the funny to a video gives the clip a better chance of going viral; currently the only way to get seen, unless you’re a tween pop star or working for Disney. His message, however, seems to be: Forget MTV, go viral. And funny gets the clicks.
"Let’s face it," says Scharpling, "funny videos get much better traction than straight videos. It seems to me, at this point, if you want your video to get actually spread around the Internet by a lot of people it’s either gotta be something that is funny or some other kind of gimmick, whether it’s like those stunt-filled OKGo videos, or some sort of technological trick that makes people show the video to their friends because it’s something they haven’t seen before."
Death Cab For Cutie’s Ben Gibbard went to Scharpling when he needed a clip for his song, "Teardrop Windows" from his recent solo album, Former Lives. Gibbard reckons that music video’s migration to the Internet over the past 10 years has likely saved the medium.
"An artist can spend money on a video, do whatever they want and be assured that their fans will see it via social media," says Gibbard. "Unlike in the past, they will not be buried in the early morning hours of VH1 or MTV or worse, never be aired at all."
Scharpling says that the treatment for "Teardrop Windows," in which Gibbard tries to subvert his own "nice guy" persona, was partly a commentary on the new paradigm in music marketing. "To have this thing play in the music business in 2012," Gibbard was forced to play against preconceptions.
"At this point," Gibbard explains, "most people who follow me on twitter have figured out that I have a sense of humor about things, especially myself. That being said, the perception of me being a very earnest, serious guy has gotten a little out of hand over the years. Tom brought the idea to me and I took to it immediately."
It’s always fun to take yourself out of someone’s pigeonhole.
Mann, also one of the funnier people on Twitter, agrees that image deconstruction is a big part of a funny video’s appeal. Mann’s association with comedy goes back even further, to the "Acoustic Vaudeville" tour she did in 2000, with her husband, Michael Penn. The two songwriters employed comic friends like Tompkins, Patton Oswalt, Andy Kindler, Todd Barry and David Cross, to fill the awkward between-song silence with what she describes as "a ringer, if you like, to come on and [provide comic banter] for us once the song ended."
"I think a lot of people assume I am pretty introverted, which is mostly true, and serious, which is only partially true," says Mann. "I don’t think I’m consciously trying to do things with comedians to offset that perception, but I do kind of get a kick out of the idea that that might be happening. It’s always fun to take yourself out of someone’s pigeonhole."
She adds that the music/comedy continuum generally works in both directions, and she credits Scharpling’s instincts for helping achieve a balance in her videos for songs from her 2012 album Charmer.
"Honestly," Mann adds, "the comics I think are the best have themselves a seriousness to them, maybe one that is buried pretty deeply, but on some level I feel like I can usually sense it. Tom is one of those people who can talk seriously about real things and isn’t one of those 'always on’ guys or someone who uses humor to constantly avoid talking about anything serious or uncomfortable or tricky. He is completely game to have those conversations."
Sharpling’s collaborator Wurster, who also plays drums with The Mountain Goats and Bob Mould’s touring trio, appeared as the disgruntled boyfriend in Mann’s "Labrador" clip and agrees with Mann, that part of the trick is finding the funny in people whom you wouldn’t nominally consider comedians.
"This Bob Mould video we just did with [comedian] Jon Glaser directing is a perfect example," says Wurster. "Even though Bob has a great sense of humor, his music is pretty serious and he’s not someone you’d think of as being 'funny.' But he was really great and funny in this video. I think we’re all tortured in some way and finding the humor in life is a great way to lessen the pain."
John Wesley Harding, a/k/a Wesley Stace, has done two amusing videos with Eugene Mirman and recently with The Daily Show’s John Oliver onstage at his Cabinet of Wonders. He insists that there is a false dichotomy between serious and non-serious musicians.
"My work’s always had a lot of humor in it," says Stace, "so has Aimee Mann’s and any number of other singer-songwriters too: Dylan always had a few funny songs up his sleeve. To me, Loudon Wainwright is the perfect example of that. And some of my favourite musicians have this same mix of material. It’s been going on for ages, George Harrison using Monty Python, Paul Simon using Chevy Chase."
What has changed, Mann insists, is the bureaucracy standing between a musician and her audience.
"I don’t think I have a way to assess how many people saw MTV videos versus online videos," says the singer, "though the second is certainly a more democratic process and not entirely dependent on the whims of a few executives like dealing with the major label/MTV system was. You do have to pay for the video yourself, but you then get to actually do what you want, too, budget permitting. To not have to run all your ideas by a bunch of guys who are evaluating everything for its commercial possibilities is refreshing."
So, if viral videos are like shared Post-It notes, comedy is the sticky backing strip.
"At the end of the day," says Scharpling "humor is fun, you want to send the clip around. If I made a video that makes you cry, I don’t know if as many people would send it around because, I mean, who wants to send stuff around that might ruin somebody’s day?"
[Images: Ready Set Rocket]