Richard Wagner, Comedy Icon?

Monday, July 22, 2013 - 12:00 AM

When we think of Richard Wagner, the first things that come to mind are often his serious compositions and notorious personality. Wagner has gone down in history as a watchword for heaviness and gravity.

Not often do we associate the 19th-century composer with comedy. There are, however, a surprising number of references to Wagner and his compositions in popular culture today. Perhaps the comedic aspect of Wagner relies on the irony created by his serious reputation. Whatever the case may be, references and allusions to Wagner pervade our popular culture, often providing comedic relief. Here are a few examples.

Curb Your Enthusiasm (2001)

Wagner plays a central role in an episode from the second season of HBO’s "Curb Your Enthusiasm" entitled “Trick or Treat.” Larry David, creator and lead actor of the series, plays a fictional version of himself. In this episode, David whistles Siegfried Idyll outside of a movie theater, only to be criticized by a local neighbor for being a “self-loathing Jew.” Hilarity ensues as the two continue to argue, ultimately leading to David’s sweet revenge.

 

Anna Russell (1953)

Anna Russell was an English singer and comedian, famous for her concerts and sketches that often parodied renowned musical pieces. Her 30-minute comedic analysis of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen is one of her most famous works. Performed live a few times, her analysis was also recorded at Town Hall in 1953.

To introduce her analysis of the opera’s story and melodies, Russell says, “I know that analyses of the Ring are frequently given over the radio by some great expert for the edification of other great experts. But these are usually so esoteric as to leave the average person as befogged as before, and, in fact, tends to discourage him from going altogether. So I would like to tell you about it as from the point of view from one average opera-goer to another.” The hilarious performance makes light of the serious compositions throughout the far-fetched story of the Ring, nonetheless appreciating the opera as the fine work that it is.

 

Annie Hall (1977)

In his Annie Hall (1977), Woody Allen plays Alvy Singer, the paranoid and often self-deprecating New York native. In a hilarious scene with his buddy Max, Alvy analyzes his recent experiences of being subtly and constantly called out for being Jewish. Alvy’s cataclysmic self-awareness becomes apparent when the mention of Wagner sends him into a paranoid fury.

 

Hi Diddle Diddle (1943)

Hi Diddle Diddle is an American black-and-white comedy that tells the story of scheming and swindling between lovers and their wealthy families. Pola Negri plays Genya, an idealist who adores Wagner: “Wagner! Wagner! He’s my inspiration!” In a comedic scene, Genya – along with a slew of manipulative gentleman – sing “Evening Star” from Wagner’s Tannhauser. The scene makes light of the Wagnerian trance that encapsulates the naïve women.

Family Guy (2005)

Fox’s Family Guy is famous for its regular references to other popular culture. In the episode “Model Misbehavior,” Family Guy parodies the famous Hitachi Maxell advertisement that uses Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” to promote its audio cassettes. Mocking the suited man in the Maxell ad, Carter listens to the Wagner piece. Like in the advertisement, the strength of the music is immense. In this scene, one comedic parody is embedded in another.

30 Rock (2007)

NBC’s 30 Rock is based on creator Tina Fey’s experience of writing for Saturday Night Live. Fey plays Liz Lemon, a quirky character whose ringtones are noted on the show. In the episode “Cleveland,” Liz’s ringtone is Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries. When someone hears the ringtone and asks if she likes Wagner, Liz says, “No, I like Elmer Fudd.” Referring to a famous Looney Tunes character, Liz thinks of Wagner’s composition as a piece from “What’s Opera, Doc?” The direct association with Bugs Bunny strips Wagner of his austerity, somehow.

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Comments [8]

Ron Owens from Mountain Lakes, NJ

I haven't seen any mention yet of the classic Bugs Bunny cartoon with Elmer singing "Kill the Wabbit" to the tune of Wagner's Ride of The Ride of the Valkyries. Also, there's a piece by Henry Morgan describing Wagner on the quintessential comedy album of the 1960's, "Musically Mad." (From Mad Magazine.

Jul. 24 2013 02:51 PM
Dr. Britta A. Möser from Frankfurt am Main, Germany

As a German I appreciate a full week of Wagner Operas from New York. I miss ist equivalent in Germany. Most of the time, I am instructed about Richard Wagner in the United States. American enthusiasm for Wagner has no equal. My salute to New York as a great center of Wagner music since "Parsifal" a hundred years ago at the MET - imported from Munich, wrested from the "Meister".

Jul. 24 2013 07:52 AM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

In the earliest era of acoustic recordings the the cycles, the viable extremes of pitches, low and high was extremely limited and artists often sounded off pitch, flat for the high voices and THAT could be HUMOROUS. ALL the artists listed below have recorded, unfortunately many have only recorded on the electically recorded "78" discs or "78" acoustics before the electric age for recordings. Too few have been transferred to the CD digital formulation. The incandescent beauty and intoxicating spirituality are so transformational in Wagner's oeuvre that any religious belief may be accommodated and synthesized to replicate the sense of selfless empathy for the welfare of others that the sacrificed UNICO represents to us all. That may explain why so many famous JEWISH singers GEORGE LONDON, RICHARD TAUBER, HERMANN JADLOWKER, MELANIE KURT, FRIEDRICH SCHORR, ALEXANDER KIPNIS, EMANUEL LIST, JONAS KAUFMANN, OTTILIE METZGER, LILLI LEHMANN, HERMANN WEIL, DESZO ERNSTER, HERTA GLAZ, MARGARETE MATZENAUER, SOPHIE BRASLAU, WALTER OLITZKY, GERHARD PECHNER, ESTELLE LIEBLING, MONA PAULEE, GUNTHER TREPTOW, PAULA LENCHNER, ALMA GLUCK, ADOLF ROBINSON, IRENE JESSNER, MAX BLOCH, ERNESTINE SCHUMANN-HEINK, HERMANN SCHRAMM, SIEGFRIED JERUSALEM, PAUL KALISCH, ETC], conductors LEONARD BERNSTEIN, JAMES LEVINE, BRUNO WALTER, ALFRED HERTZ, DANIEL BARENBOIM, GEORG SOLTI, WALTER AND LEOPOLD DAMROSCH, ARTUR RODZINSKY, RICHARD FRANK GOLDMAN AND HIS FATHER THE FOUNDER OF THE GOLDMAN BAND THAT PERFORMED BRASS INSTRUMENT VERSIONS OF THE WAGNER "REP," FRITZ REINER, SERGE KOUSSEVITZKY, FABIEN SEVITSKY, ERICH LEINSDORF, HERMANN LEVI, ETC. and stage directors HERBERT GRAF AND LEOPOLD SACHSE dedicated the fullest portion of their careers to performing Wagner's music dramas.

Jul. 23 2013 08:57 PM
Carol Luparella from Elmwood Park, NJ

Henry, I think you are absolutely correct in your assessment of WQXR and their attempt to "honor" Wagner this week. As you say, it is supposedly to coincide with the start of the Bayreuth Festival, but I think it was just done as an afterthought, since they were too busy with their May fundraiser to trouble themselves about the 200th anniversary of Wagner's birth at the same time. Then they realized they probably should do something, so they threw in one week in the middle of summer. (However, I'll give them credit for having their Operavore stream play all Wagner operas this week.) I also can't believe they are rebroadcasting "Clash of the Titans". Even the title of that program is ridiculous.
I think we should remind them now that the 200th anniversary of Verdi's birth is on October 10, so that they can schedule a proper commemoration in that month (they may have to work around another fundraiser), and not two months later.

Jul. 22 2013 05:04 PM
Henry Watkin from New York, NY

I would like to add to my previous comment that Anna Russell's analysis of the Ring is in no way in a class with the other examples given here. Miss Russell was a first rate musician as well as a comedienne of the highest order. Her knowledge of the Ring Cycle was profound and her love for the work obvious, especially when she quotes "Du bist der Lenz" ("They certainly do sing it!"). My own appreciation of the Ring was deepened by her analysis, and I would speculate that a good many people who otherwise wouldn't have touched these operas with a ten-foot pole, came to love them as a result of Miss Russell's routine.

Incidentally, from her autobiography it would appear that her desire to parody the Ring was largely a reaction her parents' almost obsessive devotion to it.

Jul. 22 2013 04:11 PM
Brian Barder from London, UK

Then there's Quentin Tarantino's splendid film Django Unchained, where Django's wife is called Broomhilda (= Brünnhilde as in Die Walküre)with lots of Wagner references throughout.

Splendid post! Thanks, Flo.

Jul. 22 2013 01:54 PM
Sanford Rothenberg from Brooklyn

Wagner has produced a good amount of humor,whether his own,in "Die Meistersinger",and in portions of "Siegfried",or by the effect he has had on others.The corpulent Valkyrie is the universal opera stereotype.The Lepage "Ring",or as I call it,"The Dreck from Quebec",may be the biggest joke of all.

Jul. 22 2013 11:53 AM
Henry Watkin from New York, NY

Someone in the New York Public Radio management must be extremely threatened by Wagner. Having trashed the composer on his birthday, WQXR now seeks to make "amends" by having a Wagner week, supposedly to coincide with the Bayreuth Festival. It is in fact, however, only an excuse to demolish him again in a "subtler" way by associating him with children's cartoons, and comedies that mock him.

Of course, Wagner is hardly the only composer whose music is used in Loony Toons or Farmer Grey. Indeed probably many of us had our first exposure to good music through the medium of after school cartoons, so why single out this composer for this special association during his "week"? And I hope you will commemorate the Marx Brother's wrecking of Il Travatore in Night at the Opera, when Verdi's birthday comes around. (But I doubt you will.)

Those who enjoy Wagner will not be fooled by these mock honors. I suspect that many, like me, will have decided to divert their financial support to other causes because of this insult to our intelligence. Under the rubric of the latter you can include tonight's replaying of "Clash of the Titans."

And by the way, what operavore has on is Das Rheingold, not Act I of Walkuere.

Jul. 22 2013 11:51 AM

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