Richard Wagner, Comedy Icon?

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Woody Allen and Diane Keaton in 'Annie Hall'

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.