Top Five Classical Jokers

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

We’ve made it through the Ides of March in one piece, but now comes the true test: April Fools' Day. In honor of this annual excuse for (or celebration of) practical jokes, we’re looking at the best musical wisecrackers out there. Here are our top 5 classical comedians:

1. Bugs Bunny makes the top of our list for his virtuoso turns as Figaro and Brünnhilde. Though some credit should go to his dueling duet partner, Elmer Fudd. “Kill the Wabbit” is still an alternate title for Wagner’s famous Ride of the Valkyries in some circles. Not willing to limit himself just to song, Bugs has also conducted orchestras. Watching closely, you can see the Warner Brothers animators are not merely making fun of the music; they’re making fun with it.

2. Another Wagnerian jokester, Anna Russell, famously condensed the 19-hour Ring Cycle into 10 minutes. Every time her retelling became particularly outrageous, she’d bring down the house with her trademark, “I’m not making this up, you know.” Though she trained as a serious vocalist, she never pursued a career on the classical stage, preferring comedy. Her obituary in The New York Times explained how she found her comedic calling. She claimed she caught a hockey stick to the face that broke 16 bones: “That ruined my acoustic.”

3. Victor Borge, the son of two musicians, was anointed a piano prodigy in his native Denmark at the age of eight. Little did he know that decades later he would be sounding chords with his backside for laughs. By his 20s he was spending more time in Copenhagen’s Gypsy Hall than its concert hall. Borge’s “Comedy in Music” act triumphed on Broadway and around the world. Eventually, millions more knew him for appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show.

4. The newest edition to this pantheon of classical comedians is a duo: Aleskey Igudesman, a classically trained violinist, and Hyung-ki Joo, a Manhattan School of Music alumna pianist. The two, who have been friends since they attended Yehudi Menuhin’s academy in England together, launched their “Little Nightmare Music” act in 2004. Since then they’ve played musical chairs with Emmanuel Ax, staged high jinks with Menuhin and received live coaching from John Malkovich. The pair makes their New York debut with “A Little Nightmare Music” on Wednesday at the 92nd Street Y.

5. Before Joo and Igudesman started their act, PDQ Bach (aka Peter Schickele) came out with his 1983 album, A Little Nightmare Music. Supposedly the distant progeny of Johann Sebastian, PDQ surfaced in 1960 with a concert at Juilliard. He’s been performing his wacky lyrics and classical parodies ever since. Oedipus Tex, the 1712 Overture and P.D.Q. Bach Strikes Back have all come to Carnegie Hall. Last year, Schickele celebrated the 50th anniversary of the character and he doesn’t seem to be ready to retire yet. He performed this week, as himself, at Symphony Space and Steinway Hall.

Weigh in: Who is your favorite musical comedian? Leave a comment below:

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Comments [24]

Jeff Missinne

Not to be overlooked is that remarkable piano duet, Woody Woodpecker and Andy Panda, in Walter Lantz's "Musical Moments From Chopin." Woody plays the Polonaise straight in spite of using his beak, feet, and tail feathers as much as his hands. Other Lantz musicales include "The Barber of Seville" with Woody; "William Tell Overture" and "Kiddie Koncert" (Morning, Noon, and Night in Vienna) with 'Sir' Wally Walrus, and "The Poet and Peasant" with Andy Panda. (The credits comment, "This will be the maestro's farewell appearance, we hope."

Also notable for combining opera (or at least operetta) with cartoon gags were Paul Terry's "Mighty Mouse" series and his Heckle and Jeckle opus, "Off To The Opera."

Nov. 06 2013 07:31 PM
Barry Owen Furrer

I think honorable mention should go to Spike Jones. If you don't believe me, I encourage you check out some clips on YouTube. Funny, entertaining, and virtuoso musicianship all rolled into one!

Apr. 01 2012 07:09 PM
Dimitar Kambourov from New York

Poor me I don't know any of those you've been commenting, I will check them out. Still, this is perhaps on a different tone, but when joking with classical music is at stake I bet on Lutoslawsky's Paganini Variations, be they played by Argerich/Kissing or by Arkadiy Volodos. In general the composer who went further in making the greatest possible music through parody and joke, being comparable in this respect with what Fellini was doing in cinema, Calvino and Pynchon in literature and Warhol in visual arts was Schnittke: take (K)ein Sommernachtstraum and go further.

Apr. 01 2012 06:02 PM
Rina from Th Bx.

How nice to hear Peter Schickele again! I also greatly miss his show. How about bringing it back?
...And for anyone who wants to see great classical musical comedy search on youtube for Les Luthiers, the veteran comedy musical troupe from Argentina. A great one is Concerto Grosso alla Rustica.

Apr. 01 2011 07:42 PM
Rina from Th Bx.

How nice to hear Peter Schickele again! I also greatly miss his show. How about bringing it back?
...And for anyone who wants to see great classical musical comedy search on youtube for Les Luthiers, the veteran comedy musical troupe from Argentina. A great one is Concerto Grosso alla Rustica.

Apr. 01 2011 07:41 PM
Gev Sweeney from Ocean Grove, New Jersey

Really, WQXR. I've been at my computer, trying to write some serious stuff all day -- and listening to the station all day. Have you any idea how hard it is to be serious and insightful and profound when laugh-out-loud stuff is happening on air????

I mean ... first there was the vacuum cleaner bit from Malcom Arnold ... Then came Also Sprach Zarathustra on kazoo, one of the rudest, naughtiest musical re-imaginings ever ... now there's the William Tell Yodeling Overture with Carmen thrown in. LOLOLOLOL ...

Thanks so much for the laughs!!!

Apr. 01 2011 05:48 PM
Gary from Dallas, TX

For top classical parody acts, who can top the "great diva" Mdme Vera Galupe Borszkh?

Apr. 01 2011 04:34 PM
Gev Sweeney from Ocean Grove, New Jersey

The biggest communal groan I ever heard came at the final chorus of PDQ Bach's Oedipus Tex in Carnegie Hall.

Thanks so much for playing that excerpt, WQXR!

Apr. 01 2011 04:03 PM
Steven Lanser from Upper Manhattan (Inwood)

The British comedy team of Flanders and Swann have done very good classical parodies, particularly one parodying a Mozart horn concerto.

Apr. 01 2011 12:54 PM
Gev Sweeney from Ocean Grove, New Jersey

My fave is PDQ Bach. My very first PDQ Bach concert was at the Count Basie Theater in Red Bank, New Jersey. I was sitting on the center aisle in the balcony. Prof S. made his entrance by climbing down a rope from the balcony to the floor below.

Yeh. That was 1980 or 1981. Don't know if he could do it today, BUT ...

I've since attended many PDQ Bach concerts. The most breathtaking were the holiday shows at Carnegie Hall. I laughed so long and hard, I thought I'd suffocate to death right there in my seat ...

Apr. 01 2011 10:15 AM
Dirk from LES

There's a lot of humor in classical music - light classics from Rossini to Supe made their stock in trade in funny devices. Unfortunately, orchestras like the NY Phil believe this music is below them - that "standard repertoire" must be sober and serious (why you also won't hear The Planets at Avery Fisher). Orchestras need to lighten up and realize that people want to be entertained as well as enlightened.

Apr. 01 2011 06:17 AM
Michael Meltzer

Mr. Owens:
Go back and watch "Willie the Operatic Whale." I think you'll change your mind about the humor.

Apr. 01 2011 06:06 AM
Michael Meltzer

We miss Peter Schickele's Saturday night NPR broadcast unceremoniously dropped by WNYC-FM two years ago. It was always both entertaining and enlightening.
Why doesn't WQXR have a fresh look at it now?

Mar. 31 2011 06:32 PM
Thomas from Los Angeles

You forgot Ilana Vered's Youtube of Tchaikovsky's first piano concerto -- wonderfullly hilarious! Check it out!

Mar. 31 2011 03:08 PM
Ed from NYC

How about Haydn, for the farewell and surprise symphonies?

Mar. 31 2011 01:53 PM
Sisko24 from Westchester

Thank you for remembering Anna Russell, a legendary 'Wagnerian soprano'. I can't think of anyone I'd rather hear prep a Ring Cycle novice than her. "I'm not making this up, you know."

Mar. 31 2011 11:06 AM
Ron Owens from Mountain Lakes, NJ

If we're to include Bugs Bunny, then we must also include Tom & Jerry- "Hollywood Bowl", Disney's "Willie the Operatic Whale", and the (politically incorrect) Tex Avery - "Poochini".

Mar. 31 2011 08:28 AM
Tim Brown from Washington, DC

Thank you WQXR for the great collection of funny music links - they are a wonderful way to start the day. Here's another one: Long Haired Hare at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EPCUDAF0bVY&feature=related. Enjoy everbody!

Mar. 31 2011 07:51 AM
Scudder from Amsterdam

I would like to mention Victor Borge, the Danish pianist who made such great fun with and about classical music. And here in the Netherlands there's Hans Liberg, a funny and very skilled musician who deserves an international audience. Check him out on youtube (in English). Not all is jokes are good, but there are some funny ones, especially the musical not the verbal ones.

Mar. 31 2011 06:17 AM
DuckDeadeye from NYC

Leroy Anderson comes to mind. A nice blend of classical training/composing with a great sense of wit.

Mar. 31 2011 02:36 AM
Harry Matthews from Brooklyn, NY

I've always enjoyed Jerome Robbins' comic choreographic commentary on music lovers, "The Concert," set to what might be called "Chopin's greatest hits." Self-dramatizing music lovers and self-important artists are wittily skewered, while programmatic titles are made hilariously literal -- umbrellas for the "Raindrop" etude, nets for the "Butterfly." The work is regularly revived at City Ballet and many other companies.

Mar. 31 2011 01:43 AM
Esther Magid from Staten Island

I especially loved Professor Schikele when he swung onto the stage as if he were in some swashbuckling movie at Alice Tully Hall a few years ago. He also performed PDQ's "The Pervertimento" which still makes me giggle. Needless to say, having seen Professor Schikele on stage several times, I am a huge fan. P.S. Loved his rap version of Living on the Upper West Side"

Mar. 30 2011 10:00 PM
Barry Owen Furrer

While somber and serious looking in front of his public, John Philip Sousa was known to possess a wonderful sense of humor often playing "musical jokes" on his audience. An amusing incident occured while Sousa's Band was playing in Ocean Grove, NJ in 1926. Sousa had programmed his humoresque "The Mingling Of The Wets And The Drys," a work designed to poke fun at prohibition. When the town leaders led by the local minister heard of this piece to be played in a strict Methodist community, they insisted Sousa change the work or risk a boycott of his concert. Well, Sousa did replace it with another work entitled "Follow The Swallow." Apparently, the town leaders failed to find the humor in Sousa's substitution for both he and his famous band were never invited back!

Mar. 30 2011 09:53 PM
Michael Meltzer

British music critic and cartoonist Gerard Hoffnung held and recorded two major humorous music festivals in the 1950's whose success laid considerable groundwork for the marketing of PDQ Bach.
You should have at least the first one in your archive. The Leopold Mozart Alphorn Concerto played on a garden hose with a French Horn mouthpiece by Dennis Brain, the Concerto for Hoover Vacuum Cleaner & Orchestra and the Chopin Mazurka arranged for four tubas are classics (I believe Anna Russell appeared in that first recording).
So is his cartoon of an English Horn player looking doen the length of his instrument at the freshly laid egg before his feet.

Mar. 30 2011 07:22 PM

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