There was once a healthy place for classical music comedy in the mainstream of popular culture. During the 1980s and early ‘90s, Peter Schickele, the mastermind behind P.D.Q. Bach, won Grammy Awards for Best Comedy Album four years in a row and appeared on late-night TV shows normally reserved for starlets and pop acts.
Before Schickele’s rise, Victor Borge and Dudley Moore enjoyed a similar moments of visibility. And the British satirical tradition spawned the music comedy duos Worbey & Farrell and Morecambe & Wise. Even Monty Python sketches offered some noted classical references.
After the countless upheavals in mass media, it’s fair to ask if there simply aren’t enough outlets to keep this brand of humor alive, despite a well of inspiration that never dries. But as I found in reporting a recent piece for Strings Magazine, the classical comedy genre indeed lives on.
Violin and piano duo Igudesman and Joo recently are on a U.S. tour this fall with their show, “The Music Critic,” featuring John Malkovich. The duo has been together for some 20 years now, and their recent tour includes stops at major venues like the Beacon Theater and the Chicago Theater. Though I&J have enjoyed perhaps greater visibility in Europe, but even in North America, their physical routines have kicked around YouTube for many years, including this classic:
Some of I&G’s routines call to mind Schickele’s vintage sketches with their puns and slapstick. This Johnny Carson appearance is good fun:
For a more “digital first” brand of comedy, the Australian duo of TwoSet Violin have honed a brand of practice room humor and reaction videos that are staples of the classical internet. They too have been on the road recently.
In working on the Strings article, I enjoyed talking with the makers of Conversations with Nick Canellakis, a mock classical interview show that ran about a decade ago. It featured cellist Nick Canellakis playing an interviewer who peppers guests with obtuse and mildly offensive questions. Loosely inspired by Between Two Ferns and the Colbert Report, Canellakis and straight man Michael Stephen Brown interrogated the likes of Itzhak Perlman, Yuja Wang, and the Emerson String Quartet (most of the 19 episodes are still available online). Here they are with Osmo Vänskä:
Though some gags and sketches age better than others, the Marx Brothers’ Night at the Opera has in many ways remained relevant, poking fun at the pretensions and snobbery that (fairly or not) have historically dogged opera. Here is a clip in which Chico and Harpo cause havoc in the pit, complete with a mock ballgame staged using a violin as a baseball bat.
Top Photo: Igudesman & Joo ©Julia Wesely