A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to America: The Wit of The Beatles
The Beatles were a real good thing for music, because they were funny at the same time – Randy Newman
A hard and rough port town, which offered many dead-ends and few opportunities for upward mobility, Liverpool had humor as the balm that could ease the often crushing burden of reality that was its daily milieu.
Its locals were, and are, famous for their Scouser wit – often delivered in deadpan style; it is sharp and often biting. Verbal jousting is an art form, and generally good-natured. On its dark side, Scouser wit can be a weapon intended to do damage. An overwhelmingly Irish town in the middle of the last century, the locals had some ancestral history with humor.
Even their name for themselves – Liverpudlians – is the Scouser’s inverted joke in which the pool becomes a puddle.
Why does the River Mersey run through Liverpool? Because it doesn’t want to get mugged.
In this puddle fermented with wit, where one was required to have a sharp sense of humor and judged by its quality, were born the Beatles – as individuals and a band. And like the thematic spine that runs through any good story, Scouser wit was the spine of their career – it affected every aspect of their existence as a band, to the point of being responsible for their initial success until their songwriting caught up.
John Lennon’s humor was often underpinned by the dark nature that was part of his personality. Separated from his father, left to live with his aunt by his mother, who subsequently died in a tragic accident, left by the beloved uncle who died unexpectedly, he used humor to cover the pain of abandonment by those he loved. He used it to turn his inner rage on an outside world he felt had betrayed him. Early in school that humor took increasingly sharp turns towards the surreal, and often cruel, in poems, stories, and illustrated magazines he created to communicate with the world outside.
Tragedy struck Paul McCartney as well when he lost his mother in his early teens. Always a people pleaser on the surface, his sense of humor could also be sharp and biting, but was more often obscured under layers of protection. He also came from a large, boisterous, and close knit extended family in which humor, good-natured for the most part, was the currency of affection.
Like his older friend, George Harrison came from a family that was affectionate, loud and immersed in jokes and cut-ups. Falsely referred to as the quiet Beatle, he was a talker, and his wit took a dry, sarcastic tone.
The Reeperbahn, the seedy red-light district of Hamburg where the Beatles had several lengthy stays playing at loud and often dangerous clubs, backing strippers or playing between their sets, was the anvil on which the band was hammered into what was arguably the best live band of Northern England at the time. The lubricant that greased their way through this maze of dangers and endurance was humor.
John, Paul and George quickly found their shared sense of humor helped the intense bond they shared grow. They riffed off of each other like veteran comedians, often finishing each other’s jokes and jabs. Entertaining the jaded and uninterested thugs and blue-collar workers that came to drink at the Kaiserkeller, The Top Ten Club and Star Club, took more than music – it took jokes. Lennon trotted out his well-worn cripple routine, or ridiculed the crowd with Nazi jokes and Hitler imitations. Once amphetamines entered their world, the jokes took on a manic persona and wearing a toilet seat around your head while playing in your underwear was just another tool in their entertainment chest.
It was those personalities, imbued with their unique bond and sense of comic surreality that helped Brian Epstein see their potential. But pushing them on every record label in England came to nothing for the aspiring manager with the passionate belief in his charges. His last hope was George Martin, who headed the poor relative record label Parlophone.
Martin first had success with Beyond the Fringe, a comedic stage review featuring Dudley Moore, Peter Cooke and Jonathan Miller. Those records are considered a key linchpin in the ascendance of satiric humor in Britain.
He followed that with recordings by Peter Sellars, a comedic phenomena who seemed capable of doing anything. Along with his solo recordings of Sellars, Martin also recorded him as part of a group including Spike Milligan and Harry Seacombe, known as the Goons. Through that process he became close friends with Sellars and Mulligan.
The Goons were something completely original. Their unique blend of surrealism, crazy plots and startling sound effects made an enormous impression on the young minds of the time. Most notably on John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Sellars in particular would help form the basis of their sense of humor, and he would repay the favor with his ridiculously funny reading of their “A Hard Day’s Night.”
The Beatles knew who George Martin was, and respected him more than most adults for what he’d done. Martin, on the other hand, didn’t see enough in their demo tape to sign them but agreed to have them come to London and record in his studio at Abbey Road to give them a better chance.
Martin gave the Beatles to Parlaphone producer Ron Richards and engineer Norman Smith to record. They were unimpressed. They liked the boys, but the material and performances were lacking, and they took some pleasure in telling the young band so. When Martin came in to hear the recordings he shared their opinion, but was more reticent in saying so.
In his polite, English manner, Martin asked the band if there was anything they didn’t like, meaning the recordings. George Harrison replied: “Well, I don’t like your tie.” There was silence – in 1950s England you didn’t talk to your betters that way. Then Martin noticed the smile dancing on the edges of Harrison’s face. Having improved Parlophone’s standing by recording comedy, he knew a joke when he heard one, and he smiled ear to ear on this one.
This was the breaking of the ice. John, Paul and George went into full Beatle mode, riffing off each other with the improvisational skill of professionals. Richards and Smith remember laughing so hard they were crying in their sleeves. Martin knew then he would sign them based not on their music, but their personalities.
But there was one problem – the unimaginative drummer who could do little more then pound out a 4/4 beat, and had the personality to match his drumming skills. Pete Best was not like the rest – while they joked with Martin, he stood quiet saying nothing. Martin’s desire to use another drummer on the session cemented the already growing sense of the other three that Best had to go. He wasn’t a Beatle, as Lennon said. Ringo Starr, however, was Fab.
The poorest of the four, Ringo was his mother’s only child. His father had abandoned them, and his good-hearted stepfather solidly filled the father role for him. A sickly child he spent months in the hospital, and in his home recuperated. Surely his humor was formed in part by these experiences, but it was his jovial, regular guy personality that affected it more. With his non sequiturs and malapropisms, Ringo often didn’t even know he was being funny. But he filled the fourth side of this quartet perfectly, often playing the willing foil to their lunacy.
The America that the Beatles took by storm in 1964 was a gray and unhappy place. Lacking Britain’s acceptance of the unusual, or its appreciation of the surreal, the country was stolid and square. The public murder of its young president in Dallas had thrown the nation into a depression of confusion.
The Beatles music – with its simple yet alluring melodies and arrangements filled with musical examples of humorous quirks – was joyous and exuberant: the perfect elixir for a country in mass shock. But it was their humor that lifted them above everyone else.
Their first news conference at the New York airport was the sign that there was a new wind blowing into town. Their irreverent and cheeky sense of humor immediately won over the jaded press corps, making them willing allies in this new invasion. The jousting between the two camps was like an electrical current repeatedly spiking, nearing explosion.
Q: How did you find America?
John: Turn left at Greenland.
Q: What did you think when your airliner’s engine began smoking as you landed today?
Ringo: Beatles, women and children first!
Q: What do you think of the criticism that you’re not very good?
George: We’re not.
Self deprecating, good natured, and brimming with youthful energy, they also had some understanding of what they had gotten into, and the atmosphere that surrounded them. Though as often was the case it was served up with a healthy dose of Lennon’s black wit.
Q: Are you scared when crowds scream at you?
John: More so in Dallas than other places.
Humor continued to be their trademark in press conferences and onstage. It became the armor that protected them against the madness that surrounded them. And it also served to alleviate the utter boredom of inane questions, and being trapped in a hotel, then a car, then a backstage, then a car, then a hotel, then a plane, then a hotel…and on and on. Beatlemania became a trap, and humor was the only escape.
Their first film, A Hard Day’s Night, written by Liverpudlian Alun Owen, was not so much written as received. Owens spent several days with the band watching their life, and absorbing their personalities. It was an honest reflection of the madness they were experiencing, but more so a true reflection of who they were as people. Much of the written dialogue was taken from things the four Beatles actually said. And since they were not trained actors, director Richard Lester smartly allowed them to improvise and kept the camera rolling. So that much of what we love in A Hard Days Night is the Beatles being the Beatles.
That Lester was the director of their two major films was no accident. The Beatles had picked him from a list of directors because of his earlier The Running Jumping and Standing Still Film. Shot over two Sundays in 1960 by the American born director, this short 11-minute bit of filmed lunacy featured the Goons, and was a big favorite of the Beatles. Lennon in particular was obsessed with the film.
The follow up film Help! suffered from the explosive success of the first film. But the space of time allows it to be taken on its own merits. The film is a complete investment in surreal dialogue, bizarre characters and crazy plot twists – quite like the Goons.
John: [finding a season ticket in his soup] What’s this?
Ringo: A season ticket. What do you think it is?
John: Oh. I like a lot of seasoning in me soup.
Ringo: I like operations. They give you a sense of outlook, don’t they?
Their self-made film Magical Mystery Tour was roundly sacked when it was shown on British TV on Boxing Day. Incredibly it debuted in black and white, a great detriment for a film whose essence was in the psychedelic colors it was shot in. The film is now reappraised as a surreal near classic.
Still at the time it was enormously influential on certain like-minded young men: It’s easy to see the pre-fab Monty Python in both Help! and Magical Mystery Tour. The Pythons have expressed the Beatles influence, Terry Gilliam noting that Python, sometimes referred to as the comedic Beatles, formed the year after the Beatles disbanded. The connection between the two irreverently funny forces was made formal when George Harrison formed a lifelong friendship with the Python members, and became a backer of many of their films.
Still it is rightly the music that the Beatles legacy is built on, but even here humor invades and permeates. Humor showed up in the music in unusual ways – impish arrangements or vocals, subversive words or lyrics. Sometimes it’s in little jokes as in the song “Girl” where like naughty schoolboys George and Paul sing in the background “tit-tit-tit”. Or in the same song when Lennon inhales – like he’s smoking a joint, their own form of inside joke.
As they approached the recording of the seminal Rubber Soul, the band feared that they needed a new direction; otherwise their sound would stale. They toyed with the idea of writing comedy songs. Out of this idea came the comedic character study “Drive My Car.” Here the object of our protagonist’s affection is a determined aspiring star. His reward for fealty to her is the job of her chauffeur – even though she doesn’t yet own a car.
Norwegian Wood also started in part with some comedic intent. McCartney’s idea to have the song end with the protagonist burning down his paramour’s house had them in stitches. Of course, few got the joke.
Harrison for the first time in his life was actually having some money to call his own. The Beatles were nothing if not inveterate capitalists, and not ashamed of it in the least. England’s tax laws meant that larger earners were paying 95% of their income to the government. An outraged Harrison penned the bitterly sarcastic “Taxman” in reply to the government who gave “one to you nineteen for me” and demanded that Harrison not “ask me what I want it for.”
“Get Back” started life as a cloaked sarcastic attack on racism confronting Pakistani immigrants in Britain, but was rewritten due to fear it would be misconstrued as racist itself.
(listen here for the original lyric):
The Goons infiltrated many songs: “Yellow Submarine,” “Hey Bulldog,” and “Wild Honey Pie” all use the Goon formula of sampling in the surreal, while using bizarre sound effects to enhance the underlying humor. “You Know My Name (Look Up the Number)” and “What’s the New Mary Jane” were both beholden to the Goon ethos – the former a simple lyric repeated as mantra, changing only the backing track, the latter a string of nonsensical Lennon-isms wrapped in a loopy musical arrangement.
Taking a word and playing with it, using it in creative ways is a very Liverpudlian humor trait, used by many comedians in Liverpool. The Beatles were gifted artists in this arena. Sometimes it was accidental, as in the case of Ringo’s malapropisms, which brought fresh meaning to the ridiculous and often found their way into Beatles songs and titles. “A Hard Day’s Night,” “Tomorrow Never Knows,” “Eight Days A Week,” all started life as unintended wisdom flowing from the Fab drummer’s mouth.
Lennon’s “I Am the Walrus” was the most overt and intentional usage of this brand of Liverpool humor. It displays a love of words for their own sake, giving meaning where none is intended. McCartney got into the game with his naming of the album Rubber Soul – a joke on the white man’s version of soul music.
Probably the greatest example of the Beatles Goonsian wordplay, sound effects and general surreal humor were there Christmas records and fan club recordings. These ridiculously funny, and quite absurd recordings contained virtually every element of Beatles humor including memorable musical melodies with half cracked lyrics.
Alistair Taylor also attributed one truly surreal bit of inside musical humor to McCartney. Assistant to Brian Epstein, Taylor was also Mr. Fix-it for the Beatles. He claimed that the outro of “All You Need Is Love” was McCartney’s idea of a joke: towards the end of the song the band begins playing in a different time signature and style, as if they just realized they’d been playing the song wrong the previous 2 ½ minutes, and this last bit is the right way.
So its appropriate that it was Paul McCartney who wryly noted “if you don’t live this life with a sense of humor, it could soon get you down.” The Beatles were incredible pranksters, both in life and art. They got perverse joy from doing what was not expected just so they could watch the resulting reactions. It’s no wonder when Neil Innes did his Beatle parody with the Ruttes, it was the Fab Four who laughed first and loudest.
And in taking this path in their use of humor, the Beatles profoundly affected the American sense of humor, and its appreciation of the surreal and ridiculous. Nothing would be the same again. If you are truly listening to them today you’re still laughing, and life is much more bearable. After all, nothing is real, and nothing to get hung about.
Bodie Plecas is a graduate of Louisiana State University where he studied as little as possible. He has dabbled as an actor, director, and anything else that pays the rent. Currently he resides in Los Angeles where he is guitarist and songwriter for Picnic Tool, as well as co-founder and designer at Plecas Powell Design, a mid-century modern furniture design company. He is also currently working on a rock and roll dark comedy novel titled Keith Lives, as well as a non-fiction book on Serbs who have impacted the wider world tentatively titled A Place in the World.