Tag Archives: music

Psycho! – Music and Manipulation in Hitchcock’s Great Comedy


Psycho has a very interesting construction and that game with the audience was fascinating.  I was directing the viewers.  You might say I was playing them, like an organ. – Alfred Hitchcock

[Hitchcock] only finishes a picture 60%. I have to finish it for him. – Bernard Herrmann

It’s almost Halloween, and nothing says Halloween like Alfred Hitchcock. So let’s take a look at the music in Hitchcock’s great comedy, Psycho.

Maybe comedy is a bit of a stretch. But Hitchcock himself has long held that his low budget, black and white 1960 thriller, which literally invented the genre of slasher films, is a comedy.

I once made a movie, rather tongue-in-cheek, called Psycho…The content was, I felt, rather amusing and it was a big joke. I was horrified to find some people took it seriously.

What did Hitchcock mean by this exactly?  He was famous for his wry wit and it is possible the real joke was to later classify the film itself as a joke. But there is also a likely earnestness in his claim. Hitchcock elaborates that he envisioned Psycho as a thrill ride, akin to a “switchback railway,” or rollercoaster.

It was intended to make people scream and yell and so forth – but no more than screaming and yelling on a switchback railway…you mustn’t go too far because you do want them to get off the switchback railway, giggling with pleasure.

Audiences certainly enjoyed the roller coaster ride of the film, and continue to do so to this day, although perhaps not “giggling with pleasure” at its finish. Does this mean Hitchcock failed, went too far? Hardly. What separates Psycho from its countless imitators is precisely its darkness and heft, the superb performances from the entire ensemble, especially Anthony Perkins and Janet Leigh, and perhaps most importantly Bernard Herrmann’s musical score.

That’s not to say the film lacks the tongue-in-cheek quality Hitchcock intended. There are quite a few laughs in the film, mostly from the brilliant bit performances. Pat Hitchcock shines as Marion’s homely co-worker (“He was flirting with you. I guess he must have noticed my wedding ring.”) as does John Anderson as used car salesman “California Charlie” (“You can do anything you’ve a mind to. Being a woman you will.”) and Helen Wallace as the eccentric hardware store customer concerned with finding a humane insect poison (“They tell you what its ingredients are, and how it’s guaranteed to exterminate every insect in the world, but they do not tell you whether or not it’s painless. And I say, insect or man, death should always be painless.”). Even Norman balances his darkness with humorous bits of awkwardness, such as his incessant Kandy Korn nibbling.

Alfred Hitchcock was a celebrity as a personality as well as a director, and served as a perfect pitchman for his films. The marketing campaign for Psycho is almost as infamous as the film itself. It began with pre-production: Hitchcock bought up every copy of the novel on which the film was based so that the story would be as little known as possible, he had the actors sign confidentiality agreements before filming commenced, and he openly refused to allow Paramount to photograph the set. This anti-publicity served as ingenious publicity.

Hitchcock appreciated the shock value in killing off his star less than halfway into the picture, so he Continue reading →

Happy Birthday Sarah Josepha Buell Hale!

sj1Two-hundred and twenty-five years ago today, Sarah Josepha Buell Hale was born in Newport, New Hampshire. Widowed at age thirty-four and with five children to support, she turned to writing and editing. In addition to helping make education fashionable for women and campaigning to make Thanksgiving a national holiday, she is credited with penning “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” a rhyme inspired by a neighbor child, Mary Sawyer.

In celebration, here’s a sampler of varied takes on this funny little verse.

Scroll down and enjoy!

Otis Redding’s Version

Tommy Dorsey’s Version

Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Version

Sesame Street’s Comedy Sketch Version

Damielou’s Version

Thomas Edison’s Version

UB Iwerks ComiColor’s Version

The Native American Church Version

Fletcher Henderson’s Version

Fantasia’s Version

The Paul McCartney and Wings’ Version

The Break Room Conversation Version

The Dolly’s Circus Version

The Evil Version

The Southern Gospel Version

The Hanna Barbera Singers 1966 Version

The American Sign Language Version

Happy Birthday, Sarah Josepha Buell Hale. Rest assured the beat goes on!

Happy Birthday Lawrence Welk!

Tracy Wuster

My grandma, Louise, babysat for Lawrence Welk‘s kids when she was a girl.  She lived across from Elitch Gardens, where my great-grandmother ran the roller coaster and my great-grandpa worked in the greenhouses.  Growing up, we often watched the Lawrence Welk show with grandma.

I remember laughing a lot at the show–for both the intentional humor and the unintentional.  Welk’s persona and corny jokes always made grandma laugh.  Such as:

How many of Lawrence Welk’s critics does it take to change a light bulb?

– They don’t know how to change a light bulb, but they’ll find something wrong with how his Musical Family does it


Welk continues to maintain popularity, and his fan pages are examples of humorous web design in themselves. The music and costumes were often hilarious, often unintentionally so.

Which leads to some obvious and welcome parody:

Feel free to post your own Welk pieces and humor.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to America: The Wit of The Beatles

Bodie Plecas


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 MoorePeter Cooke and Jonathan Miller. Those records are considered a key linchpin in the ascendance of satiric humor in Britain.

Continue reading →

Song and Dance Man: Revisiting Bob Dylan’s Legendary 1965 Press Conference

Bob Dylan’s 35th studio album – Tempest
– was released on Tuesday, smack dab in the middle of a stormy political season. But it isn’t a political album, of course. Bob Dylan is not a political artist. He is a bluesman, borrowing what he needs from an array of elements and spinning them into songs that transcend the original source, resulting in some of the more poignant, introspective songs of the modern age. In the late 1960’s, for example, during the height of the Woodstock-era, rock ‘n’ roll, anti-war counter-culture, Bob Dylan was making quiet country records in Nashville. In fact, Bob Dylan has written precisely zero songs protesting, or even referencing, the Vietnam War. His brush with “protest” music at the beginning of his career was simply a vehicle – one more riff to borrow as he found his voice. Dave Van Ronk, the legendary folk singer who worked the same Greenwich Village clubs in those early days, remembers Dylan as being “politically naïve.”

He can also be a very funny songwriter and entertainer – a self described “song and dance man.”

Don’t misunderstand me, I am well aware of the impact of landmark songs such as Continue reading →

There’s A Riot Goin’ On: Leiber & Stoller Behind Bars

It may seem odd that one of the most prolific and commercially successful songwriting teams of the second half of the 20th Century wrote almost exclusively comedy songs – and odder still when considering how many of those comedy songs take place inside a prison – but Leiber and Stoller were nothing if not original.

The career of these unparalleled songwriters requires a lengthy and voluminous exploration, which will not be attempted here. The abridged version is as follows: Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller were two Jewish kids who met while attending Fairfax High School and Los Angeles City College, respectively. They immediately bonded over their shared obsession with black music and culture. They began writing songs together in the early 1950’s with Leiber composing the lyrics and Stoller working out the grooves, harmony and melody on the piano. Unlike traditional songwriting teams of the era, Leiber and Stoller weren’t (intentionally) writing the Great American Songbook, they were writing the blues.

Their greatest earliest success came in 1953 with Big Mama Thornton’s recording of “Hound Dog,” later immortalized by Elvis Presley. Not exactly a “comedy” song, but Leiber’s unorthodox lyric style was already in full bloom.

You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog

Been snoopin’ ‘round the door

You can wag your tail

But I ain’t gonna feed you no more

More R&B hits followed including “Kansas City” (Wilbert Harrison), “Love Potion #9” (The Clovers) and “Ruby Baby” (The Drifters), as well as several iconic songs written for The King including “Love Me,” “Treat Me Nice” and “Jailhouse Rock.” Many would argue they reached an artistic apex with sophisticated pop records like “There Goes My Baby” or the magnificent Peggy Lee cabaret ballad “Is That All There Is?” – and perhaps they did – but it was with West Coast-based R&B vocal group The Coasters where Leiber and Stoller showcased the essence of what they were all about as tunesmiths.

The songwriting pair wrote and produced hit after hit for the Coasters, including iconic staples like “Yakety Yak,” “Charlie Brown” and “Poison Ivy.” The earliest Coasters hits were recorded as The Robins, with a slightly different lineup. Each Coasters or Robins record found the group in exotic locals or humorous scenarios and, for some reason, often in jail. Continue reading →

Mojo Medicine: Humor, Healing and the Blues

I’ve often thought that if blues musicians would just sleep in they would be happier. So many blues songs begin with “I woke up this morning…” only to be followed by a litany of frustrating events. Of course, to be a blues musician one must have the blues and to have the blues I suppose one must get out of bed and face the world. Might as well get an early start. Unhappiness as a raison d’être may seem like an unhealthy exercise until considering the cathartic power of music. Perhaps blues musicians are on to something. 

Music, like humor, can be used to varying degrees for varying effects. Some music is strictly utilitarian, designed purely as a backdrop to dance, or even march. Similarly, humor at its most basic level can be mere entertainment and nothing more. This is a noble purpose in and of itself; however, humor and music each have a transformative element that when harnessed properly can heal. When the two are combined effectively this power can be immense. This is true for every genre and period of music – from the “Vesti la giubba” from Pagliacci to Charlie Chaplin’sSmile” to Cee Lo Green’sF**k You” – but is perhaps most effective in the blues and its logical extensions: country, R&B and rock ‘n’ roll.

This is because humor and the blues share similar expressive properties. Continue reading →

The Sound and the Furry: An Interview with Alfra Martini, Creator of The Kitten Covers

Alfra Martini is a musician, runs a record label, sells vintage posters, freelances as a designer, and – like Walter Benjamin’s famous Angel, but of Parody instead of History – may very well be there at the end of the internet. In other words, Alfra is also responsible for The Kitten Covers: a website which, if you have not seen it, is both exactly what it sounds like and exactly as cool as you think it is. Her “kittenized” album covers have since gone viral with good reason, about which she was kind enough to speak with Humor in America.

David B. Olsen: A common observation that seems to frame discussions of your work is that these images were kind of inevitable. Like it’s almost weird that it has taken us so long as a culture to add kittens to famous album covers. My favorite assessment of your work comes from a short piece in New York Magazine online: “It’s a new blog in which the subjects of iconic album covers are replaced with kittens. So, basically, that’s a wrap, Internet!” What combination of cosmic forces did it take, therefore, for The Kitten Covers to come about through you?

Alfra Martini: It’s funny that for some, The Kitten Covers seem to signify the end to the internet.  As if to say, all our advances in information sharing have culminated into this final point. Like the punchline to a long drawn out narrative, our ambitions for advanced global communication have produced this ultimate monstrous phenomenon: Rock n Roll Kittens!!  It’s like a kittenized Planet of the Apes moment where Charlton Heston freaks out realizing human technological progress has led to it’s destruction: “We finally really did it. You maniacs! You blew it up! Ah, damn you! God damn you all to hell!” Hahaha. Kittens Rule!

But the truth is anthropomorphism is as old as humanity itself and animal parodies have been used forever.  Also, parodying classic album art is nothing new to the internet. Sleeveface, Lego Albums, and Album Tacos had all been around before The Kitten Covers. And though I don’t spend a massive amount of time on the internet, I do run a record label (All Hands Electric) and am a musician myself. Pair that with my love of vinyl records, cover art, and music iconography in general, and throw in a dash of my graphic design interests… I had, of course, been exposed to these viral images in the past so had an idea of this type of humor.

But how The Kitten Covers came to being more specifically: I was staying home from my day job as a vintage poster dealer, recuperating from a cold and feeling a little restless in bed.  Lucky for me, I always have something to do for the record label, regardless of whether I can get out of bed or not, and as we are a very independent DIY outfit, I started researching alternative methods for record distribution on my laptop, i.e. checking out stores who might be interested in carrying our stuff. It’s not the most effective thing, but you have to start somewhere, and I wasn’t about to waste my time sneezing all day. Sifting through online catalog after catalog, well, you revisit some iconic album covers and, if you are like me, you get distracted by the graphic decisions and the exaggerated style of rock iconography.

It was then that a vision popped into my head: David Bowie as a kitten. I don’t know how or why. Perhaps it’s because I’m a huge Bowie fan and have an Aladdin Sane tote bag I use and see everyday – or perhaps it was because my little calico cat was sleeping at my feet, as she usually does when I’m in bed – or maybe it was the Theraflu – but it was a very clear image and the thought made me laugh.  The die was cast. I had to see it in real life.

In hindsight, the image speaks loads to the current state of things, but at the time I wasn’t thinking meme, or blog, lol cats, or body of work. I was just thinking David Bowie as a kitten… I must see David Bowie as a kitten. Could I do it? Did I have the photoshopping skills? I abandoned my “work task”, crawled out of bed, and started up the desktop. The rest is mainly just technical.

After it was done… I giggled. It looked pretty close to my initial vision. And I was thinking, maybe I should do another, so started on the New Order cover, which is such a serious looking image to start with and the idea of using a kitten… just seemed so absurd. And then came Nevermind, because how iconic and bizarre is that cover already? And what’s more ludicrous than a kitten swimming underwater? Theoretically they all seemed so ridiculous and yet endearing.  It was then that my boyfriend came home and saw what I was doing and was like: “WTF?? Are you okay? Do you have a fever or something?”  Haha. But he couldn’t deny the eeriness of the David Meowie and suggested that I do a few more and start a Tumblr page, as he heard it had been good for photo blogs. Honestly, I was just going to show a few friends to get a laugh… who knew that I was planning the demise of the internet? Heh.

Continue reading →

Santa is coming to town, so watch yourself.

The holiday season is, of course, upon us. A time when brothers and sisters come together to divvy up the sober driver duties for their many mandatory family parties. (You and your loved ones may have other traditions.) A time when the unlikeliest of music becomes unavoidable. No, I am not talking about Susan Boyle’s inspirational (?) versions of Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” and Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” on her Christmas album The Gift. (Although she should have called it The Re-Gift, because let’s be honest…)

I am thinking instead of the perennial “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.” As I’m sure that you, too, have felt with a kind of shiver completely unrelated to winter weather, the lyrics to this holiday favorite make Santa seem almost tyrannical in his tireless vigilance. “You better watch out,” it begins. But for what?! At least the next lines – “You better not pout / You better not cry” – offer a very specific rebuke to whiners and brats, but the fact that Santa is not something to eagerly await and watch for but to “what out for” makes him less a benefactor than a dictator. Less Tomie dePaola, more Brian De Palma. I guess the implication is that you better watch out for Santa watching you, at which point we may as well be in a Pynchon novel or a Police song.

In other words, Santa is like a heftier, jollier version of a spy drone. He flies around in his sleigh undetected – um, we’ve even got NORAD working on it – and although you never see him, he sees you when you’re both sleeping and awake (i.e. always) and knows when you’ve been both bad and good (i.e. everything). In this light, getting a wood-burning kit or a Kindle Fire hardly seems to make up for another year’s worth of despotic surveillance, to say nothing of the attendant paranoia that this song all but recommends.

I’m not the first to make this connection between Santa and a spy drone, however, as the following recent cartoons attest:

By John Darkow for the Columbia Daily Tribune 

By Cameron Cardow for the Ottawa Citizen

Also, did you know that there’s a war on?

Continue reading →

“Drink Some Lemonade, and Forget About It”

I know who I want to be when I grow up.

“I’m having a good time / Please don’t blame me,” she sings to me, her voice full of laughter.

“I’m knocking myself out.  Don’t try to tame me.
Let me have my fun, I’ve got to have my fling . . . .

I’m playing it cool while I’m living, because tomorrow, I may die.
That’s why I’m having a convention today, and I ain’t passing nothing by.
So if I make my bed hard, that’s my problem, let me lay.
I’m having a good time, living my life today.

Her name was Alberta Hunter.  Born on April Fools’ Day, she felt that age was a “condition of the mind” (Taylor and Cook 253), and she lived her life to prove it.  I can’t change my birthdate, but I can lie, can’t I?  I’ve got the fool part down, anyway.

Trouble is, that’s the part I have to grow out of, because Miss Hunter was no fool.  I’m working on it.

It’s a step in the right direction, though, because she believed that with hard work, passion, and laughter, you could achieve anything you set out to do.  And that you should take responsibility for whatever was yours:  “So if I make my road rough–that’s the price I have to pay [not you],” she’d sing.  She never worried much about nay-sayers.  If anything, they just made her more stubborn and the sparkle in her eye brighter. She always did what she loved and drew strength from it.  She had no patience for those “who thought God made them and threw the pattern away,” and she knew that giving of yourself, bringing smiles to others, was the most important thing in life.  She only got better as she got older.

She was a “singer of songs,” who refused to be pigeon-holed.  Hunter was one of the only successful female blues composers, though she could never read or write a note of music or tell a band what key a song was going to be in.  But she knew a false note when she heard it, and in 1923, with Lovie Austin, she wrote a little tune called “The Downhearted Blues,” which she recorded for Paramount.  It sold well, she was encouraged to write more, and given a good contract.  But then came the woman Hunter called “the world’s greatest Blues singer, that awful Bessie Smith,” who made “Downhearted Blues” forever her song, selling 800,000 records.  Hunter loved Bessie, loved her version of the song, but she still sang it her way . . . and loved collecting the royalties.

Hunter gave every song her own spin.  As she sang, she improvised words that came to her, often bringing surprised laughter from her audience with witty double-entendres or unexpected twists to old songs.  And her twists, like her twists in life itself, are always about verve, about life-affirming, don’t-let-anything-get-you-down-or-keep-you-down verve.  “A lot of people take a beautiful ballad, they sing it slowly, tell you they’re singing the blues,” she once said.  “Don’t believe them.  I’m gonna sing you some blues, so help me.”  She knew that when you’re singing the blues, “You’re telling a story.  Blues are a song from your soul. When you’re singing the blues, you’re singing” (Taylor and Cook 37).  And then she’d let you know that when life threw you a curve, you had “take a chance and gamble / Lord, everywhere [you] go.”

She was no stranger to taking the gamble.   She was on her own from the time she was 12 — or 16, depending on who’s telling the story.  Alberta Hunter never let a little thing like chronology pin her down.  She ran from Memphis to Chicago, escaping her stepfather’s fists and her school principal’s lecherous advances.  And she wouldn’t stop singing, even when people told her that she was terrible.  During a time when many people said that “you sing blues and jazz, and you’re on your way to the devil with a hat on” (Taylor and Cook 38), Hunter just “grabbed the lyrics, shook them, stomped on them and then picked them up and caressed them” (Washington Post, 8 January 1979, B9), all the while carrying herself like a lady.  Touched by her passion, dignity, and sheer bull-headedness, the prostitutes and gamblers of Chicago took her under their wing, made sure she stayed safe, and cultivated her talents.  Others may have had stronger voices, but Hunter knew how to work an audience like no one else, and she had stories to tell.  Before long, she was a headliner at Chicago’s famous Dreamland, and then a recording star.  When World War II came, she devoted herself to singing for the troops with the USO.

She quit performing in 1955 because she decided she was too old for the hard life on the road, and began volunteering in a New York City hospital, soon becoming an LPN.  In 1977, Hunter was forcibly retired, after 20 years of service to the NYC hospital, because they thought she was 70.

Hunter had them fooled, though.  She was 82.

And just about to launch her second career as a performer, her voice stronger than it ever was, seasoned now and full of laughter.  She recorded numerous albums and was “rocking” her “castle” at sell-out performances until her death in 1984 at the age of 89.  A little thing like chronology never got her down.  Continue reading →