A few Saturdays ago, I had the good fortune to see Pseudo_Intellectual and the Creaking Planks perform an hour long show, in which his accordion playing roused the crowd to heights of amusement, especially with festive covers of such songs as Closer by Nine Inch Nails and Fuck the Pain Away by Peaches. As could be believed, the lyrics to the songs were quite transformed when performed on the accordion. The next day, I asked Rowan why the accordion was seen as so humorous. He told me that it probably came from the fact that the accordion was played by groups of people who would have been seen as marginal in Europe. There are of course, possible other reasons why the accordion is widely seen as funny.
This got me started on thinking of what musical instruments are funny, and what are not. In the past weeks, I have used the topic as an ice breaker at parties. Unlike many of the random topics I bring up, this one seems to be a liked topic of discussion, and also one that I find different people bringing up similar issues with. Along with being a fun topic, it is interesting for me because it brings up some tacit cultural knowledge. Where did people learn that the Tuba is funny? Perhaps the same place they learned that pick-up trucks are driven by conservative men.
Here, then, is the list of funny instruments:
- Accordion-As mentioned, one of the funniest instruments, if not the funniest.
- Bagpipes-Not funny to listen to, but funny because of its physical appearance, and the entire men in kilts aspect.
- The Dijeredoo-Although probably not funny when actually played in its native context. But since it is associated with hippies, it becomes funny.
- The Ukulele- It is small. Small instruments are often funny.
- Tuba, Trombone and French Horn. Brass instruments are funny as a group, and these are three of the funniest.
- The Hurdy Gurdy- A relatively obscure instrument, something like a fiddle, only...different.
- The Oboe-The funniest woodwind.
- The Kazoo- Funny, but since it is kind of intended to be funny, it loses some of its humor appeal.
- Percussion- Percussion, other than the drum set, is funny. Drummers, however, are funny, even though their instruments are not. Percussion instruments that can be funny include, Triangle, Tambourine, Bongos, Tom-Toms, Xylophone and Electric Dulcimer, and Bells. Especially Cowbells.
- The Banjo- Brought up to me, 2 1/2 years after the original writing, by Avalyn. The Banjo is an obvious choice, especially because it is (like the Hurdy Gurdy and the Fiddle) associated with HICKS. Also, another exception to my "stringed instruments aren't funny" rule.
- Another subset of funny instruments is anything that is improvised, or invented.. (And the varieties of improvised musical instruments is manifold- rp sent me a link to an-all vegetable orchestra]). I consider this to be somewhat of a different category. Of course the Saw is funny. But how can you compare it to the Tuba? You just can't. It should also be noted that The Spoons, an instrument that is both non-drum percussion and improvised, has an unfair position of humor when compared to anything else.
- Another group that is funny, but in a way that is again difficult to compare, is novel instruments, especially technological novelties. The Theremin is funny. The Drum Buddy is funny. The Player Piano is funny. Wah Wah Peddle can be funny. Moog can also be funny. Also, it is from the 1970s, a funny decade, and has a funny name.
What about some unfunny instruments? There are many instruments that are either neutral, or serious. For example:
- The guitar (Actually, no stringed instrument, including the piano, is funny). With the exception of miniature guitars, and the fiddle, which is funny, even though the violin is not. Posmella messaged me to say that the Virginal, an Elizabethan instrument resembling a piano, is funny, and I have to agree, even if it is only funny based on its name.
The Cello is possibly the most serious instrument. To paraphrase Blood Ninja, ain't nothing funny about a Cello charging your ass. One of the criteria for instrument humor is how it sounds when different styles of music are played on it. Metallica can be played on the Cello to no ill effect. If the Cello can pass the Peaches test, it becomes supremely unfunny.
- Woodwinds tend not to be funny. Flute? Saxophone? Clarinet? None are funny. The clarinet is actually very dull, which is different than being serious.
- Brass instruments aren't all funny. The trumpet is not particularly funny.
- Harmonica might be seen as funny by some, but I would say it is about neutral in humor.
- The harp is, like most stringed instruments, not funny, although it could be in certain contexts, such as when it is played by women named Lady Morgana Raven at Renn Fayres.
This is of course, only a crude rendering of what instruments are funny and unfunny. Further additions, as well as further discussion of what makes instruments funny and unfunny, is welcome.