February 23, 2020

Satirical Songs Deliver Cutting Wit

On a recent Sunday, I came to a crossroads in my life, where I was forced to make an important choice: either do my bills and laundry or attend “The Best Satirical Songs in History,” an afternoon of musical satire, highlighting songs and film clips featuring Groucho Marx, Randy Newman, Chuck Berry, Weird Al Yankovic, Gilbert and Sullivan, Amy Schumer and Bugs Bunny, among others. With my usual self-discipline and sense of priorities, I headed off to the event, sponsored by American Jewish University’s Whizin Center for Continuing Education and its Dortort Program for the Performing Arts.

The show was created and presented by David Misch, who has been writing and producing comedy for more than 40 years. He’s an author, playwright, songwriter, blogger and recovering stand-up comic and screenwriter whose credits include the Emmy-winning “Mork & Mindy,” Emmy-losing “Duckman,” Emmy-ignored “Police Squad!” Emmy-winning “Saturday Night Live” and Emmy-ineligible “The Muppets Take Manhattan.” He’s also the author of “Funny: The Book” and has taught or lectured at USC, UCLA, Columbia University, Oxford University, the Actors Studio and the American Film Institute.

Satire is one of the oldest forms of humor. Adding music only seems to make it more powerful. In early Germanic and Celtic societies, people would break out in boils and even commit suicide if attacked in song. At the very least, as master song satirist Tom Lehrer once said, “If, after hearing my songs, just one human being is inspired to say something nasty to a friend or, perhaps, to strike a loved one, it will all have been worthwhile.”

Misch got the audience on his side immediately with some deeply personal revelations, including: “I broke up with my girlfriend. She was an atheist and, at the time, I thought I was God.”

He proceeded to guide us on an entertaining, informative, insightful and hilarious journey, complete with accompanying graphics and videos, through a generous sampling of history’s satirical songs. These included Groucho Marx’s “I’m Against It,” from the movie “Horse Feathers”; “Blame Canada,” from “South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut,” nominated for an Academy Award for original song in 1999; Yankovic’s “Smells Like Nirvana,” a satire on Nirvana’s hit, “Smells Like Teen Spirit”; Steve Martin’s “King Tut”; Bugs Bunny’s “What’s Opera, Doc?”; Tom Lehrer’s “The Vatican Rag”; and Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Pirates of Penzance.”

“If, after hearing my songs, just one human being is inspired to say something nasty to a friend, or perhaps to strike a loved one, it will all have been worthwhile.” — Tom Lehrer

Some eye-opening takeaways:

• Randy Newman’s hit “Sail Away” is sung in the character of a slave trader convincing Africans to come to America as slaves.

• Chuck Berry’s “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man” was originally titled “Brown-Skinned Handsome Man” and is a sly satire of race relations.

• The first known satire was the 1200 B.C.E. Papyrus Anastasi, and Horace was the first satirist.

• “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” is a song written by Pete Seeger in 1967 and made famous because of its censorship from “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.” It was an antiwar attack on President Lyndon Johnson’s military policy.

A sampling of modern-day satire included “Stonehenge” from the Rob Reiner mockumentary “This Is Spinal Tap”; Andy Samberg’s and Justin Timberlake’s “Dick in a Box” from “Saturday Night Live”; the Emmy-winning video “Girl, You Don’t Need Makeup” from Amy Schumer; and songs from the sitcom “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.”

Throughout the program, Misch offered memorable insights into the nature of satirical songs, including the fact that so many of them were written by Jews. But one insight in particular remained prominent: “You can really get away with insulting people if you attach your insults to a catchy melody and clever rhymes.”

Mark Miller is a humorist who has performed stand-up comedy in nightclubs and on TV, and written for numerous sitcoms.