Few things are more difficult than talking about comedy and what makes it funny. One of them, however, might be talking about how to combine humour with punk in an effective way.
That said, former Brutal Knights frontman Nick Flanagan is up to the task. An accomplished stand-up comedian as well as a disciple of punk and hardcore, he’s the perfect candidate for the job.
Flanagan recently released 2012, the debut album from his group Wrong Hole (which he shares with Andrew Moszynski and Jon Schouten). The album’s destined to be one of the year’s sleeper hits, characterized by short bursts of wild, wacky hardcore and Flanagan’s inspired (and hilarious) lyricism.
To understand how one finds comedy in the world of punk and hardcore, I selected 10 diverse tracks and sent them to Flanagan (he chose the first one himself). Some were unintentionally funny, some were funny to me, and some weren’t that funny at all. After he listened to them all, he offered me some notes on each over the phone.
“None of it is funny if you compare it to actual things that are funny,” he said regarding funny punk songs. “It’s just funny in the context of being straight-ahead music.”
Brainbombs – “Kill Them All”
Nick Flanagan: “The Brainbombs, that was my choice. I don’t know the amount of people who are going to hear that song and think it’s funny necessarily, including the Brainbombs, I’m sure…. They haven’t really done a lot of interviews, but I feel like they would not talk about it being funny necessarily. It’s completely committed. It’s insane — no pun intended on the ‘committed’ line earlier.
The line that goes ‘blood mixed with shit mixed with blood,’ oddly it makes me laugh because it’s being said in this sort of really ahead-of-its-time impression of the Arnold Schwarzenegger voice. I think they have a formula that’s just sophisticated enough to keep it going. The actual music is pretty good, I think, in that it’s this sort of… it’s not really out of control noise music, and it’s not really straight ahead punk or rock n roll. It’s also sort of interesting. Something doesn’t need to be super funny if it’s presented as actual music.
Brainbombs presents itself as actual very cultish music, but still this is some kind of art rather than we’re doing a hilarious gag. Is it funny? Yeah, to maybe 100 people in the world. Everyone else would think it’s just nightmare music.”
Angry Samoans – “They Saved Hitler’s Cock”
“This is a classic. A lot of the time, if you’re anything like myself, you get into Bay Area punk like the Dead Kennedys, maybe some Alternative Tentacles stuff. I only got into West Coast punk rock first, and then LA punk. Dead Kennedys are the first example of a band using humour in punk rock, which gave them a lot of leeway in terms of how funny I thought they were. And then I would hear the LA stuff. Black Flag is pretty humourless, as we’ll also discover later.
Angry Samoans is the only really funny of the most famous bands that I heard at the time. And it was cool. And it was very tightly performed. So, yeah, it’s funny. They hid it under a rock, that’s a funny place for Hitler’s wang.
I don’t think it’s the best song on the album at all, but it’s probably the most ridiculous lyrically except for maybe ‘Jerry Curlan.’ It’s hilarious. I think it was just that they’re very cheeky. Obviously in the first Angry Samoans album, Back from Samoa, there’s all this other funny or reactionary funny kind of stuff. It’s kind of like in rap… they had that song called ‘Get Off the Air,’ and it was just about Rodney Bingenheimer and it was funny…. Basically, if Dead Kennedys is your first comedy punk stuff, and after a while you get sick of the way he says words like “Reagan,” move on to Angry Samoans. That’s just a little more fun without having the kind of audiovisual club/shop class psychosis of Dead Kennedys lyrics.”
Black Flag – “You Gotta Be Joking”
“I didn’t even know what was going on here. I saw that it was called ‘You Gotta Be Joking.’ It wasn’t as bad musically as I was necessarily expecting. Not that it was anything that I could really digest at all. I didn’t understand what was happening. But I haven’t understood the music of Black Flag since like, an album in 1989 or something.
This one sounded like it was the vocals and the guitars were just two completely separate ideas, which I guess is kind of funny. Other than that I just couldn’t even make out what it was doing. But good on ’em for trying.
Black Flag do have a history, I think, of being one of the least funny bands that has attempted to be funny. That’s something else, certainly there’s a certain breed of almost entirely humourless punk rock that’s based on the idea of a guy tripping you and standing over you laughing and maybe taking your wallet. Basically like Repo Man. I don’t know how I got there from that song.
The entire situation is funny. Punk music in general being so confusing, the way that it’s evolved. I think something like the Sex Pistols, it was big and people thought it would make money. And then it would always implode for whatever reason, and then these bands would try to get back together and it was way more of a mess half the time, three-quarters of the time.
The Black Flag [album cover] was like, I keep thinking of what that image looks like. It makes me think of that toy you would put three fingers in, and it would be like a face. That’s what it looks like. That’s funny too. Is the album called What The… because that’s what they thought people would respond to Black Flag reunited?
I don’t know what it is that’s making it not work…. They should just get cats to sing. Greg Ginn should just get cats to sing. Everybody will be happy.”
The Freeze – “I Hate Tourists”
“The Freeze are a great band, but this song is a perfect example of how even just the hint of not liking something stands for humour in a lot of punk rock. I mean, I think this is a really cool song, but I do think it’s kind of got that thing where it’s like, you know, ‘I’m gonna take your wallet, lady’ or something….
Probably “Disneyland” is a better one, by The Eyes. That song’s got this carnival vibe, and it feels a bit out of control, and he’s kind of just saying ‘I hate Anaheim.’ That song feels dizzy. Not that it’s hilarious, but there’s something funny and weird about that one. Whereas this is just straight ahead.
I feel like I’m being overly critical. Like I said, it’s this thing where hardcore and punk is so often about somebody sneering, or like having some staring match at you. It is funny, but the manifestations of humour within that are always for better or worse pretty heavy handed. And then there’s stuff that isn’t a joke, like Cold World. I think they take it seriously because people take the geneology of hardcore, especially the sort of New York thing, as seriously as people take ’90s rap, like true school rap. So what else do you do, but combine the two? But now Cold World, you hear it now and it makes more sense than it did 10 years ago, I think.
I think they’re aware, the smarter bands are aware of what they’re doing. They’re not too serious about it. Anyone in a band, most of the time people take themselves less seriously than their images let on. With some exceptions. I met Henry Rollins once, when I was a teenager, and he had just played with Rollins band the night before, and I said how is tour going? And he just said [adopts gruff, serious voice] ‘It’s a struggle.’ This was like 1994, I think he was dating’ to Kari Wuhrer, he was in every movie made in 1994. He might have meant it’s a struggle to remain doing this while my life has so many things that are delightfully easier to do.”
The Reactors – “I Want Sex”
“I’m already pretty perturbed by the siren at the start of this song ‘I Want Sex,’ so I’ve missed whatever the message is. This song’s awesome.
But also, in terms of humour, think about some other bands that are the main, emblematic of punk comedy — Fear. You listen to Fear now, it just sounds like your uncle telling a joke. Some of the songs are really good still, but it’s like your cool uncle from Long Island, or Philadelphia, talking shit. That’s like the best I can aspire to, as a guy that sings in punk and any other aspirations, is what Lee Ving has done with his life. Do you know how painful that is to deal with?”
The Evaporators – “I Feel Like a Fat Frustrated Fuck”
“Evaporators is one of the first bands like this that I ever heard. I was so happy to see the Evaporators here. I hadn’t heard this song, and it was that sort of tendency in Vancouver songs I’ve heard [of having] these soothing female vocals [come] out of nowhere. That’s the ghost of Cub on certain songs.
But Nardwuar is really great. He’s very eccentric in his presentation, but he’s really committed to it. I don’t think you’d ever have a conversation with Nardwuar where he’d tell you about when he approached the persona. Because I don’t know if it is a persona so much as it is what he wants to do. The Evaporators is a side of that, so I guess Nardwuar felt like a fat fuck and then just wrote a song about it, and it’s really funny.
It has this frenetic, kind of worried tone about it and that makes it funny. Because this is something that you should probably just keep to yourself as an emotion rather than writing an entire song about it. But Nardwuar did that.
The first song I heard was on the video that was circulating of his videos called Welcome to My Castle. The titular song, ‘Welcome to My Castle’ by the Evaporators. It was just so repetitive and so dumb, my friends were obsessed with it. We listened to it forever.
We put on shows for Nardwuar when we were 14 [with] Andrew, who’s in Wrong Hole with me. He was really one of the first Canadian subcultural people who we liked, and then quickly managed to track down and order stuff from. Nardwuar is definitely… his ethos is one that definitely pervades everything.”
NOFX – “Fun This to Fuck (If You’re a Winner)”
“As a guy living in Canada who was very politically correct when I was 13, I always found NOFX too juvenile for me… [breaks into laughter]. It’s so funny to me. I’m just laughing because the idea of a 13 year old finding music too juvenile. You know what? I stand by that!
No, I’m kidding. I actually did come around to NOFX on tour with Brutal Knights, we would listen to a bunch of it. I think there’s a lot of really good stuff. Apparently their songwriting technique, they would write albums during sound check, you know? This sounds like one of those. And that’s fine. I can’t argue… I feel like NOFX is some sort of weird, not Grateful Dead, but they’re doing what they’re doing and it’s bigger than all of us.”
Fucked Up – “The Line”
“I remember when this came out on the Fucked Up mixtape, and that was because Terminal State had made a song about them that was called ‘Drop Out’ about Damian. Flash forward 10 years, everyone is still roughly around in Toronto, so no one’s really dropped out.
I think that Damian has a pretty good sense of humour, for sure, but he’s very much from a wrestling school and a huge fan of Cold World and really over-the-top hardcore…. So this is Damian just in heel mode, playing it straight-faced. Again, you talk about something being funny to 11 people, this is funny to 11 people.
It’s clever, and I think doing stuff like that is definitely a fun move on Fucked Up’s part, because if you’ll recall, at that time they were really sort of the mysterious hardcore band. I think that would have come out prior to Hidden World. So it was like oh they’re having violins on some of their songs, they all hate each other, and so anything approaching something funny from them would be like a breath of fresh air.”
Nobunny – “Assholes”
“This is a really cool song. I thought it was great. I didn’t listen to the lyrics too hard. I thought it was a really fun sound for Nobunny. It’s just a really good sound in general. They’re just fun, so it’s a little light, and they’re clever but they don’t really overtake the melodies or anything. I think that Nobunny is really cool.
And then the weird extra thing with Nobunny is that he wears that mask. And this might be a dated thing to say, but there were definitely people I’d talk to when Nobunny was first happening, and I heard Nobunny Love You. I never saw them, but I met people who would be like ‘No man, I can’t mess with that. Not with the bunny mask.’ The bunny mask was just a dealbreaker for everyone. That’s something that’s funny and respectable, and kind of insane. So I really like it.”
B-Lines – “Opening Band”
“As soon as I heard the vocals I thought ‘Vancouver’ and lo and behold, it was so. Vancouver is actually pretty good at ‘funny’ punk, whether it’s the burp-happy DOA, Evaporators, Canned Hamm or other esoteric stuff, this falls in there. This also reminds me of the song ‘Opening Act’ by Major Entertainer Mike H of Daiquiri. It almost reminds of Chixdiggit somehow and I’m not sure why. But why is this song 3:30? That’s like rap-song-with-long-outro length.”
Skip the Foreplay “This City (We’re Taking Over)”
“Epitaph being hilarious is just a fact of life—they put out a Tom Waits album. That’s crazy to me that a Quebecois metalcore band…. I just couldn’t really believe it. I didn’t know what era it was from. I didn’t know whether they were being serious or not. But you have to watch it sometimes with this kind of stuff.
I mean look, I want to be an old guy. I want to be an out of touch old guy. But I also fear it with every ounce of my being. So if I go ‘Oh what are these guys doing?’ and a bunch of kids are like ‘You don’t understand that, old man?’ I’m probably going to go home and cry.
The song was frustrating. It definitely reminded me of Machine Gun Kelly a little bit. It just was like… there’s no explaining it. Plus there’s no explaining what a label will sign, because they want to be like what I described and not seem like they’re completely out to lunch on the new sound. Because obviously if Epitaph had only kept putting out SoCal bands, you know, it would have been like Fat Wreck Chords. Look at Fat Wreck Chords. Just look at it.”