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Listen to This, Listen to That: Comic Tension

by Dan Froid

This week, I’m changing tack. Let’s go easy on the seventies folkies and bizarre ballads to which this column is prone. Instead, we’re gonna talk about “horsing around as poetry.” That’s how Stacey Waite describes Aaron Belz in Episode 12 of Air Schooner, “Comic Tension.” In this episode, Aaron Belz gets free reign both to read his poems and to talk seriously about crafting comedy.

He reads “Team”: “There’s no ‘i’ in team, but there’s one in bitterness, and one in failure.” I’m reluctant to dig too deep into why a particular poem is funny, at the risk of killing the joke. But “Team” is appealing because it consciously invokes the cynical wince with which that phrase must be greeted. Do people still say that there’s no ‘i’ in team? I believe I heard it in elementary school, but to be honest it seems like more of a chicken-or-egg problem. Which came first, the lame platitude or the joke?

Belz freely admits that “I’m not an advocate for my style . . . I don’t like most poetry, because it seems very self-satisfied and smug.” His approach to his work is very laidback, and as far from precious as you can get. “Poetry that’s funny,” he says, “puts people in a position of tension, if you’re writing well.” That’s true of “serious” poetry, too: maybe when a poem creates, and resolves, tension, it satisfies.

In the spirit of comic tension, I want to share a few songs that appeal to my (admittedly off-kilter) sense of humor. Belz favors the relief of tension as an integral part of his style of humor, but he likewise seems to appreciate unusual juxtapositions. I think those incongruities—including affective ones, such as between the serious and the absurd or goofy—are central foundations of my own sense of humor. Check these out and see what you think:

“Walking on the Moon”—Lucia Pamela
Around 1969, musician and bandleader Lucia Pamela released Into Outer Space with Lucia Pamela in the Year 2000, an album and accompanying coloring book (which you can download! Read more here) that detail Ms. Pamela’s lunar adventure. It only gets weirder from there. In this song, “Walking on the Moon,” Pamela encounters various lunar creatures: a cow, a chicken, a cat, and uh—I’m not really sure about the rest. I think there’s tension at work here, between the pretty standard big-band sound and the absolutely absurd lyrics. That’s why it works; the juxtaposition is startling, and beyond comprehension, but the payoff comes in the form of fun, weird music. Somehow it works. This is the most far-out trip you’re ever gonna take on this blog. C’mon, admit it: this song is swingin’!

“Man! Let’s Have Fun”—Leoncie
Leoncie, Icy Spicy Leoncie, the Icelandic Madonna, is a singer-songwriter who describes herself both as “Comedy Royalty” and as a musical wizard. So I’m not always sure how intentional her comedy is, though I suppose the two appellations are not mutually exclusive. “Man! Let’s Have Fun” is her anthem. She sings of her desire to travel to exotic places and do exciting things, like drinking Feni in Goa and eating lobsters in New Delhi. This song is funny, but such that, if you don’t get it, I’d be hard-pressed to explain it to you. It’s something about her apparent earnestness and the camp aesthetics. The wigs and the dancing and the Casio keyboard solo? The credit-card hand gesture? The green-screened trucks and crop-duster? Amazing.

“Hairdresser”—Lucille Cataldo
Savin’ the best for last folks. This gem comes to us from obscure ‘80s public-access talent-competition show (think America’s Got Talent set in some New Yorker’s basement) Stairway to Stardom. I doubt the program’s hosts knew what a star they’d found when Lucille Cataldo took the stage. Dressed in what can only be described as a Hefty-bag pantsuit, Cataldo renders into song a fairly quotidian experience—getting a haircut. This song is in fact a medley; “Hairdresser” narrates the struggle between hairdresser and client, while the considerably more free-form “Tease-a-Louise” focuses on the eponymous hairdresser herself. I don’t think you’ll believe me when I say this, but I love this song. The complex interplay between Cataldo’s urgent delivery and the background track; the jazz hands, hair-stroking, and other weird gestures. It all works. "Hairdresser" is hilarious and wondrous.