It's no secret that music and comedy can play well together, evidenced by the careers of "Weird Al" Yankovic, Tenacious D and Spinal Tap, as well as the countless artists who have appeared in sketches on "Saturday Night Live," including recent guest GRAMMY winner Justin Timberlake.
But not all musicians seem an automatic fit for comedy. Michael Bolton is better known as a soft-rock balladeer than a comedian, which is why the GRAMMY winner's featured role in the "Jack Sparrow" video from the Lonely Island, a comedic trio featuring Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone, in which he plays an oblivious version of himself who can't stop singing about his favorite movies, was particularly amusing.
Bolton's is just one "serious" artist who has proved capable of comedic stretches. Seemingly no-nonsense musical talents ranging from Graham Parker and Kenny Rogers to former riot grrrl Carrie Brownstein have also shown a willingness to work against audience expectation in order to get the last laugh.
Brownstein's become a bona fide comedy star for her work for three seasons in "Portlandia," a TV series she co-created with Fred Armisen of "Saturday Night Live" that has also featured comedic appearances by artists such as Aimee Mann, Johnny Marr, Dinosaur Jr.'s J Mascis, St. Vincent, Eddie Vedder, and Jack White. Before she began starring in the show's skewed sketchwork, Brownstein was the guitarist in Sleater-Kinney, a critically acclaimed all-female trio regarded as one of the most important feminist punk rock bands of the '90s.
"Comedy wasn't at the forefront of what the band did," says Brownstein, who now performs with the group Wild Flag. "But we weren't completely humorless. We took ourselves a lot less seriously than people thought. And my transition from music to 'Portlandia' wasn't as hard as it might seem because before I played music I was a drama nerd, taking improv classes at summer camp and getting very involved in school plays. Returning to acting and comedy hasn't seemed that strange, but I think it took all those years of being in Sleater-Kinney to build up the confidence and fearlessness that I don't think I would have had otherwise."
Parker's 30-plus year career with his band the Rumour and as a solo artist has been founded on his reputation as a self-described "angry guy." But Parker seized the opportunity to gleefully poke fun at that image — and at the very idea of aging rockers — when he took a central role in Judd Apatow's 2012 film This Is 40.
"Judd told me after the movie was done that he'd been a little nervous about asking me to do the part," Parker recalls. "Rock singers are by nature a bit full of ourselves. You have to have a bit of an ego to get up onstage, and when I started my career I was naturally shy so I sort of became this character who was going to go out there and kick people in the teeth. That worked quite nicely for a while, but as you get older you definitely see the joke in yourself. I began working with the Rumour again just before work on the film started, and we spent most of the time laughing about how ludicrous it is that we're still around. So I had great fun playing that pathetic, decrepit, idiotic version of myself in Judd's film to the hilt."
Rogers' image has always been more calming than comedic, and in hits such as "Lucille" and "Ruby, Don't Take Your Love To Town" the three-time GRAMMY winner has explored decidedly unfunny themes of divorce and infidelity. So his fans might have been startled by his turn in the comedy TV series "Reno 911" in which he stars as a version of himself who grows increasingly flustered with the show's incompetent police force.
"That was just so much fun. I'd do it again in a heartbeat," says Rogers. "People who know me know the sense of humor is there; people who know me just through my songs might be surprised. But humor is a big part of who I really am. I don't think I could have survived this long without it. And I love to poke fun at myself, that's the safest target to shoot for."
Aside from his productive music career that includes a 2009 GRAMMY for Best Traditional Folk Album and a wealth of studio albums, Loudon Wainwright III has also had a long side career as a comedy actor that stretches from appearances as a singing surgeon on the '70s TV series "MASH," to roles in several Apatow projects and a turn as a crazy town meeting speaker in NBC's "Parks And Recreation." Wainwright's songwriting has often displayed a sharp wit, so perhaps it's not a surprise that he can be humorous on screen. But he sees comedy as a survival skill as much as an artistic choice.
"I'd say humor is pretty essential for actors, musicians, or anybody else," Wainwright explains. "Life tends to sway between the awful and the ridiculous, so you really have to be able to laugh to get through it."
(Chuck Crisafulli is an L.A.-based journalist and author whose most recent works include Go To Hell: A Heated History Of The Underworld, Me And A Guy Named Elvis and Elvis: My Best Man.)