Successful people get that way because they’re talented. Very talented, in a lot of different ways. So talented that they make you question why you even bother doing anything, because quite frankly, you’ll probably never do one thing as well as they do everything.
On November 15th, Donald Glover released Camp, his first studio as a rapper under his pseudonym Childish Gambino, making him look like an impossibly talented comedy wunderkind. But in reality, Glover is just one in a long line of crazy talented comedy people who have also seen success as serious musicians. I’ve collected here a list of people so talented, they make you question why you should even get out of bed in the morning.
(Just for simplicity, this list excludes comedians like Bo Burnham or the Lonely Island, whose whole act/shtick is based around music, or comedians who perform one or two comic songs. Just comedians who have released albums that are generally pretty serious. And, yes, Spinal Tap was right on the line for me. Although everybody should know about them and the Folksmen. Also, Lenny and the Squigtones)
Steve Martin: Steve’s freewheelin’, finger-pickin’ banjo playing has been a part of his act since the beginning, as associated with him as his white suit and arrow through his head. Although the early musical interludes featured in his act where mostly played for laughs, he’s always taken his musicianship very seriously. The stand-up comedian/actor/playwright/novelist/screenwriter/banjo-picker/art connoisseur taught himself to play the instrument by listening repeatedly to bluegrass LPs.
His final stand-up album, 1981’s The Steve Martin Brothers, only includes about twenty minutes of stand-up, with Side Two made up entirely of bluegrass songs performed live. Steve’s first music album, The Crow: New Songs for the Five-String Banjo, was released in 2009 and he followed it up in 2011 with Rare Bird Alert , another album of original songs this time featuring the Steep Canyon Rangers.
Woody Allen: Jazz is as much a piece of Woody Allen’s filmmaking as New York City, neuroses, and opening credits written in Windsor font. Woody began taking clarinet lessons at a very young age and has remained a diligent student since then. After sitting in with jazz bands in the 1960s, Woody began performing with The New Orleans Funeral Ragtime Orchestra in the early 1970s, playing the traditional 1930s Dixieland jazz that permeates his films.
In 1973, he and his band performed the soundtrack to his film Sleeper. Around that time, he also appeared on The Dick Cavett Show with his clarinet, playing a solo that turned into a comedy bit when the audience found they couldn’t take anything the bespectacled comic did seriously, as well as a second song with Cavett’s house band.
He famously chose to perform with his band the night of the Oscars in 1977, rather than attend, when Annie Hall won four awards. In the 1990s, Woody formed the Eddy Davis New Orleans Jazz Band along with banjo player Eddy Davis.
In 1993, the Eddy Davis New Orleans Jazz Band released their first album The Bunk Project. Although it doesn’t feature Woody’s name on the cover, it does feature a picture of the whole band, with Woody looking like he’d rather be anywhere else on Earth, possibly staring at a beautiful woman while listening to Louis Armstrong and quoting Groucho Marx during a Knicks game.
Their next album was the soundtrack to the 1998 documentary Wild Man Blues, which followed the band on a tour across Europe. They still perform regularly at the Cafe Carlyle in Manhattan on Monday nights.
Bill Cosby: Like Woody, Bill Cosby’s love of jazz is well documented in his work, particularly on The Cosby Show, which regularly featured cameo appearances from musicians like Dizzy Gillespie and Tito Puente (and, as I choose to believe, Bleeding Gums Murphy). Also like Woody, Dr. Cosby once dreamed about becoming a professional musician, playing the drums. On The Dick Cavett Show, he once told a story about sitting in at a jam session where Sonny Stitt unexpectedly showed up.
Since the early 1960s, Cosby has released an astonishing twenty-one comedy albums, and a somehow more astonishing fifteen music albums. Although his first two music albums (Silver Throat: Bill Cosby Sings and Bill Cosby Sings Hooray for the Salvation Army Band)mostly featured Cosby hamming it up while singing covers and parodies R&B songs, they’re very tight musically, featuring the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band.
Cosby’s next two albums, however, were the instrumental Badfoot Brown & the Bunions Bradford Funeral & Marching Band and the almost identically titled Bill Cosby Presents Badfoot Brown & the Bunions Bradford Funeral Marching Band. Where Woody’s taste in jazz has been more or less caught in a state of arrested development around traditional Dixieland jazz, Cosby has kept abreast of musical innovations, composing and performing music influenced by the electric jazz fusion that his friend Miles Davis was developing.
The rest of Cosby’s albums are a mix of pop songs parodies and serious jazz compositions, including collaborations with Quincy Jones and live appearances at jazz festivals. There’s also his 1971 album with the perfect title Bill Cosby Talks to Kids About Drugs, in which Cosby does just that, explaining the effects of drugs to children, sometimes through song. In 2009, he produced Bill Cosby Presents The Cosnarati: State Of Emergency, his first hip-hop album.
In the early 1960s, Woody Allen and Bill Cosby knew each other from doing stand-up in Greenwich Village. If there is any proof of the two of them having an impromptu jazz jam session, it would make me happier than learning that they performed comedy sketches together or wrote a film or solved crimes as a pair of mismatched cops.
Rick Moranis: Like all the cast members of SCTV, Rick Moranis is one of the most talented people on Earth. In 1989, while still in the process of becoming the definitive lovable nerd of the ‘80s and ‘90s, Moranis released his first music album, You, Me, The Music and Me. The album was mostly jokey, riffing on sketches or characters from SCTV, like Gerry Todd and Larry Siegel. It also has a track where you can hear Rick Moranis rap, so there’s that.
Moranis retired from acting in 1997 and has appeared only very rarely since then, not even voicing Louis Tully in The Ghostbusters video game that managed to get Bill Murray to play Venkman. In 2005, however, he recorded a collection of original country songs called The Agoraphobic Cowboy, featuring songs like “Wheaties Box,” “Oh So Bucco” and “Press Pound”. The album was nominated for a Grammy, and Moranis performed a song on Late Night with Conan O’Brien to promote the album.
Childish Gambino: Although Camp is the first studio album from the comedy writer turned actor turned stand-up comedian turned rapper, Donald Glover has previously released three self-produced albums titled Sick Boi, Poindexter and Culdesac as Childish Gambino, as well as two mix tapes called I Am Just A Rapper and I Am Just A Rapper 2. Glover also produces music under the name mc DJ.
Compared to the other names on this list, his career is still in its infancy, but based on his output so far, we can probably expect many, many more albums in the future.
Blues Brothers: The Blues Brothers first appeared on Saturday Night Live in 1978 not as a sketch, but rather as the musical guest. Created out of Dan Akroyd and John Belushi’s shared love of the blues, the Blues Brothers were performing live shows while Akroyd began developing a movie about them.
The Blues Brothers’ band featured an all-star lined up of musicians, including Donald “Duck” Dunn, Paul Shaffer, Matt “Guitar” Murphy and Steve Cropper, who played guitar on Sam & Dave’s original recording of “Soul Man” (which means that when Belushi yells out “Play it, Steve,” he’s talking to the same Steve that Sam Moore was) and their 1980 film The Blues Brothersfeatures cameos from Ray Charles, John Lee Hooker and Aretha Franklin, among others. According to Wired, the controversial Belushi biography, when he and Akroyd were invited to the Playboy Mansion, they refused to attend unless the entire band could join them.
Their first album, Briefcase Full of Blues was recorded live in 1978 when they opened for Steve Martin, and it quickly went double platinum. Since then, they’ve released thirteen more albums, most recently a 2003 greatest hits. Since Belushi’s death, several of the albums feature Jim Belushi as “Brother Zee Blues,” some feature only Akroyd as Elwood, and at least one album doesn’t appear to feature Akroyd at all. In 2003, Akroyd and Jim Belushi released the album Have Love Will Travel under their own names, without any apparent connection to the Blues Brothers despite performing very similar music.
And, yes, there are Blues Brothers cover bands.
Eddie Murphy: For about ten years in the 1980s, Eddie Murphy could do no wrong. After two successful comedy albums, Murphy released his first music album How Could It Be in 1985. Although it was eventually voted the seventh worst song of all time by VH-1, the Rick James produced single “Party All the Time” was a huge hit, reaching Number Two on the Billboard Hot 100.
Murphy followed up the album with So Happy in 1989 and Love’s Alright in 1993, which features a duet with Michael Jackson on the track “Whatzupwitu”, although he never again reached the success of “Party All the Time.” The “Whatzupwitu” video also manages to condense all of the ‘90s to under four minutes.
Steve Allen: In the time it took me to write this sentence, Steve Allen could have penned a whole opera and maybe cured a few disease too, just for kicks. In addition to writing over fifty books, the prolific comedian claims to have written over 10,000 songs. As the original host of The Tonight Show, Steve Allen wrote the show’s theme song, The Start of Something, which became associated with him for the rest of his career. As part of a $1,000 bet with musician Frankie Laine, Allen wrote fifty songs a day for a week, all while sitting in the window of a Hollywood music store where everyone could see him.
Allen infamously hated rock and roll, but loved jazz, featuring musicians on his show, hosting a documentary on jazz pianist Bill Evans, playing the title role in the 1956 biopic The Benny Goodman Story, and even putting out an instructional video on how to play jazz piano. Allen performed live for most of life, sometimes alongside respected performers like Terry Gibb. He released jazz albums from the 1950s through the 1990s, including a mix of live and studio albums, ending with Steve Allen’s 75th Birthday Celebration in 1998.
George Burns: George Burns was a man who loved show business and loved being in show business. Beginning his career as a vaudevillian, Burns seemed to have reached a point in the 1970s where he wanted nothing more than to appear on The Dick Cavett Show and sing. He sang whenever afforded the opportunity, even covering the Beatles in the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band movie that also features a cameo by Steve Martin.
George Burns didn’t a release a musical album until 1973’s George Burns Sings. In 1980, he had a hit with the novelty song “I Wish I Was Eighteen Again,” the title track of an album made up of country songs and standards. This led to live performances, including a filmed concert in Nashville.
In 1988, the song became the premise of a Freaky Friday-style body-swapping comedy in which George Burns trades places with his 18-year-old grandson. In 1992, he released A Musical Trip with George Burns and in 1996, at the tender age of 100, Burns released Young at Heart, his final album. So far.
Billy Connolly: One of the most popular comedians ever produced by the U.K., Billy Connolly actually started his career in 1965 as part of the folk group The Humblebums. The group first included Connolly and guitarist Tam Harvey, but later became Connolly and the late Gerry Rafferty. The group released three albums, some very folky other more folk-rocky, until they broke up in 1970. Rafferty went on to find success in Stealers Wheel, while Connolly went solo. His act oscillated between music and stand-up comedy, and he continues to perform live and release comedy and music albums to this day. In 1975 his parody song “D.I.V.O.R.C.E.” became a number one hit in the U.K.
Honorable Mention: Creed Bratton & Leslie David Baker of The Office: Creed Bratton is the name of both a fictional character on The Office, as well as the actor that plays him. There’s a pretty good chance Creed thinks he works in an actual office and is part of a real documentary. Whatever the case, Creed was the original lead guitarist for the ‘60s folk-rock band The Grass Roots. He played on their hit song “Live for Today,” and can be seen in this video being introduced by Jimmy Durante. Notice how the band was so good, they could play without microphones or even being plugged in, and included a seamless fade out at the end. Now that was talent.
And of course, there’s “2 Be Simple,” the new video from Leslie David Baker, better known as Stanley from The Office, but soon to be best known as “Black Hugh Hefner”. It’s being billed as his “debut single,” so who knows where this will lead?
Anthony Scibelli is a handsome stand-up comedian and comedy writer. His writing has appeared on Cracked.com.