Quick history lesson: if a music video was funny in the 1980s, it was probably completely unintentional. In the first half of the decade, the ridiculously low production values provided all of the humor, and in the second half, it was the unabashed bombastic elements that made you laugh. Weird Al, the Beastie Boys and their pie throwing antics, and weirdly enough Phil Collins’ meta work were some exceptions to that, and helped lighten up the art form in the nineties, when directors like Spike Jonze presented artists in innovative and fun ways. In the mid-nineties comedic actors began to be cast in videos1, notably in the classic Yo La Tengo video for “Sugarcube” starring Bob Odenkirk, David Cross, and John Ennis, who were all on Mr. Show at the time.
Eventually, since individuals associated with comedy weren’t the ones that destroyed the music business, a few of them got to work behind the camera. They’ve all shown more than capable to the task, conceptualizing and shooting entertaining narratives that are funny while holding onto the spirit of the song. Here are nine people proving what I just wrote to be true:
Super Furry Animals, “Run-Away”
Arctic Monkeys, “Flourescent Adolescent”
Ayoade is someone you should know as Moss from The IT Crowd, but when he isn’t failing to put out a fire, the man has directed an impressive number of music videos, including stylish work for Vampire Weekend and The Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Fans of comedy, and particularly of both The IT Crowd and Garth Merenghi’s Darkplace would particularly enjoy his work on “Run-Away,” which stars Matt Berry and features the same tongue-in-cheek, purposely low budget aesthetic that made Darkplace so funny.
Bob Mould, “Star Machine”
Jon Glaser is another comedian who is very knowledgeable with music and with the art of comedy. Before directing “Star Machine”, Glaser proved this by making obscure The Who references into his show Delocated, and by playing bass in the band A Matter of Trust, a band composed of Jon Benjamin, Todd Barry and Tom Shillue who would refuse to play any song that wasn’t Billy Joel’s “A Matter of Trust,” to the horror of anyone with ears2. Glaser smartly put Jon Wurster in a perm and gave him an excuse to get very drunk, allowing him to be as humorously pathetic as the best/worst of the characters he plays on Best Show on WFMU.
Nick Lowe, “Sensitive Man”
The National, “Conversation 16”
Bob’s Burgers writer Scott Jacobson really likes to get into the specific vibe of the different bands and songs that he has to work with. The National’s music is driving yet plaintive, so there are erratic and contradictory sequences that somehow work in “Conversation 16.” A particularly rocking Dinosaur Jr. song features Henry Rollins, because he appears if you say “hardcore” three times in a row. This has allowed Jacobson to get a lot of work. It’s also cool that his repertory players include current Vine standouts James Urbaniak and Ted Travelstead, as well as the talented Maria Thayer.
Zac Brown Band, “The Wind”
Last year, after Beavis and Butt-Head’s second coming concluded, Mike Judge presented us with his visually arresting vision of the Zac Brown Band. The familiar animation style made it easier to stomach that the lead singer of a folk band is actually mostly robot.
Rogue Wave, “Chicago X 12”
Bob Odenkirk has only directed one music video, but if his 2008 work with Rogue Wave is any indication he should change that fast. To sell the thing, Odenkirk and Rogue Wave pretended to have a feud about it, with Odenkirk taking to his MySpace (2008!)to defend his vision3. Of course, the video is the damning evidence that shows that Saul Goodman was the one at fault for not bothering to check the band’s website to confirm the actual lyrics.
Aimee Mann, “Labrador”
New Pornographers, “Moves”
Years of listening to host Tom Scharpling on The Best Show on WFMU have taught me that ABBA is excellent, John Lennon was the worst Beatle, and Neil Diamond’s “Porcupine Pie” is the worst song ever written4. The former Monk writer and Superchunk drummer Jon Wurster’s occasional battles over who knows more obscure names of band members during their hilarious bits only made it more obvious that Kid Jersey knows what he’s talking about with his music, whether you agree with everything he says or not. It was only a matter of time before he was given an opportunity to combine his passions for comedy and McCartney-esque chord changes into music video directing. Since 2010 he has directed over a dozen, and not only did conventionally handsome man Jon Hamm play him in “Labrador,” the Aimee Mann video was Time magazine’s second favorite music video of 2012.
Alex Metric & Steve Angello, “Open Your Eyes” (ft. Ian Brown)
Hot Chip, “I Feel Better”
The co-creator and co-writer of Look Around You has made three videos for the excellent group Hot Chip, including “Don’t Deny Your Heart” and “Night and Day”, co-starring Reggie Watts. Serafinowicz does not cast himself in those, and relies more on arresting imagery and weirdness to get the audience’s attention, with the humor mostly coming from the surprising ending. When he does cast himself, like in “Open Your Eyes” or Rocky, with a surprising ending.
The Sklar Brothers
The Sheepdogs, “The Way It Is”
Jason and Randy Sklar are huge indie music fans who play and discuss songs on their otherwise sports/comedy/sports comedy podcast Sklarbro Country twice a week. Predictable in the best way possible, their lone video is funny and involves a baseball game, and along with Rory Scovel co-stars Jon Dore, who starred in the fun Sklar Brothers written web series Held Up. Unless you really love kids and playing fair it’s a fun watch, and presumably a busy schedule is what is keeping the brothers from making more.
Beach House, “Wishes”
MGMT, “The Youth”
You don’t forget Eric Wareheim’s videos, and that’s the way he likes it. All of his directorial work, including his collaborations with Major Lazer, feature the sometimes off-putting but funny sensibility of Tim and Eric’s Awesome Show, Great Job! and apply to the songs perfectly. Ray Wise was a perfect casting choice in the above Beach House video and is a great thespian for Warheim to work with: he’s so creepy that he becomes silly.
1 The first notable comedian to co-star in a music video just might have been Chevy Chase in Paul Simon’s “You Can Call Me Al” in 1987. The cameo laden Ray Parker Jr. video for the theme to Ghostbusters in ‘84 feels like it shouldn’t count.
2 They opened for The New Pornographers in 2006.
3 2008 was a simpler time, and the direct link to MySpace no longer works, but you can read Odenkirk’s letter .
4 Resulting in Best Show fan Ben Gibbard to play a cover version of the song for Scharpling during an episode. Gibbard has yet to return.