Inside Eliot Glazer’s ‘Haunting Renditions’

Comedian Eliot Glazer has created a live show that combines his absurd comedic sensibility with his musical gifts. A classically trained vocalist, Glazer orchestrates poorly written pop songs of the nineties like “Too Close” and “SK8R BOI” into moving ballads featuring vocal harmonies and critical analysis. The most recent monthly performance of Haunting Renditions sold out at The Bell House in Brooklyn and featured Gilbert Gottfried and Phoebe Robinson. When he’s not serving as executive story editor on New Girl or writing for Broad City with his sister Ilana, Glazer is fully immersed in developing his next set for Haunting Renditions. I talked with Eliot about music, authenticity, and Ashlee Simpson.

How do you decide on the set list for Haunting Renditions?

I’ve kept this Google Doc library of the dumbest songs for honestly about seven years. Or maybe five years? I’ve been keeping a list for a long time of the dumbest songs. Songs that are really dumb, but also sort of forgotten. I had this list going in when we started the show of what I wanted the live show to look like. It comes down to a bunch of factors, but it’s usually about nostalgia or the nature of the lyrics – lyrics that you may not have stopped and thought about, but now when you hear them slowed down and made melodramatic, you hear things and realize what the songs meant. I think a song like “Baby Got Back” and “Papa Don’t Preach” are really popular at karaoke because they’re goofy songs that mark a moment for everybody. But I want to choose songs that you just forgot even exist.

What did you think of this music when you first heard them in the nineties?  

I think at the time it was about loving this music, but keeping it secret because I was raised in a pretty white community. It wasn’t popular to listen to R&B or a certain type of pop music that didn’t fit what your identity was. So many kids were listening to trashy punk pop music that was kind of like a fuck you to your parents, but for me, I never got into that. I never got into that music that was a way of flipping the bird to the world. It just wasn’t for me. I was so much more attracted to music that my parents listened to. Like Anita Baker, Luther Vandross, and Michael McDonald. Stuff that was based in R&B and even a little bit of jazz. So when everyone was listening to Green Day and Blink 182, I was listening to Erykah Badu. But it wasn’t necessarily something I would talk about or advertise because it was kind of odd.

When did you figure out that you had a talent for music?

When I was a little kid, I took piano lessons and sang. By the time I was in high school, I was doing some theater stuff, but I was really more of a music fan. I liked singing and was told I had a good voice. And eventually I went to school on an opera scholarship. But when I started studying classical music, I jumped ship because I didn’t really want to be an opera singer. By the time I was a sophomore in college, I joined an a cappella group. It was where I felt most free. Not just because I enjoyed the people and the music, but because it was a place where I was allowed to infuse a little bit of comedy into the group. Only in subtle ways, but it helped marry both singing and comedy for me. Mike Fram, who arranges all the music and plays the piano for Haunting Renditions, was the musical director of our a cappella group at NYU. And Jenna Rubenstein who I collaborate with, and is so talented, was in the group. It was very familial. We always shared a very absurd taste in comedy, so it was a very natural outgrowth of that. I was always begging to have all these weird songs arranged and was always met with protest. People did not want to sing Anita Baker or silly medleys.

Do you think that your experience with classical music training informs the high-brow critiques you give in Haunting Renditions? Are you kind of making fun of people who over-intellectualize music?

Yeah, I think so. I think for the most part it’s fun to intellectualize music that doesn’t deserve or ask to be intellectualized. Coming from an a cappella background, you’re taking music and pulling it apart and putting it back together again with different building blocks. No matter what the song is, when you’re putting it back together it’s hard. I think that sort of helped me form the idea that even the dumbest songs are complex in a way you might not determine unless we’re rearranging it or performing it. So I think that’s the thing that drives that desire to intellectualize a bad song. But sometimes, even if it’s a bad song, you’ve got to hand it to the artist for turning it into something that became a hit or something that became part of the popular culture. It’s so strange to think about the last explosion of popular music in the late nineties. Like how? And why? And was that calculated? You know, how do things like that come into being? I love thinking about that stuff and breaking it down into complete nonsense for a comedy crowd. It forces them to think about things in a way that standup might not.

My main obsession is Ashlee Simpson. She is the subject of all of my YouTube rabbit holes. I’m obsessed with watching her old show on MTV and really trying to figure out how she became a thing. Because she’s not a musician, she’s not a singer. She comes from money and her sister was a pop star. So to watch this completely untalented singer try to build a career with the help of MTV and with the help of her songwriters despite not being able to sing is the strangest experiment I’ve ever seen. She’s sort of like a dumb teenager driving around in a Lexus meeting with middle-aged songwriters who are really crafting good pop songs for like an empty vessel. It’s just such a bizarre and fun experiment that ultimately went wrong. There is almost this Greek tragedy element to it, where there was so much buildup built upon money and family and nepotism that all comes down in one bizarre, awkward moment where her inability to sing was the thing that backfired. So I love intellectualizing that for an audience and hypothesizing how she did that. I mean, she married Diana Ross’s son, so now Diana Ross has to deal with her, at like Thanksgiving. The idea of Diana Ross having Thanksgiving dinner with Ashlee Simpson or even having to say her name is very bizarre to me.

It sounds like you kind of found your niche, combining your love of music with your love of comedy, so it makes sense that it might bother you to watch someone else go down a path that sort of defies their true nature.

Yeah, that’s really how the show came to be. It’s what I feel most comfortable doing. For me doing great standup or great improv or even multi-media stuff always felt good, but it never made me the most comfortable. And turning this web series into a live show, it’s finally like “Yup, this is really what I do best,” and it’s something I created myself and it’s weird and it’s not really categorizable. And that’s really the reaction I’ve received across the board. There are people who love the show and then there are people who don’t really get it, but still love the music. That’s my favorite reaction. When people come up after the show and are like, “I can’t believe I was near tears during Katy Perry. Like, what is happening?”

Do you have a dream city or performance venue where you want to take the show?

Honestly, the dream performance is to make it look as similar to MTV Unplugged as possible. I just imagine a bunch of rugs around and a sort of intimate venue that was still big but had a level of intimacy to it. Like a House of Blues.

Do you have a dream musical artist that you’d like to collaborate with?

Yes, the one person who is incredibly funny but is only now getting recognition for that is Erykah Badu. She hosted an awards show last year and all the characters she did made it seem like she’s really in on the joke and able to make fun of herself. She’s truly a masterful musician who has evolved with time and era, she’s truly my dream guest. I would be so honored to share the same stage with her.

Photo by Matt Monath.

Catch “Haunting Renditions” live at The Bell House on April 20th, 2017 at 8:00PM. Purchase tickets here.

Inside Eliot Glazer’s ‘Haunting Renditions’