The comedy-club boom of the 1980s and the proliferation of cable networks in the ’80s and ’90s that needed to fill airtime meant newfound visibility and popularity for stand-up comedians. A club in every decent-sized town and stand-ups around the clock on HBO, Showtime, A&E, and Comedy Central made comedians into huge stars and generated a lot of income … and the recording industry wanted to get in on it.
Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, record labels released singles consisting of short chunks of famous comedians’ most popular routines but with some music added to it, usually little more than a drum-machine beat and a synth riff. Mind you, these are not novelty songs, nor are they really even songs at all. This isn’t Garfunkel and Oates or Lonely Island performing a composition of a humorous nature — they’re literally just comedians talking with some music in the background. It’s very weird, and yet it was also sort of popular for quite a while.
“Rappin’ Rodney” - Rodney Dangerfield (1983)
Much respect to Rodney for getting this trend going. After years of toiling in obscurity, Dangerfield’s old-school comedy stylings finally reached a wide audience in the late 1970s and early ’80s, thanks in part to appearances in Caddyshack and Back to School, where he pretty much played himself, or rather, did his persona of a bug-eyed, blustery old guy. In the midst of all that, he released Rappin’ Rodney, an album of live stand-up that also included the title track, presented as some approximation of a “rap” song, an amusing novelty for goofy white people of the early 1980s. It’s not really a rap song — merely the prerecorded words of Dangerfield discussing the lack of due respect to which he feels entitled, with a drum track slapped on and some background singers chanting, “No respect, no respect.” Nevertheless, Dangerfield’s popularity took “Rappin’ Rodney” to No. 83 on the pop charts.
“You Look Mahvelous” - Billy Crystal (1985)
Saturday Night Live was a little fallow between Eddie Murphy’s departure and Phil Hartman’s arrival. The show’s most notable cast member during that time was arguably Billy Crystal, with his “Fernando” character. Now, Crystal is a decent comedian and a good actor, but this Fernando thing, I don’t know what the deal with that was. He played now-forgotten actor Fernando Lamas as the host of a talk show called Fernando’s Hideaway, where he would fawn all over his celebrity guests (whom he’d confuse for other celebrities) and tell them, “You look mahvelous!” in a heavy South American accent. People loved it, and they wore “You look mahvelous!” T-shirts. This novelty record is the musical equivalent of that T-shirt, and it hit No. 58 on the Billboard Hot 100.
“I Do the Watusi” - Howie Mandel (1986)
Before he was a game-show host and judge, Howie Mandel was a frantic, off-the-wall comic in the vein of Robin Williams, running all over the stage until he was sweaty and hyperventilating. He was funny, but his act was kind of all over the place. There’s crowd work, a little bit of the Bobby voice from Bobby’s World, observational humor, blowing up a rubber glove he’d stretched over his face, and general arbitrary wackiness. To that end is this song, released at the time when Mandel’s specials ruled Showtime. Mandel describes a series of absurd and zany situations, to which his reaction is equally absurd and zany. (He does the Watusi.)
“City of Crime” - Dan Aykroyd and Tom Hanks (1987)
In 1987, Hollywood made a big-screen comic version of the ultraserious, hippie-hating cop show Dragnet, with Dan Aykroyd perfectly cast and playing it straight as Joe Friday, and Tom Hanks playing his nuttier partner, Pep Streebeck. This song, which sounds like Art of Noise remixed a collection of Dragnet quotes and sound bites, also features two-time Academy Award winner and America’s Dad, Tom Hanks, rapping. (Neither Aykroyd nor Hanks are stand-up comedians, unless you count Hanks in Punchline, but this is such an obvious riff on “Rappin’ Rodney” that it had to be included.)
“Wild Thing,” Sam Kinison (1988)
Sam Kinison was probably the most edgy and abrasive comic ever, in part because he NEVER STOPPED SCREAMING, and in part because he made graphic jokes about sex, drugs, and other things those blazer-wearing dorks on An Evening at the Improv wouldn’t go near. That edginess also made Kinison the most “rock and roll” of comedians, which resulted in this hair-metal-style cover of the Troggs’s classic “Wild Thing.” Kinison cracks jokes and alters the lyrics throughout, and he’s joined by a number of Whitesnake clones, as well as Jessica Hahn from those Whitesnake videos.
“Asshole” - Denis Leary (1993)
While this list is full of comedians who turned their own bits into songs, “Asshole” is the rare song in which a comic made a song out of somebody else’s bit. While he’s maybe not the most reliable person these days, Louis C.K. claimed that Leary stole a bit he used to do about how “cool it would be if you were an asshole,” running around doing whatever you wanted (which would be a way one could describe Louis C.K.). Whatever the origins, “Asshole” is still probably the most popular and famous thing Leary ever did: It’s a bar-ready drinking song about a proud “ugly American,” laced with some of the dark ranting he’d do in his stand-up act.
“Redneck Games” – Jeff Foxworthy (1996)
Look, Jeff Foxworthy is actually an underrated stand-up, probably because he’s been overshadowed by the double-edged sword of his “You might be a redneck if …” jokes. (“If you cut your grass and find a car …”, etc.) Foxworthy gently roasted his fellow Southerners, an audience that also listened to a lot of country music radio and watched a lot of CMT, which led to Foxworthy scoring four charting songs on the Billboard country singles chart in the ’90s. They all consist of bits from his popular routines set to an innocuous pop-country backing track. One of them was “Redneck Games,” in which Foxworthy muses about what the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta would be like if rednecks were in charge of it.
“Here’s Your Sign (Get the Picture)” – Bill Engvall (1997)
Like Foxworthy, his Blue Collar Comedy Tour cohort Bill Engvall had a hugely popular recurring bit: “Here’s your sign.” In a bit that’s extremely similar to Mad Magazine’s “Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions,” Engvall would recall a situation where a dumb person says something dumb, gives a sarcastic retort, and then gives them a sign that says “I’m stupid,” letting the world know to avoid this individual. For example: “It’s like before my wife and I moved. Our house was full of boxes and there was a U-Haul truck in our driveway. My neighbor comes over and says, ‘Hey, you moving?’ ‘Nope, we just pack our stuff up once or twice a week to see how many boxes it takes. Here’s your sign.’” Adding some country music over a country-oriented bit worked well for Foxworthy, and it worked for Engvall, too — this hit No. 43 on the pop chart.
“No Sex (in the Champagne Room)” – Chris Rock (1999)
Chris Rock, who doesn’t seem like he’d be up for the kind of cornball nonsense described herein, gathered some legitimately funny observations about strip clubs and put them to music. He doesn’t sing, but rather recites with a slight echo, because the track (and video) is a quasi-parody of one of 1999’s biggest cultural phenomena: “Everybody’s Free (to Wear Sunscreen),” a graduation speech on top of some music that director Baz Luhrmann released as a single.
“Seven Elevens” – Neil Hamburger (2002)
Gregg Turkington’s deeply off-putting hack-comedian character Neil Hamburger has mercilessly mocked just about everything comedians can do … including this here weird trend we’ve just covered. “Seven Elevens” is a send-up of “Rappin’ Rodney” and its kin, taking one of Hamburger’s purposely lame routines — isn’t it weird how every 7-Eleven looks the same?! — spoken over the lamest beat a cheap Casio keyboard could provide.