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A Brief Comedy History of the Beastie Boys

Photo: Paul Natkin/WireImage

Our main goal was really just to crack each other up,” Mike “Mike D” Diamond writes in the new Beastie Boys Book, the massive memoir-cum-mixtape that’s bursting with seemingly every anecdote, photograph, paean, and, well, mixtape he and bandmate Adam “Ad-Rock” Horovitz could fit into its nearly 600 pages, alongside a miniature cookbook, an oral history of a fictional alien made out of ice cream, and a letter from Sasquatch. Diamond is referring specifically to the lyrics on Licensed to Ill, but he may as well have been talking about the Beastie Boys’ entire career — more than 30 years that Diamond, Horovitz, and the late Adam “MCA” Yauch spent goofing on each other, and generally behaving like the smart-assed punks they were. Comedy was always crucial to the Beastie Boys’ success, of course, as essential as their race; as novelist Jonathan Lethem articulates in one of many guest essays, it was comedy that allowed three nice Jewish boys to posture as rhyming-and-stealing street toughs, holding hip-hop at an ironic distance in a way that played off “the special cognitive dissonance of the white boy possessed by culture not possessible to him.” The Beastie Boys debuted at a time when hip-hop was already being dismissed as a fad, evident in the contemporary flurry of novelty rap singles. (Remember “Rappin’ Duke” — duh-ha, duh-ha? “Rappin’ Rodney”? Mel Brooks’s “The Hitler Rap”?) In this case, the Beasties were the novelty. They styled themselves as dopes pretending to be rock stars, which absolved them from so, so much. Comedy allowed them to sneak in the side entrance, bum-rush the whole show.

That said, the Beastie Boys weren’t really a comedy act — at least, not in the sense of someone like Weird Al, or “nerdcore” rappers like MC Chris. They wrote a lot of funny lines, but they mostly fall under the rubric of daffy wordplay over straight-up zingers. And while they were masters of the studio goof-around like “Netty’s Girl” and “Heart Attack Man,” it was usually a lot funnier to just imagine the addled, 4 a.m. context of their creation than to listen to their actual content. (Although, “Boomin’ Granny” is just funny.) Rather, where Beastie Boys intersected with comedy — the source of their quick rise to fame and their continued vitality — lives in that private space of the laugh shared between childhood pals: “We assume they’re joking, and many of us feel let in on the joke,” author Ada Calhoun writes, much more succinctly. Here are some of the most notable times they let us in.

“Cooky Puss” (1983)

The Beastie Boys officially transitioned from hardcore punks into hip-hop pranksters with this single built around a ramshackle dance beat and some rudimentary scratching — although it doesn’t feature much in the way of actual rapping. The vocals, such as they are, consist of a series of obscene prank calls placed to a local Carvel Ice Cream, with Horovitz demanding, with increasing hostility, to talk to Cookie Puss, the chain’s popular alien ice-cream character. As Horovitz explains in the book, “Cooky Puss” was conceived as a parody of Malcolm McLaren’s rap-and-punk-fusing “Buffalo Gals,” a song the group genuinely loved and therefore had to mock, as is the way of the New York hipster. Like “Buffalo Gals,” it became an underground club favorite, too, encouraging the Beastie Boys to pursue hip-hop full-time. But while “Cooky Puss” barely hints at the Beasties’ musical future, it does contain an embryonic form of the band’s doofus savant approach, not to mention kicking off the band’s venerable tradition of telephone skits and stand-up comedy samples. (That’s Steve Martin’s “Wild And Crazy Guy” getting shredded on the turntables). It was a juvenile way of getting noticed, but it worked — though Horovitz now says he feels bad about harassing that poor underpaid Carvel employee who unwittingly became part of hip-hop history, “we thought it was funny at the time”

“(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party)” (1986)

“We thought it was funny at the time” ends up being a common refrain in the book, especially when it comes to the song — and video — that broke the band wide. “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party)” was conceived as a parody of “party” songs, part of the group’s general mocking of knucklehead culture. But whatever irony was lost on the listener was completely flushed with the clip, a punk slapstick masterpiece that only crystallized the group’s image as beer-swilling, porno-loving dirtbags. It’s a spoof of “cheesy pop-metal videos (Motley Crue, etc.), with a healthy dose of Blackboard Jungle,” Diamond writes, beginning with two nerds who decide to throw a get-together while their parents are gone, only to have the Beasties crash it with a gaggle of “bad people” (including producer Rick Rubin, young LL Cool J, and a pre-fame Tabitha Soren). The clip played incessantly on MTV, and while Diamond writes that “obviously, us being white had a ton to do with that,” it also helped that it was wacky and louche in all the right ways, a Three Stooges short as filtered through Porky’s. Unfortunately, its massive success meant the Beasties had to play up those stereotypes to a live audience that was increasingly filled with the kind of assholes they were mocking. Eventually the group lost sight of the irony themselves, right around when they started closing every show by inflating a giant, hydraulic dick. (Again, “it seemed funny at the time,” Horovitz writes.) It was a gag they’d spend decades trying to distance themselves from.

The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers (1987)

Although the Licensed to Ill–era Beastie Boys were stomach-scratching caricatures, they still boasted some pretty quick wits. You can see that dichotomy on this legendary appearance on the Joan Rivers–hosted Late Show, which begins with Rivers introducing them by mangling the title as Licensed to Kill, then — upon being corrected — sarcastically shooting back, “That’s a stupid name for an album!” But any potentially awkward trainwreck became accidental TV magic as soon as the trio sloppily draped themselves across Rivers’s set, taking her snarky questions in stride (“How’d you all three get together — Juilliard?”) and playing dutiful, if feisty foils, with Yauch donning Rivers’s glasses and providing snappy retorts about his age (“I’m 12”), and Horovitz insisting he’s actually Frank Zappa’s son (“It’s Dweezil, Moon Unit, and me”). Not all their jokes land, and they probably didn’t do much to dissuade audiences who saw them, to quote Rivers’s intro, as “loudmouth brats,” but it was just an early glimpse of their improv skills, which led to a long, storied tradition of the Beastie Boys hilariously fucking with interviewers.

“Hey Ladies” (1989)

“Sabotage” gets all the attention, but “Hey Ladies” was really where the Beastie Boys’ whole ’70s fetishism began — and arguably, that of the entire 1990s. Like “Sabotage,” the clip’s comedy is largely steeped in costume design, with the Beasties donning wide lapels, garish-print polyesters, neon-yellow pimp suits, and a giant fake butt to strut around a disco floor, Saturday Night Fever–style. But the laughs also come from some surreal sight gags (Vincent van Gogh sitting at the bar; a deadpan mariachi band doing the cowbell break), as well as the group’s unwavering commitment to their characters. That’s particularly true of the blowdryer-toting Horovitz, who tries out his best Travolta with the line, “I’d really love to do your hair sometime.” Cementing the comedy bona fides, “Hey Ladies” was directed by Adam Bernstein, who went on to do the pilots for 30 Rock, Scrubs, and Strangers With Candy, and who directed the similarly funny, fake-butt-adorned video for Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby Got Back.”

Roadside Prophets (1992)

Horovitz’s acting ambitions weren’t limited to just Tony Manero impressions. The same year “Hey Ladies” was released, Horovitz landed the lead in Lost Angels, playing a soulful teen delinquent whom Donald Sutherland tries to rescue. Two years later, he briefly turned up in the neo-noir A Kiss Before Dying, playing a drifter who picks up Matt Dillon. He also had an episode of The Equalizer under his belt. The book barely mentions Horovitz’s acting career, even his more recent, more dignified turns in indies like Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young. (Of Lost Angels, he says only, “Please, if you care about me, do not look it up.”) Meanwhile, it completely ignores his foray into movie comedies, 1992’s Roadside Prophets, a relentlessly quirky, record-geek spin on Easy Rider (crossed with Straight to Hell) that finds Horowitz and X front man John Doe riding motorcycles around the desert, witnessing eccentric cameos from the likes of John Cusack, David Carradine, Timothy Leary, and Don Cheadle. It’s not a great movie; less funny ha-ha, more funny ha-Hey, is that Flea? Still, Horowitz is funny in a squirrelly sort of way — and as in his dramatic turns, Horovitz has a certain likable, sensitive stoner magnetism. Who knows? In an alternate universe, Horovitz might have been chosen to be Keanu Reeves, and Dogstar would have become huge instead of the Beasties.

“Sabotage” (1994)

As Amy Poehler writes of Spike Jonze’s addictive 1994 clip for the Ill Communication standout, “I truly believe there would be no Anchorman, no Wes Anderson, no Lonely Island videos, and no channel called Adult Swim if this video did not exist.” She may be overstating it a tad, but you can see where she’s coming from. There is a shared metamodernist streak, one that film scholar James MacDowell once identified as “a tightrope between a cynically ‘detached’ irony and an emotionally ‘engaged’ sincerity” — something that certainly describes the Beastie Boys paying loving yet ludicrous homage to 1970s cop shows. Plus, as in Anchorman, “Sabotage” gets a whole lot of comic mileage out of bad hair and silly clothes. (“Once we discovered wigs and mustaches, we just couldn’t stop, and would go out in disguises every night,” Jonze writes.) One thing it definitely did do was make Jonze’s bones, paving the way for a foray into movies that walked a similar edge between aloofness and vulnerability. “Sabotage” also significantly raised the bar for all future Beastie Boys videos, which would go on to riff similarly on kaiju (“Intergalactic”) and ’60s spy films (“Body Movin’”). But regardless of whether you consider “Sabotage” some Rosetta stone for millennial humor, it still remains as funny and badass the 1,000th time as it was the first (a hypothesis MTV certainly put to the test).

Nathanial Hörnblowér (1994)

Most of the world first met Nathanial Hörnblowér in 1994, when he stormed the stage at the 1994 Video Music Awards. Taking some much-needed piss out of R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts” beating “Sabotage” for Best Direction, Hörnblowér — dressed in lederhosen and carting an enormous pipe — railed against the entire “farce” while a baffled Michael Stipe looked on, blurting out, “I had all the ideas for Star Wars!” in his cartoonish Swiss accent before security finally carted him off. But Beastie Boys obsessives and a few unsuspecting journalists were already well familiar with Yauch’s yodeler-auteur alter ego, a filmmaker and renaissance man (he was said to have “pretty much invented snowboarding” and “built his own helicopter out of wood”) who also happened to be Yauch’s uncle. Hörnblowér was credited with directing nearly a dozen of the group’s videos as well as the artwork on Paul’s Boutique, but his greatest contribution to the Beastie Boys was as Yauch’s Tony Clifton–esque escape valve, a mythic personality he could escape into to say the most bizarre shit he could spin — like that time he wrote a letter to New York Times critic Stephanie Zacharek over her negative review of the “Ch-Check It Out” video, demanding she send him a goat. Yauch kept the joke running for years, even directing a 2006 short, A Day in the Life of Nathanial Hörnblowér, in which David Cross assumes the role to cross-country ski across Manhattan and play chess with a dog.

The Hello Nasty Infomercial (1998)

Released into the bowels of basic cable in 1998 (and today rescued on YouTube), the late-night infomercial created to promote the release of Hello Nasty took the group’s zeal for character work and bad wigs in an especially surreal direction. Tamra Davis, who’s helmed comedies like CB4 and Billy Madison (and is married to Diamond), stitched together this parody of low-rent miracle-product pitches, with each member taking a turn in the spotlight: Horovitz as an audience member freaking out over a juicer that plays Beastie Boys songs; Diamond, barely keeping it together as a braying fitness guru; Yauch as a Don Lapre–esque, get-rich-quick schemer. Although the infomercial was a joke, offering things like the all-in-one shampoo, cleaner, and spermicide called Sure Shine, viewers really could order the album via the 1-888 number on the screen, which also directed them to the just-launched website for the band’s Grand Royal record label. All in all, it was a brilliantly ahead-of-the-curve marketing scheme, one couched in a form of anti-comedy whose deadpan non sequiturs, deliberate shoddiness, and butt-ugly sweaters predated Tim and Eric Awesome Show by nearly a decade. So maybe Amy Poehler is onto something.

Futurama (1999)

Joining an esteemed list that includes Leonard Nimoy, Conan O’Brien, and Beck(’s disembodied heads), the Beastie Boys guest star as themselves in the first-season Futurama episode “Hell Is Other Robots,” still headlining arenas in the 31st century — and still doing “Intergalactic” — despite being craniums in jars. The group does a corny a cappella rendition of “Sabotage,” gamely plays along with cracks about the long wait between records (Fry: “Back in the 20th century, I had all five of your albums!” Ad-Rock: “That was a thousand years ago. Now we got seven”), and even turns up in Robot Hell, tormenting Bender with a little rap about the eternal punishment awaiting music bootleggers. The cameo reportedly came about because the Beasties were big fans of creator Matt Groening — “particularly Adam Yauch,” according to their publicist. Unfortunately, conflicts with the recording schedule meant that Yauch had to bow out; that’s Horovitz doing his best MCA impression instead.

“Triple Trouble” (2004)

In the book, Horovitz is a little down on To the 5 Boroughs, saying that the pall cast by September 11 inspired an album where “the serious ones feel a little forced, and the funny ones are a little flat” — an embodiment of a panicked and melancholy time when everyone, quite understandably, got in their own heads. Still, you’d never know it from watching the video for “Triple Trouble,” another Hörnblowér special that finds the group donning outlandish, Dave Navarro–meets–‘N Sync costumes to strut the red carpet and talk shit about Sasquatch, who then kidnaps the Beasties and forces them to play Pong and participate in a drum circle in his cave. As video concepts go, it’s kinda just one long pothead reverie, but it still gets in some decent jokes about celebrity culture and MapQuest — and at a time when dumb shit was more than welcome. Not to mention, it gave us 15 of the greatest seconds ever committed to video: Kanye West learns about Sasquatches.

30 Rock (2009)

The year 2009 was a dark one for the Beastie Boys. While readying an album and another major headlining tour, the group was forced to put everything on hold after Yauch was diagnosed with a cancerous tumor on his salivary gland. Yauch’s illness also meant that he had to sit out on this guest appearance on 30 Rock, where the group was meant to be part of a star-studded, “We Are the World”–style benefit song being put together by Alec Baldwin’s Jack Donaghy, solely to find his ailing father a kidney. Instead, Talib Kweli subbed in, joining Horovitz and Diamond — as well as Elvis Costello, Sheryl Crow, Adam Levine, Norah Jones, and too many others to name — as they rapped about how sometimes it’s better to just have one of something: heads, dogs attacking you (“There, we’ve proved our point!”). The episode ended up airing just a month before the Beastie Boys would play their final live show, a context that makes the otherwise very funny moment feel bittersweet.

Fight for Your Right Revisited (2011)

The same could be said of Yauch’s final video for the group, which brought everything full circle — its dizzying assemblage of celebrity cameos paying testament to the incredible influence the Beastie Boys had, across so many spheres, while also going back to where it literally all began. Picking up where “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party)” leaves off, the short finds Mike D, MCA, and Ad-Rock — now played by Seth Rogen, Danny McBride, and Elijah Wood — continuing to wreak drunken havoc across town, having run-ins with so many more famous people that it would be far more efficient to say who isn’t in it. (Okay, here’s a sampling anyway: Amy Poehler. Ted Danson. Rashida Jones. Steve Buscemi. Susan Sarandon. Robert Downey Jr. Maya Rudolph. Dan Aykroyd. Alicia Silverstone. Stanley Tucci. Kirsten Dunst. You get the idea.) Finally, the young Beasties come face to face with none other than their older, time-traveling selves played by Will Ferrell, John C. Reilly, and Jack Black. The generational friction culminates in a dance contest, ending in everyone peeing on each other before they’re arrested by the cops (played by the actual Beastie Boys). It’s crude and sweet, ironically self-aware yet still deeply sentimental, painfully hip but also absurdly dumb — much like the Beastie Boys themselves. All in all, a fitting capper to such an accidental legacy, one created by three dudes who were always just out to make each other laugh.

A Brief Comedy History of the Beastie Boys