Local comedy music gets its moment in the spotlight
It takes an exceptional level of talent, dedication, and practice to be a great comedian. The same can be said for musicians. While thousands of people will try and fail at one or the other, a select few somehow manage to be great at both—and seamlessly fuse the two together to carve out a unique niche in the music/comedy scene.
Whether it’s Andy Sandberg’s Lonely Island rapping about the true meaning of YOLO, Garfunkel and Oates performing songs about smug pregnant women, or Jack Black’s joke-turned-legit metal project Tenacious D winning Grammy awards, the line between musician and comedian today is more blurred than ever.
It’s not surprising then that, just like it has on the national scale, musical comedy has been steadily growing in the Twin Cities for the past several years. While some, like comedian Mary Mack, have been hosting sing-a-longs on stage for quite some time, it took a little longer for other comedians and musicians—especially in Minnesota—to take the plunge and marry punchlines with catchy lyrics.
For some comedian/musicians, like Courtney McClean, the entry into the musical comedy realm came from a more traditional music background.
McClean has made a name for herself as the frontwoman of the local naughtybilly group Courtney McClean and the Dirty Curls. She grew up playing piano and guitar with her sights set on being just a musician, but she soon realized that her songwriter inspirations were less serious than the bluegrass artists she listened to. “I grew up listening to really good music, and I knew that I couldn’t create music as good as that,” she says. “The things those artists were singing about were very deep and personal, and I knew that I couldn’t do songs that were that heartfelt.”
Instead, McClean went in a different direction, assembling The Dirty Curls in 2009. Part bluegrass and part erotica, McClean and her “Curlfriends” began writing and performing songs about experimenting with other ladies, having sex with babies (once they became legal, obviously), and, well, pretty much anything else regarding sex. Though the content was funny, McClean is quick to point out that the music itself was pretty good, too.
“The quality of the music matters,” she says. “Groups like Tenacious D and Flight of the Conchords wouldn’t have TV shows and movies if the music wasn’t any good.”
McClean says that while she and the rest of the band were proud of the music they were creating, being local comedy/music pioneers was lonely. “When we started, it was really just us and a group called Valley Meadows. Other than that, there weren’t really any other comedy bands,” she says. “We’d try and get booked at shows with normal bands, but it was kind of tough. We felt really alone.”
Courtney McClean & The Dirty Curls – “When Baby Becomes Legal”
Where musical quality is important to long-time musicians like McClean, the other local comedy/music group, Valley Meadows, takes a completely different approach to the genre.
Valley Meadows is a comedy hip-hop duo featuring local standup comedians Zach Coulter (MC Tom Johnson) and Chris Knutson (Gary Schishynszenski). Unlike McClean and The Dirty Curls, who were focused on the music first and comedy second, the comedians had their sights clearly set on comedy before deciding to start rapping.
“Zach and I originally just tried it as kind of a joke during a comedy show at Spring Street Tavern,” Knutson recalls. “It was just supposed to be a one time deal, but we got a really good response and we decided to keep at it.”
Soon, the two comedians were booking full shows as their rapping alter egos, and realized that they may have found something unique. However, Knutson says they weren’t without their reservations.
“Comedy hip-hop sounds laughable, and it is,” he says. “When we’d tell places that we did comedy hip-hop, they wouldn’t want to book us. It was tough because we were viewed differently at comedy clubs as opposed to music venues, so every time we performed for either type of crowd we felt like the crowd was already sort of against us.”
Still, Knutson and Coulter kept at it, and eventually released a full-length album in 2012 as Valley Meadows through local powerhouse comedy label, Stand Up! Records.
Valley Meadows – “Do the Paul Reiser”
Years later, their rapping skills have brought them some mainstream attention: comedian/actor Paul Reiser just mentioned them during an interview. (The duo has a song and video dedicated to Reiser). Even so, Knutson is quick to admit that their skills on the mic are likely not going to gain them acceptance in the rich Twin Cities hip-hop scene anytime soon. “We’ve performed on actual rap shows around town, and a lot of times the real rappers don’t get the irony,” he laughs. “Which is okay. I know we can’t participate in hip-hop as real artists, so we probably won’t be getting calls from Atmosphere or anyone like that anytime soon.”
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