Music News

Gags and Gigs

Comedians are the poor, deprived children of the entertainment world. At least when compared to their siblings in rock 'n' roll they are. For every household Jay Leno, a dozen Def Leppards--five anonymous names and faces (to the general public, anyway)--manage to sell fourteen million or so records. Whereas records have allowed musicians to become commodities, comedians normally haven't had that option. They've most often relied on the crossover assistance of film or television.

Sure, everyone from Blues Brother John Belushi to Eddie Murphy has tried to be funny and musically talented. As of late, though, more and more comedians seem to have realized that by aligning themselves with the pop music world, they can seize some of its riches. What used to be an intrusion of occasional humor into the Rock Firmament is threatening to mutate into a veritable invasion.

For example, Judy Tenuta (who also sells soda), Emo Philips, and Bobcat Goldthwaite have all hosted Friday Night Videos recently. Two other comedians--Sandra Bernhard and Sam Kinison--have nosed ahead of the heap by leaping even farther into the rock world. They've pretended to be musically gifted and recorded songs to prove it.

Bernhard, perhaps best known for her regular appearances on Late Night With David Letterman, thrilled crowds at New York's Orpheum Theatre last year with her one-woman cabaret show, Without You I'm Nothing. Now, in conjunction with the release of a live album recorded during one show, she's landed a cover story in the May issue of Tower Records' Pulse! magazine.

Of all these crossover comedians, Kinison has attained the most success--appearing on the cover of Rolling Stone in February and taking off on video and radio with a cover of the Troggs' song "Wild Thing"--and it's easy to see why.

Because his material glorifies sex and drugs, degrades women and even dabbles in Satanism, what better candidate for heavy-metal stardom than Kinison? The video version of "Wild Thing" (the song appears at the end of his latest record, Have You Seen Me Lately?) makes use of the hottest line-up of actual heavy-metal musicians and of the infamous Jessica Hahn, the very woman he attacks by parodying as a "victim" cashing in on her plight. His expert casting proves that he has more than enough shrewdness to warrant his success.

And however ugly his tactics--pandering to the lowest common denominator, shamelessly using vulgarity, relying on exploitation and sexism--he at least gives his fans what they're asking for.

Not so for the lovely and ambitious Sandra Bernhard, also known as Madonna "Boy-Toy" Ciccone's "gal-pal.

On her new release, she alternates between humor--in which she satirizes the urban, upwardly trendy, snooty set--and song. The vagueness of Bernhard's satirical attack is at its most striking during the musical interludes. On occasion, Bernhard alters the lyrical content for laughs, but it results in too-subtle parody because of her straight-ahead delivery. Other times, she grows strangely serious, attempting to carry the song on the strength of her voice alone (or so it seems), which results in downright awkwardness. There is humor neither in Bernhard's rendition of the Zombies' "Time of the Season" nor in her handling of Prince's "Little Red Corvette"--two songs from her lengthy repertoire.

Bernhard's oblique strategy is compounded by her sequencing of the comedy and music. She travels back and forth aimlessly between schtick and song, proving little but that she lacks focus. With this approach, she may be better qualified to take on the Gong Show than to scale the charts.

Appreciating Kinison doesn't require such eclectic taste buds. Judging from the audience's constant hollering on Have You Seen Me Lately?, his screaming is equally effective--whether he's telling jokes or "singing.

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Michelle Tardif