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Music

From Johnny Cash to Afroman: The six best punchlines in music

@TomTaylorFO

There was a time when you’d sit down at the comedy club and as soon as some joker started tuning up, you’d head towards the toilet or bar to get away from the twee bombardment of obvious puns that inevitably awaited. However, with the likes of Flight of the Conchords, Bo Burnham and Tom Basden, that tide has turned, and musical comedy acts are now among the most original in the club. 

However, the marriage of a wry smile and music is one that is far more timeless than the current up-turn in the perfunctory comedian style of joke songs. In fact, some of the greatest songs of all time perfectly weave a bit of comedy into what would otherwise be considered ‘serious’ music. You see, life is full of laughs that run alongside even the biggest tragedies, so pathos produces some of the very best art

Sometimes, humour in music is a wild moment of lyrical wit, a patch of well-placed dissonance, or it can be a simple, good-old punchline. After all, there is a deep sense of satisfaction that comes with the closure of laying a laughable line under things. Below we have collated a list of those finest punchlines that serious(ish) music has to offer. 

The six best punchlines in music:

‘A Boy Named Sue’ – Johnny Cash

Shel Silverstein is a well-known name thanks to his children’s books. However, not many people know that he was the writer behind ‘A Boy Named Sue’. The song, as you likely know, follows the misfortunes of a fellow beset with the name Sue from birth by an absent father, and plagued by endless bullying because of it from then on. 

When he finally meets the man who cruelly bestowed him with the name, they battle it out until the point they wrestle toward a point of mutual respect. Then, when you think the arc of the story has come to fruition, Cash perfectly delivers the punchline: “And if I ever have a boy, I’ll name him Bill or George or Frank, anything but Sue! Petor, I hate that name.”

‘Girls in My Life (Pt. 1)’ – Randy Newman

Randy Newman is a lyrical master who has frequently thrown up punchlines in his perfectly literary outings. As he brilliantly sings in ‘The World Isn’t Fair’, “If Karl Marx was alive today, he’d be rolling around in his grave.” However, it’s the archetype classic song closer that makes this list, as he defines his unreliable narrator stylings with a note of comic perfection. 

In ‘Girls in My Life (Pt. 1)’, Newman sings of sexual triumphs like a braggadocios Apprentice candidate. However, the twist is that Newman is a Lothario so misguided in romance that he thinks simply having “a real nice conversation” is a sexual conquest. This comic folly of a fool’s failures in pursuit of the opposite sex ends with “and that’s just half the story of the girls in my life”. It’s funny because there are only about four women in the song and he hasn’t gotten far with any of them other than his questionable wife. But it’s even funnier because there has never been a part two. 

‘The Man Who Couldn’t Cry’ – Loudon Wainwright III

As arguably the most underrated songwriter of the 1970s, Loudon Wainwright III mastered the art of character studies. Always laden with charm and a sense of depth his best tracks are often comic tales of tragic souls judged without cynicism. 

A case in point is ‘The Man Who Couldn’t Cry’—the story of a poor soul whose life falls apart after his dog got run over, his wife left him, he got sacked, lost an arm in the war, his creative attempts were laughed at, and then he was innocently sent to jail. All the while he couldn’t cry. Then comes the long-drawn-out punchline: One day, he was shipped to a home for the insensitive and insane. Therein he cried for 40 days and 40 nights until he died of dehydration. If things sound dower, then the diegesis of heaven’s happy ending was always awaiting. From up in the firmament, he watches everything go his way. His creative works are now lauded, and he is reunited with his arm and his dog.  

‘Shame and Scandal’ – The Wailers

Written by the brilliant Lord Melody, ‘Shame and Scandal’ is a classic tale of adultery that was passed around the reggae scene like a dutchie to the left-hand side, and at its heart was a classic punchline that defined the light-hearted nature of the genre. 

The track tells the tale of a boy longing to make his crush his girlfriend only when he goes to ask his father for advice, he is told “the girl us your sister but your mama don’t know”. This secret is repeated as a refrain throughout. Then, the good news is revealed to him in a punchline, as his mother informs him, “your daddy ain’t your daddy, but your daddy don’t know.” It’s all a wicked web of lies told with acerbic wit. 

‘Fool in the Rain’ – Led Zeppelin

Led Zeppelin took a noticeably jazzy turn for In Through the Out Doors, and on ‘Fool in the Rain’ the songwriting itself is even Tom Waits inflected. Robert Plant bemoans the loss of a sweetheart who he thought he would grow older with after she stands him up for a date. The minutes pass, the rain begins to drench and things get sullen despite the samba-like melody. 

Why is this song so upbeat when he’s starting to shiver and quiver from the cold, rain and onset of despair? You begin to wonder what the hell this music and lyrics incongruity is all about if you listen with an attentive ear. Well, all is revealed with the last line, “I’m just a fool waiting on the wrong block.” In an era before mobile phones, this was a genuine problem. It’s a mix-up akin to a Tim Key poem—joyously making a pleasant mockery of that early relationship anxiety. 

‘Crazy Rap (Cold 45 & 2 Zig Zags)’ – Afroman

While the list so far has focussed on traditional punchlines that close the piece with a comic denouement, Afroman’s classic string of crass, and typically un-PC remarks is like an R-18 jokebook. However, this isn’t some throwaway laughable (and slightly troublesome) affair, it is a comic textbook on a style of rap poetry that is now prolific.

The song is definitive of the rap genre technique whereby bars are written as a set-up and then a delivery. Afroman sings of sleeping with Col Sanders’ wife in Kentucky, before offering up the wordplay punchline, “I gave her my secret blend of herbs and spices”. These pop culture puns and homophones are a mainstay in hip hop songwriting and ‘Crazy Rap’ just about wrote the lurid book on them. 

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