Superchunk’s Jon Wurster
Hiding in Plain Sight
Under the Radar’s Music vs. Comedy Issue, which is on stands now, features an article entitled “A Mutual Admiration Society: Where Comedy and Music Meet.” For that article we interviewed Jon Wurster, among others, and included a few quotes from him. Below is the full transcript of our interview with Wurster.
As one of the few artists who can legitimately claim dual citizenship in both the music and comedy worlds, Jon Wurster has witnessed firsthand the evolution of the relationship between the two scenes. Having kicked around the indie rock scene for nearly three decades now, ending up with fulltime gigs drumming with both Superchunk and Mountain Goats, he is also one-half of the team behind The Best Show on WFMU, the long-running radio program hosted by writer and comedian Tom Scharpling. There, he brings to life a sprawling cast of characters, sending up everyone from stoners to racists to rock royalty, and the show’s legion of loyal listeners has made them one of indie culture’s most beloved cult acts. On a day off between tours, Wurster explores the shared culture between musicians and comedians, the difficulty of doing live comedy, and his dislike of musical comedy.
Matt Fink: So, as someone who is sort of standing between both the comedy and music scenes, I was wondering when you started to notice the overlap between the two?
Jon Wurster: In terms of my generation—obviously that goes back to Saturday Night Live, when rock bands would be on there in the ’70s. Then, in the ’90s, Yo La Tengo had Bob [Odenkirk] and David [Cross] in that video for their song “Sugarcube,” where they get sent to rock school and Bob and David are their teachers. And [Superchunk] had David and Janeane Garafolo in a video called “Watery Hands,” and that was 1997, I think. Tom [Scharpling] and I started doing our thing on his show around ’97 or so, and we’d give tapes out of the bits that we thought were good to bands like Guided by Voice and Yo La Tengo and David Bazan. That’s how that got out there.
Was that the sort of official beginning of the comingling of underground musicians and underground comedians?
I have no idea if it was official or not, but that’s when it came into my awareness.
Is there a reason that music and comedy have a natural rapport with each other?
I don’t know. It’s funny; I don’t love funny music, without naming names. Well, I will name a name—Frank Zappa. I think he had a record called Does Humor Belong in Music?, and I’m not really sure it does. I think in terms of musicians—and I have feet in both worlds, but I think I have more of a foot in the music world—your life on the road and that world is so weird and has so many bizarre things that happen on a daily basis, things that you see or hear, that you gravitate towards comedy. I don’t know a band that doesn’t in a way have some kind of an affinity for comedy on some level. In terms of the comedians that I’ve met or hung around with, like Todd Barry or John Hodgeman—though I’m not sure I’d call him a comedian since he’s more of a writer and humorist—those guys love music. And Cross and Odenkirk and those guys, I think that goes both ways. The band people love hearing comedy, and the comedians love music. It makes sense that they intermingle. We’re all about the same age now, too, so you have similar life experiences to call upon and you can identify with each other on that level, too.
Is there something similar about the aesthetics of underground musicians and comedians that they would gravitate toward each other?
I think in terms of the way it’s done, yeah. It seems now more than ever that bands and underground comedians—I’ll use that term—tour the same way. There’s a lot of overlap in terms of the actual venues they play. On Friday night, in a venue where I just saw Telekinesis and Wild Flag, I’m going to see Michael Showalter in a funky 200-capacity rock club. I’ve seen Todd [Barry] in this place and Neil Hamburger, and I think there’s a lot of that now. Bands and comedians play the same places a lot of the time, and I know a lot of underground/indie comedians don’t really like playing The Laugh Hut or Yucks or whatever, because you’ll get some of your crowd there, but you’ll also get a lot of people who have gone out to just see a comedy show. I’ve seen a lot of great comedians that I love just not go over that well in those places, because a bachelorette party has shown up, and they don’t care. So why not play a venue that already has a built-in audience? I’m sure a bunch of the kids that went to the Wild Flag show here saw the poster for Michael Showalter and know what he’s all about and will go to that. If it was just an ad in the back of the weekly for Yucks or whatever, they might not see it or know about it.
From what you can tell, when a comedian opens for a band, does that establish a different mood in the room?
Well, I’ve actually done it a few times with varying degrees of success. The first time I did it—and I don’t know why they asked me, because I’d never done anything in front of a live audience before—but Magnet Magazine asked me to MC their 10th anniversary [concert]. It was this power bill. It was The Shins, My Morning Jacket, Guided by Voices and maybe someone else. So I went on, and my joke was that I’d come out as three different characters, having a beard for the first one, shaving it off into a moustache for the second one, etc. So the first one went great, because there weren’t a lot of people there, and it was a big venue in Philly called the Trocadero. There weren’t that many people, so they could hear you. So I did this bit, and it actually went over well. But as the place filled up more, you get more and more people who didn’t know there was going to be a comedian and were drunk and were diehard fans of Guided by Voices. God love them, they draw a pretty rowdy/unforgiving drinking fan club. By the time of the final bit, it was so loud that people just did not want it at all. I was watching the roast of Trump last night on Comedy Central. And The Situation went out and he’s not a comedian, and he started off pretty decent, and then he lost the track, and people were booing and groaning. And that’s what this was like for me, except it was 700 people yelling.
It was great because it wasn’t really myself. I was playing a character, so I wasn’t taking it personally, and it was fun to be riding this wave of negativity that was generated by 700 people. That’s a situation where people don’t even know there’s going to be a comedian there, and they’re not ready for it, they don’t want it, and they don’t get why you’re there. They hate it. But there are times when it’s billed at “Neil Hamburger opening for Trans Am,” so hopefully they’re prepared for it and it goes better, and they’re more in the spirit of the night. But I’ve seen great comedians not connect at all with a rock audience through no fault of their own. It’s just people who didn’t know there was going to be a comedy act, and it didn’t happen. Tom and I MC’d a night of the Matador 21st Anniversary thing in Vegas, and we’d never done anything live, I don’t think. But it went really well because a lot of the people knew the radio show and knew what we were about and were open-minded about it. So that was the perfect example of it being really good, where there were people there who understand it and like it.
It must be really difficult for a band to pick a comedian that matches their aesthetic in a real obvious way. I mean, you have someone like Eugene Mirman opening for Modest Mouse or The Shins, and those bands don’t really have all that much in common. It seems like it’s easy to imagine those bands finding another band that would match their aesthetic or suit their audience. It’s hard to say what sort of comedian would do the same thing.
I’m positive that 100% of the time it’s that the band likes the comedian. That’s absolutely what it is, I think. Those bands are so big at this point, that it’s almost a weird, cool thing to put one guy out in front of 1200 people at a rock show. Even though it looks great on paper, like, “We’re going to have our favorite comedian open for us!” and then they go out to 1200 people who are talking.
Yeah, I’ve read horror stories. I guess Neil Hamburger gets particularly hostile reactions…
That’s the one I was going to bring up. The first time I saw him, it was with Trans Am. And I think it was the third date of their tour, and it was when—what’s it called?—50 Jokes for 50 States [ed. 50 States, 50 Laughs] came out. And he went out there, and there were kids who had no idea what he was doing, and they hated it. They kind of got it by the end of it, but I remember him saying afterwards, “Yeah, my girlfriend came with us for these first few dates, and after the first few shows she was like, ‘Why are you doing this to yourself?’” Early on, I’m sure that all he got was either blank stares or vitriol from these people who had no idea who he was and that it wasn’t just this guy bombing. And that that’s the beauty of his act. He’s got balls to do it.
Do you think he relishes that response?
He must. I can’t imagine. And he still does it. Obviously, he has to put new slants on it to make it fresh for himself, but it’s still essentially the same concept. I’m sure his audience is still a mix of people that are super into it and get it and people who came out not knowing what it is and are perplexed and probably a little angered by it [laughs].
As someone who has done both music and comedy, was one more difficult to hone and craft as an art form?
The comedy is a whole different thing. I’m so lucky that Tom and I did it the way we did. Tom has a whole other life and career as a writer of TV shows and things, but in terms of what we do, we still don’t know how many people listen to this thing. Judging by how well he did on the WFMU marathon last week, I guess there must be way more than I thought. But we just started doing it for ourselves, and we essentially still do that, but we were able to learn how to do it—me specifically—just as we went. Here we are over 10 years later, and it’s to a level where people seem to know about it. It’s lucky for us that we’re good at it by this point. It’s not like we just started now and there’s a huge listenership and I suck and stammer—which I still do—but it’s to a point where it’s tight now and we can play off each other like it’s second nature, really. But in terms of doing it in front of an audience, we’re still—or I’m still—super early in the stages of knowing what works and what doesn’t. That’s a whole different ballgame for me, anyway. I’ve been playing music professionally for about 25 years now, so it’s second nature at this point.
Do you think there are similarities between the two on a craft level?
Yeah. Speaking as a drummer, you realize what you don’t need to play. If I’m listening to a song or a record, if I don’t notice the drums, they’re doing a good job. In other words, if it draws attention to itself, it gets in the way of the actual song. In terms of comedy, and the comedy that Tom and I do, we’ve learned over the years what doesn’t need to go into the bit, what either derails it or is a bit flabby. We’re at the point now where I realize that almost all the bits that I do, I’ll script them out, and we’ll work on the idea, and I’ll write it out. I have a script that I read from for the most part, and there’s some improve in there. But it’s always seven pages—exactly seven pages—and I guess that’s a testament to knowing what goes in and what doesn’t need to go in. There’s a lot of editing involved in both worlds, I think, to have more of an immediate impact.
From what you can tell, do you think there is truth to that idea that every comedian wants to be a musician and every musician wants to be a comedian?
I don’t know. It’s funny. This article just came out in the Village Voice today about the comedy-rock connection, and it was basically about how maybe they do but maybe they shouldn’t do it [laughs]. That was kind of the gist of it. I never set out to be that, but it worked out, and I’m happy that it did because I love doing it. It’s like acting and music, I guess. I think you either have a natural gift for it, or you don’t. It’s like Madonna and Mick Jagger, two of the best performers ever in terms of going out in front of 100,000 people and having the crowd in the palm of their hands from the first second, for some reason that doesn’t translate to acting for them. I know so many bands and musicians who love comedy. Carrie Brownstein’s a perfect example of someone who is great at both. I guess it’s a matter of having time to do it, too. I try to do calls [for The Best Show] every Tuesday, even if I’m on the road, and I’ll be sitting in an alleyway with my notes doing the calls. That’s a whole other part it, finding the actual time and space to do it.
Do you think it’s innate to be able to go up on stage and pull off a comedy act?
It must be. I’m not saying I have it, because the way that Tom and I do our thing is the perfect medium for both of us. We’re both kind of shy and don’t really like being in front of people that much. It’s a different thing, and we’re so lucky that we get to do this stuff over the radio. But I think people are just wired differently. There’s a Bono quote that I saw that was interesting where he said, “There has to be something wrong with you to have the need to get up in front of thousands of people.” I think there’s some truth to that. It’s fun, and I don’t think anyone goes up there and is like “Oh…I have to get up there, and I don’t want to do it.” It’s pretty fun. Both of them—music and comedy. I have on in the background this documentary Heckler. It’s about hecklers for standups, and that’s when it’s not fun to be up there doing it.
Going back to this idea of doing standup comedy being innate, I suppose that would answer the question of why some artists are great writers but can’t get up on stage.
I think it’s just different, being good at different modes. There are fabulous writers who just write great TV shows, and for whatever reason, doing it live doesn’t happen or translate for them. I think it’s just what you’re suited for. Some people just shine in different areas. It’s like in the music world some people are great at playing live and touring, and some people don’t want to do that. They just want to play on records. It’s all different.
Who would you say are the funniest musicians you’ve been around?
There’s been a bunch, and a lot of them don’t have any interest in being a comedian. This guy I played with in this band called Marah, his name is Serge Bielanko. He was hilarious. He and I hit it off on Philly stuff—he’s a Philly guy—and he was really funny. I’m not sure what he does anymore. Robert Pollard is hilarious. Carl Newman is. Aimee Mann and Neko Case. Jim Wilbur from Superchunk is hilarious. There’s a million of them.
It’s interesting that you mention Pollard, since he put out that comedy album [Relaxation of the Asshole], which seems like a pretty ballsy move.
Yeah, yeah. That’s a great thing about him. He’s hilarious, and once he gets a few in him, the filter is gone, and it comes out as it does on that album. He just says what he thinks.
You said before that you’re not really sold on the idea of musical comedy. Do you just think the two don’t mix well?
Now that I think of an example, the best comedy-rock mélange that I’ve ever seen to this day is a duo who put, I think, two albums out. And they had professional lives, too. They are called Bandway, and they actually opened for Superchunk a few times. They had their super-strong peak era in the late-’90s, and I’m not even sure that their stuff is even available anymore. But they were super hilarious, and I can’t even do justice to the music or the content. I’d have to find it. Just search it out if you can. But they were great. Super great lyrics and it was kind of like hard rock but not metal. It was almost like Montrose or early Van Halen-type stuff. Just super clever and remarkably well done. But for some reason I don’t connect with funny music. I don’t know why.
Do you think that’s typical of musicians?
I don’t know. I have no idea. I’d be interested to see what you’d find out about that. It seems that there have been comedians who make music. There must be.
I guess you could point to someone like Demetri Martin or Flight of the Conchords…
It’s funny. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that show, so I don’t know anything about it.
I think you’re right, though, that there aren’t many people who do both well and that mixing the two is a potentially toxic combination.
Yeah. I don’t know much about it, but when I hear it, I don’t usually like it [laughs]. It just doesn’t connect with me. But I love comedy and I love music. It’s a tough thing when the two of them meet sometimes.
Well, I know what you mean. I think the two of those things are sort of sacred in a way, so mixing them almost seems to be shortchanging one or the other.
Yeah. A perfect example of a band that did it without being a comedy band by any stretch of the imagination is The Ramones. Those are great, often funny, lyrics, but it’s not comedy by any means. Songs like “I Want to be Sedated” or “We’re a Happy Family” or “Beat on the Brat”—any of those. You would never describe The Ramones as being a funny band, but there’s a ton of humor in there. The Replacements were kind of the same way, too. Those guys were super funny. Their music was pretty serious, but there were elements of comedy and humor in there, too. Those are good examples of where a thimble full of funniness in a rock song is great.
Sure. I feel similarly about Jens Lekman or early Jonathan Richman. But, then again, I think that’s sort of hard to sustain. At one point, you tip over into one scene or the other.
It’s definitely a fine line. Those are some great examples of people who do it.
So which would you say you enjoy more, the music or the comedy?
They’re different in that in a band, you have that instant response. If you play a song live, and people cheer, hopefully, and after the show people are hanging around and are nice and saying they love the show. With what Tom and I do, it’s in a vacuum in a way. We’ll do the bit just for ourselves. There’s usually no one else in the studio, and at the very most I’ll hear Mike [Lisk] in the background cackling every once in a while. Other than that, it’s a performance for two people, and God knows how many people are actually listening. I try to never think about it. There’s a Keith Richards quote where he says, “If you knew how many people were out there watching you, you’d be paralyzed,” and I think it’s true. There’s the instant response of the live music thing, and also the live comedy thing, but that’s more terrifying because if you’re not connecting at all, there’s silence or booing, and that’s terrible. I love the feeling after I’ve hung up with Tom after a bit that I know is really good and that he was trying to keep from laughing. That makes me feel great. That’s as good as the feeling from playing a song live that people love. But they’re just different things.
Does performing comedy seem more naked, where if you’re playing music you can hide behind your instrument?
Oh sure. You are more naked. For me, I’m hiding behind drums. Superchunk just played Radio City Music Hall a couple nights last week with Bright Eyes, and it’s a massive place. As a drummer, you’re sort of hiding back there. You are in the back, and you’re behind a mound of drums, and it’s so loud, and you do have these little shields going up. I was talking to Todd Barry the next day, and he opens for Ricky Gervais quite often in venues that big, like 5000 people. And I said, “Well, what’s the like, going out with just you and a mic?” He’s so great at it that it’s a whole different thing for him. That’s what he does, but I can’t imagine what that would be like. There’s a huge nakedness in that regard. Most of the things like when Tom and I did that thing in Vegas, he was himself and I was doing characters. I was Gene Simmons for one bit and recurring characters that we have, one named Bishop and one called Philly Boy Roy. That’s a layer of protection also. I guess I need that.