Monday, June 19, 2017

The Laughing Record - IT'S NOT FUNNY, I TELL YOU!!

I invoke the ghost of Spike Milligan to admit that “laughing records” aren’t funny. They are NOT FUNNY! Sapristi! 

Most of the time, the irritating performer is laughing...and the listener is not. Which explains why, thankfully, this genre sputtered into obsolescence. This includes both types of "novelty" tunes involving contagious laughter.

The first type is the singer doing all the laughing. You're supposed to either laugh along with him, or be delighted with how he laughs the melody line. “The Laughing Song,” by George W. Johnson was available on cylinder wayyyy back in 1896. He gets the nod for being the first guy to laugh into a microphone, and was probably also the first black to make hit records. So much for racism. Black entertainers were welcomed, as long as they were entertaining.Why, they could even be a tad uppity, which is a bit of a surprise.

George isn't one of "The Black Crows," doing step and fetch it dialogue. The song begins with him addressing the issue of race: "As I was coming around the corner I heard some people say, here comes the Darkie, here he comes this way…” What's his reaction? "I laugh! Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha. Hee hee hee hee hee hee.” Some people think the exotic fellow might be related to some Nubian Prince or Princess? That makes him laugh, too. Ultimately, he sings, "Listen to what I’m going to say. I’ve tried my best to please you…” So laugh along as he, yeah, gives it the old heave-ho ho ho ho ho ha ha ha ha. 

Musical piracy? It's not new. Without copyright laws, the new medium of phonograph records was prey to small record labels doing unlicensed cover versions, or even duplicating the original record. That's why quite often a performer in those days began by announcing who he was, and what label he was recording foil somebody trying to copy the actual recording.  

In the case of George W. Johnson, he was copied by Charlies Penrose, who took the laughing idea and the music, to create "The Laughing Policeman," a huge hit in England. Charles declares the policeman is "...the happiest man in town…a ha ha ha ha ha ha…he never can stop laughing, he says he’s never tried. But once he did arrest a man and laughed until he cried! A ha ha ha ha ha ha ha…ooooooooooh ha ha ha ha ha haaaaaa…”

"The Laughing Policeman," music swiped from George W. Johnson with no writing credit, was a hit in 1922 for Regal, and re-recorded in 1926 for Columbia. What could be funnier than a policeman laughing as he arrests some poor bloke? Somehow, people thought this hilarious. There were even laughing policeman figures in amusement parks. Put in a coin, and the creatures comes to life, laughing and laughing.

The other type of "laughing record" isn't about a singer laughing out loud, but the audience becoming hysterical. So, why would an audience become hysterical? Over a joke or two? No, over a concert musician screwing up.

In 1922, Cameo released "Laugh and the World Laughs With You." Okeh imported "The Okeh Laughing Record" the same year. It was originally recorded in Germany on the Beka label by Lucie Bernard and Otto Rathke. The recording was also released in England as "The Parlophone Laughing Record." Yes, record labels could simply license or steal the song and put their own name on it.

In 1923, Columbia offered "The Spoiled Cornet." The Melotone “Laughing Record No 2”  didn’t have a bad cornet player failing, but, an opera singer doing “The Toreador Song” off key, leading to snickers and roars from his audience.  

The idea is always the same: a serious musician screws up, desperately tries again, but only gets more and more cruel laughter, which usually includes basso ho-ho's and hyena-like howls. Spike Jones resurrected this novelty of the 20s with "The Jones Laughing Record," as a botched version of "Flight of the Bumble Bee" leads to the most outrageous laughter this side of an insane asylum. 

 Over the years there have been mutant “laughing” records. “The Hyena Stomp” from Jelly Roll Morton offered jazzy roars of laughter, and Louis Armstrong had a variation in “Laughing Louie.” Some "laugh it up" comedians tried to encourage giddiness by laughing at their own jokes. Red Skelton was the most famous example, but there was Benny Rubin who used to mockingly laugh the first seven notes of “Yankee Doodle." 

Even into the hip 50’s and 60’s you might encounter some forced laughter.  Mort Sahl had what critics called a “barking laugh.” He used it to punctuate a punchline and cue people into laughing along. As Enrico Banducci, owner of the “Hungri i” nightclub quipped, “it wasn’t hip not to laugh at Mort Sahl.” Mort laughed at the same jokes night after night, as if he just thought up the gag. Phyllis Diller raised the ante with her goose-like explosions of mirth, as well as her own "Ah haaaa," guffaw.

The 60's even had Yodelin’ Shorty and “The Crazy Laughing Blues,” just another "singer has to laugh, so you should, too" numbers. Folks who heard it and bought it had no idea the idea went back over 60 years. Shorty recorded his single on the small Countryside label. The flip side is “Made to Yodel.” What a guy. Laughing and yodeling. If he put out another single it would’ve been puking and farting. 

Below, an example of each type of laughing record, and that's more than enough because...."It's not funny I tell you, IT'S NOT FUNNY!!" 

THE CRAZY LAUGHING BLUES   Instant download or listen on line. No malware or spyware anywhere.

THE SPOILED CORNET   Instant download or listen on line. No malware or spyware anywhere.  



Timmy said...

With a slightly different angle, Jim Backus released the great "Delicious", with whom it is said to be Phyllis Diller accompanying him.

Ill Folks said...

Yes, good point. There were all kinds of odd novelty things that could involve laughing or giggling, etc. I think the Spike Jones "Omnibust" had one, a where Joyce Jameson keeps giggling and crying "Clyde...Clyde...Clyde..." in every possible way. Freberg had the "John and Marsha" bit. I guess because Diller was known for her laugh, people assumed she was on the Jim Backus record.