Musical Comedy: Novelty Humor in the 1950s [Tom Lehrer, Sheb Wooley, David Seville]

tlThis post is intended as supplemental material for the course “Sounds of Laughter: Musical Comedy in the United States”

Ellis summarizes musical novelty humor in the late 1950s (note: his focus on rock & roll makes him, I think, a bit dismissive of less serious forms of 50s music):

Emanating from the same intellectual domain as Little Richard‘s “Tutti Frutti“…novelty humor became a dominant subgenre  of late-1950s rock & roll. A celebration of “dumb” aesthetics, its essence and appeal were immediately tied to the teen demographic being targeted, although not exclusively. Even some “adult” humorists of the day, such as Stan Freberg and Tom Lehrer, got in on the novelty craze, though neither was particularly enamored of the new rock & roll sounds. Both acts used novelty as a means for satirical ends. Tom Lehrer could be particularly biting within the form, whether tackling  trivial topics (“The Masochism Tango” [1958]) or more serious ones (“The Old Dope Peddler” [1953]). Mostly though, novelty records were innocuous and inane, usually combining doo-wop vocal gibberish with childlike flights of fantasy. Sheb Wooley, for example, sang the faux-horror tale of the “Purple People Eater” (1958), while David Seville sang “Ting tong walla-walla bing-bong” in recounting his narrative of the “Witch Doctor” (1958). Besides reinforcing the emerging generation gap, such songs lacked obvious incendiary purposes or effects. (Ellis 2008, 49)

See Also:

Tom Lehrer on YouTube

Week 7

Update: after researching Lehrer’s “The Old Dope Peddler” (1953), I learned that it was a parody of the song “The Old Lamplighter” (1947) by Kay Kyser.

Author: Leah Pogwizd

Bassist, Instructor, Writer

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