Glad Birthday, Bob Dylan, Our Most Underappreciated Comedian

On the finish of “Inside Llewyn Davis,” the Coen brothers film set within the Greenwich Village music scene of 1961, the title character, a gifted however struggling folks singer on the verge of giving up, leaves the stage of the fabled Gaslight Café as a newcomer fills his spot. What’s clear after the primary word is that it’s Bob Dylan initially of one of many best careers in pop music

This juxtaposition leaves the viewer with a lingering query about success: What does Bob Dylan have that Llewyn Davis doesn’t? Genius? Luck? Timing? The film is simply too elusive for a single rationalization, however compelled to choose one, I’d argue it’s a humorousness. This may appear odd, since within the public creativeness, Dylan, the grim-faced protest singer turned croaking Nobel-winning poet, strikes a lethal critical determine.

But when there’s any underexamined facet of this most celebrated and scrutinized singer, who turns 80 on Monday, inspiring new biographies and best-of lists, it’s his fertile comedy. Whereas he spent six a long time singing about heartache, apocalypse and betrayal, a cockeyed humor has all the time knowledgeable his bleak worldview. It may be indirect, much less about jokes than jokiness, however important sufficient to his artwork to position him within the pantheon of nice Jewish humorous males.

There’s maybe no higher proof of the significance of funniness to Dylan’s artwork than the truth that he has denied it. In a uncommon interview from 2017, Dylan himself dismissed the notion that he was a jester, pointing to righteous anthems like “Masters of Struggle” and “A Onerous Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” However the first prank Dylan pulled was posing as a plain-spoken fact teller. From the beginning, he was making up benign lies about himself and mixing grave, socially acutely aware songs with darkish comedies. Within the oldest bootleg of him performing on the Gaslight, from 1961, one of many solely authentic songs is “Talkin’ Bear Mountain Picnic Blues,” a wry retelling of a disaster within the information: An overbooked cruise ship sank within the Hudson River, a tragedy born of greed. Take heed to this 60-year-old recording of a then-unknown Dylan singing one block away from the place the Comedy Cellar is now and also you’ll hear the acquainted sound of darkish jokes getting laughs.

The comedy membership had not been invented when Bob Dylan arrived in New York that yr, so the few blocks of coffeehouses and golf equipment the place he carried out, what the historian Sean Wilentz has referred to as “his Yale School and his Harvard,” had been house to not simply folks singers but in addition comics like Joan Rivers, Lenny Bruce and Invoice Cosby. (That is the period depicted in “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.”) To a sponge like Dylan, this cross-pollination of artists mattered. That these audiences anticipated to snicker did, too. As Robert Shelton, who helped launch Dylan together with his overview on this paper, writes in his not too long ago rereleased biography, “No Path Residence,” patrons “responded extra to Dylan’s wit than to his slow-serious intense materials.”

His early performances had comedian bits. Utilizing lengthy guitar strings, he quipped that the instrument wanted a haircut. The primary style of track that acquired consideration was the speaking blues, a comic book kind relationship to the Twenties with customary chord progressions backing up jokey strains and topical references — not that totally different from a stand-up set. A few of these songs made it onto albums, others solely turned out there later. One of many earliest wasn’t launched till 1991. “Speaking John Birch Society Blues” spoofed the paranoia of the anti-communist group, with a narrator discovering suspicious exercise within the glove compartment, the TV set, even on the American flag. (“Found there was crimson stripes!”) It ends with him on their own investigating himself.

Dylan presents himself in these songs as a hapless Everyman, a idiot, a coward overwhelmed if not oppressed by occasions. Shifting away from politics, Dylan’s songs turned more strange and downright foolish, with lyrics which might be, like jokes, concise. Think about the opening of “On the Highway Once more,” a 1965 masterpiece of giddily neurotic nonsense in regards to the dysfunctional household of a girlfriend: “Effectively, I get up within the morning, there’s frogs inside my socks/Your mama she’s hiding contained in the icebox/Your daddy walks in wearin’ a Napoleon Bonaparte masks.”

Together with speaking blues and surreal scenes, Dylan flashed borscht belt punch strains in songs like “Bob Dylan’s one hundred and fifteenth Dream,” a rambling yarn that begins with him singing, stopping, cracking up and asking for a second take. Protecting this error units the free tone for the track, which features a go to to a financial institution that ends with this quip: “They requested me for some collateral and I pulled down my pants.”

This seems on his funniest album, “Bringing All of it Again Residence,” whose cowl options Dylan close to an album by the comic Lord Buckley. Although Buckley died in New York just a few months earlier than Dylan arrived, he significantly influenced Dylan (and others, together with Lenny Bruce and Robin Williams). The singer turned one in every of Buckley’s monologues right into a track, “Black Cross,” and borrowed language like “jingle-jangle” for “Tambourine Man.” Buckley was well-known for rebooting biblical tales in hipster slang, a tactic Dylan appropriated in songs like “Freeway 61 Revisited.” (“God stated to Abraham, ‘Kill me a son.’ Abe stated, ‘Man you have to be puttin’ me on.’”)

By the subsequent decade, Dylan had turn out to be one of many largest stars on this planet, whereas his songs turned darker and extra private, digging into heartbreak. However even his harshest songs typically carried a lightweight wit. Within the opening of “Fool Wind” (1975), he sings that he shot a person and took his spouse, who inherited 1,000,000 {dollars}; when she died he acquired the cash. After a pause, he provides with deep feeling at odds with the smirking sentiment: “I can’t assist it if I’m fortunate.”

After a fallow interval (each Dylan period has its champions, however the hardest case to make is the comparatively mirthless Eighties), he has undergone an inventive and business resurgence within the final quarter-century. This late-era Dylan has managed to be each heavier and lighter, darker but in addition goofier.

On a riotous episode of Pete Holmes’s podcast, the director Larry Charles (“Borat”) recalled how Dylan turned obsessive about Jerry Lewis motion pictures, a lot in order that Dylan collaborated with Charles on a pilot for a slapstick collection for HBO. The musician finally misplaced curiosity (the present was “too slapsticky”) however did co-write a weird and broadly panned drama with Charles, “Masked & Nameless.” In that 2003 movie, a person confides in a personality performed by the singer: “What did the monkey say to the cheetah on the card recreation? I believed you had been a cheetah.”

Late-era Dylan favors dad jokes so tacky that they appear nearly transgressive, a liberating escape from his enigmatic picture. When he tells a knock-knock joke on his 2001 album, “Love and Theft,” it’s the comedy equal of going electrical. I used to be tempted to boo however have come to respect him for it.

His most revelatory undertaking of current a long time has been “Theme Time Radio Hour,” greater than 100 episodes hosted by Dylan, every organized round a theme. Produced by Eddie Gorodetsky, a former David Letterman author, the present has a constant curiosity in comedy, together with arcana about stand-ups and sitcoms, interviews with comics and corny jokes.

These hours present that for Dylan, humor is just not incidental. Neither is it comedian reduction. It operates the best way it does within the performs of Chekhov, as a foundational a part of existence from an artist who believes that, as Dylan famously put it, life is however a joke. Among the best episodes focuses on laughter. Dylan describes its musicality, explaining it has a rhythm. He digs into the historical past of snicker tracks. Talking in a gravelly deadpan that more and more resembles the voice of the stand-up Steven Wright, Dylan appears like he scorns canned laughs, a betrayal of one of many final issues you possibly can belief. “You possibly can pretend an orgasm,” he croaked. “However you’ll be able to’t pretend laughter.”

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