It was a beautiful, if hot, summer day in Chicago. Pride Fest and Puerto Rico fest were in full swing and the Cubs were playing at home. And I was reveling in nerdish glee at the news that I would be getting the chance to meet up with, and perhaps introduce to some of you, some fantastic, funny people. Musicians Jonathan Coulton and Paul and Storm were in town to play a concert at the Vic that night, and I got a chance to sit down with them and discuss comedy, music and the place where they intersect. I also recorded a podcast with Jonathan, so don’t miss the link to that below.
“Comedy musician” represents a real niche in the entertainment industry, and many people, I’d suspect, wouldn’t be able to fill out a jeopardy category naming examples. Weird Al is probably the most well known, with some suggesting They Might Be Giants. But if that’s all you know, you’re missing out on a lot. Over 20 years, musicians Paul and Storm have formed a brotherly bond and a hilarious repertoire of songs, and Jonathan Coulton has amassed not only internet fame, but a loyal following with his own body of work, which covers everything from the Mandelbrot set and zombies to heartbreak and growing older. In fact, Coulton is the headliner of his own annual cruise for nerds, the JoCo cruise, which, as he puts it, is “everything good about a con” without the lines and other inherent hazards.
So how do you get to be a “comedy musician,” I wondered, and where do you fit in in the business? For Paul and Storm, it was being a part of a “hobby/cover band a cappella group” known as DaVinci’s Notebook. When that group began to cover another a cappella band, who were known for their humorous lyrics, they saw the response and “really started to be pushed in that direction.” Soon, they found themselves performing more and more shows, traveling the folk circuit for a while, and then making their big break on the Bob and Tom show with an incredibly catchy novelty song called “Enormous Penis.”
Jonathan Coulton, meanwhile, comes from the world of IT, having spent 10 years at a software company in New York City. He has amassed a following for both his funny songs, like “Code Monkey,” about an IT nerd’s pining after someone in his office (a song Coulton calls “loosely autobiographical”) and some more serious, melancholy ones like “Glasses,” which talks about getting older with someone you love. As he gathered steam on the internet and he began to travel for shows, he also ended up meeting up with Kim Swift, a project lead for software developer Valve on a new puzzle game for the upcoming Orange Box release called Portal. He also got to play early versions of the game and get a feel for one of its main characters, a sentient and sinister AI named GLaDOS, penning her swan song, “Still Alive.” Says Coulton, “There was something about GLaDOS’ voice, her character, that I feel very close to, because I think I am, for whatever reason–you’d have to ask my friends and my therapist–but I identify very easily with a passive aggressive monster.” He goes on to explain, “I think the thing about GLaDOS is that she is really nasty and really mean, but you can see that underneath, that nastiness comes from a profound insecurity and self-loathing, and for me, that’s just…it’s the most heartbreaking character, and I feel like I’ve been writing about characters like that my whole life anyway. It was not hard for me to get her voice inside my head.”
It’s that grasp of personality and character and that genuine caring that come through so easily when talking to both Coulton and his compatriots, Paul and Storm. They display an honesty in their songs, a humbleness in their success, and a genuine empathy and love for their fans. Each of them carved a unique path into a niche between comedy and music, what Paul and Storm called “a third beast” or a different tribe. Being able to find your own unique place to practice your passions is, I find, a common pull among the nerd tribe I find myself in, and makes both Coulton and Paul and Storm inspirational. When I asked them what advice they’d give to fans trying to carve their own niche, they were eager to share. “Start with the tools you have, with the people you know…make the best thing you can make, and make the thing that is going to please you, make the thing that is going to make you laugh or make you feel.” Says Storm, “Do the thing is really the shorthand version of it, and if you love it enough, don’t expect that it’s gotta necessarily pay or be the thing you do full time but you’ll get the enjoyment out of it, and hey…you won’t know if you don’t try.”
I confess, I’d wondered, before getting the chance to speak with these three and see the show, why exactly people would flock to a branded cruise for a band they liked, by the time my time with them was over, I was absolutely sure. All of them are laugh out loud funny, warm and genuine. While going in, I expected more of a barrel of laughs than anything else from my night at the Vic, what I found was the “big warm fuzzy secret heart” of both Coulton and his friends. There were yes, songs about zombies, and about “Game of Thrones,” but also about love, loss, rejection and just being different. By the end, I really felt like there was a bond among the audience and between the performers and their audience, and it’s this sense of community that has me thinking more about sailing away, nerd style.
To hear more of the conversation, make sure to check out this podcast link, and for more on the JoCo cruise, follow this link. And whatever you do, make sure to find a seat to see this trio next time they come to town.