Classical music has been fodder for comedy routines at least since the Marx Brothers’ 1935 film A Night at the Opera, in which they turned a violin into a baseball bat during a mock ballgame staged in an orchestra pit. Humorists Victor Borge and Anna Russell built decades-long touring careers by executing staged falls off piano benches and doing one-woman parodies of Wagner’s Ring Cycle. In more recent times, Peter Schickele, now retired, has plied the alleged masterpieces of P.D.Q. Bach, including Fanfare for the Common Cold and the Variations on an Unusually Simple-Minded Theme.
While for a period it seemed as if classical humor had enjoyed its last laugh, social media and YouTube have helped to bring it back into focus, gently deflating the art form’s pretensions. Igudesman & Joo (or I&J) will return to the United States this October with a touring production The Music Critic, which co-stars John Malkovich as a foul-tempered music critic who recites historical takedowns of great composers. TwoSet Violin, comprising the Australian pranksters Brett Yang and Eddy Chen, is building on its audience of four million YouTube followers with a tour this year of Asia, Europe, and Canada. Even the niche Twitter feed Composers Doing Normal Sh*t, which shows mundane photos of composers alongside witty captions, has nearly 100,000 followers.
The Russian-born Igudesman met Korean-British pianist Hyung-ki Joo at the age of 12 at the Yehudi Menuhin School in England. With their classical training, they were sympathetic to the art form they were satirizing and began developing zany, often virtuosic routines that they have toured widely since the early 2000s. Among them is “Music Police,” in which Igudesman plays a cop who accuses Joo of speeding through Chopin, then commands him to play a rapid-fire sequence of composers and techniques (Glass, Adams, and Reich end up all sounding the same). In another sketch, Igudesman delivers a performance of Bach’s E-major Partita while a GPS assistant on his phone feeds him musical directions (“Take the next exit to F-sharp”)—until he detours into country-and-western fiddling (one of many delirious segues).
“Trying to play brilliantly is fun—it’s great,” Igudesman says of the dexterity behind many of the duo’s routines. “If you combine something physical with something funny, you actually tend to free up because you are distracted from the fact that you’re thinking, ‘Oh, my God, I’ve got to get this right!’”
Dance has further raised the adrenaline level of I&J’s shows, be it their early sketch, “Riverdancing Violinist” (triggered by an errant vacuum cleaner), a one-legged rendition of Kreisler’s Tambourin Chinois, or any number of break dance–infused routines. “I don’t know if it was a midlife crisis, but I started break dancing in my 40s,” Igudesman says. “This is usually when people stop.” The stunts are carefully managed around his Santo Serafin violin, he assures me, adding that he periodically incorporates playing into his workouts, mixing scales with crunches and squats.
The combination of slapstick and sophistication calls to mind the high jinks of Schickele, whose entrances involved swinging onto the stage like Tarzan from a balcony or being chased down the aisles by a man in a gorilla suit. For the uninitiated, the fictional P.D.Q. Bach was described by his inventor Schickele as “the last, but least of J.S. Bach’s 20-odd children, and the oddest.” Schickele played a quixotic professor who came to specialize in P.D.Q.’s music after stumbling across a manuscript of the composer’s Sanka Cantata in 1954. He went on to “discover” dozens of other works, including the Konzertshtick for Two Violins Mit Orchestra (which he performed with Itzhak Perlman) and the Missa Hilarious (puns were a specialty).
“I don’t think people have to be deeply into classical music to enjoy the show,” Schickele told the New York Times in a 1977 interview. “But it is true that the more you know, the more there is to get. Certain pieces—the Unbegun Symphony and Eine Kleine Nichtmusik, for example—are made entirely of quotes. But it’s done in such a way that if you get them all, fine, if not, that’s fine, too. There are enough quotes from Beethoven, Stephen Foster, and Rachmaninoff that everybody will recognize.”
With concerns about declining music literacy, classical humorists are often tasked with finding the level of their audience’s funny bone. I&J’s sketches may contain multiple layers. “Maybe somebody gets a joke because they have a musical background,” Igudesman says. “But at the same time, so we leave no one out, there is a physicality: there will either be a slapstick moment or certain facial expressions.” Other jokes may run parallel. “So, the people who know [the music] laugh about the musical jokes, and the people who don’t will laugh about the physical aspect.”
Charles Garrett, a University of Michigan musicologist who has written about music and humor, stresses that social media has revitalized classical humor but also brought about a crisper style of comedy. “I think of I&J making the most of YouTube as they got famous—that was pivotal in terms of reaching out to global niche audiences,” he says in an email. “But now that they have instant competition on other platforms, maybe they have changed how they design their sketches and performances.”
With videos that routinely amass over 500,000 views in just a few weeks, TwoSet Violin specializes in a savvy blend of practice room humor and reaction videos to all things cringy, dodgy, or awkward. There are challenges to fellow Australian Ray Chen and a bass YouTuber named Davie504 who “dared to insult the violin.” Other TwoSet Violin staples include reaction videos to egregiously faked movie performances and a running gag about Ling Ling, a fictional violinist who “practices 40 hours a day.”
Still, niche humor can be difficult to keep fresh. From 2011 to 2015, the duo of cellist Nick Canellakis and pianist Michael Stephen Brown created Conversations with Nick Canellakis, a mock classical interview show in which the cellist played an interviewer who peppers guests with obtuse and mildly offensive questions. Loosely inspired by Between Two Ferns and the Colbert Report, Canellakis and Brown (as the straight man) interrogated the likes of Itzhak Perlman, Yuja Wang, and the Emerson String Quartet (most of the 19 episodes are still available online).
“We would never tell the guests any of our questions ahead of time,” Canellakis said in a recent joint interview with Brown. “We wanted a real reaction. Of course, we would edit things. The straighter the guest, the funnier it was. Emanuel Ax and Leon Fleisher are great examples because they are just so bone dry. That’s what really worked for that type of comedy.”
Just as Igudesman has led master classes and composed traditional chamber music, Brown and Canellakis believe that the boundaries between their serious and comedic personas are not so walled off. “I think we bring whatever comedic sensibilities we have to the stage, because that is a great way to help connect to an audience,” he says. “Just making an audience laugh goes a really long way. Even if you do it just a couple of times in a classical music concert, it can be a really connecting experience.”