Happy Birthday, Bob Dylan, Our Most Underappreciated Comic

At the tip 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 observe is that it’s Bob Dylan initially of one of many biggest 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 clarification, however pressured 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 if there’s any underexamined side of this most celebrated and scrutinized singer, who turns 80 on Monday, inspiring new biographies and best-of lists, it’s his fertile comedy. While he spent six a long time singing about heartache, apocalypse and betrayal, a cockeyed humor has all the time knowledgeable his bleak worldview. It might be indirect, much less about jokes than jokiness, however crucial sufficient to his artwork to put 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 War” and “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” But the primary 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 aware songs with darkish comedies. In 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. Listen 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.

Dylan backstage in 1964. His lyrics might be foolish or goofy. Credit…John Byrne Cooke Estate/Getty Images

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 College and his Harvard,” have been house to not simply folks singers but additionally comics like Joan Rivers, Lenny Bruce and Bill Cosby. (This 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 snort did, too. As Robert Shelton, who helped launch Dylan together with his assessment on this paper, writes in his lately rereleased biography, “No Direction Home,” patrons “responded more to Dylan’s wit than to his slow-serious intense material.”

His early performances had comedian bits. Using lengthy guitar strings, he quipped that the instrument wanted a haircut. The first style of music that bought consideration was the speaking blues, a comic book type courting to the 1920s with customary chord progressions backing up jokey traces and topical references — not that totally different from a stand-up set. Some of these songs made it onto albums, others solely turned accessible later. One of the earliest wasn’t launched till 2010. “Talking 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. (“Discovered there was pink stripes!) It ends with him on their lonesome investigating himself.

Dylan presents himself in these songs as a hapless Everyman, a idiot, a coward overwhelmed if not oppressed by occasions. Moving away from politics, Dylan’s songs turned more odd and downright foolish, with lyrics which can be, like jokes, concise. Consider the opening of “On the Road Again,” a 1965 masterpiece of giddily neurotic nonsense concerning the dysfunctional household of a girlfriend: “Well, I wake up in the morning, there’s frogs inside my socks/Your mama she’s hiding inside the icebox/Your daddy walks in wearin’ a Napoleon Bonaparte mask.”

Along with speaking blues and surreal scenes, Dylan flashed borscht belt punch traces in songs like “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream,” a rambling yarn that begins with him singing, stopping, cracking up and asking for a second take. Keeping this error units the unfastened tone for the music, which features a go to to a financial institution that ends with this quip: “They asked me for some collateral and I pulled down my pants.”

An album by the stand-up Lord Buckley is referenced within the cowl picture for “Bringing It All Back Home.”Credit…Columbia

This seems on his funniest album, “Bringing It all Back Home,” whose cowl options Dylan close to an album by the comic Lord Buckley. Though Buckley died in New York just a few months earlier than Dylan arrived, he tremendously influenced Dylan (and others, together with Lenny Bruce and Robin Williams). The singer turned certainly one of Buckley’s monologues right into a music, “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 “Highway 61 Revisited.” (“God said to Abraham, ‘Kill me a son.’ Abe said, ‘Man you must be puttin' me on.’”)

By the following decade, Dylan had grow to be one of many largest stars on this planet, whereas his songs turned darker and extra private, digging into heartbreak. But even his harshest songs usually carried a lightweight wit. In the opening of “Idiot Wind” (1975), he sings that he shot a person and took his spouse, who inherited one million ; when she died he bought the cash. After a pause, he provides with deep feeling at odds with the smirking sentiment: “I can’t help it if I’m lucky.”

Dylan at Madison Square Garden in 1975, when “Idiot Wind” got here out.Credit…Ray Stubblebine/Associated Press

After a fallow interval (each Dylan period has its champions, however the hardest case to make is the comparatively mirthless 1980s), 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 additionally 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 sequence 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 & Anonymous.” In that 2003 movie, a person confides in a personality performed by the singer: “What did the monkey say to the cheetah at the card game? I thought you were a cheetah.”

Late-era Dylan favors dad jokes so tacky that they appear virtually 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 venture of latest 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.

Dylan performing in Los Angeles in 2012. His work on “Theme Time Radio Hour” displays a constant curiosity in comedy.Credit…Chris Pizzello/Associated Press

These hours present that for Dylan, humor shouldn’t be incidental. Nor 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. One of the very best episodes focuses on laughter. Dylan describes its musicality, explaining it has a rhythm. He digs into the historical past of snort tracks. Speaking 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 may belief. “You can fake an orgasm,” he croaked. “But you can’t fake laughter.”