The A.V. Club's Definitive Mixlist: Laughter in music

The A.V. Club's Definitive Mixlist: Laughter in music

1. David Bowie, "The Laughing Gnome" (available on London Boy)
David Bowie is no stranger to odd musical diversions, but the novelty single "The Laughing Gnome" stands out as more pandering-weird than authentically Bowie-weird. The lyrics tell the story of Bowie's meeting with a giggly little creature with the processed voice of Gus Dudgeon, who titters chipmunkishly over terrible puns about "gnoman's land," "ecognomics," and "a metrognome." His giggles and the "ha ha ha, hee hee hee" chorus are calculated and artificial, but toward the end, when Bowie himself breaks into laughter, he sounds like he's losing it over how ridiculous the song is; it's basically his own personal version of Leonard Nimoy's dignity-destroying "Ballad Of Bilbo Baggins."

2. Lily Allen, "Knock Em Out" (available on Alright, Still)
On her debut, Alright, Still, Lily Allen sounds like a teenager desperately trying to come across as tough and world-weary, even though she's barely seen the world outside a narrow little life of clubbing and mooning over boys. Her giggles on "Knock Em Out" suggest how young she really is—faced with a series of unsuitable guys hitting on her, she can't help but snicker both at them and at the lame excuses she invents to put them off, ranging from "I have herpes!" to "I have to go, my house is on fire!"

3. Grandmaster Flash And The Furious Five, "The Message" (available on The Message)
Sometimes a laugh in a song isn't really a laugh, it's a cry of desperation. In "The Message" by Grandmaster Flash And The Furious Five, rapper Melle Mel wonders how he keeps from going under, but his maniacally stilted laugh suggests he already has.

4. Karl Valentin, "The OKeh Laughing Record" (available on Flashbacks Vol. 2: Novelty Songs 1914-1946: Crazy & Obscure)

This 1922 record is simplicity itself. First, a guy starts laughing. Then another person joins him, then another, and another, and on and on for three minutes straight. That's it—it's no gimmick or all gimmick, depending on how you look at it, but either way, it's one of the biggest transnational hits ever made. Valentin was German, but laughter is the universal language.

5. Slim Gaillard, "Laughing In Rhythm" (available on Laughing In Rhythm: The Best Of The Verve Years)

Jazz's clown prince, Slim Gaillard, was a guitarist, singer, and nonsense scatter who was equally wry and silly. This jaunty signature tune is a perfect example of both those modes: The chorus is "Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!" and by the end of the song, he and the band are breaking up for real.

6. Flipper, "Ha Ha Ha" (available on American Hardcore: The History Of American Punk Rock 1980-1986)
Criticized at the time for being a rip-off of The Dicks' "Lifetime Problems"—another early hardcore single featuring menacing, near-suicidal laughter—Flipper's 1981 anthem "Ha Ha Ha" stands on its own as a masterpiece of brutally unfunny business. In typical Flipper fashion, suburbia, sex, and consumerism are skewered with a self-deprecating sneer as scuds of grungy noise howl overhead. It's all about the chorus, though—a bitterly expectorated, almost strangled snicker that speeds up sinisterly as it tapers off into the existential void.

7. 50 Cent, "Back Down" (available on Get Rich Or Die Tryin')
Like Eddie Murphy's laugh, 50 Cent's is seductive, infectious, and instantly recognizable. And like 2Pac, 50 isn't afraid to double-track himself to create his own admiring Greek chorus. On the Dr. Dre-produced dis track "Back Down," that percussive laughter serves two purposes: 50 is modestly admiring his own cleverness, and he's laughing derisively at Ja Rule, the object of his well-wrought scorn and "Oh snap!"-worthy disses. Literally and figuratively, 50 is all about getting the last laugh.

8. Morrissey, "We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful" (available on Your Arsenal)
On this single from Your Arsenal, Morrissey expounds wittily on a series of painful truths. "We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful" nails the ugly, mixed emotions that come with a friend's success and the bitterness and resentment such accomplishments engender. At his bitter best, Moz articulates that the success of friends is "truly laughable," then proves his point with a joyless approximation of said laughter, which is the kind of bitter, angry chuckle of barely repressed hate that gets stuck in the throat.

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9. Murs, "Silly Girl" (available on Murray's Revenge)
Like 50 Cent, West Coast underground favorite Murs thinks it's better to laugh at people rather than with them, though he leaves the actual chuckling to proxies. On "Silly Girl," Murs delivers a verbal smackdown to "silly little girls" who make him wait for sex and foolishly insist that he not fuck their friends. The sampled chorus chimes in with feathery laughter and a chiding "silly." For good measure, guest rapper Joe Scudda ends his verse with sneering laughter mocking a silly girl who bragged to her friends about Scudda's sexual prowess, only to have them try out his mad bedroom skills out for themselves.

10. Big Pun, "Laughing At You" (available on Yeeeah Baby)

In "Laughing At You," Big Punisher gets revenge on all the kids who made fun of him in school by taunting them with his current success. It's a corny vaudeville skit of a song in which the schoolyard laughers get laughed at and sidekick Tony Sunshine uses the hook to mock kids who told him he was ugly and made him "scared to crack a smile." If the song didn't sound and feel like such a bad joke, Pun's laughter would probably feel much more righteous and cathartic.

11. Paul Evans, "Happy-Go-Lucky Me" (available on Happy-Go-Lucky Me: The Paul Evans Songbook)
Lodged halfway between rock 'n' roll and pop novelty, Paul Evans' 1960 hit—most recently memorialized in John Waters' Pecker—is so gleeful that it takes a truly warped ear to appreciate it. Sure, it's a glaringly transparent ode to looking on the bright side, but it's rendered with an eerie desperation that makes it far more unsettling than uplifting. "I can laugh when things ain't funny / It may sound silly, but I don't care," Evans sings amid spasms of reverb-wracked, Joker-level cackling. Silly? Try insane.

12. The Beatles, "Within You Without You" (available on Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band)
George Harrison's songs often sound like calculated interruptions to the flow of The Beatles' albums. "Within You Without You" certainly does, coming between the whimsical "Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite" and "When I'm Sixty-Four" on Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. As Harrison's sitar-and-tabla sermon concludes, it gives way to a crowd gasping with laughter—possibly the mockery Harrison anticipated for trying to stick spiritual lessons into pop music, possibly a transition back to lightheartedness. Either way, it always threatens to snap listeners out of the mood Harrison worked to set.

13. Johnny Cash, "A Boy Named Sue" (available on The Essential Johnny Cash)
Johnny Cash's smirk is audible as he makes his way through Shel Silverstein's witty lyrics, but what makes the live version of "A Boy Named Sue" so indelible is the punctuating laughter of the prisoners at San Quentin. Cash feeds off of every appreciative whoop, chuckling through Sue's confrontation with his deadbeat father. At the song's conclusion, he adopts a faux-somber tone before chortling out, "And if I ever have a son, I think I'm gonna name him… Bill or George, any damn thing but Sue!"

14. Joni Mitchell, "Big Yellow Taxi" (available on Hits)

What could have easily been a ponderous, self-important lament, "Big Yellow Taxi" is one of Joni Mitchell's most accessible songs, buoyed by sunny guitar, "shoo-bop-bop" vocals, and a strange high-pitched giggle at the end. There's nothing natural or appropriate about it, but the laugh cements the irony of Mitchell's comparison between environmental disaster and her "old man" leaving in the middle of the night.

15. Eminem, "My Dad's Gone Crazy" (available on The Eminem Show)
Eminem is typically about as subtle as a two-by-four to the face, but the giggling vocals by his daughter Hailie Jade on "My Dad's Gone Crazy" add an extra-creepy counterpoint to the rapper's usual apoplectic bellow. While her dad rages, "More pain inside of my brain than in the eyes of a little girl inside of a plane aimed at the World Trade," Hailie merely snickers, "You're funny, Daddy," ratcheting up the already-weird track to full-tilt deranged.

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16. Stevie Wonder, "Isn't She Lovely?" (available on Songs In The Key Of Life)
The third side (or second disc, for CD addicts) of Wonder's most generous album opens with a sunny salute to his newborn daughter. "Isn't She Lovely?" is one of Wonder's catchiest and most enduring songs, in spite of its six-and-half-minute length and reliance on, basically, one verse repeated multiple times with only slight variations. The real heart of the song is in its long coda, consisting of a joyous harmonica solo and sound-snippets from the Wonder home, including the giggles and coos of his baby girl at bathtime. The laughter serves a dual purpose, as a document of a warm family moment, and as an example of how unstudied human emotion can be integrated into an ambitious pop symphony.

17. New Order, "Every Little Counts" (available on Brotherhood)

It took a few years for New Order to shake the dour, icy reputation of Joy Division, though by the time the band recorded Brotherhood in 1986, a handful of ebullient dance hits and quirky album tracks had let New Order's playful side out a little. Nevertheless, few fans were prepared for Brotherhood's closing track, a soft, synthesized Velvet Underground homage that opens with the line, "Every little counts / When I am with you / I think you are a pig / You should be in a zoo." Bernard Sumner doesn't even finish the sentence without breaking up, in a moment of spontaneous silliness that would've been unthinkable in the Ian Curtis era.

18. Spoon, "Back To The Life" (available on Kill The Moonlight)

After an opening series of laughs that sound loud, forced, and more than a little menacing, Spoon proceeds through a sliver of a song—just over two minutes long—that's all wiggy sound effects and layered percussion, with only a couple of elliptical lyrics to provide definition. In beat-happy Spoon-land, even devilish chuckles exist to be captured, processed, and converted into rhythm.

19. Bob Dylan, "Bob Dylan's 115th Dream" (available on Bringing It All Back Home)
A missed cue on the first take of this song made Dylan's band fail to jump in when they were supposed to, and the entire room breaks up once they realize the mistake. Though Dylan laughs first, the full-throated, uncontrollable giggling that makes the moment so memorable actually comes from producer Tom Wilson. Even though it sprang from a mistake, Dylan was right to demand that the laughter remain in the final mix. It's the perfect introduction to one of Dylan's funniest songs, a surrealist satire of American culture that positively drips with bemused sarcasm.

20. The Clash, "This Is Radio Clash" (available on The Singles)
One of the classic anthems of anarchy by The Only Band That Matters, "This Is Radio Clash" thumbs its nose at the establishment with declarations like "This sound does not subscribe to the international plan / In the psycho shadow of the white right hand." But the gleeful anti-authoritarianism is best expressed by the maniacal cackle that opens the song, making Joe Strummer sound like he's some kind of crazed cousin to Guy Fawkes, ready to tear down everything corrupt and dance in the flames for the joy of a new world to come.

21. The Guess Who, "Laughing" (available on The Best Of The Guess Who)
It seems inevitable that a song about laughing would feature at least a few chuckles. But Randy Bachman's sprightly, melodic folk-opera number doesn't get around to joy in its brief tale of a lover's contempt for the man she destroys—not until the chorus begins repeating at the end, and Chad Allen replaces the lyrics "The things you're doing to me / They're not the way it should be" with "Ha ha ha ha ha ha." Even worse, he sings the syllabic faux-laughter, at first to the song's tune, then to an improvised scat riff. One minute, you're a baby boomer singing along with a pleasant soft-rock number from 1969, the next minute, you're cringing and reaching for the radio tuner. Calm down—once the ill-advised laugh-singing begins, the song is only 10 seconds away from fading out.

22. Van Halen, "Everybody Wants Some!!" (available on Women And Children First)
From Eddie Van Halen's impish grin to David Lee Roth's rip-roarious come-ons and one-liners, early Van Halen looked and sounded as much like a party as the band's hedonism ensured it actually was. In this tune, one of many on Women And Children First in which he cracks up over his own free-associations, a sexed-up Roth whoops, grunts, and goes stumbling after the song's invisible female other, finally sighing, "Look, I'll pay you for it; what the fuck," in the outro.

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