Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Elvis Presley (Photo: Bettman/Getty Images), Janet Jackson (Photo: Dominique Charriau/Getty Images), and Bruce Springsteen with Clarence Clemons (Photo: Rick Diamond/Getty Images). Graphic: Libby McGuire.

What’s so funny?: 25 singers cracking up at their own songs

Elvis Presley (Photo: Bettman/Getty Images), Janet Jackson (Photo: Dominique Charriau/Getty Images), and Bruce Springsteen with Clarence Clemons (Photo: Rick Diamond/Getty Images). Graphic: Libby McGuire.

Singers laugh for various reasons, not all of them sincere. Take, for instance, the laugh that closes out Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi”—a giggle some people find so fake, they made their own fan edits just to cut it out. There is intentional laughter, layered in to create a wild, maniacal atmosphere (“Thriller,” “This Is Radio Clash,” “Master Of Puppets”), or tossed off before a hip-hop verse to convey we’re having a champagne-popping good time. There is the spliced-in laughter that captures musicians as buddies, just cuttin’ loose in the studio (Beastie Boys’ “Heart Attack Man,” Spoon’s “Back To The Life,” the Pixies’ “I’m Amazed”). There are in-character laughs deployed as part of the lyrics (Morrissey’s mocking laugh in “We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful,” Lou Reed’s euphoric one in The Velvet Underground’s “Heroin”). In the case of Young Jeezy and Jadakiss, the laugh acts as a sort of catchphrase.

But the rarer kind of laughter is the spontaneous crack-up, the studio gaffe in which the facade briefly drops and the singer is suddenly amused by their own lyrics, or a bum note—or who knows what—and the moment thereafter becomes part of their song. Here are 25 examples.

1. Bob Dylan, “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream”

There’s plenty of funny wordplay in this wild, surrealistic satire from Bringing It All Back Home, but the laughter at the beginning is over something far more ordinary: Dylan starts the track and his band misses its cue, causing both the singer and producer Tom Wilson to bust out laughing. The 1965 album marked Dylan’s first dabbling with electric rock, to some fans’ dismay, so perhaps there’s something symbolic there in his briefly starting “115th Dream” in his usual, acoustic guise, then laughing at it. But mostly it’s just a glimpse of that loose, funny Dylan seen laughing and snarking in interviews, here finally freed from the yoke of playing the somber, socially conscious folkie all the time. [Sean O’Neal]

2. Pavement, “Summer Babe”

Between the release of its final Drag City single and its Matador debut, Pavement spit-shined its 1991 song “Summer Babe” into the remixed “(Winter Version),” but it left one ramshackle detail intact: Stephen Malkmus’ guffaw around the line “Daily drop off the first shiny robe,” Malkmus losing his Lou Reed-aping cool as he dishes out some word salad. It’s the perfect introduction to Slanted And Enchanted, a seminal album made by two California kids goofing around in the garage with their hippie burnout drummer. “Its flaws are a big part of what makes it good,” Malkmus has said, and the “Summer Babe” laugh is one of the album’s most endearing—and judging by its presence on both versions, most essential. [Erik Adams]

3. Geto Boys, “Trophy”

Geto Boys’ We Can’t Be Stopped closes with “Trophy” and Willie D going scorched-earth on the bullshit, rap-averse, awards-industrial complex: “I sold a lotta records and a lotta people know me / Now where’s my goddamn trophy?” he howls, amid interludes of a corny “host” doling out awards to George Strait, Reba McEntire, and the like. By song’s end, Willie D is handing out his own award to Geto Boys for “Most ‘Fuck Words’ In A Song,” before he finally collapses in laughter over his giving the “lip-sync goddamn motherfuckin’ Grammy to those punk motherfuckers, Milli Vanilli.” It’s an unexpectedly loose moment from the group, though, sadly, it’s still no joke: Geto Boys have zero Grammy nominations to Macklemore’s four. [Clayton Purdom]

4. Okkervil River, “You Can’t Hold The Hand of A Rock And Roll Man”

On 2007’s The Stage Names, Okkervil River’s Will Sheff, having newly broken through with 2005’s Black Sheep Boy, took a self-deprecating jab at a life path that’s been romanticized as a grand, debaucherous adventure, yet is mostly mundane. “You Can’t Hold The Hand of A Rock And Roll Man” starts as another ode to the drudgery of touring before it morphs into a stoned imagining of rock-star opulence, all leading to the singer enjoying a glamorous romance and, inevitably, bitter divorce. But the earnest Sheff can’t keep up the ruse: He breaks character during his final, mocking diatribe about his imaginary ex-wife, suppressing a telltale chuckle as his band plays him off. [Matt Gerardi]

5. R.E.M, “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite”

Amid the dark, mournful introspection of Automatic For The People, “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite” offers a moment of levity—almost too light, guitarist Peter Buck would say later. Still, “Sidewinder” does provide a break in between the solemn “Try Not To Breathe” and “Everybody Hurts,” particularly at the moment Michael Stipe audibly breaks on “a reading by Dr. Seuss.” It’s a silly lyric to begin with, though supposedly Stipe was laughing at his inability to stop pronouncing it as “Zeus” after repeated attempts. Like “Sidewinder” itself, his goofy chuckle serves as a necessary release. [Sean O’Neal]

6. The Flaming Lips, “I Can Be A Frog”

It’s barely 40 seconds into The Flaming Lips’ minor-key musing “I Can Be A Frog” before Wayne Coyne breaks, finally cracking up at Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Karen O as she runs the gamut of animal impressions (roars for a bear, mewling for a cat, awkward laughter for a bat). As Coyne later explained to Flavorwire, the two were actually doing a vocal session for “Watching The Planets” when “she started to make all these crazy noises,” inspiring Coyne to turn them into a whole separate song. It’s around the line “She said, ‘I can be a wolf’” that Coyne gives in, laughs slipping out amid the syllables, with “I Can Be A Frog” going from dark and downbeat to truly delirious. [Alex McLevy]

7. Art Brut, “The Replacements”

Art Brut’s Art Brut Vs. Satan is full of songs about stuff singer Eddie Argo likes: “DC Comics And Chocolate Milkshake,” the songs “Twist And Shout” and “The Passenger,” etc. Among those odes is “The Replacements,” in which Argos spends the entire track beating himself up because, “I can’t believe I’ve only just discovered The Replacements” so late in life. Argos sings the whole thing on the verge of cracking up, but he finally lets loose with a laugh as he consoles himself with the fact that “Secondhand records are cheaper / Reissue CDs have extra tracks.” [Matt Gerardi]

8. Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds, “Hiding All Away”

Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds’ 2004 double album, Abattoir Blues / The Lyre Of Orpheus, finds Cave embracing his gothic preacher persona while backed by members of the London Community Gospel Choir. It’s them you can hear laughing near the end of “Hiding All Away,” which grinds through a dozen verses of increasingly outlandish lyrics about being beaten by a judge’s gavel and basted with butter by a cook, before a line about the butcher’s “fist up your dress” around 4:30 finally sparks some uncomfortable titters. As Cave later explained, most of the Christian singers were just hearing the words for the first time, adding, “We left it in because the song was heading toward its fairly grisly revelation, and I thought it benefited enormously.” [Gwen Ihnat]

9. Low, “Open Arms”

Journey’s cheesy ’80s power ballad is a staple of semi-kidding karaoke covers, but Low made the rare move of actually laying its own down in the studio—a bit of blowing-off-steam that eventually surfaced on the rarities collection A Lifetime Of Temporary Relief, amid other renditions, in various degrees of jokiness, of songs by the Bee Gees and The Smiths. But the sadcore group’s rendition of “Open Arms” stands out for the laughing fit around 3:09, where Alan Sparhawk’s voice cracks trying to mimic Steve Perry’s tremulous keen and Sparhawk finally busts up at the stadium-sized, schlocky earnestness of it all. [Sean O’Neal]

10. Dessa, “Shrimp”

It’s unclear what prompts Dessa’s brassy laughter at the end of “Shrimp,” another entry in the rapper’s résumé of dextrous lyricism and individualistic-yet-universal feelings. Is she pleased with herself for the closing twist she puts on an old cliché? Is it the delight of someone who knows they happened upon the perfect conclusion to a near-perfect little track? Or is it just the sound of joy emanating from an artist doing what she loves, at the top of her abilities? Whatever the cause, the effect is endearing. [Alex McLevy]

11. David Bowie, “The Laughing Gnome”

Fake laughter is woven into the lyrics of David Bowie’s notorious early novelty single, a children’s ballad that’s also groaning with awful “gnome” puns, farty brass, and the sped-up chipmunk voice of its titular character. But around the 2:30 mark, Bowie’s “Ha ha ha / hee hee hee” gives way to something much more genuine, the sound of a man having a what-the-hell-am-I-doing? moment of self-awareness. It’s enough to—briefly—make you want to laugh along. [Sean O’Neal]

12. Mewithoutyou, “Orange Spider”

Christian-ish rock band Mewithoutyou imbues its songs with heavy symbolism and religious allusion, which invites plenty of scrutiny. But the explanation for why singer Aaron Weiss laughs during this track from 2006’s Brother, Sister is a little less heady: According to the band’s manager, former guitarist Chris Kleinberg recorded some backing vocals with “ridiculously inappropriate alternate lyrics,” which Weiss heard for the first time during tracking. Those backing vocals didn’t survive, but Weiss’ barely-suppressed chuckles do, giving this weird little animal song a very human heart. [Sean O’Neal]

13. Outkast, “Ain’t No Thang”

Over six minutes of crackling menace and hard-knock Organized Noize drums, Outkast’s Big Boi and André (pre-3000) each break off two verses in Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik’s “Ain’t No Thang,” with the latter in an uncharacteristically tense, antagonistic mood. But after waving .357s and Berettas around, André’s tough front finally collapses with, “You can sway with André / I’ll take it to the Ho-Jo,” a shout-out to the Howard Johnson hotel chain he caps with a laughing, “Just to let you know.” Even on this violent, shit-talking track, André’s raw joy is palpable. [Clayton Purdom]

14. The Police, “Roxanne”

The beginning of “Roxanne” features a laugh so straightforward, it’s hard to imagine it wasn’t deliberately added as an affectation. But the official history swears that, during the opening moments of the session, Sting accidentally backed his ass up into the piano, producing the fleeting dissonant notes heard in those first few seconds. A moment later, Sting’s laughter rings out through the speakers. The rest of The Police were so delighted by the mistake, they left it in as a fun, lighthearted beginning to their song about a guy who falls in love with a prostitute. [Alex McLevy]

15. Frank Zappa, “Muffin Man”

Frank Zappa’s zaniness was delivered with such a straight, occasionally hostile face, this mostly spoken-word track from 1975’s Bongo Fury feels like a significant crack in the facade. While reading through his own typically twisted logorrhea, Zappa is finally bested by the line “Arrogantly twisting the sterile canvas snoot of a fully charged icing anointment utensil, he poots forth a quarter-ounce green rosette,” with Zappa giggling and insisting, “Let’s try that again.” “Muffin Man” became a staple at his live shows, sans laughing, but the explicit rib-nudging in that flubbed recorded version is what made it a fan favorite. [Sean O’Neal]

16. Elvis Presley, “Are You Lonesome Tonight? (Laughing)”

Elvis was performing to a sold-out Vegas crowd when he changed up the lyrics—something he often did to amuse himself—on “Are You Lonesome Tonight?,” swapping in the line, “Do you gaze at your bald head and wish you had hair?” And he was already chuckling at his own improvisation when, according to legend, a man in the audience took off his toupee and started waving it around. This is supposedly what caused Elvis to lose it; he starts laughing in the second verse and never stops. As he wraps up, Elvis self-deprecatingly tells his audience, “That’s it, man, 14 years right down the drain.” But naturally, even the King’s screw-ups were successful: The so-called “laughing” version of “Lonesome” became a hit on the British charts in 1982. [Gwen Ihnat]

17. Billy Joel, “You’re Only Human (Second Wind)”

A jaunty little tune about teen suicide, “You’re Only Human (Second Wind)” finds Billy Joel stressing that, hey, life is hard and everyone makes mistakes—a point he illustrates by screwing up “sometimes that’s all it takes” around 3:55, prompting him to crack. Joel’s laugh sounds a bit too practiced—he even works it into the truly weird, It’s A Wonderful Life-themed video—which prompted some contemporary critics to suggest maybe it wasn’t so spontaneous. But Joel angrily insisted it was, saying both Paul Simon and Christie Brinkley heard him screw up in the studio and urged him to leave it in as a way of underlining the song’s overall message. Besides, its cheesiness fits right in as well. [Sean O’Neal]

18. The Beatles, “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”

It’s easy to miss the fleeting chuckle Paul McCartney delivers in “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” a song the other Beatles routinely complained about and John Lennon later disparaged as “more of Paul’s granny music.” But this genial, goofy ballad about a young man who murders people with a hammer contains a moment where even McCartney seems to recognize the daffiness of his own lyrics, suppressing a laugh during the line about Maxwell’s teacher making him stay after class, “Writing 50 times I must not be so, oh oh oh.” Various apocryphal explanations have been offered over the years (Lennon mooned him; McCartney was just high), but whatever the real explanation, it’s a nice moment of spontaneity in a song that, by the other Beatles’ admission, was so laboriously fussed over. [Alex McLevy]

19. New Order, “Every Little Counts”

For all his talents as a guitarist, songwriter, and, sure, a singer, Bernard Sumner penned some pretty insipid lyrics—even if they weren’t being compared to the gloomy poetry of his predecessor, Joy Division’s Ian Curtis. Even Sumner seems to realize his own lack of a muse on Brotherhood’s closing track, which finds him giggling through the first verse couplet of “I think you are a pig / You should be in a zoo,” then singing through an audible smile thereafter. “The words were so bad,” Sumner would tell Q magazine years later, even for him. Still, his laugh excuses the leaden verse, and it redeems the whole thing, offering a little ray of sunshine from a band that was breaking away at last from its deathly serious origins. [Sean O’Neal]

20. Bruce Springsteen, “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town”

Bruce Springsteen And The E Street Band’s live rendition of “Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town” is a perennial Christmastime radio favorite because of the huge amount of energy it brings to what is one of our dullest Christmas carols. Drums, saxophone, and Springsteen’s crowd-pleasing audience engagement bring some spirit to the 1930s standard—never less so than in the charming back-and-forth between Springsteen and the late Clarence Clemons, whose hearty, deep-voiced “ho ho ho”s set Springsteen to laughing not once, but twice during the chorus. [Caitlin PenzeyMoog]

21. The Fall, “Dr. Bucks’ Letter”

The Fall’s Mark E. Smith had a sense of humor, though it was as caustic and sometimes inscrutable as he was. Still, there’s an implied, impish sort of laughter behind many of his songs—and some literal chuckles in a few of them, like this track from 2000’s The Unutterable. As Smith is reading off his “checklist I never leave home without,” he cracks up at the line “I think it’s my P.A.’s computer,” then can barely get through “AmEx card / They made such a fuss about giving it to me / But I spend more time getting it turned down.” His reading suggests Smith was just pleasantly surprised by the drollery of his own lyrics, which would also square with his persona. [Sean O’Neal]

22. Ben Folds, “Bitch Went Nuts”

It’s a little tricky to gauge the sincerity of Ben Folds’ quick guffaw in this lively breakup song—not least because the album it features on, 2008’s Way To Normal, has a distinct layer of comedic artifice. But as the story goes, Folds and his bandmates spent a free day together crafting a collection of “fake” songs with names like “Bitch Went Nutz” (note the extra Z) that they then hosted on their Myspace page. Then they recorded a “real” version of “Bitch Went Nuts,” changing the POV from a Republican lawyer to a brokenhearted college guy, but keeping the same freewheeling energy—particularly when Folds briefly loses it over the line, “Holy fucking shit.” [William Hughes]

23. The Beach Boys, “Barbara Ann”

It was a toss-up as to whether to include anything from Beach Boys’ Party! on this list, as so much of the 1965 album is fake. The record purports to capture the band performing at an informal gathering of friends, but—as those scare quotes around “live” on the cover give away—the whole thing was actually done in the studio, with “party” chatter layered in like any other track. Fake as the presentation is, though, there seems to be genuine laughter running through the album’s breakout hit cover of The Regents’ “Barbara Ann.” As The Beach Boys, backed by Jan And Dean’s Dean Torrence, begin their second verse around 1:20, they stumble over those loving shout-outs to ’50s girls names—some sing “Peggy Sue” when they should be singing “Betty Lou”—then chuckle at their mistake as they plow on. It’s possible this part was just as scripted and rehearsed, but it sounds like a rare moment of actual spontaneity. [Sean O’Neal]

24. Janet Jackson, a lot of songs

Despite having found its way onto nearly two dozen tracks, there’s nothing canned about Janet Jackson’s laughter. Her mirth always pairs well with her music—there’s a giggle, titter, and chuckle for every mood and song. On “When I Think Of You,” Jackson’s full-throated laughter is a form of incredibly suggestive release. In “He Doesn’t Know I’m Alive,” they bubble before the halfway mark, brought on by nerves. Joyful tracks like “Love Will Never Do (Without You)” and “All For You” are accompanied by Jackson’s crescendoing giggle. The laughs that float out on “Rollercoaster” and “Bathroom Break (Interlude)”—and six other Janet Jackson tracks with “interlude” in the title—all have a conspiratorial air, giving the impression she’s hanging out with friends. Less frequently, Jackson will direct her laughter at others. On “No Sleeep,” the chuckle is the equivalent of an “Oh really” in response to J. Cole’s posturing come-ons, while there’s the appropriately rueful chortle in “Got ’Til It’s Gone,” a song about lost love. And her crack-up on “Doesn’t Really Matter” is almost self-referential: When Jackson observes, “I’m always doing that,” she could be talking about breaking mid-song. [Danette Chavez ]

25. Kesha, “Woman”

Like Janet Jackson, Kesha has a habit of laughing in her songs, a natural outgrowth of the drunk-party vibe of her music and her proudly “hot mess” persona. The slightly sinister chuckle that opens “Blow,” as well as the closing laugh that precedes the ad-libbed, “I like your beard” on “Your Love Is My Drug” are both prime examples of this zero-fucks-given attitude. But few of Kesha’s laughs have felt more significant than the one that arrives midway through Rainbow’s “Woman”: The song kicks off with some wild studio laughter that sounds like the tail end of some goofing around, and that energy carries over to the part just past the minute mark where Kesha loses it on the line “Loosey as a goosey and we’re looking for some fun.” The song was released as Kesha emerged from a prolonged legal battle with former collaborator—and her accused assailant—Dr. Luke, Kesha finally, triumphantly just having fun again. Her laugh says it all. [Sean O’Neal]