May 27, 2009

Ray Stevens: Examining the Comedy

Photobucket Irreverence is a term applied to something that is viewed as a whole host of different things. Most commonly it is the opposite of reverent. Reverent takes on the meaning of showing reverence to something or someone...irreverence, on the other hand, often times displays intentional dis-respect for comical purposes.

Well, instead of offering my own definition of irreverence I thought I'd highlight some of the adjectives that are associated with irreverence. In several on-line dictionaries they often indicate irreverence displays one, or all, of the following characteristics: disrespect, impertinence, saucy, mockery, derision, impudence, flippancy, cheekiness. A lot of humor comes from irreverence, ironic as that sounds. On the other end of the spectrum, irreverence has a negative reputation depending on the subject matter that's being ridiculed. Some find it harmless to poke fun at certain institutions while others find it objectionable.

Ray Stevens has recorded his fair share of material through the years. I've often heard that a successful novelty song creates contempt and anger as much as it creates laughs or giggles. Why? A theory of mine says that topical material, specifically, has the rare ability to capture a public's mood and when a novelty song becomes successful it more often than not annoys those who take seriously what the novelty song is ridiculing, or, people tend to be annoyed at novelty songs in general because of the reputation they have for being "mindless", "stupid", "mind-numbing", "shallow", "juvenile", "sophomoric" get the idea. I'm sure some out there who read my blog's out of curiosity sake perhaps hold those feelings of contempt and anger toward "silly little songs that make no sense".

Photobucket This comedy album comes from 1988 and it featured several comedy is the case with Ray's comedy albums, there's a display of the various forms of comedy that are spotlighted. In this album, parody and mockery serve as the leading forms of comedy. The album kicks off with a funny spoof of The Beach Boys in a song called "Surfin' U.S.S.R" which features a deliberate arrangement recalling the sounds of actual Beach Boys records while the title is often considered a parody of both "Surfin' USA" and the Beatles "Back in the USSR". There is a darkly funny song on here about a big fan of Elvis who dies while dancing on a balcony with an Elvis inflatable doll. The song is "Mama's in the Sky With Elvis". There are still more comedy styles a-plenty on this album. "Bad" is a wickedly hilarious parody of Michael Jackson. It's the exact same song that Michael recorded barely a year earlier but here we have the Ray Stevens treatment. Ray is known for saying that he doesn't often do parodies...which is true...but when he does them they're always entertaining. Satellite TV is the target in "Language, Nudity, Violence, and Sex". The album's closing song is a bit of a memory trip for some. The song is a satire, of sorts, centering around the hippie culture of the mid to late '60s. "Old Hippie Class Reunion" could also qualify as irreverent because of how it pokes fun at the hippie culture...a couple of hippie's converse back and forth as an acid rock sound system is blaring away in the background. One of the hippie's is hard of hearing but both of them recall fondly of all the thing's they've smoked. Those who revere the hippie movement and all of what it stood for will more than likely be repulsed when listening because it takes dead aim at the hippie culture and the images that accompany it: flowers, psychedelic music, spaced out teenagers, drugs, granny glasses, loud music, etc etc. Ray doesn't sing in his natural voice during the entire song...instead, he sings in a Bob Dylan-like voice.

Although Ray's biggest hit singles were topical in nature, not all of the novelty songs Ray has recorded are topical...quite a few of them are satirical and a whole lot of others are simply is the case with a 1989 song he co-wrote called "I Saw Elvis In a UFO". Now, for those who are unaware, there was a point in time where tabloid's would relentlessly make-up eye-catching headlines of Elvis Presley being spotted at Burger King and countless "eyewitness" stories of seeing Elvis in UFO's.

Performing the song at his Branson, Missouri theater we see Ray in full Elvis attire. The novelty song captures the 'Elvis is Alive' fad and we hear a witness who spotted a UFO outside of his Winnebago. The reporter, a pun on Geraldo Rivera's name, Renaldo Riviera, asks the witness, whose name is R.V Frisbee, to tell everyone what he saw. Frisbee says that he saw Elvis in a UFO. Ray performed this song pretty much at all of his concerts from 1989 through at least 1994. It was a fixture at his theater. On the awards shows in 1989 he performed the song...complete with a UFO hovering overhead. As you can tell from the picture, he elaborated a whole lot more at his own theater. The only real controversy, if you could call it that, that this single ever created came several years after it was released when people who heard the song, perhaps on a fluke, objected to Ray's stereotypical accent for Renaldo Riviera. Rumor has it that martians objected to the song because it described them as being pink instead of the more traditional color of green...but this was only a rumor.

Photobucket Satire appears in several of the comedy songs found on this 1987 album. The album rode the success of it's controversial/topical/irreverent/comical lead-off song, "Would Jesus Wear a Rolex?". The single took aim at televangelists and for their penchant of asking for money from viewers. The fact that televangelists were mostly all embroiled in scandals during this era caused the single to be even more topical and with this comes controversy from those who didn't find the humor in the song. This viewpoint was largely held by those, obviously, who were taken in by a lot of the religious sermonizing on TV and wouldn't accept how mis-leading a lot of those shows were. Nearly all of the religious shows on Sunday mornings ended with messages asking for money, or, donations as they put it. I wouldn't say that the single was an unexpected hit but it was the sort of hit that comes from out of nowhere...and sums up what most people are thinking. I believe the music industry calls them sleeper hits.

"Would Jesus Wear a Rolex?" became like an anthem for those that had suspicions of televangelists. The song was written by Chet Atkins and Margaret Archer. According to news reports I read from 1987, Chet and Margaret had written the song well before the televangelists were rocked with scandals and when Ray was alerted to the song he jumped on it...and it became a good-sized hit for much of a hit that it was nominated for a Grammy in early 1988. Another satirical piece from that 1987 album is "Doctor, Doctor Have Mercy On Me" where the doctor's of the country are targeted for their the fact that some doctor's feel they're holier-than-thou because of their profession. Also, some doctors have a tendency to be viewed as hypocritical because of how they preach a way of life for their patient's to follow but they don't hold this same lifestyle themselves. In the song, the hospital is referred to as a "club" where doctor's show up in their fancy cars. There are other sources of humor on that album: "Cool Down, Willard" targets Willard Scott, the TV weatherman, as seen through the eyes of a jealous family man who endures the women of his life swooning and going ga-ga at the weatherman. "Sex Symbols" is a parody of Willie Nelson and Julio unlikely, but successful, duet career.

Photobucket Ray Stevens as Coy, one of the characters from a satiric tale from the pen of Ray Stevens....inspired by a sleepless night in a hotel where Shriner's were holding a convention.

If ever there was a display of satire in a Ray Stevens novelty song it was on full display on this particular single which was a huge hit for Ray. A lot of younger people, due to the passage of time, just don't realize how popular this single was. A lot of time I come across internet web-sites and message boards...and even blog sites...that condemn this song and, again, it's a case where satire and irreverence come head to head with a crowd who take themselves too seriously. We're back to what I started this blog entry off with: irreverence in the form of poking fun at something someone else may deem reverent and serious. The single was a polarizing is most any novelty song due to human nature of everyone having a different sense of humor and what's funny for one person may be appalling to someone else.

"Shriner's Convention", the name of the single and the album Ray released in 1980, enjoyed quite a lengthy run of popularity throughout the early part of 1980. The single reached the Top-10 on the country music charts and the album peaked in the Top-5...the song is all about a couple of Shriner's. Coy is the goofball Shriner who wants to have fun and play around while Bubba is the straight-laced Shriner appalled at Coy's lack of reverence and seriousness of being a Shriner. A lot of the fussing about this song that goes on today on the internet is from a public misunderstanding the song by thinking that it's degrading and disrespectful to the Shriner organization...I suspect some hold this view without having heard the song for themselves. If one were to search Google news archives and look up vintage newspapers from April and May 1980 a lot of people who don't understand the song and condemn it's existence will be surprised at just how popular and well-loved the song was and still is. Hahira, Georgia in fact proclaimed it be "Ray Stevens Day" on May 10, 1980 because of the publicity the song was giving the town. In Ray's own words back in early 1980, he witnessed some Shriner's having a lot of fun in and around the pool area and practically in every spot in the hotel and so he made up the song after his sleepless night. The song has nothing whatsoever to do with making fun of what the Shriner's mission's simply a song about two very different Shriner's at a convention having a phone conversation where one Shriner is reprimanding the other for his behavior. It's that simple.

Elsewhere on the 1980 album was "The Dooright Family", a hysterical song about a traveling gospel family that I wrote a blog entry about recently. The humor was pointed for the most part...something that's very touchy with the more devout. Some feel there shouldn't be any form of humor whatsoever surrounding religion or religious images but we can debate that until everyone's blue in the face...the bottom line is the song is hysterical and it's perceived irreverence comes from those who find no humor in religion. Trust me, once you hear the song, you'll be laughing at the outrageous goings-on.

So, the comedy of Ray Stevens covers practically all the bases. There's satire, parody, cornball, and wacky/off-the-wall recordings all blending together. The music arrangements that accompany his comedy songs are top-notch. He spends a lot of time working on the song's arrangements...once saying that he feels the sound of a song can help tell a story just as well as the lyrics can. There's so many comedy recordings from Ray...take a listen for yourselves.


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