On Phish and Humor

This article was originally published in the NYE 2013 edition of Surrender to the Flow Magazine. – ed. 

“Stop me if you heard this one before. Mike, Wilson and a ginger walk into a bar…”

A defining characteristic of Phish that has stood out as unique and helped to broaden their appeal to many fans is the interplay between the four band members on stage and the humor and comedy that is exhibited in music, lyrics and banter. Fans can overwhelmingly appreciate the band exhibiting humor and making them laugh, but when it comes to other sources of Phish-related humor, it’s another story.

Musicians, like comedians, take risks on stage, and can succeed triumphantly or fall flat and have to try again the next night with new material. Phish has tried plenty of stunts that have been risky and have tested their resolve in pressing forward with their craft. The Wingsuit costume this past Halloween, all the various exploratory jamming over the years, Secret Language, the Fuck Your Face show, riding a flying hotdog not once but thrice – the list is extensive where the band attempted an addition to their musical performance, with uncertainty looming until after the crowd and band saw it through together. Sometimes they succeeded, sometimes they didn’t and it was back to the drawing board. In the development of their live act, whether planned out or an impromptu ad lib on stage, Phish takes on a role similar to that of comedians who act precariously for the sake of art.

The comedic nature of Phish is an important part of the band, and something that separates them from other acts of similar followings – Pearl Jam, Dave Matthews Band and The Grateful Dead. While these acts may take risks of varying nature musically, they do not take humor to a new level and incorporate it into their performance to the extent that Phish does. Being able to make fun of themselves on stage (the ‘House’ and ‘Tuck’ running jokes come to mind) and on camera (Bittersweet Motel, the Halloween Don Gordleone video) help to break down that wall between fans and band, providing a more human aspect to the group, one that is bridged with recognizing the ability to cross one art form (humor) with another (music).

This is the band that sings a song about a Meatstick, wrote “Ha Ha Ha”, brought out Abe Vigoda on Halloween, includes Easter eggs of humor in the programs to festivals and laugh out loud ads in Halloween Playbills (Gordon’s House of Scarves and Drills, anyone?), hit foam golf balls into/at the crowd from stage level before midnight last New Years Eve, and have the most sought after song, “Icculus,” a play on words that is only revealed to be ‘Ridiculous,’ that is, after dragging the song out. The fans laugh with the band, the band laughs with the fans; everyone has a good laugh.

Then there’s the media, specifically, any website that looks to write about Phish. Take for example the recent Cracked.com list of ‘Great Songs by the Worst Bands of All Time’. (Stash came in at #9) At least we made the list, I guess? Naturally, the write-up only gives a cursory glance because it is “14 minutes long, selected randomly from the Internet” and mocks fans for having “LSD-induced absurdity in liking this music” after finally waking up “sometime around 3 o’clock this afternoon and sees their favorite jam band on this list.” But at least Cracked Magazine is a humor magazine, and they tried. (Still, they’re no MAD Magazine)

There’s Christwire.org, a parody site with a religious tilt, writing a long article, “When it Comes to Phish, Music Censorship is not Enough”, full of stereotypes and religious commentary, and funny in a way. And LA Weekly, the website that loves to hate on Phish, either because that’s trendy out west, or because they know they get tons of page views from us in our moment of ire. Phish has been included in blog posts “Top 20 Worst Bands of All Time” (Phish is #17) and “Can an Intelligent Person Like Phish?”, both spiteful and not exactly journalism, and merely a way to keep stereotypes up for those who haven’t tuned in since Fall 1998. Analyze Phish, a podcast with Harris Wittels (a fan) and Scott Auckerman (not a fan), has Wittels trying to convince Scott, and later, Tom Scharpling (also not a fan), that Phish is worth listening to. Neither of them bite and come up with excuses and vitriol, because that’s the easy way out. Where’s The Onion when you need a proper parody written?

Pop culture doesn’t know how to treat Phish or their fans, simply because that would take too much effort. Plus, there is no simple way to explain Phish in a concise and neatly packaged manner. So when websites outside the Phish universe mock the band or try to find humor in the fans, they will look for the least common denominator and roll with it, because it’s all they know.

Not everyone can take a joke, and when it’s coming from outsiders, totally understandable. I took more than my fair share of jokes about my early infatuation with Phish from non-Phish fans while in college. Eventually, those jokes stopped because they were no longer funny as the well dried up. Phish sites, at least they let us laugh at ourselves, properly. Among Phish fans, there are jokes to be told and humor to be shared. Tweezburger, The Phunion, So Yeah Brah… and TheFirstSet.net all make the effort to laugh at ourselves a little bit more, something that has loosened up the crowd at the right time – just as Phish is loosening up. Humor is helpful and cleansing and gives you a clearer perspective on things. Taking things too seriously won’t help your passion, but rather leads to a closed and narrow mindset. Phish doesn’t take the whole ‘We’re famous’ thing too seriously. Yet the fans do, and jokes about the band, and humor in general, are truncated. It shouldn’t be.

We are all dancing and laughing at the same band who are joking around on stage while they’re playing – a twofer in terms of art: both comedy AND music! But it is the collective communal feeling of laughing and smiling as a whole that adds the extra spice to the Phish experience, and one that we can bring with us outside the show, to feel that feeling once again. Some things are sacrosanct, but four musicians who don’t take themselves too seriously shouldn’t be.