The Keytar: Not Funny Anymore

A few years back, it broke my heart a little to watch the cowbell, a perfectly good auxillary percussion instrument, become an oft-quoted punchline from a funny-but-not-that-funny SNL sketch. For a while there, "more cowbell" was threatening to replace requests of "Freebird" as the inane call of the concertgoer who thinks he's more clever than he actually is. It even kind of sullied a perfectly good cult-rock band and their biggest classic rock radio staple in the process.

I don't feel quite the same sympathy for the recent irony overkill being showered on the keytar -- it's kind of a goofy half-breed instrument by design, right down to the silly portmanteau name. Still, whatever practical application the instrument had to begin with (and given the fact that keyboards can be made much lighter now than during the Keytar's 80's heyday, there's probably plenty), it's now little more than a punchline, and it's quickly becoming one that's too played out to be funny. I remember having my mind blown watching Late Night With Conan O'Brien in 1995 when John Tesh came out with a keytar and ripped up a Black Sabbath cover with Dweezil and Ahmet Zappa. It was completely unexpected and hilarious, partly because Tesh is someone who'd been playing a keytar with a straight face for years at that point. The last couple years, though, have seen hacks of the comedy world and the music world alike run the whole keytar thing into the ground.

There was Borat, of course, but there was also Hellogoodbye's "Here (In Your Arms)", a video completely drenched in late 80's/early 90's signifiers made by a band who's probably too young to even remember the era firsthand. Further proving that a trend is only officially dead once the emo bands have gotten ahold of it, Cobra Starship, who hold the extremely competitive title of the worst band on Decaydance, not only have a keytar player in the band, but give smirky interviews about their "dedication to the keytar."

Last week, Keytar-mania reached critical mass on two consecutive nights of premium cable programming. Sunday was the first season finale of "Flight of the Conchords," an HBO sitcom about a satirical folk rock duo that isn't "Tenacious D." I initially chalked up my inability to understand the show's appeal to perhaps the fact that the New Zealanders were trading in some dry form of native humor that I just wasn't accustomed to. But the more crappy American stand-ups like Arj Barker turned up in guest slots, the more I realized that they're basically dealing in the same so-dry-it-chafes humor that U.S. single-camera sitcoms have been doing to death for the past few years (much in the same way Ricky Gervais increasingly feels more like Larry David redux than some shining example of "British humor"). I'd been giving the show a chance on and off throughout the summer, but this last episode pretty much clinched that I wouldn't be bothering with the second season, partly because of a terribly unfunny plotline featuring Demetri Martin and Todd Barry (mediocre U.S. comics ahoy!) as a keytar/bongos duo.

The next night, HBO aired Justin Timberlake's Memorial Day concert special, which, besides being an incredibly boring spectacle of the singer's self-love (seriously, TWO AND A HALF HOURS? You have two albums, dude, and the whole point of doing a TV concert special should be to edit out the long boring stretches between songs), featured three keytars at one point, proving once again that the guy will pretty much do anything to evoke 80's R&B (instead of, say, 90's boy bands), and is still biting Prince so hard that he must have to bleach the purple off of his teeth. Hopefully, keytar-mania has finally reached critical mass, and we can leave the damn thing to people who really, sincerely just want to play a synthesizer with a shoulder strap. But I'm guessing that as with anything, American pop culture won't be able to get enough of it until it chokes on it, and there's probably already a Will Ferrell-as-a-keytar-player movie on the development fast track (I just googled to make sure that hasn't actually happened already, and it turns out there's an outtake on the Blades of Glory DVD of him playing keytar -- fuck!).
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Herbie Hancock also used them in the 80s. And Prince had custom ones made in the 90s. Most notably with the NPG from 1991-1993. Love it.
Well yeah, it's been used on lots of great records, but that wasn't really the topic, I was just talking about how it's played out a comedy prop.
I'm pretty sure Carrot Top has one in his little trunk of "things". Or at least one hiding in his hair!
There's also a quick joke in 'Zoolander' about how Ferrell's character Mugatu was once known for inventing the Keytar! I agree it's a little played-out...

Your comments here and on an earlier post about the single-camera TV "uncomfortable-funny" style also being played-out are right-on. Have you read about this so-called indie movie trend "mumblecore"? Seems to be that style but minus the jokes, so just! Or something...
You're not missing anything on Flight of the Shitchords.

The sad thing about Timberlake's grossly nostalgic keytar dance is that it was probably the best moment of the whole show for me.
Oh jeez, Brandon, don't give me nightmares about the word "mumblecore," I've been trying to erase from my memory since I heard it. Congrats on your first City Paper review, though.

The joke in Zoolander was that Mugato invented the keyboard necktie, though, not the keytar.
Oh man, I totally forgot to give Canadian ironic R&B douchebags Chromeo an honorable mention in this post.
Dammit it was keyboard necktie, my bad. Let's hope that you don't have to write an entry titled 'The Keyboard Necktie: Not Funny Anymore'... I too am afraid of "mumblecore"...

Thanks for the congrats on the City Paper review!!!
A bongos on the party! That is so cool! I've been learning how to play congos and I found it enjoyable!
Dear Al:

You're like "Men on Film." Except real. And you hate everything.
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