Comedian Rob Delaney’s humor strikes the rare and delicate balance of being both sophomoric and intelligent. His tweets are often entrenched in toilet humor and gag-inducing nicknames for the male and female anatomy, yet they’re too expertly worded to read like the spew of a teenager’s raging hormones. He’s like the goofy uncle who asks you to pull his finger during a family reunion, then is hastened out of the gathering early to perform rectal surgery.
However, when I pitched my interview idea to his agent in fall 2012, I forayed the Twitter giant’s usual topics and suggested we talk about comedy, music, and the relationship between the two. It wasn’t too left field of a request, though, considering that some of his sharpest darts are his aggrieved and/or amazed reactions to tunes.
What I got was a man not interested in throwing me a punch line, but speaking candidly about the songs that formed the soundtrack of his life: the lyrics that cracked him up; his role in musical theatre; artists who have pulled him out of a depressive slump. — Alex Koenig
What’s the first song you ever loved?
The first song where I was like, “I need to have that tape!” was Sheena Easton’s “My Baby Rides the Morning Train.” That was when I was a little kid. Actually, why don’t we go with Men Without Hats’ “The Safety Dance.” That’s a more famous song. But yeah, that ridiculous song “The Safety Dance,” with that terrible drum machine and the $40 synthesizer. That was my first song that was like, “Wow, this is amazing! Mommy, can I have that CD, or record?” Whatever. A little 45 [rpm record].
Do you still enjoy that song?
Yeah. I mean, not because it’s good. But because of the time it reached my ears. If I hear it, I get a kick out of it. I first heard it when I was eight or so.
You’re friends with John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats. How’d you guys link up in the first place?
I think I noticed that he followed me on Twitter and I had a little heart attack. I wrote him and was like, “I love you very, very much. Would you go out with me? Will you be my friend?” Over time, he wore down his defenses. Then we’ve hung out a few times when we were in each other’s respective cities. We even did a show together in North Carolina one time.
What are some of your favorite Mountain Goats songs?
The second to last song on their second most-recent album [“Never Quite Free” on 2011’s All Eternals Deck]. Is it okay if I say things that result in you having to do a tiny bit of homework? Only because I don’t remember the songs off the top of my head.
I’m a journalist. My whole life is homework.
[Laughs] Okay, good. Sorry about that. Yeah, I can’t remember the name of it, but it’s really beautiful. As much as I love music, I can’t often remember song names. “This Year” of course is an amazing song of survival that I love a lot. “White Cedar,” I love that song a lot. Probably my favorite song of theirs ever though, is “Never Quite Free,” off of All Eternals Deck.
Aside from Darnielle, are there other popular musicians who are fans of your comedy?
Well, I mean, I hesitate to call them fans, but Neko Case has come to my shows. Ed Droste from Grizzly Bear, Jon Wurster is a hero of mine. Aimee Mann. Those are people I’ve had the good fortune to get to know.
How did you meet them? Did they follow you on Twitter first, or did you happen to run into them in person?
Honestly, I think I met all of those people through Twitter, as insane as that is. Either I said something to them or they said something to me.
Who are some of your favorite musician Twitter accounts?
Everybody I just mentioned is funny, but Jon Wurster, you know, even made a living from comedy. I freaked out when he first followed me on Twitter because he’s so, so funny. He’s a candidate for the funniest person alive. So that was pretty exciting for me to get to know him.
Yeah, I mean, Green Day is pretty easy to make fun of. I hesitate now. It’s a double-edged sword. I have so many followers now, which is great, because of course it makes it easier to sell tickets on the road.
But at the same time, even if those people [like Green Day and Bieber] are rich and famous and successful, they’re still people. So I don’t really like to hurt people’s feelings. I try not to blast people too directly. But you know, Green Day is sort of weird. They act like they’re punk, but they’re a pretty polished corporation. They’ve had a fundamentally silly history.
I can’t remember the song, but there is one Green Day song—it’s not one of their massive hits—but when it’s on the radio, I definitely turn it up. If all their songs were like that, I would go see them in concert. But most of their songs are a little silly for my taste. Doesn’t mean I’m correct. It probably just means I’m an asshole.
It’s interesting that you refer to Green Day as a “corporation.” The band is composed of only three guys, yet it has made quite a name for itself.
Yeah man, more power to them. Whenever I make fun of something, I’m very cognizant of the fact that I’m not “correct” about that. When people yell at me or disagree with me, I often find myself saying, “Yeah, you’re right! Wow, why did I say that?” [Laughs] What are you gonna do?
You’re just a guy in a speedo, you know? What are you going to do?
That’s all I am.
You studied musical theater in college at NYU. What was that experience like?
Yes, I did indeed study musical theatre in college. I played Sir Lancelot in a national tour of Camelot after I graduated. Then I did The Sound of Music in New York. I really thought seriously about doing that for a living, but then I found comedy. Then I was like, “Oh, fuck that!”
That stuff [musical theater] is totally fun, cool and good– I just personally prefer comedy.
Have you thought about merging musical theater and comedy together for your act?
I haven’t, but obviously people do and they make good stuff with it. I never thought, “You know what the world needs? A comedy musical from me!” You know, if that day ever came, great. But if I did that now, I’d be forcing it.
I don’t really think in terms of funny music, and I tend to keep my own consumption of music and comedy separate. Obviously there is funny music; I just don’t really listen to it, even though I appreciate that it can be well made. For some reason, when I rock, I wanna rock, and when I laugh, I wanna laugh. It’s like separation of church and state.
Not a fan of the Lonely Island then?
Well, now as soon as you say that—they’re very funny. So I guess I was wrong about what I was saying. [laughs] I haven’t bought a Lonely Island album, but whenever I hear them, I’m like, “Hey, that’s very funny.” I guess that’s something that’s going to come on and I’m going to go, “That’s funny,” and not buy it even though it’s totally good.
I like to rock. I listen to bands like High on Fire and Slayer. I listen to a lot of metal and desert rock and sludge. I take it very seriously, like a big dork. I probably listen to High on Fire more than any other band, and they’re a brutal organization.
Your expertise is obviously focused more on making people laugh than songwriting, but do you find that there are similarities within the creative process between music and comedy?
Yeah, I think so. I mean, it’s just you: you’re living and dying by what you’re creating. Being a comedian or musician is different from being an actor or director because you’re not saying anybody else’s words but your own. Either you succeed or you fail. There’s an accountability element I enjoy very much that I think both musicians and songwriters share.
Musicians and comedians tour as well, which is a uniquely difficult and weird and lonely and rewarding experience.
Off the top of your head, are there any lyrics you can recall that make you laugh?
I can think of one, it’s sort of a naughty laugh: “Son of a Preacher Man.” When Dusty Springfield sings, “Learnin’ from each other’s knowin’, learnin’ to see how much we grown’n.” That’s a pretty dirty line—they’re totally talking about each other’s privates and boobs! Every time I hear that, I’m never like, “Oh, whatever.” I’m always like, “Oh my god! I can’t believe…” And that always makes me kinda giggle. That’s a lyric that always makes me nervous and excited.
Sure, “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted” by Jimmy Ruffin is definitely a song about sadness but also aspiration. That’s a beautiful song that I’ve also found helpful.
The entire album Pet Sounds [by the Beach Boys] is such a beautiful labor of love by Brian Wilson—also an insane person. So to see someone with that level of bonkers being able to craft something so beautiful was helpful to me.
I enjoy the entire oeuvre of the band The The, Matt Johnson’s band from England, and the Mountain Goats as well. But you don’t want to wallow in it [depression]. You don’t just want to listen to Elliott Smith or whatever if you’re depressed. That’d be a bad idea. But bands like The The that acknowledge the pain of life but also prescribe a path of how to live through it are very useful.