The Beatles and Humour

Mockers, Funny Papers, and Other Play (Bloomsbury 2022)

In 2020 I signed a contract with Bloomsbury to co-edit a collection of essays titled The Beatles and Humour, which will be my fourth book with Bloomsbury. When we solicited calls for papers, we encouraged contributors to consider the unexpected, such as the influence of artists not usually associated with comedy. We called for critical stances about the Beatles’ humour, perhaps in relation to class, gender, sexuality, race, and/or ability. We also welcomed submissions that consider non-artists who mock or parody the Beatles (e.g., rappers and hip-hop artists). We seek to represent multicultural perspectives, consider the Beatles from diverse points of view, and place the band’s work in new, unusual conversations with other texts, artists, or theories.

The Beatles were musical innovators and continue to be visual icons, but their endurance is largely due to their sense of humour. Each member of the band was versed in the comedic tools of irony, sarcasm, wordplay, and other nonsense. The Beatles demonstrate what seems like an innate gift for timing and deadpan wit in A Hard Day’s Night, Help!, and Magical Mystery Tour, the former of which drew immediate comparisons to the Marx Brothers. In a non-scripted context, the band’s press conferences and interviews reveal an aptitude for self-awareness, improvisation, and one-liners. Songs such as “Piggies,” “I Am the Walrus,” and “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” show how the music itself is informed by comedic genres, including parody, satire, surrealism, and observational humour. As solo output reveals, the former Beatles did not lose their comedic sensibilities, making their reunion in the Anthology project all the more appealing to fans.

In addition to those mentioned above, texts relevant to this study include television skits such as those on Two of a Kind (1964), novelty songs such as “You Know My Name,” the cartoon series The Beatles (1965–69), the parodic tribute by the Rutles, Lennon’s absurdist writing, and films featuring Starr’s droll acting. Contributions also examine how the Beatles intersected with other comic artists, such as the Goons, Richard Lester, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, and the Pythons, along with the satirical magazine Private Eye. 

The contributors to the Beatles and Humour include the most respected scholars in Beatles studies; including John Covach, Professor of Music, University of Rochester; USA Walter Everett, Professor of Music, University of Michigan, Mark Spicer, Professor of Music, Hunter College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York, USA, and Kenneth Womack, Dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences and Professor of English and Popular Music, Monmouth University, USA.

The Beatles were masters of play—whether they were playing with words in song or together in an abandoned field or by cracking each other up during a concert. They played with instruments, other sound-making objects, and technology in the studio and with each other in a variety of geographical locations (both cinematic and real), including Buckingham Palace and on an Indian retreat. Subsequent artists have picked up on these themes, paying tribute to the Beatles, often through satire and parody. Today, fans can participate in their own Beatle play on the famous zebra crossing in London or the rebuilt Cavern Club in Liverpool, itself a kind of Beatles playground. The latter is fitting since that working-class port town is a key influence on the lads’ shared sense of humour.

The Beatles and Humour explores the band’s humour, comedy, and other forms of play in both music and non-musical discourse. Chapters situate the Beatles within the history of British arts, while also considering the diverse components and effects of their output and reception from the 1960s to today.

Dr Richard Mills is a Senior Lecturer in Literature and Popular Culture at St Mary’s University, Twickenham. He has been programme director for Film and Popular Culture, Culture Studies and Irish Studies degrees. He is co-editor of Mad Dogs and Englishness (Bloomsbury, 2017), The Beatles and Fandom (Bloomsbury, 2019) and the forthcoming The Beatles and Black Music (Bloomsbury 2022) and The Beatles and Humour (Bloomsbury, 2022). 

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