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What’s so darn funny or strange about the bassoon?

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As you know, the bassoon is called the “clown of the orchestra.” It’s the buffoon you hear in cartoons. The most egregious recent use of the buffoon aspect is the movie Dunston Checks in (1996). I heard such a use again recently in a 1940s movie The Lady in Question (1940). Many of the old movie scores seem to go for this clunky clumsy comedic aspect. But why can’t they play it in tune!!! I guess that makes it sound more silly.

Other typecasting: Lex Luther in the Superman movies has a bassoon theme. Peter and the Wolf’s curmudgeonly, complaining Grandpapa. In pop music there’s Smokey Robinson’s Tears of a Clown with the hot bassoon lick and pedal low notes and Simon and Garfunkle’s 59th Street Bridge Song. There’s a wailing jazz bassoon in the Star Wars Cantina Band. Creepy bassoon unearthly sound effects in Predator 2. Strange bassoon iterations in Fandango. These last three were played by jazz bassoonist Ray Pizzi. Bassoon theme in the movie Bourne Identity. The ultimate bassoon movie is Never Cry Wolf where the soundtrack is almost all bassoon, the bassoon is played in the movie and is even used as a weapon to fend off wolves and the bassoon sounds like wolves too. Played by Rufus Olivier of San Francisco Opera.

Musically we bassoonists often portray soreness, strangeness, sadness, silliness, stupidity, or scariness. Is the opening to Tchaikovsky 6th typecasting? Nielsen’s 5th opening; Rite of Spring; Entrance of the Dragoons in Carmen? Opening motif of Siegfried?

We ARE the Halloween instrument. In the Hall of the Mountain King, Funeral March of a Marionette (The Hitchcock Presents Theme with 6 bassoons and 2 contrabassoons got to me as a kid.), The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, etc.

We are, of course, referred to as the belching bedpost or the burping bassoons. Especially the contrabassoon (and the bassoon too) has been called “an ill wind that nobody blows good”. Low, flatulent, contrabassoon solo notes often bring up a laugh. Petroushka and Sorcerer. The loud rustic second bassoon solo burps in Beethoven 6th intrudes in someone else’s space. When Haydn first heard a bassoon he is reported to have said, “Thank God it doth not smell.”

Young players have trouble with lack of respect because our instrument is referred to as a bundle of sticks (firewood) or worse, a fagot, das Fagott, il fagotto. The small tenoroons are called fagottinos. Peter Schickele (a “reformed” bassoonist himself) thinks we should all be called “stickests”. But to be called a fag player or fag blower when you are fourteen is fightin’ words. My students all mention that kind of name calling to me, that kids kid them about it being a fag. I get young players writing about this aspect to the Bassoon Bros.

Our biggest problem is lack of respect. The Bros call the bassoon the “Rodney Dangerfield” instrument. Not only does the public not recognize what the sound is, but usually call it an oboe. It’s cast in TV commercials in a lowly role, in one case as a theme for toxic sludge. I did a radio spot in Portland for garbage recycling. A toilet paper theme. Hmmm.

Kids who play the bassoon get a blank stare back when they tell someone what’s in the case. Among those who commented on this phenomenon was Bill Conti (yes, the famous composer of the Rocky theme) who auditioned on bassoon to get his college scholarship rather than piano. When asked what was in the case he’d say it’s a trumpet. Brother Bob Naglee, who got that out of Bill, revealed that he’d tell his classmates there was a clarinet in his bassoon case. Local Portland pianist Merle Lotz made it to Curtis on bassoon but went in the direction of the keyboard.

There are fewer bassoonists in this world than any other band or orchestral instrument. We qualify for endangered instrument programs in many communities. We also worry about extinction as well as lack of respect. If a school has an old bassoon it’s usually unplayable. The instrument and its reeds are difficult to master and cost way too much. The fingering system is the same as it was 400 years ago, while other wind instruments adopted a modern fingering system in the mid-19th century.

Part of the Bros mission is to get back the respect and recognition that we deserve for our wide playing range (greater than any other wind instrument), versatility, ability to sing like the human voice in our middle register and the “voice of the sea God” (Mozart?) in the low register and don’t forget our woodblock-like staccato. Why did Vivaldi write 37 bassoon concertos, more than any other instrument than violin? How did we go from the crown of the orchestra (old bassoons had little metal crowns on the bell), to the clown of the orchestra?

I used to play jazz at the Jazz Quarry on SW Jefferson in Portland (closed in 1987). I arrived one night to play and saw on the lighted billboard above the entrance, Mark Eubanks Jazz Oboe. Okay then, what’s the difference between a bassoon and an oboe? A bassoon burns longer…

Then there are those who make fun of the bassoon by attempting to play it. Hey Steven Colbert! You ain’t funny. And then there are those who try to play it well and sound funny anyway.

Oh well, we bassoonists are all trying to do our part to better our lot in life. Maybe the respect will come.

Mark Eubanks, Portland, Oregon

Check out this use of bassoon in Vaudeville humor: Laughter and the Old Bassoon