Thursday, July 25, 2024

Martin Mull’s subversive musical genius


We throw around the term “Renaissance man” like it’s a Nerf football at a Memorial Day picnic, yet it’s hard to describe the actor and comedian Martin Mull, who died Thursday at 80, in any other way.

On camera, how he’s best known, Mull was instantly recognizable. His sarcastic and smug half-chuckle told you he knew his character’s superiority complex was ridiculous and, given the reality he poked fun at, not-so-sweetly subversive. He could be lovable on-screen — like when he and Fred Willard got married on “Roseanne” during the sitcom’s glorious 1990s run — but I most appreciated the bite as he played with and poked at the norms of entertainment culture.

In the 1970s and ’80s, at a time when comedy was dominated by White men with just a few exceptions (Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy), Mull mocked Wonder Bread middle-of-the-road America as much as any social critic, yet you didn’t realize it until you noticed you were laughing at your own neighborhood.

Watch that mustachioed wink as he comes upon a stack of wild geese drink coasters on a coffee table while touring a suburban home as the sweater-vested host of the mockumentary “The History of White People in America” and acts as if he’s found the Dead Sea Scrolls. These coasters, he says as he holds one up as a visual aid, are “here to protect any natural woods. Should they occur.”

Later, Mull stole scenes on “Veep” and “Arrested Development.” But for me, his best acting came as smarmy TV host Barth Gimble on “Fernwood 2 Night,” a satirical late-night talk show created by Norman Lear that aired in the summer of 1977. Gimble, emerging during the Johnny Carson era, served as a precursor to both Garry Shandling’s Larry Sanders and Zach Galifianakis’s “Two Ferns” persona. And again, he had Willard, also sadly gone, as his foil in crime.

I could write another appreciation about Mull’s painting, his time at the Rhode Island School of Design and how, as the years passed, Mull settled into a career that found his hyperrealist works shown in galleries and museums and even featured on book and album covers.

But as we mourn Mull, I want to focus on his music. Because during the 1970s, Mull managed to turn out some of the best song parodies pressed in wax. No half-stepping here. He could play his Gibson archtop guitar well enough to trade licks with Glen Campbell, though he wasn’t afraid to pick up a tuba — or sousaphone — if that’s what the performance called for. During his musical career, Mull even opened for Bruce Springsteen, Frank Zappa and Billy Joel.

Those records and performances served as a bridge between the MIT prof-turned-parodist Tom Lehrer and the MTV-era emergence of “Weird Al” Yankovic.

What Mull understood is that to poke fun at a form, you had to commit to the form. So on “Do the Nothing,” he gets the audience clapping as he’s ostensibly launching into what promises to be a catchy song about a popular new dance move except that the dance is, as the title hints at, absolutely nothing. He even stops playing at the chorus to prove his point, and yet the clapping continues, awkwardly, because a crowd told to clap by a star performer is going to whether there’s something clap-able going on or not. Mull starts to spread out praise to individual members of the band even though we hear they’re not playing a note.

On another song, “Jesus Christ Football Star,” he dips into gospel as Satan delivers an onside kick and Matthew, “thinkin’ quick,” recovers to make it Christians, first and 10: “Let’s give Jesus Christ the football/ let him even up the score/let him run it through the crossbars/ and be on the cross no more.”

When I get the chance to play one Mull song to an unsuspecting friend or family member, it is always “Ukulele Blues,” recorded in 1973. Here, he manages to perfectly mock the tradition of White cultural appropriation at a time when countless Black blues artists were watching Eric Clapton, Led Zeppelin and even Ram Jam cash in on original songs. Which makes “Ukulele Blues” sound almost dutiful, a kind of smarty-pants lecture. It’s anything but.

The blues, as Mull reminds us in a lengthy introduction, is about getting back to your roots. In this case, he says without breaking character, he’s thinking about his grandfather, who was a real estate man doing “very very well,” residing in the heart of the delta. Cleveland’s Lake Erie delta.

“A lot of you may feel you have to be poor to play the blues,” he says, with a dismissive chuckle. “Don’t make me laugh.”

Then Mull, who often performed wearing a yellow tux and bow tie, begins picking at the open-tuned ukulele in his lap. Mississippi Fred McDowell sawed down the neck of a Gordon’s gin bottle for his slide. Mull? He uses a baby bottle — and still pulls off a credible accompaniment to his tale of suburban woe.

I woke up this afternoon, HOOOOO/ I saw both cars were gone

I woke up this afternoon, lord mommy/ I saw both cars were gone

I felt so low down deep inside/ I threw my drink across the lawn

By the end of the ’70s, Mull would stop recording his music, but he wouldn’t abandon the tools that made those records so special: knowledge, technical skill and commitment to the role. Those would help him on-screen as he continued to crack at cultural norms, a true original who can never be replaced.

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