Kids music is filled with funny people, probably because the ability to make kids laugh is vital to survival in dealing with kids all day long. (Also probably because the ability to make yourself laugh is also vital to survival in dealing with kids all day long.) But in a world of funny people, only one person has earned the title Funniest Person in Kids Music, and that would be Billy Kelly.
From the very first track of his very first album for kids ("This Is the First Song" off of 2009's Thank You for Joining the Happy Club), Kelly has amused listeners with his deadpan humor and occasionally meta-fictional takedowns of songwriting tropes. Over time his humor has swerved a bit from earnest to dark (something which he readily admits), and his albums have contained varying amounts of humorous and non-humorous material.
Is it possible to chart his albums on a matrix with those two axes? Yes. Will I do that for you here? No. Instead, I will use words in lieu of graphs, even though I love myself some graphs. (I honestly do.)
Is This Some Sort of Joke?, his second and most comedy-heavy musical album, required serious attention to process all the levels of humor being laid on the listener's plate. It was also in parts his darkest album (comparatively speaking -- it's still kids music) as it featured not one but two songs about the potential end of the planet and the human race.
Kelly's third album The Family Garden was his most earnest, a correction, or possibly overcorrection, to the joke-filled and dark approach on Joke?. It's not devoid of humor, but with songs celebrating gardens, American flags, and pen pals ("We Could Be Pen Pals," which featured Molly Ledford), it was definitely a detour from what Kelly's fans -- at least this one -- had grown accustomed to based on his previous two albums. The album does, however, underscore Kelly's basically optimistic nature, a nature that, while present on the first two albums (he sang a song with the Monkees' Davy Jones about the joy of getting a new haircut, after all, on Joke?), could be buried under the jokes and cleverness.
For my tastes, I think the two albums that followed -- 2013's Again! and his Grammy-nominated effort with Molly Ledford from the band Lunch Money, the 2015 album Trees -- were probably the high points thus far of his output. With Again!, Kelly melds the silly ("Ode to Butter") with the sweet ("There's Nothing Like My Town"), with nothing too mend-bending, except for "Don't Tell Me That I Don't Know What I Know (When You Know That You Don't Know What I Know That I Know)," which I'm still trying to work through the logic of.
And the universally-loved Trees finds Kelly's silly songs like "The National Tree of England" and "(It's Just a) Dumb Ol' Stick" nestled in amongst Ledford's earnest and tender rockers. Ledford, in fact, basically inserted herself into the album after Kelly had been talking about recording such an album for years. And it's amusing to hear Ledford's drier wit make Kelly laugh, like on the gentle putdown Ledford uses on "Coniferous Trees," a joke that it takes Kelly 4 or 5 seconds to hear ("I just got that," he chuckles while trying to continue to sing his verse.)
From there, Kelly's 2016 Welp (oh, that title -- that's a dad word, for sure) covers the same tonal ground that Again! covered, perhaps a little more comedic, and with slightly less of a poppy sound. The narrators on tracks like "If I Could Have Your Attention," "My First Protest Song," and "You Remember Steve," which lead off the album, sound like clueless buffoons, which isn't necessarily an approach your hear on a lot of kids music -- you hear buffoons, sure, but they're rarely the ones singing the music. But of course he does have earnest tracks, like "Might It Be Love?" (though I'll admit to probably preferring an earlier, robot-attacking, self-sabotaged attempt at the track).
But on his most recent album, Kelly decides to go all in with the comedy and go where no kids' musician has gone before -- the standup comedy club. The album titled My First Comedy Album is a misnomer, because most of his albums have been comedic at their core, but it is his first attempt at recording a show in a comedy club. (With a two juice-box minimum? Unclear.)
Billy Kelly is hardly the only artist to provide a healthy dose of humor on their albums for the single-digit set. Recess Monkey, for example, have been on the jokier end of the musical spectrum, and wrote an entire song ("Knocktopus") revolving around the first jokes most preschoolers learn -- knock-knock jokes. Josh and the Jamtones did an entire album called Bear Hunt that was essentially a long set of riffs loosely connected by songs that eventually became a movie, as if one of those two-guys-talking-in-front-of-a-microphone podcasts became an animated production. The latest Michael and the Rockness Monsters album Funny Faces features a handful of silly songs that harken back to the era of novelty songs. Cory Cullinan and Richard Perlmutter use comedy to carve an entrance for kids into classical music. And Eric Herman did an entire sketch and music comedy album titled The Incredibly Spaced-Out Adventures of Jupiter Jackson.
One thing you might notice scanning down that list is that it's made up entirely of males. And my perception is that guys tend to be given more leeway to do silly things in kids music, which means that female artists like Joanie Leeds, Sirius-XM's/Wow in the World's Mindy Thomas, or the much-missed-in-kindie Ashley Albert of The Jimmies who traffic in broader humor like their male counterparts above are more the exception. (And women such as Molly Ledford who use humor sometimes more subtly are often overlooked.) It's a little disappointing, to be sure.
Both lists above also highlight the fact that comedy crafted specifically for kids is pretty hard to find. Find someone to animate your jokes and craft a 6-, 11-, or 22-minute story around them, and you too can get your own development deal. But sketch comedy for kids, especially audio-only sketch comedy for kids, is reaaally hard to find. As best I can tell, the only folks doing that full-time are The Listies, who are based in Australia, so even though they tour a lot, it's probably too much to expect that they just criss-cross the United States week after week. (Note: I very much recommend listening to The Listies. Maybe they'll change their minds about the States.)
Into this void, then, jumps Billy Kelly, father of two, purveyor of dad jokes, whose puns earn groans from the audience (when was the last time you heard that on a comedy album?). And Kelly certainly does take a few opportunities to speak directly to the kids who are sitting in his mixed age audience, noting that he got them into the [comedy] club and noting that kids do, in fact, catch a break. Like, a lot.
But for the most part, Kelly trains his eye on more absurdist topics, like deciding to forego bird-watching for bird watcher-watching.
He eschews the often dense wordplay and allusion-filled approach of his music for a more laid-back take, like Steven Wright with a higher-pitched voice. (No complaints about airplane food or relationship woes, thankfully.) Kelly plays with the conventions of standup, humor which might work a little better with the adults who know when he's slightly subverting the form. And some bits like "Auditordium" start out sounding like they're just mistakes until you realize that they're well-plotted jokes.
Only once does he break down and turn to music as a frame for his comedy, and that's on the cut called "Dictionary." It's actually a recycled bit from Welp. The music isn't necessary at all for the basic structure of the jokes, though the structure of the song -- whereby the spoken jokes essentially fill the role of verses, and the wordless do-do-do-dooooos the chorus -- probably helps the listener process the jokes themselves, which require a little thinking.
The whole album requires a little thinking, actually. While there are definitely some simpler jokes on the album, this is not something that will amuse your kindergartener. Rather, it requires a level of attention and smarts that may even be out of the range of your second-grader. Unlike the Listies, Kelly offers no fart jokes. This is neither good nor bad, just noting that fart jokes are the fastest method known to science for getting a second-grader, especially a boy, to laugh. In some ways, My First... is most reminiscent of Is This Some Sort of Joke?, his most comedic album up 'til now and the one that needed the highest level of listener attention, though the humor is lighter in tone on this new album.
There are a ton of jokes on the 45-minute-long My First Comedy Album and with it Billy Kelly safely retains his title of Funniest Person in Kids Music, unlikely to give it up until he chooses to retire as GOAT. I hope that there's a second album of standup or pure comedy from him (current odds of him naming it My Second Comedy Album: 50/50?). But I like what happens when he works with artists like Ledford who pushed back on "Coniferous Trees" or with other musicians generally. So I also hope he continues working with others to produce funny stuff as well, because I think that feedback makes the humor sharper. Dad jokes work even better if there's an occasional mom or group of dads to offer up some eye rolls... or make an even worse dad joke. And if other dads and moms want record their own albums of comedy just for the kids and their adults, I think it's time it becomes an actual field.