At the end of “Inside Llewyn Davis,” the Coen brothers movie set in the Greenwich Village music scene of 1961, the title character, a gifted but struggling folk singer on the verge of giving up, leaves the stage of the fabled Gaslight Café as a newcomer fills his spot. What’s clear after the first note is that it’s Bob Dylan at the start of one of the greatest careers in pop music
This juxtaposition leaves the viewer with a lingering question about success: What does Bob Dylan have that Llewyn Davis does not? Genius? Luck? Timing? The movie is too elusive for a single explanation, but forced to pick one, I’d argue it’s a sense of humor. This might seem odd, since in the public imagination, Dylan, the grim-faced protest singer turned croaking Nobel-winning poet, strikes a deadly serious figure.
But if there is any underexamined aspect of this most celebrated and scrutinized singer, who turns 80 on Monday, inspiring new biographies and best-of lists, it’s his fertile comedy. While he spent six decades singing about heartache, apocalypse and betrayal, a cockeyed humor has always informed his bleak worldview. It can be oblique, less about jokes than jokiness, but critical enough to his art to place him in the pantheon of great Jewish funny men.
There’s perhaps no better evidence of the importance of funniness to Dylan’s art than the fact that he has denied it. In a rare interview from 2017, Dylan himself dismissed the notion that he was a jester, pointing to righteous anthems like “Masters of War” and “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” But the first prank Dylan pulled was posing as a plain-spoken truth teller. From the start, he was making up benign lies about himself and mixing grave, socially conscious songs with dark comedies. In the oldest bootleg of him performing at the Gaslight, from 1961, one of the only original songs is “Talkin’ Bear Mountain Picnic Blues,” a wry retelling of a catastrophe in the news: An overbooked cruise ship sank in the Hudson River, a tragedy born of greed. Listen to this 60-year-old recording of a then-unknown Dylan singing one block away from where the Comedy Cellar is now and you’ll hear the familiar sound of dark jokes getting laughs.
The comedy club had not been invented when Bob Dylan arrived in New York that year, so the few blocks of coffeehouses and clubs where he performed, what the historian Sean Wilentz has called “his Yale College and his Harvard,” were home to not just folk singers but also comics like Joan Rivers, Lenny Bruce and Bill Cosby. (This is the era depicted in “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.”) To a sponge like Dylan, this cross-pollination of artists mattered. That those audiences expected to laugh did, too. As Robert Shelton, who helped launch Dylan with his review in this paper, writes in his recently rereleased biography, “No Direction Home,” patrons “responded more to Dylan’s wit than to his slow-serious intense material.”
His early performances had comic bits. Using long guitar strings, he quipped that the instrument needed a haircut. The first genre of song that got attention was the talking blues, a comic form dating to the 1920s with standard chord progressions backing up jokey lines and topical references — not that different from a stand-up set. Some of those songs made it onto albums, others only became available later. One of the earliest wasn’t released until 1991. “Talking John Birch Society Blues” spoofed the paranoia of the anti-communist organization, with a narrator finding suspicious activity in the glove compartment, the TV set, even on the American flag. (“Discovered there was red stripes!”) It ends with him all alone investigating himself.
Dylan presents himself in these songs as a hapless Everyman, a fool, a coward overwhelmed if not oppressed by events. Moving away from politics, Dylan’s songs became more bizarre and downright silly, with lyrics that are, like jokes, concise. Consider the opening of “On the Road Again,” a 1965 masterpiece of giddily neurotic nonsense about the dysfunctional family of a girlfriend: “Well, I wake up in the morning, there’s frogs inside my socks/Your mama she’s hiding inside the icebox/Your daddy walks in wearin’ a Napoleon Bonaparte mask.”
Along with talking blues and surreal scenes, Dylan flashed borscht belt punch lines in songs like “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream,” a rambling yarn that begins with him singing, stopping, cracking up and asking for a second take. Keeping this mistake sets the loose tone for the song, which includes a visit to a bank that ends with this quip: “They asked me for some collateral and I pulled down my pants.”
This appears on his funniest album, “Bringing It all Back Home,” whose cover features Dylan near an album by the comedian Lord Buckley. Though Buckley died in New York only a few months before Dylan arrived, he greatly influenced Dylan (and others, including Lenny Bruce and Robin Williams). The singer turned one of Buckley’s monologues into a song, “Black Cross,” and borrowed language like “jingle-jangle” for “Tambourine Man.” Buckley was famous for rebooting biblical stories in hipster slang, a tactic Dylan appropriated in songs like “Highway 61 Revisited.” (“God said to Abraham, ‘Kill me a son.’ Abe said, ‘Man you must be puttin’ me on.’”)
By the next decade, Dylan had become one of the biggest stars in the world, while his songs became darker and more personal, digging into heartbreak. But even his harshest songs often carried a light wit. In the opening of “Idiot Wind” (1975), he sings that he shot a man and took his wife, who inherited a million dollars; when she died he got the money. After a pause, he adds with deep feeling at odds with the smirking sentiment: “I can’t help it if I’m lucky.”
After a fallow period (every Dylan era has its champions, but the hardest case to make is the relatively mirthless 1980s), he has undergone an artistic and commercial resurgence in the last quarter-century. This late-era Dylan has managed to be both heavier and lighter, darker but also goofier.
On a riotous episode of Pete Holmes’s podcast, the director Larry Charles (“Borat”) recalled how Dylan became obsessed with Jerry Lewis movies, so much so that Dylan collaborated with Charles on a pilot for a slapstick series for HBO. The musician eventually lost interest (the show was “too slapsticky”) but did co-write a bizarre and widely panned drama with Charles, “Masked & Anonymous.” In that 2003 film, a man confides in a character played by the singer: “What did the monkey say to the cheetah at the card game? I thought you were a cheetah.”
Late-era Dylan favors dad jokes so cheesy that they seem almost transgressive, a liberating escape from his enigmatic image. When he tells a knock-knock joke on his 2001 album, “Love and Theft,” it’s the comedy equivalent of going electric. I was tempted to boo but have come to respect him for it.
His most revelatory project of recent decades has been “Theme Time Radio Hour,” more than 100 episodes hosted by Dylan, each organized around a theme. Produced by Eddie Gorodetsky, a former David Letterman writer, the show has a consistent interest in comedy, including arcana about stand-ups and sitcoms, interviews with comics and corny jokes.
These hours show that for Dylan, humor is not incidental. Nor is it comic relief. It operates the way it does in the plays of Chekhov, as a foundational part of existence from an artist who believes that, as Dylan famously put it, life is but a joke. One of the best episodes focuses on laughter. Dylan describes its musicality, explaining it has a rhythm. He digs into the history of laugh tracks. Speaking in a gravelly deadpan that increasingly resembles the voice of the stand-up Steven Wright, Dylan sounds like he scorns canned laughs, a betrayal of one of the last things you could trust. “You can fake an orgasm,” he croaked. “But you can’t fake laughter.”