There’s an old saying that every comedian wants to be a musician and every musician wants to be a comedian. Though there’s a natural connection between comedy and music, when these worlds collide, the outcome isn’t guaranteed to be enjoyable for all. Saturday Night Live alum and stand-up comedian Jon Rudnitsky has opened for bands like Guster, recalling that opening for live music acts is “definitely a really strange and tough gig.” On Comedy Central’s The Comedy Jam, however, comedians seamlessly combine stand-up and live music into heartfelt and thoroughly enjoyable performances. Comedians like Jim Jefferies and SNL’s Pete Davidson have graced the Comedy Jam stage this season, telling hilarious backstories about what their favorite song means to their lives, and performing the song with a live band behind them. Often, the song’s original performer will surprise the audience and join the comedian onstage. (Keep an eye out for an appearance from Kenny Loggins in tonight’s season finale.)
The Comedy Jam began as a recurring live show in Los Angeles when it was called The Goddamn Comedy Jam. Producer Josh Adam Meyers would assemble brave comedians to share their comedic and musical talents in live jam sessions. Big name guests would drop by to tell a funny, emotional story about their favorite songs, and rock out to the tune in a judgment-free zone. “It was a place where comedians could blow off steam and do something they don’t normally do,” 24 star and stand-up comedian Mary Lynn Rajskub says. The Comedy Jam live shows became a local classic. Now, the Comedy Central version of the show showcases the same combination of humor, emotion and nostalgia. But given that this iteration of The Comedy Jam is televised, the stakes are much higher for performers than they were at the local L.A. Comedy Jam shows.
It can be terrifying to perform in front of a crowd with no safety net, whether you’re doing stand-up or singing on TV for the first time. Rajskub, who performed Radiohead’s “Creep” in an episode, recalls the nervous energy surrounding her performance. “I don’t think I’d do it again, but it was a really fun experience,” she says. “I’ve always been pretty terrified of singing. As hard as it is to sing, and go for it 100 percent, I reach a point where there’s some level of comfort. Even if it all becomes glorified karaoke, I can infuse my own moments of honesty into my performance and really put my heart into it. No matter how bad it looks to the viewer, I’m totally into it.”
Jon Rudnitsky performs the Kenny Loggins classic “Footloose” on tonight’s season finale, in a performance that Loggins describes as “enthusiastic” and “true to the vibe of the Kevin Bacon performance. Almost.” Rudnitsky, whose most memorable moment on SNL was his Weekend Update performance of Patrick Swayze’s big dance number from Dirty Dancing, says he’s comfortable singing and dancing on stage. He says his experience facing tough crowds doing stand-up prepared him for the vulnerability he faced singing on TV. His stand-up horror stories would make even the most seasoned performers cringe. “I performed at a bowling alley in Michigan where I got chased off stage by a Trump supporter. This woman was stacking her rum and Cokes, and she was getting heated. She chased me off stage, but she was so drunk that she came back to the show the next night and forgot she had heard all those jokes. She chased me off stage again.”
Rudnitsky believes the old adage that every comedian wants to be a musician and every musician wants to be a comedian. “I definitely think that’s true,” Rudnitsky says. “Musicians get to go out there and play a song that everyone knows. The crowd’s mad at you if they don’t hear that song. If I come on stage and tell a joke you’ve heard before, you’re going to be pissed off.” But ultimately, Rudnitsky would never want to trade roles with a rock star. “There’s nothing better than making people laugh. It’s like a little bit of magic. And I think that’s something musicians envy.”
Rajskub sees a connection between the performance of music and the performance of comedy. “If you’re going to stand on stage by yourself and do stand-up, you need to have a rock star attitude,” she says. “Rock stars and comedians have a lot in common. They both get to that point where they ride the wave of energy from the crowd. But stand-up is just a pared-down person creating the wave of energy with their own personality.” Rudnitsky sees stand-up in a similar way, noting that stand-up can be the most validating experience, but it can also make you feel deeply vulnerable. “When you’re performing stand-up, you’re making people laugh with just your personality,” he notes. “You’re putting yourself on display, so if the audience hates your act, you can’t help but feel like they hate you. There’s nothing that can hurt more.” Of course, Rudnitsky recognizes that performing live music in front of a crowd is no easy feat. “I really don’t want to fall on my face on Comedy Central while I’m singing with Kenny Loggins—you’ve got a lot at stake there. I really didn’t want to mess that up.”
For The Comedy Jam, performers put both their musical talents and their comedic skills to the test. But why would comedians volunteer themselves for the high-stakes, no-safety-net musical performance on TV in front of millions of viewers? For Jon Rudnitsky, the performance was all about retribution. At least that’s what he jokingly claims in his monologue for this week’s upcoming season finale. “Growing up I would watch movies like Grease and Footloose while my brother would watch the Philadelphia Eagles play football. I’d just be dancing around, and he would beat the shit out of me,” Rudnitsky recalls. “So to be able to sing that song with Kenny Loggins—it doesn’t get much better than that. I finally got back at my brother.”
For Mary Lynn Rajskub, her Comedy Jam performance of Radiohead’s “Creep” was also a form of vindication. In that episode, Rajskub remembers her pre-fame days waiting tables at the Hard Rock Café, savoring every brush with the Hollywood-types who would occasionally visit the restaurant. She dreamed of being plucked from obscurity by a producer, the way Julia Roberts was when she was a waitress for director Garry Marshall. Now, with a successful acting career and a beloved role from the classic show 24, Rajskub lives her Hollywood dream. She appreciated every second of her Comedy Jam performance. The meaning of “Creep” evokes the feelings of dejection Rajskub felt while working as a waitress before her big break in Hollywood, but instead of listening to the song to comfort herself like would in her Hard Rock days, she now gets to perform the song on TV for America to see.
Daily Show correspondent Roy Wood Jr., who performed the Bachman-Turner Overdrive classic “Takin’ Care of Business” on an episode, also views his Comedy Jam experience as a form of redemption. He recalls tough times traveling on the road for stand-up gigs, frequently driving five hours for a single show. Wood isn’t a singer, but after “logging half a million miles on the road and singing for [his] windshield,” he felt comfortable performing his energetic rendition of “Takin’ Care of Business.” “It was a song that always inspired me and gave me some get-up-and-go back when I would travel for several stand-up shows every week,” Wood says. “It takes me back to a time when I worked extremely hard on the road.”
Now, Wood has a stable comedy gig as a Daily Show correspondent, but he doesn’t take his success for granted. Consistent work was hard to come by in his days as a comic in Birmingham, Ala. Wood looks back on his days of accepting every stand-up gig that was within a five-hour drive of his Birmingham home. “There was a three-year period in my career when I would commute up to five hours every single day just to take those gigs and be back in Birmingham for my radio show.” He would sleep for three hours, get back in his car, and travel to another gig. “So, you talk about taking care of business, working hard and getting shit done, my Comedy Jam song spoke to that time in my life. And dare I say, I kind of miss it.”
The season finale of The Comedy Jam airs tonight at 10pm EST on Comedy Central. Performers include Jon Rudnitsky and Kenny Loggins on “Footloose”, James Davis and Montell Jordan doing “This is How We Do it” and Busy Philipps performing “Violet” by Hole.
Jake Lauer is a New York-based writer and copywriter with bylines in Complex, Maxim, Uproxx and Splitsider. You can check out more of his writing here.