King Of Comedy
April 27, 2008
“King Of Comedy” evolved from another unreleased song from the Monster sessions called “Yes, I Am Fucking With You.” I assume that there are two reasons why that title did not carry over to the finished product: First, and most obviously, it would have caused some problems for the band at retailers such as Walmart. Secondly, that title would’ve made it a little too easy for the listener because yes, Michael Stipe is fucking with you in this song.
There’s a great deal of irony on the Monster album, but “King Of Comedy” is by far the most ironic track, to the point that it’s very difficult to discern whether or not there’s even the tiniest moment of uncomplicated sincerity in its three minutes and forty-one seconds. Throughout Monster, Stipe distorts his voice in order to distance himself from his characters, and this song is the most extreme example, with his processed, mechanical staccato delivery rendering him nearly unrecognizable. The lyrics overflow with cynicism, not just in its advice for advancing a career in the arts, but also in how an artist relates to their audience. It’s easy to take it all as being a simple mockery of ambition and celebrity, but the reason the piece works comes down to the reality that on some level, Stipe relates to the pragmatism and pessimism in the song’s advice.
“King Of Comedy” speaks to a deep ambivalence about the singer’s motivation, and a conflict between self-image and public image. In a way, it picks up where “Turn You Inside-Out” leaves off, with a performer who has become acutely aware of the power he wields over an audience, and attempting to feel out a way to hang on to it while clinging to his dignity, ethics, and pride. At the end, when he repeatedly exclaims “I’m not commodity,” the emotional meaning seems to vacillate between mourning his complicity in the creation of his celebrity, and putting on a show of false modesty.
It’s worth noting that, even aside from its distorted lead vocal, “King Of Comedy” is a very strange sounding song. Monster is often written off as a “return to rock” album that doesn’t quite deliver, but that’s only if you’re expecting a straight rock record. The truth is, it’s more of a queer rock record, full of skewed, campy glam songs with audio textures that evoke a haze of super-saturated colors. The album doesn’t sound quite like anything else, and with its odd collision of industrial rock, arty noise, and disco, “King Of Comedy” in particular is unlike any other song I’ve ever heard.