Back when Chris Hardwick and Mike Phirman first performed together - in 1995, at UCLA's Spring Sing talent show - they knew exactly what they were doing."Back then, our stuff was musical parodies," said Hardwick. "We won the competition with an unplugged '80s medley, these electronic '80s songs done on acoustic guitar and tambourine. And we did a parody of Joan Osborne's "One of Us," about the coffee magnate Juan Valdez."Hardwick and Phirman celebrated the victory by taking some time off. Eight years, approximately. Two years ago, when Hardwick wanted to introduce a musical element into his stand-up act, the two regrouped as Hard 'N' Phirm.
And now they're not so sure what they're doing."It's kind of satire, I guess. Absurdist. Just weird. It's not parody. They're not jokey-joke songs," said Hardwick, casting about for a way to pin down the duo's brand of musical comedy. "It's not Tenacious D, but it is two guys. Not like They Might Be Giants. Almost 'Schoolhouse Rock'-ish, almost educational."After stumbling about for an apt description, he gets down to the nub of things: "It's not like anything I've ever seen," said Hardwick, defeated.The difficulty in describing Hard 'N' Phirm's take on musical comedy is that it doesn't fit into one box. There's the musically focused bit like "Rodeohead," where they cram 18 quintessential Radiohead songs, brooding and arty, into five minutes of country-bluegrass sounds. In "American Dinosaurs," the duo's sense of social satire comes out: The song is a jingoistic bit that casts present-day America as a huge, clumsy dinosaur. "Kind of 'America's gonna put its foot in your ass,'" said Hardwick, a melodica player of admittedly modest talents, who lets Phirman take the title of Hard 'N' Phirm's music director.
There's the wacky "El Corazón," a song about the heart - literally, about the anatomical heart. "But it's all in Spanish, so people will think it's this beautiful Latin love song," noted Hardwick. Finally there is the grand "She Named the Pony Jesus." The song is an angry response to the triteness and pseudo-inspirational tone to "The Christmas Shoes," wherein a boy wants to buy his poor mother a new pair of shoes, "in case she meets Jesus that night.""It's one of those songs where, if you don't pay attention to the lyrics and you're Christian, you'll love it," said Phirman. "But you listen to the lyrics and it's this blind dogma, and this guy who congratulates himself for being inspired by the boy."Hard 'N' Phirm don't aim for musical one-liners. Their material - to be released soon on the CD, "Horses & Grasses" - requires a longer engagement.
"A lot of musical comedy seems like one-note jokes," said Phirman, who met Hardwick at UCLA's Stand-Up Comedy Club. "We attempt to steer away from quick jokes, and do a weird, offbeat reality."Because the form is not something people are accustomed to, audiences don't always know how to take Hard 'N' Phirm's humor."We shoot for this weird gray area where people don't know if they should take us seriously. They can't figure out if we're behind these pieces all the way," said Hardwick. "In music venues, we're the funny act. In comedy venues, we're the music act. So we're out of place wherever we play. And we stand out wherever we play."Stewart Oksenhorn's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org