Who Is Peter Schickele and How Did He Win Four Comedy Grammys in the 1990s?
Peter Schickele won four straight Grammy Awards for Best Comedy Album in the 1990s, beating out this list of comedians: George Carlin, Weird Al Yankovic, Rita Rudner, Sandra Bernhard, Andrew Dice Clay, Sam Kinison, Jackie Mason, George Burns, Bob and Ray, Jonathan Winters and Garrison Keillor. That’s a pretty impressive list, but one that does nothing to answer the ultimate question here: Who the heck is Peter Schickele?
It probably won’t ring many more bells if we refer to Schickele by his alter-ego, P.D.Q. Bach, although that was the name under which he took home all that comedy hardware. P.D.Q. Bach (1807-1742) was a fictional comedy persona, supposedly the “youngest and the oddest of the twenty-odd children” of Johann Sebastian Bach. Schickele, in his guise as P.D.Q., was essentially the Weird Al of classical music, writing parodies that poked at the genre’s plentiful pretensions.
Sounds like pretty highbrow stuff, but Shickele was accessible enough that Johnny Carson invited him on The Tonight Show to share the musical weirdness. He’s a funny performer even when he’s not playing, but if it’s classical parody you’re after, skip to the 3:04 mark to hear his Variations on an Unusually Simple-Minded Theme.
Why was P.D.Q. Bach such a hit with Grammy voters? The New Yorker’s Alex Ross weighs in: “Much of the pleasure of the P.D.Q. pieces — Iphigenia in Brooklyn, The Stoned Guest and Wachet Arf! are typical titles — comes from their combination of the risible and the hummable: You’re never quite sure whether P.D.Q. was an incompetent composer or a visionary one, his malfunctioning-sewing-machine textures interlaced with touches of bluegrass, minimalism and rock and roll.”
If you’re a classical music nerd, you’ll flip for P.D.Q. Bach’s wacko twists on, say, Beethoven’s symphonies. For the rest of us, the music isn’t afraid to go lowbrow with bleating notes that interrupt like a fart in church. Schickele, intent on introducing the masses to the pleasures and pains of classical music, entertained with instruments of his own design like the dill piccolo (for playing sour notes), the tromboon (combining the worst sounds of the bassoon and trombone) and the tuba mirum (a flexible tube filled with wine).
His own website proclaims that Schickele is “the foremost classical music satirist of all time.” Seeing as we can’t think of a single competitor in the field, we’ll have to agree. Was he funnier than Carlin, Yankovic or Kinison? For four straight years, Grammy voters thought so. We’re still going with Carlin, though Schickele was way better on the tromboon.