Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers featuring Edie Brickell in Concert
Funny Banjo Players: Five Plucky Pairings of Comedy and Music

Great Performances takes a look at performers for whom comedy is not enough: more five-string banjo, please.

1. Steve Martin Switches Up His Talents

Steve Martin used to bring his banjo to stand-up comedy gigs to fill the time allotment. Now he tells jokes between songs at his concerts. Martin’s first two Grammys in the late 1970s were for Best Comedy Album but since 2001 he’s been garnering Grammys for his banjo-playing skills, honed over the course of 50 years. His recent wins are the 2014 Best American Roots Song, “Love Has Come For You,” his collaboration with singer and lyricist Edie Brickell, and Best Bluegrass Album in 2010 for “The Crow. New Songs for the 5-String Banjo.” In this interview with NYC-ARTS, Martin talks about the songs in his concert’s March PBS broadcast, Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers featuring Edie Brickell, and his dual pursuit of comedy and banjo music.

2. Ed Helms, Bluegrass Festival Founder

384px-EdHelmsJune09Ed Helms (The Hangover, The Office) has been playing banjo the past 20 years with Ed Helms & the Lonesome Trio and is the founder of the Los Angeles bluegrass festival Bluegrass Situation, where Steve Martin headlines regularly. In 2011 the two actor-musicians bantered about comedy and bluegrass banjo music in a Los Angeles Times interview.

LA Times: As actors and musicians, do you find there’s anything at all that transfers intuitively from one discipline to the other? Can musical timing inform comedic timing, or vice versa?

Ed Helms: Well, I’ve been told my banjo playing is hilarious. I don’t know how to take that.

Steve Martin: Well, I think that comedic timing is a mystery, and musical timing is not. It’s exactly timing. It’s just timing.

The “Sitch,” as Helm’s festival is nicknamed, also has a stage at the Bonnaroo Festival this June in Tennessee.

Watch Spoof of Mumford & Sons

In a music video spoof of Mumford & Sons’ “Hopeless Wanderer” (2013) that’s clocked over 10 million views, Ed Helms lets Jason Bateman air banjo while Helms pounds an upright piano. Will Forte and Jason Sudeikis round out the emotional lip-synching homage to the Grammy Award-winning English folk rock band.

3. Kevin Nealon on Comedy and Blues

A sweet-angry cover of the Pete Seeger hit “Little Boxes,” for the cable series Weeds is just one of the music jams Kevin Nealon has shared with fellow banjo player Steve Martin. Nealon, an actor and Saturday Night Live standout, played the banjo-playing, evil accountant Doug Wilson on Weeds. In a Huffington Post interview, Nealon compared comedy and blues, saying, “I think being a comic is like being a blues musician, you have to live life to be able to draw from it. ”

4. The Folksmen, a Real, Fake Band

Comedians Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer debuted their fake folk group, the Folksmen, on Saturday Night Live in 1984. Their musical mockumentary films include This Is Spinal Tap (1984), about a British heavy metal band (and for which the Folksmen serve as an opening act), and A Mighty Wind (2003), about a folk music reunion concert. Music was always a part of Guests’s life — as a child, his babysitter was Mary Travers of Peter, Paul, and Mary, and in high school he played mandolin in a band with Arlo Guthrie.

In the Folksmen’s appearance on Late Night with Conan O’Brien, they give the Rolling Stones’ hard-driving “Start Me Up” a soft makeover with banjo, stand-up bass and guitar. Stick around for the couch interview in which Guest claims Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” is based on the folk classic, “Ole Purple Haze.”

Billy Connolly at Festival Cine in Sidney

5. Billy Connolly’s Bluegrass Scottish Roots

You can’t be both a respected banjo player and stand-up comedian and not be pals with Steve Martin, which Billy Connolly is. The Scottsman was a folk singer in the Humblebums with Gerry Rafferty before branching off as a soloist and onto a career as an actor and comedian.

As a comic, Connolly gained popularity with American audiences in 1990 with Whoopi Goldberg and Billy Connolly in Performance. His major film roles have included Dain Ironfoot in The Hobbit series and John Brown in Mrs. Brown alongside Dame Judi Dench.

In the video below Connnolly performs the Appalachian bluegrass standard, “Cripple Creek.”

Steve Martin and The Steep Canyon Rangers featuring Edie Brickell on Great Performances is an evening of Martin’s unique blend of comedy and bluegrass. The program comes to PBS in March 2014 (check local listings).

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