Every other Friday, we’ll explore one of comedy’s underrepresented – but thriving! – genres: musical comedy. From artists who cut their teeth in comedy clubs with a guitar and a dream, to artists who make funny with full bands backing them; from going behind the scenes of classics like the Dr. Demento show, to uncovering the deepest corners of YouTube, we’ll highlight a hilarious musical comedian who’s out there making the world laugh with expertly crafted tunes.
This week, we’re profiling one of the voices behind what is arguably one of the hottest and most popular YouTube comedy music channels today: Epic Rap Battles of History. And while the series was created by “Nice Peter” Shukoff and “EpicLloyd” Ahlquist, we’re instead turning our focus to the wordsmith responsible for some of the most memorable battles in the series’ five seasons: Ohio-born, Missouri-raised Zach Sherwin.
Sherwin first came onto the comedy music scene when he attended college at Brandeis University in Massachusetts. After co-founding the sketch comedy group The Late Night Players and performing with them (even after graduating), Sherwin moved onto the Boston’s underground comedy scene, where he perfected his act under the name MC Mr. Napkins. He won the title of Boston’s Best Comic in 2009, the same year he performed at Montreal’s Just For Laughs festival, and in 2010 he moved to Los Angeles and released his first album, The Album, on Comedy Central records. The Album showcased Sherwin’s strong suit – his stunning wordplay.
It was in LA that Sherwin teamed up with Epic Rap Battles’ Shukoff and Ahlquist in an improvised show called “Check OneTwo,” where the idea of having historical figures rap against each other was born. Since moving the show from the stage to YouTube, Sherwin has appeared in 10 separate videos on the EROB channel, as characters including Sherlock Holmes, Egon Spengler, Doctor Emmet Brown, Stephen King, and even Albert Einstien in a battle against Stephen Hawking (in a track that was certified Gold by the RIAA).
In 2013, Sherwin decided to drop the MC Mr. Napkins stage name, claiming he no longer needed the gimmick of it in the appropriately titled “Stage Name,” and re-branded himself as Zach Sherwin. In the years that followed, Sherwin won two YouTube Streamy awards (in 2014 and 2015) for his writing on ERB, and he’s helped compose the lyrics for a large majority of the battles. There may no better example of his skill with the group, however, than this demo performance of the “Issac Newton” verse that ERB sent to “Weird Al” Yankovic, which Sherwin reportedly was heavily involved in co-writing.
It’s his writing that has earned Sherwin the most attention, and rightfully so. He’s a skilled lyricist with a deft grasp of the English language, and it’s reflected in his diction. Whether it’s in his own rhymes or in things he pens for someone else, such as the work he’s done on the Emmy-nominated Crazy Ex-Girlfriend – where he helped write “The JAP Rap Battle,” “I Give Good Parent,” and “So Maternal” – Sherwin’s style and use of the English language in unique ways gives everything his pen touches that distinct Sherwin flow. His love of hip hop and language is evident through all his works, and he shows the love for both in equal parts, such as in his song “Legato Gelato,” riffing on a classic track by rapper Nas about a made-up expression.
What makes Sherwin stand out from other comedy rappers, however, isn’t just his clever use of vocabulary, but how personal most of his songs are. Sherwin is a storyteller, and a majority of his songs draw on both classic hip hop and his own personal experience, sometimes intertwining the two. His second album, Rap!, touches on a lot of these personal intersections, such as offering better rhymes to Big Punisher in “Ouncare,” or drawing parallels to Naughty By Nature by rapping about missing father figures in “Pop Music.”
On his newest album, Brutus, Sherwin spins a tale in three parts about a fierce duck that survived a slaughter and his quest to get the foul fowl sheltered. It’s a staggering display in not only Sherwin’s verbiage, but also how real the story feels – you honestly want the duck, Brutus, to survive no matter how ridiculous it all is, and the trials Zach goes through to save it are both hilarious and poignant.
With TV appearances on Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell, The Pete Holmes Show, and America’s Got Talent/em>, as well as audience warm-up gigs on @midnight, The Pete Holmes Show, and CNN’s United Shades of America, it’s easy to see what sets Sherwin apart from others of his ilk: his ability to truly pull the listener into his stories with a hip hop beat and outstanding lyrical dexterity.
To check out more of Sherwin’s work, you can hit up his newest albums on Bandcamp, check out his YouTube, or find his previous projects on iTunes, Spotify, and the like – or, just purchase them from his website, ZachSherwin.com.