For someone who never set out to be a comedian, Stephen Lynch has written arguably some of the funniest comedy songs that have come out in the last 25 years. With a guitar (or sometimes piano) in tow, he has perfected the art of writing songs that are genuinely beautiful musically that tend to take a sharp left turn lyrically when you least expect it. He has been quoted as referring to himself as a “musician trapped in the body of a comedian.” But at the end of the day, he knows that crowds are showing up to laugh just as much as they are to hear some of great music. And he has always managed to blend both together.
Lynch had a big tour on the books that was supposed to kick off in March of last year. Of course, we all know what happened next. And during the time off, a lot of comedians took the opportunity to do some writing, do a lot of podcasting, or whatever else it took to stay creative. That was also Stephen Lynch’s intention once everything went into lockdown mode.
“[Prior to COVID], the big plan was to tour, test out the new songs, get it in shape where I thought it was good enough to record, and then go into the studio and make the record,” Lynch told us over the phone a few weeks ago. “And so then the pandemic hit, I couldn’t tour, I had to cancel all my shows, and I thought ‘Oh alright. Perfect. This would be a good time for me to finish this record. It’s like 80 percent done. Let me finish it.’ And I don’t know about other people, but I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t write anything. I thought ‘Am I living in end times? What’s funny?’ As this virus is taking over the world and we can’t leave our houses and I’m washing groceries. I didn’t necessarily feel scared of getting sick, but I was scared of ‘How long is this going to last? How is our world going to change because of this?’”
“So then I thought ‘Alright. I’ll use this time then to record.’ So I booked some time in a studio and I went and I laid down some vocal tracks and I got maybe a third of a new record’s worth of songs recorded. So I did use the pandemic time wisely to a degree. I didn’t get as much as I wanted to creatively, but I got some stuff done.”
And now here we are, and Stephen Lynch is back on track. He is on the road, finally riding out that tour. Now re-named The Time Machine Tour, it kicked off last week in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His goal was to make them vaccine-only shows. “I think that’s going to be the way through this thing,” he added. And while he initially did get a little bit of pushback from some venues, as of this writing, thankfully he was able to make that happen for at least some of the shows.
Before the tour started, though, Lynch was feeling a different sort of nerves than he usually feels before a big tour.
“I would say that the level of terror that I always feel before I start a big tour when I’ve had a lot of time off, multiply that times the terror I feel that we’re still pretty much in the middle of a pandemic with an ever-changing virus. I’m already going to be puking backstage before the show. But now I have to worry about when I check into the hotel, am I going to run across somebody with COVID and get sick. Not to be a downer, but it’s kind of terrifying. Putting together a new show, for me, is already scary enough.”
Lynch continues, “[The song] Time Machine I made one change to. In the very beginning I mentioned vaccinations. But that’s going to be my only reference to COVID, I think, for this entire show. Because enough people have made COVID and the pandemic funny. You don’t need me adding to it.”
As he stepped out onstage, he was met with a warm welcome by folks who were just as happy to be out of the house and seeing live entertainment again as he was to be up there. And from his opening number that saw him put down the guitar and act out something that is best experienced live – no description could possibly do justice to it -, it was clear that he hadn’t missed a beat. And the crowd was right there along with him for the ride.
Fresh out of college, Lynch moved from Michigan to New York with aspirations of making it as an actor in theater. While going on auditions and working temp jobs to make ends meet, a friend invited him onstage at a cabaret show to play some of the funny songs that he had written in college. And one of those earliest songs where he felt like he got it right was a breakout hit of his that kicked off his debut album, Lullaby.
He reflects, “If I weren’t me, I would describe it as sort of the classic ‘me’ style of songwriting. Because that’s the first song I think where I sort of figured that out.”
But from a songwriting perspective, the style of a Stephen Lynch song has gone through many changes. For the first few albums he released, the music – while always beautifully composed to be in rich contrast with some of the darker and more sinister lyrics – was there to sort of help support the jokes. But with his previous two albums, Lion and My Old Heart, he has sort of reversed that mechanism, and allowed the music and lyrics to stand side-by-side. This was a conscious decision on his part. But regardless of the changes that his work has endured over the years as Lynch himself has matured as a person and an artist, the songs are just as funny – and even dark – as they’ve always been.
He adds, “Every once in a while, I’ll look at the old catalog and try to throw something into the show. Just to sort of see if it works still, see if the audience still responds to it, see if I still like it. But for the most part, I’m really concentrating on ‘What have I written most recently?’ Because for me, it’s the most fun thing to play because it’s still fresh and new.”
It was only after his success with a hugely popular 2000 Comedy Central Presents special and three hit comedy records that he finally got his chance to grace the Broadway stage, all those years after first moving to New York. In 2006, he was cast as the lead in The Wedding Singer in the role Adam Sandler first created on screen. And 15 years after his Broadway debut, the idea of returning to the scene still remains in his head.
“I always tell my agent ‘Look, if anything really cool comes along that I might be good for, let me know.’ Because I’ll take a year or two out of my life and move into a little apartment in New York and do a show if I really love the material. I just haven’t come across anything that I think I would be right for in that time. And to be fair, I’m not actively pursuing it. I’m not auditioning or anything. But who knows.”
He jokingly adds, “Maybe on the 20th anniversary of my one and only time on Broadway, I’ll give it another shot. I’ll move to New York for a couple months and go to the cattle calls, put on my tap dancing shoes. Just stand in line with a number on my chest like the old days. Sing my 16 bars and do my little soft shoe and see if I could get another gig.“
Part of the fun of seeing a Stephen Lynch show extends beyond just seeing him onstage singing solo. About the halfway point, he brings up one of his friends that goes on the road with him to sing harmony and play off of onstage. For the last many years, he’s been joined by Rod Cone. But fans of Lynch’s early work – namely his second album Superhero – may recognize an early cohort by the name of Mark Teich, who tragically passed away from lung cancer in July of this year.
Lynch looks back on that period of his life, where it was just him and Mark on the road and playing for audiences that were not too different in age than himself, fondly.
“That whole time period where he and I were touring in the early 2000’s was a really fun time. And that was early on enough in my sort of career. I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t know enough to know that I didn’t know what I was doing. I was just having fun. And Mark was an old friend of mine from college. And I don’t think there was anything more to him touring with me than saying ‘Hey, I’m going on the road to do a bunch of shows. You wanna come with and just see what happens?’ And he just said ‘Yeah. Why not?’”
He adds, “He was an adventurous kind of guy like that. He was funny and people loved him. And we just had fun onstage. We’d get up there and we didn’t know what we were going to say. And we’d drink and we would f*ck around. And sometimes the show would just devolve into a mess and us making each other laugh and the audience just staring at us like ‘We have no f*cking idea what you guys are talking about.’ And so I cherish those days. We were young, and like I said, we were just having fun. And Teich was the perfect sort of companion for me.”
Lynch then reflects on when they stopped touring together as much. “He moved onto LA and I sort of changed the way I did shows and changed the way I wrote. And every once in a while, he would pop up onstage wherever I was and do a song or two. But the show was different. And it’s different now. It’s more of a structured show and not just sort of a party free-for-all. But back in those days, it was a really good time. And he was the perfect guy for that. And I miss that. And I miss him.”
Throughout his new show, he mixes in some of the new songs in with some of the old standards, like Priest, Little Tiny Mustache, Talk To Me, and Kitten. And when you hear all the songs together, despite being in two different phases of his career, they all compliment each other nicely. And most importantly, every single one is still funny.
Tickets for his new tour can be found here.