At first one thinks it's the shrooms — because only a noise like this can be manufactured psychedelically. Then you think “Nah, I’m just waking up from a weird dream and the radio is on.” And before you can pinch yourself into reality, you realize “No, I’m wide awake and that’s NPR’s 70-year-old, award-winning legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg singing a rock opera – a cappella.”
Ya know how Jack Black sings his guitar rifts in his Tenacious D songs? Well, Totenberg does that too crooning “Dilitty, dalitty!”
Any evidence that you’re still of sound mind and consciousness after listening to her perform “US v. Rock n' Roll” becomes apparent when you realize that the mice in your apartment are completely gone, thanks to the shrieking soprano that God has bestowed upon Totenberg (no disrespect).
“U.S. v. Rock n’ Roll,” a long-winded track about the Supreme Court’s ruling on the ban of rock n’ roll in the dystopian future, is just one of 28 on the new comedy musical concept album 2776, written and produced by five-time Emmy-winning Conan and Daily Show scribe Rob Kutner, and his friends, brothers Joel (Tonight Show With Jay Leno) and Stephen Levinson (Funny or Die’s Noah’s Ark, Channel 101). ]
Seventeen months in the making, 2776 sounds like They Might Be Giants crashed their car into Styx’s garage studio. It's like Golden Throats for comedians. Instead of getting William Shatner shouting “It Was a Very Good Year,” Kutner and the Levinsons have assembled prolific comedic folks like Ed Helms, who sings the bluegrass love song “Bunker Bunker, Burning Love,” about his courtship of the last living being in his post nuclear war bunker, and Raising Hope star Martha Plimpton belting out an “Impossible Dream”-style ballad called “I Can Do It.” The Grammy-awarding winning Rebirth Brass Band and Triumph the Insult Comic Dog also stopped by the 2776 studio to record “Welcome to America,” in which the foul-mouthed pooch portrays a 1900s Ellis Island official demeaning every ethnicity arriving through the port. But wait – there’s more: Mayim Bialik, PhD raps on the album in an homage to 1991 with “Journey to Anywhere,” and she’s actually pretty damn good.
“It’s a 1,000 year review of America; the past, present and future,” says Joel Levinson. “It’s the best and worst of American history – really the worst – and in the end, Canada saves our ass.”
At first it sounds like Kutner and the Levinsons were roping in Republican folk singers to help. After hearing Will Forte’s (as the future president) bellowing baritone song “America, We’re Good,” you’ll swear he’s channeling former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, who as an aspiring folk singer self-penned the right wing ditty “Let the Eagle Soar.”
Instead, zombies, Broadway, and love of sci-fi and American history were the jumping off points for Kutner and the Levinsons' concoction. Amidst its satirical knocks on religion and technology, the album centers on a story involving the U.S. president in the year 2776 (Forte) who, after delivering his state of the union address, is confronted by an alien (Plimpton) set on destroying earth unless he can prove America’s existence. There’s a time machine, and the future president blasts back to meet George Washington (Paul F. Tompkins). Along for the ride is the future president’s good-looking, apathetic security guard played by Aubrey Plaza.
What's impressive about 2776 is the amount of big talent that Kutner and the Levinsons have wrangled for such a loopy project. In addition to the names above, there's Will Arnett, KD Lang, Kids in the Hall, David Wain and R.E.M.’s Mike Mills. Fiction writer George Saunders wrote the liner notes.
The gang didn't necessarily achieve this by simply dipping their fingers in their rolodexes; rather, booking talent was a snowball process. It all started when they reached out to Aimee Mann on Twitter. She ultimately committed to singing the album’s breakup song “I’m Cured,” sung from the point of view of the common cold virus.
Mann brought along her Largo pal Tompkins, who was responsible for rallying more comedy buds to the 2776 cause, while Kutner knew Forte through his Conan appearances. However, one of the biggest gets for the 2776 gang entailed corralling the old guard: Dick Cavett, Dick Gregory, Joe Franklin and Mad Magazine cartoonist Al Jaffee as the presidents in the audio sketch “Mt. Rushmore.” The men, playing presidents on the famed monument, squabble over allowing the first female, Asian-American, gay president (Margaret Cho) among their ranks.
Some of their reps kept a voicemail account open and never checked it. “Dick Gregory, who is DC-based, only communicates by phone and fax,” says Kutner, “His wife lives in Massachusetts and I had to pass messages through her to get to him. ” Lightning ultimately came together in a bottle: Kutner flew to New York for 18 hours, grabbed a deli platter and sent a limo around to pick the guys up around the city, his first stop being Penn Station, where he received Gregory. “It was amazing chasing quality to that sketch,” says Kutner, who credits Stephen Levinson for suggesting the foursome in the first place.
What made it easier for the trio to gather star talent was the fact that 2776 was all for a noble cause. The group’s template for 2776 was their first comedy concept album, 2012's It’s OK to Do Stuff, a send-up and 40th anniversary celebration of the Marlo Thomas-starring, touchy-feely 1972 children’s album Free to Be…You and Me. The proceeds naturally went to Thomas’ St Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital and the album hit No. 4 on the iTunes comedy album chart.
“We realized we’re not going to raise the money to pay people on 2776, and it’s easier to get people to say yes to your project since it’s for charity,” says Kutner.
They're sending their proceeds to OneKid One World, a small non-profit that provides a foundation for education in improvised nations, which they discovered through its founder, their comedy peer Josh Bycel (co-executive producer on Happy Endings).
“Like us, he puts on comedy shows as fundraisers with the same mindset” adds Kutner. “A freewheeling comedy album with off-color language is a nightmare to get approved by any conservative children's charity.”
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