The Origin of an Internet Musician

From the Yale Whiffenpoofs to the Internet, Jonathan Coulton reflects on his career, including his breakout song about a sad software developer.
  • Transcript


Question: How did you get into comedy songwriting? 

Jonathan Coulton: Well, I've always been interested in music. I played instruments when I was young and sang when I was young and was in the band and the chorus in school. And I think somewhere in high school I had decided that I actually wanted to make a profession out of it and become a professional musician and then didn't do much about that for many years. And, you know, like many people, went to college because that's what you do. Then some point after college, found myself in New York City, not really knowing exactly what I was doing there and had a few short-lived jobs and put a band together kind of but never really did anything with it. Played out a few times for our friends and ultimately found myself working in the software industry writing code for a company in New York and did that for about nine years and kept doing music on the side, recording things and writing things, just for my own amusement mostly. 

Question: How did a cappella affect your songwriting? 

Jonathan Coulton: It is true that I was in the Whiffenpoofs in college and before that the Spizzwinks. Those are two of the oldest all male a cappella collegiate singing groups in the world. So, very proud to be a part of them and the Whiffenpoofs really were kind of one of the reasons I wanted to go to Yale. My dad went to college there and my grandfather went to college there and so, when I was growing up, they both had old records, Whiffenpoofs LPs that they would play for me. So I was familiar with collegiate a cappella music in a way that many American kids were not. 

I was thinking recently some friends of mine from the a cappella community who I had been out of touch with for a while, recently came to one of my shows in New York for the first time and as I was doing my standard Jonathan Coulton show, I was thinking of them in the audience and I realized how much my shtick on stage really does owe to whatever it was that I learned when I was doing a cappella. Because, you're in this group of people and for me it was a group of 14 guys all wearing tuxedos and you're standing in a big circle and you're singing, you know, ironic covers of popular songs, but also sort of jazz standards. And there's a mix of stuff that you're really quite serious about. You're serious about the music but you're also wearing a tuxedo and white gloves and a white tie. It's ridiculous, you know. And you're doing a lot of funny stuff in between the serious stuff and it's very shtick-y and hammy. So I think I actually took a lot from that. I mean, that's how I learned to be a person on stage. And so that still applies to what I do in my show even though I'm now a rock star. I don't wear a tuxedo anymore. 

Question: One of your first breakout songs was “Code Monkey.” How much did that come out of your life at that time? 

Jonathan Coulton: "Code Monkey" is a song about a sad software developer. It’s loosely autobiographical. It is true that while I was working there I felt some frustration about not having allowed myself to pursue what I believed was my true calling. I was there for nine years and it wasn't a terrible job. I actually liked it quite a bit. I learned a lot. I had fun and good people there. But there was that vague dissatisfaction. So I used that when I wrote the song, but it is loosely autobiographical. The guy in the song really, really hates, really, really hates his job, and in particular, his boss. I did not hate my boss. I loved all of my bosses and they were never as boring as I described them in the song. I'll say that for them. 

Recorded on May 6, 2010