[Ed. note: This is an expanded, multimedia version of an article that first appeared in the February 2015 issue of Intercom.]
by Steven Jong
“Weird Al” Yankovic, whose “Mandatory Fun” was the first comedy album in 50 years to top the Billboard charts, brought back the comic song parody. But in some circles it never left. If you’ve attended the STC Summit Open Jam, or the Boston (now New England) Chapter publications competition banquet or end-of-year meeting in the last ten years, you’ve probably seen STC’s own song parodists, the BossTunes, making technical communicators laugh.
During the day, the BossTunes are technical communicators ourselves. It’s during our spare time when things get out of hand. We lament the struggle with technology, coworkers, and schedules, in musical styles from folk to Broadway and jazz to opera.
The Birth of the ‘Tunes
The group began in 2002 when Taryn Light, then incoming president of the Boston Chapter, attended the inaugural Open Jam, organized by Tommy Barker in Nashville, Tennessee as part of the 49th Annual Conference. Taryn, who had twice sung in Europe with an American choir and participated in local church and community chorus shows, thought, “we can do this!”
Back home, Taryn recruited outgoing chapter president Hans Fenstermacher and Val Rushanan, her colleagues at Hans’s translation agency. Hans had the ham in his eggs to sing lead: the son of an opera singer, he sang small roles himself at the Deutsche Oper Berlin in “Carmina Burana,” “Der Rosenkavalier,” and “La Bohème.” He was also an accomplished keyboardist.
Val, who hosted rehearsals, played keyboards as well, plus electric bass, clarinet, and percussion. She quickly became the group’s music director, arranger, and choreographer. She articulated the BossTunes’ performance goal: “from the sublime to the ridiculous at the same time.” It captured the group’s ethos of trying to draw laughs while still performing earnestly—ideally, embedding a serious performance in a comedy skit.
Those core members invited Anna Pratt and Steve Jong to join them. Anna, who had sung with Taryn in Europe, was a natural: she said she always thought that the musicals were true—people burst into song with every emotion! Steve was a community chorus veteran who soloed, played the lead in productions, and arranged songs. He could contribute as a lyricist, guitarist, and comic foil.
To boost the fledgling group’s musicianship, we successfully recruited Ed Marshall, a semipro who played both upright and electric bass with Boston-area orchestras and big bands. Ed also contributed a useful deadpan demeanor.
In 2008 Hans left Boston for Washington, DC. To fill the void we inveigled Fred Wersan to join the group. Fred’s solo appearances at Open Jams had marked him as a likely suspect, and indeed he brought a welcome comic sensibility—not to mention a banjo, concertina, and fiddle.
Gigs and Gags
The name “BossTunes” seemed right: reminiscent of Boston’s ska-core group The Mighty Mighty BossTones, it combined the ideas of place, leadership (five of us have served on the chapter’s council—three as president—and four of us eventually became Associate Fellows), and music.
The group debuted at the 2003 Open Jam at the 50th Annual Conference in Dallas, Texas. Val remembered the parody of “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” was “so successful that people were dancing, cheering, and even bowing to me! They asked me where I’d sung. I said ‘my living room.’”
For the 51st Annual Conference (Baltimore, 2004), Steve sold the group on his vision of performing Caruso’s signature “Vesti la giubba” with words so funny that the audience would be laughing too hard to applaud—all before he had a lyric to offer! He eventually produced an outrageous “soundex” translation about a bad tech-writing contract that turned “eppur’ è d’uopo” into “he told me whoppers,” “smorfia” into “Smurf,” and “infranto” into “out front.” The BossTunes showed up in gowns and tuxedos, and Steve launched into a full-throated, red-faced operatic aria while the ludicrous “translation” was projected behind him to an audience that roared with surprise and laughter.For Boston (New England) Chapter performances, the BossTunes got into the habit of teasing the current president. In 2007, for example, we parodied the Everly Brothers’ “All I Have To Do Is Dream” as “Scream” and turned “only trouble is, gee whiz” into “all that’s in the fridge is Cheez Whiz,” at which point we pulled out disguised cans of Silly String and festooned Mike Ball, who never saw it coming. Yet afterwards he graciously said, “You were huge last night. People just raved to me, as though I had anything to do with it—other than being the foil. I particularly appreciated the funny, fresh and highly relevant material.”
Although the staple of the BossTunes’ songbook has been original song parodies, some were performances of comic songs, such as Hans’s bravura keyboard and vocal performance of Tom Lehrer’s witty “Lobachevsky” in Seattle (2005). Others featured parody lyrics and a humorous setting, but straight-out performances, such as “Nessun dorma” (Minneapolis, 2007). “Peel Me A Grape” (Boston Chapter STACIs banquet, 2008) was a jazz song sung by Val with the original lyrics, but set in a vignette of a put-upon technical writer turning the tables and taking charge. And some performances were serious songs sung sincerely, such as Val’s wistful vocal and clarinet performance of “Memories Of You” (Seattle, 2005) and Steve’s sentimental “Danny Boy” at the New England end-of-year meeting (2013).
The BossTunes have managed thematic shows too: a luau-themed end-of-year performance in 2011, and for STC (and the Weavers’) 60th anniversary in 2013, a folksong performance headlined by Fred:
Being a BossTune is hard work, but fun. The group is collaborative and generous, contributing lyrics, taking turns as lead or backup, or acting as comic foils. When we did “Paper Jam,” based on “The Chicken Dance,” for the 2009 STACIs banquet, Anna provided great lyrics and Steve created a vignette, but to start the song we wanted the sounds of a printer starting up, jamming, and beeping (in the pitch of the first note). Just then, Val’s husband Joe got a glass of ice water from their refrigerator. Perfect! We recorded the grinding noise and mixed it with a printer startup sound and an error-beep note.
The Next Ten Years
By now the BossTunes are something of an institution. “Every year,” Fred says, “when the chapter asks us to do some entertainment, we look at each other and we say, ‘why do they keep asking us?’ And then we look at ourselves and say, ‘why do we keep doing this?’” But we have a few numbers in the bank for future performances. Anna has a wonderful lyric for Billy Joel’s “The Longest Time,” and to quote Harry Chapin, we dream a bass will join us to fill the bottom in…
About Steven Jong
Steve is an Associate Fellow, member of the New England Chapter council, head of the mentoring program, and assistant editor of the STC New England News. He was the first chairman of the STC Certification Commission, a former member of the STC Board of Directors, and a past President of the Boston Chapter. He is, however, an unrepentant BossTune.