There is a strange sort of energy that exists before the start of a They Might Be Giants show. An astute observer of crowds may notice that the sort of people that are willing to help sell out a They Might Be Giants concert are an eclectic bunch. Mobbed together are a collection of the strange sort of people that comprise the They Might Be Giants Fan Club – who have gathered at the Barrymore Theater. The diversity of the crowd consisted of young couples, people in pig masks, the elderly, and a portly gentleman – whom I was firmly convinced was the actor Jon Lovitz. Despite being a 30 year old band, TMBG lacks any sort of generational divide – Boomers, Gen X’ers, and millennials all united to see the band responsible for the “Malcolm in the Middle” theme song.
What is it about They Might Be Giants that inspires this sort of fervent worship into their 33rd year of existence? A band that has not had a hit single since 1994, and has played – largely – only children’s music since 2004? The resounding answer to that is the overwhelming charisma, and wit, of the Johns. John Linnell and John Flansburgh draw people to them. They dominate the stage in the way that would make many pop musicians envious. Through effortless charm, and banter so perfect that it feels scripted, the Johns cult following is well deserved and understandable. As such, the force of the sensational energy that is emanating throughout a crowd waiting for a They Might Be Giants show is akin to straddling a Tesla coil.
While waiting for the show to begin, I began to talk to “Jon Lovitz” about his love of the band. Now, I was very sure that this man was, former SNL star, Jon Lovitz, so much of what I said revolved around the understanding that I was aware of this celebrity, but was not going to acknowledge the fact that he was a celebrity. As I peppered references to The Benchwarmers, The Critic, City Slickers II and Newsradio into our conversation, we soon got to the heart of the TMBG fan.
“It’s all about originality,” said probably Jon Lovitz. “The Johns have been innovating at a level that is unreal for thirty years. Whenever they release music, I know that it is going to be familiar, but completely revolutionary to the sound of the band.”
Lovitz made a good point, and I kept that thought at the back of my mind as the house lights dimmed and the show began. I never did find out if the man that I spoke to was actually Lovitz, but I doubt it – especially when I realized that the man that I was speaking to was Lovitz-shaped, but very Hispanic. Regardless of the true identity of faux-Lovitz, he made an excellent point about the enduring appeal of They Might Be Giants, the originality of the sound. They Might Be Giants cannot be defined by genres, styles, and sensibilities. The band is the band, and it is a unique experience to see the collaboration between the creative powers of the Johns at work.
To watch a TMBG show is to watch a show unlike any other. The Johns magnetism makes them irresistible to watch perform, and they carry an audience’s attention through song after song, crowdwork, and meta-sketches about Robert Durst calling into the Dial-a-Song service to request that the band ‘either stops playing music, or let’s him be Triangle Man (it’s explained to the audience that Robert Durst relates to the character of ‘Triangle Man’ – a homicidal maniac)’. The talents of the Johns is evident, they are skilled musicians, and they are damn funny. The show appeared to be very bizarre to the few uninitiated to TMBG in the crowd, but was never alienating to the fans. The band was able to seamlessly transition between classic tracks – like “Dr. Worm”, “Istanbul”, and “Ana Ng” – to covers of Destiny’s Child, to their newest releases with unwavering support from the audience. Closing the show, triumphantly – after two encores – with “Birdhouse in Your Soul”.
On stage, the Johns clearly understand who their fans are, and what they love. Despite TMBG’s reputation as a ‘children’s music’ the show was decidedly for an adult crowd, due to both the obscenities flying from John Flansburgh’s mouth, and constantly referencing the 1965 Rex Harrison film “The Agony and the Ecstasy” in the banter between the two Johns. The set moves quickly between songs, and the joke’s fly fast. However, the wordplay never undermines the greatest draw of a TMBG’s show, which is that the band rocks! The music is loud! The songs sound good live! Go see They Might Be Giants, it is a night that will be difficult to ever forget.