Novelty Songs That Could Only Have Become Hits In The '80s

For as long as there have been pop tunes, there has been what those slick music industry types refer to as "novelty songs." There is no strict definition of that term, but songs that fall into this category are often put together by non-musicians (like comedians, or executives), are sometimes an attempt to cash in on one pop culture craze or another, and are almost always attempts at hilarity that may or may not hit the mark. Sure, some novelty tunes can bring the belly laughs — before he was recognized as a national treasure, "Weird Al" Yankovic was considered to traffic exclusively in the form, for example. Others are capable of making the average listener cringe hard enough to make their eyes pop out of their heads, and it might not surprise you to know that these are often the most popular ones. 

There is one fairly consistent characteristic of novelty tunes: They're usually really, really weird, and in the '80s, one could say that about pretty large swaths of pop music in general. The novelty songs that came out of that decade, then, were an extra-special blend of weird — enough so that, if you were around at the time, you might have convinced yourself that some of the tunes we'll be looking at today were fever dreams. Well, they were not, and here they are in all their gonzo glory — those pop novelties that could only have become hits in the '80s.

Rappin' Rodney by Rodney Dangerfield

Rodney Dangerfield pretty much made a career out of complaining about getting no respect, so it's a little ironic that among comedians, he's kind of a god. Dangerfield is one of the funniest people to ever live, but even his biggest fans might have been a bit shocked when, in 1983, he dropped "Rappin' Rodney," which is exactly what it sounds like — a groovy rap tune, which was accompanied by a video that was immediately all over MTV. Sure, even in the very early days of rap, the genre was ripe for parody — but nothing about Rodney Dangerfield shouted out "funky rhymes."

The tune largely consisted of a bunch of Dangerfield's well-loved one-liners set to a beat: "Steak and sex, my favorite pair / I have them both the same way, very rare," Rodney rapped, spitting hot fire. The video, featuring a cameo from Pat Benatar and directed by Alan Metter (who would soon helm Dangerfield's comedy classic "Back to School"), helped push the song into the Billboard Hot 100, where it peaked at No. 83 in early 1984. In an interview, Metter shared that Dangerfield had been very pleased with the fruits of his labor: "Rodney started bringing projection equipment on the road and used the video as his opening act," he said — because only a legend like Dangerfield would have the notion to open for himself.

General Hospi-tale by The Afternoon Delights

This might seem completely made-up if you weren't around at the time, but in the early 1980s, soap operas were, like, really popular. Perhaps because the advent of VCRs allowed them to be watched any time, the daytime dramas were dominating pop culture right alongside video games and MTV — and none were more popular than "General Hospital," whose power couple Luke (Anthony Geary) and Laura (Genie Francis) brought in the largest daytime audience in history when they got married in 1981. That very year, a quartet of studio vocalists dubbed The Afternoon Delights even managed to score a Billboard Top 40 hit with what we can only hope will forever be the only soap-themed rap song in history: "General Hospi-Tale." 

The brainchild of producer Harry King and radio DJ Lisa "Lipps" Tedesco, the tune appeared on an album populated by unremarkable, non-novelty R&B tunes, and while the LP went nowhere, its soapy, rappy single was a No. 33 hit. To its credit, the tune didn't just sing the praises of "General Hospital," it accurately summarized current plotlines with lyrics like: "It started out in Port Charles town / Where Frank Smith's mob used to hang around / No one could prove that he was a crook / Until Luke stole his little black book." Fans, of course, ate all this up — soap fans, that is. Rap fans, not so much.

The Curly Shuffle by Jump 'N the Saddle Band

It's pretty amazing that Jump 'N the Saddle Band — led by vocalist Peter Quinn — ever got a record deal in the first place. While their rollicking, Western Swing-meets-pub rock sound would have been right at home in any corner bar, it wasn't exactly in line with what was going on in pop music in the early '80s, which of course was dominated by New Wave and synthpop. Also, the band didn't play any original material — their lone, self-titled release was stocked with nothing but cover tunes for you and your buddies to drink to, such as "Deep in the Heart of Texas" and "Let Me Go Home, Whiskey." Nothing, that is, except for one Quinn-penned original: "The Curly Shuffle," a swinging ode to the Three Stooges.

Yes, the tune was a touch out of step with popular tastes. But on the other hand, it was also repetitive and grating, and with its constant dropping of Curly-isms courtesy of Quinn's half-assed imitation of the famous Stooge, it was also incredibly annoying. Thankfully, it was released in the '80s, so it promptly shot to No. 15 on the pop chart, and got the heavy-rotation treatment on MTV. The band was lucky enough to be signed to Atlantic Records, so they followed up this success by recording a version of the 1946 novelty song "Shaving Cream" with modified lyrics crapping all over the label that had inexplicably seen fit to sign them, and that was basically the end of the line. 

Puttin' On the Ritz by Taco

As an Indonesian-born singer of Dutch descent educated in Belgium and the United States, one would be forgiven for thinking that the artist known as Taco chose that name for some oddball reason. He did not choose it; his parents did, and in an interview, he explained that it's actually a fairly common Dutch name that his folks picked out of a baby book, apparently unaware of its Spanish-Mexican culinary background. In the early '80s, Taco was recording in German for a label in that country when he got the opportunity to sign with Polydor. "At that time, I composed and sang rock, soul and blues songs," he explained. "I had to come up with a radical new image. And with the new electro pop movement, I combined the American songbook with New Wave beats."

This is how a guy named Taco came to score a No. 4 pop hit in 1983 with a New Wave cover of Irving Berlin's classic "Puttin' On the Ritz," a development which Taco says surprised literally everyone, including himself. Of course, MTV helped out by plopping the video into heavy rotation, and with Taco's nattily androgynous look and the tune's unique take on Berlin's timeless material, it's no surprise that the song struck a chord. What may come as a surprise, though, is Berlin's reaction. "Years later, I was very fortunate to be able to speak to Mr. Berlin on the phone," Taco said, "and he told me how much he liked our version of his song."

Pac-Man Fever by Buckner & Garcia

Few businesses were bigger than video games in the early '80s, and no video game was bigger than Pac-Man. Its rise was the kind of thing the phrase "take the world by storm" was coined for: It appeared in arcades in late 1980, and by April 1982, Time Magazine was reporting that 96,000 game cabinets had been sold, that Atari was set to earn more than the theatrical run of "Star Wars" from its home version, and that a slew of other companies were raking in the dough with merchandise such as toys, lunch boxes, and kids' pajamas. Oh, and also that a couple dudes nobody had ever heard of had come up with a devilishly ingenious way to capitalize on the craze — with a ridiculously goofy novelty tune called "Pac-Man Fever." 

Just a year prior, Jerry Buckner and Gary Garcia had been struggling radio voiceover actors; CBS Records scooped them up after their self-recorded tune started getting traction on a few radio stations, and gave them a month to come up with an entire video game-themed album. Unbelievably, they did, but they probably shouldn't have expended the effort. While the album sputtered, "Pac-Man Fever" sold north of two million copies, and went to No. 24 on the pop chart — and then, the video game market crashed super-hard, and Buckner and Garcia went back to voiceover work.

City of Crime by Dan Aykroyd and Tom Hanks

The 1987 movie revival of the beloved cops-and-robbers series "Dragnet" didn't exactly go by the book. In place of Jack Webb as Joe Friday, we had Dan Aykroyd as... Joe Friday, the nephew of Webb's hard-boiled detective, in the straight-man role he was born to play. Opposite him, as his goofy, rules and regulations-averse partner Pep Streebek: Tom Hanks, in the cut-up role he was born to play. Throw in a truly weird plot about ritualistic pagan murders in LA, and the result is an '80s-tastic send-up of the classic show that would not have been complete without a proper theme song: "City of Crime," which of course featured Aykroyd and Hanks in character, rapping about being hard-nosed cops.

The song is pure silliness, with Aykroyd and Hanks spitting rhymes like, "You're a dangerous mob and it is our job / To bust you all for being violent / While we are here let's state it clear / You have the right to remain silent." The video is even sillier, featuring the pair busting out synchronized dance routines in a police station in between hot verses. Hanks was reminded of his brush with rap immortality during a 2015 appearance on "The Graham Norton Show," where he claimed that fate had conspired to make "City of Crime" the very first thing he ever saw on YouTube.

You Look Marvelous by Billy Crystal

Billy Crystal is a very funny guy, and as a cast member and host of "Saturday Night Live" during the mid-80's, he became known for creating oddball characters and doing impressions of everybody from Howard Cosell to Prince. But one of those impressions, of Latin screen star Fernando Lamas (the father of Lorenzo), struck a chord with viewers for one simple reason, comprised of three simple words: the catchphrase "You look marvelous," uttered in sincerely complimentary fashion to anyone who happened to be sitting across from him.

Crystal's portrayal of Lamas, and his utterance of that bewilderingly popular phrase, somehow struck the funny bone of mainstream audiences so freaking hard that it paved the way for a lightweight, dance-y tune — little more than a backdrop for Crystal to do his Lamas schtick for four minutes — that peaked at No. 58 on the Billboard Hot 100. In 2023, as he was preparing to receive a lifetime achievement award at that year's Kennedy Center Honors, he revealed to the Associated Press (via ABC News) that despite a body of work befitting that honor, Fernando Lamas was always coming back to haunt him. "After all these years, I still get 'You look marvelous' the most," he said. "I sat next to Henry Kissinger on a plane one time, and even he said it to me."

Valley Girl by Frank Zappa

Few novelty tunes have lasting cultural impact, even fewer score Grammy nominations, and you could likely count the number that have achieved both on one hand — perhaps even one finger. Leave it to the late, great Frank Zappa, one of the weirdest and most talented musicians in history, to offer up a blistering satire of mindless consumerism so sublime that it sails right over the heads of 99% of its listeners, and right into pop culture immortality: "Valley Girl," the song that birthed that descriptor, featuring his then-14-year-old daughter Moon Zappa throwing down comedic monologues for the ages.

The song is pure early '80s power pop, but since it's Zappa, it's musically interesting and genuinely catchy. As Frank's verses back her up, Moon's interludes expound on the joys of shopping and diss clueless boys and manicurists, all while casually dropping phrases that would soon be adopted by teens all over the world: "Like, totally," "Barf me out," "Bag your face," and "Gag me with a spoon," to name a few. In an interview before his death, Zappa was a little, well, grossed out at the song's enduring popularity. "The worst thing about that record is the fact that nobody really listened to it," he said — but even he had to admit that "sociologically, it was the most important record of 1982 in the United States."

Super Bowl Shuffle by the Chicago Bears Shufflin' Crew

In 1985, the owners and operators of Red Label Records — operating from the basement of a mansion in Winnetka, an hour or so north of Chicago — received an unusual call. It was the seventh week of the football season, and the Chicago Bears, who were shaping up to be utterly dominant that year, wanted to make a rap record. Digging into their vaults, Red Label's songwriters happened across "The Kingfish Shuffle," an Amos and Andy parody which they had composed, shopped around, and ultimately shelved. The Bears requested they send over an instrumental track, and Red Label lyricist Mel Owens started writing lyrics for a new version: "The Super Bowl Shuffle" (via Grantland).

Bears standouts including quarterback Jim McMahon, legendary running back Walter Payton, and wide receiver Willie Gault took turns busting rhymes over the track, and it's worth noting that when it was released in December of that year, the Bears had yet to qualify for the big game. But as you may be aware, the team became the first one in NFL history to post back-to-back shutouts in the playoffs before going on to stomp the New England Patriots 46-10 in Super Bowl XX. The song and the video are cheesier than a Chicago deep dish, but at least the Bears made good on their rappy boasts — and the song was even inexplicably nominated for a Grammy for Best R&B performance.

Take Off by Bob and Doug Mckenzie

"SCTV," also known as "Second City Television," produced nearly as many comedy superstars in the '70's and '80s as "Saturday Night Live." The Canadian institution ran for six seasons between 1976 and 1984, and featured the stylings of such beloved comics as John Candy, Eugene Levy, Catherine O'Hara, Martin Short, and Rick Moranis — the latter of whom teamed up with fellow screwball Dave Thomas to create the characters of Bob and Doug McKenzie, a couple of harebrained Canuck hosers who hosted the fictional gabfest "Great White North," and who probably did more to advance Canadian stereotypes among Americans than pretty much anyone else. 

The duo were briefly insanely popular in both Canada and the States in the early '80s, and in addition to the classic feature film "Strange Brew," this period also produced a Bob and Doug comedy LP, also titled "Great White North." This record sported a genuine Top 10 single: "Take Off," featuring the pair bickering hilariously during the verses, which were broken up by a chorus sung by none other than Geddy Lee of Rush, who was a childhood friend of Moranis. For those keeping score at home, "Take Off" — which peaked at No. 8 — is actually the highest-charting record Lee has ever appeared on; 1982's "New World Man," the most successful single Rush ever offered up, peaked at No. 21.

I Eat Cannibals by Total Coelo

There are one-hit wonders, and then there is Total Coelo, an all-girl vocal group from the U.K. who seem to have vanished into the ether immediately after their brief brush with success. Originally known as Toto Coelo, the band's U.S. label forced a name change due to protests from the rock group Toto; those guys need not have worried. Their debut single was a Top 10 hit in the U.K, but made it only to No. 66 stateside, and the group bit the dust before they even recorded a proper album. But that single? A bizarre, freaky, weirdly perfect chant-along called "I Eat Cannibals." 

The rest of the tune's lyrics don't make a heck of a lot of sense, but that matters not; all one really needs to know is that these girls eat cannibals, it's incredible, and it brings out the animal in them. After dropping this gonzo kind-of-masterpiece, the group splintered to the winds — or, maybe they never existed in the first place. Maybe their lone hit song was a collective '80s fever dream so potent that it became real; this seems about as likely as the alternative, which is that someone actually wrote and recorded a song called "I Eat Cannibals."

Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer by Elmo & Patsy

In 1979, a Christmas classic was born when songwriter Randy Brooks played his latest tune for Elmo Shropshire and his wife, Patsy Trigg, who were part-time bluegrass performers. Brooks, whose uncle was comedian Foster Brooks, fancied himself a pretty funny guy — and Shropshire and Trigg agreed, working his song into their act. In short order, they ponied up for studio time to record what would become a bona fide holiday staple: "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer."

It would be four years before the public caught on — thanks, of course, to MTV, who were happy to air the cheaply made-yet-hilarious video ad infinitum during the 1983 Christmas season. The rest is history, as Brooks' gag tune — which declares that "You might think there's no such thing as Santa / But as for me and Grandpa, we believe" — has long since taken its place among the ranks of Yuletide standards. In a 2022 interview with Billboard, Shropshire shared that he expected "the bottom [to] drop out" every year after Christmas — but it just never did, and even today in his 80s, he's happy to play the tune that made him a holiday legend.