There’s nothing easy about entertaining more than 50,000 people all at once, especially if they are in a football stadium surrounded by friends, fans and lots of good food.
Just ask senior chemical engineering major Andrew Kleinschmidt and junior product design major Matt Appleby. The two – backed by a cadre of fellow student “writerz” – are responsible for the often irreverent, sometimes wacky and always provocative football game performances by the Stanford Band.
The Stanford Band—officially known as the Leland Stanford Junior University Marching Band—and its alumni will use several events to celebrate the group’s 50th anniversary as a “scatter band” during this year’s Reunion Homecoming.
“Scatter” means that Stanford Band members don’t march as much as they run from place to place on the football field, scattering and then reforming into humorous words and symbols, all while playing music. The accompanying scripts, read by band announcers, require that audience members have refined and nuanced senses of humor.
This year, for instance, Kleinschmidt, Appleby and their writing team have brought Cardinal fans halftime shows in which they offered really bad advice for freshmen, suggested the city of San Jose was secretly turning Canadian and celebrated summer movies featuring explosions. This week, they hope to offer shows revealing the dangers of closed captioning and critiquing the fashion sense of Pac-12 football teams.
Not everyone gets the joke. For instance, at the Rose Bowl last year, booing Wisconsin fans saw no humor in a halftime show filled with bad puns about cheese. The band called it the “Homage to Fromage,” featuring such memorable lines as, “You’re a Muenster,” “Two cheese-heads are grater than one” and “It’s Gouda to see you again.”
“Humor is subjective, and some people aren’t going to like our humor,” acknowledged Kleinschmidt, who plays trumpet in the band. “I think when opposing teams boo, they often wanted to dislike us before we got on the field. I think that our sense of humor can amplify existing rivalry, and we just take the boos to mean they care about us.”
But he added that it is helpful to imagine that “everyone that boos goes home and eats cold oatmeal and drinks Postum alone in the dark. Some people just don’t want to have fun.”
Generating ideas for scripts isn’t the hard part. The hard part is finding appropriate subjects that will work with a loosely organized band wearing red jackets and floppy fishing hats and performing with a limited amount of practice time. Not to mention that not every band member is actually playing an instrument. At least one student, for instance, drums an honest-to-goodness kitchen sink. There’s also that dancing Tree and the Dollies to integrate into the show.
“We and the writing staff try to keep up with current events, and lots of times we’ll try to find connections between the world of sports and the rest of the world,” Kleinschmidt said. “Sometimes the news cycle doesn’t quite work out. Oftentimes, the funniest shows come out of less funny shows. Both the secret Canadians show and the Pac-12 fashion review came out of other shows that were generally unrelated.”
Plus, there is the challenge of performing in a stadium. Even one as state of the art as Stanford Stadium can wreak havoc with sound.
“The biggest challenge of performing in Stanford Stadium is our announcer being heard,” said Appleby. “The problem has been partially solved by the new captioning system in the stadium.”
But, the band “writerz” can even turn such technological advances as closed captioning into jokes.
“The new captioning system is actually the subject of one of this week’s shows,” Appleby said. “The show involves one announcer speaking gibberish into the microphone until another announcer alerts him that everyone can read what he is saying. The rest of the show involves the now-exposed announcers trying to come up with jokes on the fly.”
Like them or not, you can’t argue that the Stanford Band members sure look like they are having fun. Kleinschmidt and Appleby agree that they are and simply want to share the fun with Cardinal fans.
“I joined band because when I first visited Stanford I heard about the ‘crazy’ band and thought it would be fun,” said Appleby. “I even wrote on my college application that I wanted to play drums in the ‘boisterous’ Stanford Band. I never thought that I would become so involved, but it has been an amazing group to be a part of. Band feels like a home away from home for me. Not that my home involved banging drum sticks on stop signs or the kitchen sink, but the band has become my emotional relief from the hectic Stanford life.”