The “Benny Hill Theme Song” has taken on a life of its own since the show stopped airing in 1994. This classic hillbilly-swing cut, recorded in 1963 and used famously in The Benny Hill Show to comically underscore sped-up chase sequences and slapstick montages, has been adopted in the Internet Age as a go-to meme for turning overtly violent or dramatic moments in film and video into re-contextualized comedic gold.
Just take this re-edited sequence from Titanic, for example.
There are literally hundreds of sequences just like this on the internet right now. Since we hear the music as undeniably “hokey,” expecting to see a montage of Three Stooges-style slapstick choreography, the juxtaposition of the silly with the dramatic paints the song in a coat of surreality and absurdity, making it impossible to develop a real emotional response to what’s going on.
Here’s an extremely violent scene clipped from Rambo IV with the same music.
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These “Benny Hill Theme” re-edits of drama and violence on film are a nutshell microcosm of how easy it is for the internet to dull our ability to feel empathy, yet they’re also a pretty clever commentary on cinema’s ability to manipulate and sculpt our reaction through its many devices. In effect, this juxtaposition brilliantly exposes what’s behind the curtain, but then just lets us enjoy it for what it is.
Some people have started to call this the “Yakety effect.”
The “Benny Hill Theme” is actually called “Yakety Sax” and was composed and originally recorded in 1958 by Boots Randolph and James Q. “Spider” Rich. The song didn’t really catch on until they rerecorded and released it in 1963 when it went on to enter the Billboard Top 100 and chart as high as #35!
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The Benny Hill version is another rendition entirely, recorded by Ronnie Aldrich and His Orchestra. Due to the nature of how “Yakety Sax” was predominantly used in The Benny Hill Show, car-chase videos shot from news helicopters tend to make for the best adaptations of the music. Especially because we pretty much always know what the outcome is going to be, we just want to watch it happen and pretend it’s all a big circus act.
Sometimes these “real life” videos are funny to begin with, but the “Yakety effect” easily helps shave off some of the anxiety of watching. Take, for example, this clip of two llamas running around loose in Phoenix.
Or this security-camera gem of an extremely intoxicated man trying to buy more beer and, well, struggling.
Who was Boots Randolph?
Homer Louis “Boots” Randolph III (1927-2007) was born in Kentucky. There’s no real story behind the nickname Boots, except for that growing up, his father was also named Homer, and it caused some confusion. At some point, he was given the name and it just stuck. The Randolphs had a family band, and Boots grew up playing the ukulele, vibraphone, and trombone, eventually settling on the saxophone.
Boots played in the United States Army Band in his youth, then moved back to Kentucky and started a combo ensemble, and eventually took a shot at solo recording and session performing. He played on the soundtracks of eight Elvis Presley movies and was the first saxophonist to record popular music with Presley on songs such as “Return to Sender” and “Reconsider Baby,” as well as with other artists like Roy Orbison, REO Speedwagon, and Al Hirt. But “Yakety Sax” remained his cash cow.
Once “Yakety Sax” blew up, it was recorded, performed, and featured everywhere. Chet Atkins even rearranged it as a guitar piece, which he cleverly dubbed, “Yakety Axe.”
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Another cut off the Yakety Sax! LP is essentially a reworked version of the same song but with Randolph using his saxophone to imitate a chicken. Clearly, he didn’t take himself too seriously.
If you’ve read either of Nick Millevoi’s articles on ripping 1960s country guitarists or innovative early guitar wizards, this should come as no surprise. This type of swingin’ pop-jazz celebrated artists with an equal ability to both perform perfect virtuosic melodic runs on their instruments and make it look easy by playing the showman in other respects.
In other ways, however, these artists felt a lot of pressure to develop a “signature sound,” as they were starting to appear more regularly on nationally televised shows in the early 1960s. For a lot of soloists, that meant adding a bit of slapstick flare into the mix.
If you’re keen to try to learn “Yakety Sax” for yourself, we’ve found a great transcription of the song on Musescore, arranged by user Bperier. Here’s the first page; for the full PDF, click here. If you’re really ambitious, you can try to make heads or tails of this music digitally with the MIDI file!
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