Why Was “More Cowbell” So Popular

Mark Dellandre
5 min readSep 4, 2020
A classic moment. Photo: NBC

Fashion is an ever-changing art form. What was popular last season is soon eclipsed by a new, fresh, and exciting trend which renders the old styles tired and worn-out. People show off the latest trends and discuss them around the water cooler to the delight of others. Wait, did I say fashion? I meant comedy is an ever-changing art form. Comedy is discussed around the water cooler and is soon eclipsed by something new, fresh, and exciting. Boy, is my face red over that mistake. It’s almost like I could have deleted that first sentence if I really didn’t mean to type it.

Anyway, comedy is in a constant state of flux. Popular catch phrases take over our lives, infect our tee-shirts and the aforementioned water cooler discussions, then disappear from our lexicon when we hear the next catch phrase. In this article, I’d like to focus on one catch phrase in particular that took the world by storm: “More cowbell.” It’s hard to believe that we once lived in an era where these two words had such a large influence on popular culture. There are many who believe we still live in that era (after all, I am writing about it, aren’t I?). Scientists believe that the next ice age may mark the conclusive end to the “More cowbell” epoch, but only time will tell.

For those unfamiliar with this 2000 SNL skit, let me describe it in painfully unfunny detail. Guest star Christopher Walken plays legendary producer Bruce Dickerson — yes, the Bruce Dickerson — who is attending a recording of Blue Oyster Cult’s “Don’t Fear the Reaper.” Band member Will Ferrell plays a musical cowbell during the track, much to the annoyance of front man Chris Parnell. (I don’t know the actual names of the band members and Googling things like that is soooooo hard). Parnell pauses the recording in the middle of the song, questioning its sound. Cue Walken, who comes out and utters the immortal line, “I’ll be honest… I could’ve used a little more cowbell.” The studio audience laughs, the folks at home laugh, and the rest of the skit is Will Ferrell dancing around the room, annoying the band with his wild cowbell playing (and to be fair, the dude plays it like a champ).

I could break down every part of the skit, line-for-line, but that’s not why I’m here today. Instead, I want to focus on why that initial joke sparked the reaction it did. From the acting, to the dynamic, to the bizarre nature of the skit itself, the line works for many reasons. If you haven’t seen the sketch yet, feel free to check it out. Maybe you’ll love it, maybe you won’t. Everybody has different tastes. But there is no denying that “More cowbell” caught fire and became a phenomenon across the nation.

We’ll begin the analysis with an obvious statement: Christopher Walken is flat-out hilarious. No denying it, he’s great. The writers and producers of the show must have been aware of this, too, because he’s been a guest star on many occasions. So many, in fact, he’s warranted his own “Best-of…” DVD box set. Fans loved him and the audience loved him. There’s a whole article I could write about why this guy was and is so revered in comedy (Edit: coming soon. Edit: Edit: not soon enough) but for now, I have to remain focused.

Walken had developed a reputation over the years for his unique line delivery. Let’s be honest, we all have a bad Christopher Walken impression ready to go in our back pocket (I keep mine tucked into my sock, actually). But his delivery is only a small part piece of the picture; he’s also known for nailing weird and far-out characters with as much zeal as his dramatic ones. This is front and center in his SNL appearance. When he says he could use a little more cowbell, he delivers the line completely deadpan. He’s committed to the bit. He believes in what he’s saying.

Of course, his is not the only great performance. Chris Parnell’s character is equally as committed to the bit and his delivery is equally as funny, but for different reasons. While Walken’s character is deadpan, Parnell is the “straight man.” I’ve mentioned the straight man/ funny man dynamic before and here it is on full display. The joke has to be set up before it gets knocked down. In fact, the whole sketch fails without Parnell. In a way, he’s acting as a surrogate to the audience. When we see Will Ferrell beating on that cowbell into a microphone, we recognize it to be just as ludicrous as he does. (Fun fact: I never even noticed the cowbell in the song until after I saw the sketch. The more you know, I suppose.)

There’s a popular theory that comedy, in one way or another, is based on misery. Chris Parnell is the character in misery here. He doesn’t think the cowbell works because, by all rights, the cowbell shouldn’t work. And out comes this legendary music producer to not only disagree, but state the opposite is true. The sound isn’t off because of the cowbell, it’s off because there isn’t enough cowbell.

And that brings me to the final idea: irony being used as a comedic prop. In short, irony is a situation or event that occurs contrary to the expected outcome. (You hear that, Alanis?) The irony in this sketch is ultimately what makes it funny. Parnell should be in the right. The cowbell is distracting and an odd choice for an instrument in a rock song. But Bruce Dickerson — yes, the Bruce Dickerson — who they’ve built up to be an expert in the field doesn’t see the situation like how Parnell, or the audience, sees it. In order for him to be right, we all have to be wrong. We’ve stepped into the Twilight Zone where the universe seems to be in on the joke. It’s the absurd irony in the situation that draws a laugh.

Whether this is a true story of how the recording of “Don’t Fear the Reaper” went down or not (and I’m guessing not. Recording studios in the ’70s had a conspicuous lack of Christopher Walken), there’s no doubt this speculative piece of history provided the world with a good laugh. Without the three factors mentioned above, the absolute absurdity mixed with Parnell’s straight face and Walken’s zeal, this skit would have never caught fire with the public. Now, when a friend says “more cowbell,” you can understand why the joke is funny and why they, presumably, aren’t.

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Mark Dellandre

I'm a writer, author, and storyteller. I'm a triple threat. Check out my audio sitcom, Cloak and Daggerheart!