The Apple Sisters

By Steve Heisler

There’s a saying in comedy that’s so old, I don’t even feel the need to put quotation marks around it: If you try to be everything to everyone, you’ll wind up being nothing to nobody. True comedy is born from minutiae, and now more than ever—given the niche audiences that can be garnered from podcasts and self-produced live shows—it’s a liability for comics not to play to their finer points, however limiting that may seem.

the apple sisters

The Apple Sisters are a core (Nailed it!) example of finding abundant success in specifics. Rebekka Johnson, Kimmy Gatewood and Sarah Lowe parody a 1940s-era radio program at their live shows and on their Earwolf-distributed podcast. They make wisecracks about FDR and World War II, create fictional commercials for bygone products and treat domestic abuse as a matter-of-fact inevitability. Their bits are evocative of a time long gone, delivered with over-the-top bravado that manages to stay charming. In their “Corndy” sketch, a commercial for candy corn, the women eat corn off the cob and spit out the kernels in the rhythm of a typewriter—all while managing to rock sweet three-part harmonies. If that’s not commitment, I don’t know what is.

On 1943, the Sisters take the finer points of their act to a whole new level of finer-pointing. Their focus is on a particular year of the 1940s, and the group nails the target with bull’s-eye accuracy. Right from the start, the object of each song’s joke is crystal clear, from the bamboozling nature of ads to Las Vegas’s façade of allure. But the Sisters have a plan; 1943 is so polished it feels almost calculated…until you stumble onto one of its many expertly placed surprises.

Limiting themselves to a single year opens up unexpected avenues for satire and silliness. To highlight a woman’s obsession with staying thin, the Sisters sing about a great new weight-loss product: a tapeworm. They even give it a name, “Tippity Tappity Tapeworm,” and have it speak in a shrill, ear-piercing voice between musical refrains. Not only are they singing in exaggerated, old-timey-radio style about tapeworms, but there’s humor coming from the sheer joy of hearing this tapeworm goad the girls into eating way more than they’re comfortable with. At another point on the album, Paul F. Tompkins pretends to be FDR addressing the nation, going out of his way to alleviate any fears that he might be wheelchair-bound. He mentions running and walking all the time, then apropos of nothing exclaims, “Jazz splits! I just did a bunch of them…with my working legs!” The Sisters let 1943’s perception of FDR guide this silly-yet-simple bit, and its memorability is proof enough they should always follow their instincts.

The Apple Sisters have a hell of an ear for music, and thus are able to embed jokes in the notes themselves. “Man Song” is purposely sung in a low key (a “manly key”); the notes naturally get higher as the song rounds the bend, but rather than switch back to their beautiful womanly voices, the Sisters remain committed to the bit and strain to hit high notes in their man-voices. The song “Killer Daddy” starts as a creepy lounge number co-starring a sleazy guy cooing promises of stardom (played by a dead ringer for Danny DeVito), but ends as an uplifting almost-gospel song, the titular daddy overwhelmed and slightly turned off by the Sisters’ enthusiasm. Then there’s “War Is Great!,” where they seamlessly combine timely American ditties like “Home on the Range” and “Grand Ole Flag” into a medley that collapses into a cacophony of misplaced lyrics. They begin by singing about patriotism but end more confused than ever about what the word even means.

Every piece of 1943 is hand crafted and meticulously planned. No part of the album makes the act feel anything like a gimmick. There are tracks that indicate the end of “Side A” and “Side B,” but even those have jokes that build; on “Side A” the Sisters literally just take 10 seconds to tell you to flip over the record; on B they pray you start the album over and wonder if the recorder’s still running as they casually bicker. Plus there are jokes that take the entire album to pay off. “Ring! Ring! Ring!,” the second track, is one of the catchiest songs out there, let alone in just the comedysphere: The girls try to impress a movie producer (Tompkins again) with an off-the-cuff pitch involving telephone operators, cats and a murder. The third-to-last track, “Three Merry Murderers,” may include a cat or two.

Jokes hit on so many different rhythms, and the songs are rife with sweet harmonies and infectious choruses. 1943 is a blueprint of how to make a great comedy album: Know exactly what you want to say, and push yourself not to deviate.

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