The enduring appeal of Yakety Sax

I think that everyone would have heard the tune Yakety Sax. It was composed in 1963 by James Q. Rich and Boots Randolph and played on the saxophone by Randolph. For those who have not had the pleasure of hearing this very catchy tune that is guaranteed to lighten anyone’s mood, here it is.

It was inspired b the 1958 song Yakety Yak by The Coasters which has a saxophone solo in the middle.

There is something about the uptempo tune and the percussion accompaniment that has a zany quality to it. The tune got a new lease of life when slapstick comedian Benny Hill used to end his sketch comedy TV show with a speeded up chase of him being pursued by others, set to the music over the closing credits, so that it became known as the Benny Hill theme. Ever since, it has been the go-to choice for comedic chases or whenever someone wants to make a comedic point.

We saw it recently when people set it to the clip of senator Josh Hawley on January 6th running to escape the mob that he had saluted just a short while earlier.

Steve Bray is apparently a well-known political activist in the UK and anti-Brexit campaigner. When Boris Johnson announced that he was resigning, actor Hugh Grant suggested to Bray that he bring along his boom box to the announcement and play Yakety Sax while Johnson was speaking, which he did. Johnson gave his resignation speech outside the door of 10 Downing Street and this is close to public streets so we had the spectacle of Johnson’s speech being accompanied to the tune of Yakety Sax. It was kind of appropriate really, since Johnson used the bumbling persona as a way to deflect attention from his many failures, so his exit evoking images of Benny Hill running away from crowds was fitting. It gave the whole event a celebratory air, hardly the solemn moment that Johnson may have envisaged.

It also resulted in news announcers having to keep a straight face while reporting on Johnson’s speech with Yakety Sax playing in the background.

It must be exhausting to play this tune. Playing a saxophone requires considerable lung effort and this tune is so fast-paced that it is a tribute to Randolph’s skills.

Melanie Macfarland writes about why the tune is so funny and has become strongly associated with political failure.

July is bookended by Boris Johnson’s resignation from his position of Britain’s prime minister at its start, with the Jan. 6 committee hearing in which footage of Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., cowardly fleeing insurrectionists he courted outside the Capitol building on Jan. 6, 2021, made its debut serving as its closer.

Neither of these events is naturally comedic . . . until you add a soundtrack. And this is where that so-called “special relationship” comes into play, since the device most popularly used to satirize and shamed each man is the same: Boots Randolph’s “Yakety Sax.”

All of which is to say, Americans and Brits have long understood “Yakety Sax” to be the universal theme of lunacy and fecklessness, regardless of whether a person has seen “Benny Hill” or even knows who he was. And that leads us to wonder what it is about this tune that lends it the ability to inject hilarity, appropriate or otherwise, into everything from the benign to the enraging, including the most abhorrently violent movie scenes imaginable.

“Yakety Sax” has been adapted by guitarists – Chet Atkins recorded a version he dubbed “Yakety Axe” – but there’s a significant difference between shredding a stringed instrument with one’s figures and employing that same level of dexterity and acuity to a woodwind. Even for the most skilled professional saxophone players, “Yakety Sax” is highly challenging to perform. Randolph’s singular athleticism in performing the tune regularly for decades is an astonishing feat of precise breath work and fast finger placement.

Speaking with the Associated Press in 1990, Randolph embraced “Yakety Sax” as his trademark. “I’ll hang my hat on it,” he said. “It’s kept me alive.”

One wonders whether Randolph would be tickled to know that piece of his musical legacy maintains the uncanny ability to blunt the scary or unpalatable, thanks to a melody that disguises its difficulty in absolute absurdity.

Maybe in the US it should replace ‘Hail to the Chief’, the pompous tune that is played when the president makes an official appearance.


  1. moarscienceplz says

    “It was inspired by the 1958 song Yakety Yak by the coasters which has a saxophone solo in the middle.”
    I did not know this, but I used to often confuse one with the other, and now I know why.
    I have always loved both of these songs, way before I ever heard of Benny Hill, but Benny certainly did cement Yakety Sax as a comedy trope forever.
    Speaking of Benny Hill, probably my favorite thing from him was the way he would often employ a reverse dirty pun. As in, you think he is saying something very naughty and the punchline is that he was saying something perfectly acceptable to a ‘genteel’ audience, but we the actual audience were tricked into thinking it was ‘rude’, as the Brits would say.
    One example I remember is Benny is a waiter with a rather thick undefinable accent serving a man and a very attractive woman. He hands them both large multipage menus and the woman says that she really wants to start with a good bottle of wine and starts flipping through the pages to find the wine list. Benny smiles at her, and then looks at the man and says, “She’s passionate.” The man looks shocked and asks Benny to repeat what he just said. Benny says again, “She’s passionate”. The man starts to get angry. “Now look here! That is my wife you are talking about! How dare you?”
    Benny says, “I mean the wine list! She keeps pashin’ it! It’s on page number 1!”

  2. sonofrojblake says

    May I also alert you to the incredible performance of Leo Pellegrino at the Royal Albert Hall in 2017 of Charlie Mingus’s “Moanin'”. This is not just a musician -- this is an athlete:

  3. Katydid says

    Benny Hill was usually being chased because he’d just sexually harassed or sexually assaulted a random woman just trying to mind her own business and live her life, and the woman’s owner was chasing him.

  4. John Morales says

    Katydid, just to say, back in the day, it was wholesome family entertainment.

    (But yes, the salacious humour was rather hetero, as was the fashion at the time)

  5. Oggie: Mathom says

    I, of course, cannot find it, but many years ago, I had a recording of Yakety Sax, on banjo, being played by Earl Scruggs. And it worked so perfectly.

    One year, when the high school football team was particularly atrocious and there was a time out during which multiple players were running on and off the field, one of the sax players in the high school band let loose with Yakety Sax. And half the fans lost it laughing. The other half (mostly much younger) just looked confused.

    I have it on my iPod. And the last time I played it, I was roaring through the I-95 construction through Jacksonville, FL. Loved it.

  6. Katydid says

    @John; it may have been considered wholesome back in the day, but when I saw it as a young teen in the 1980s, I was immediately turned off by the misogyny. Women were on the show to be leered at and pawed and their skirts lifted, and not allowed to object to being treated like that. That was not entertaining; that was real life for many women.

  7. Jazzlet says

    I agree with Katydid, Benny Hill’s comedy was old fashioned at the time it was originally broadcast, a time when comedians on Saturday Live were challenging all of the stereotypes Hill regurgitated.

  8. sonofrojblake says

    As John Morales says -- when originally broadcast, it was “wholesome family entertainment” -- entertainment of the same stripe as was being provided by other great names in British showbusiness, names like Jimmy Savile, Rolf Harris, Gary Glitter and many, many more.

    It does amuse me when I see Americans getting superior about it though. You’re talking about a show that was twice nominated for an Emmy. I do clearly remember backpacking with a couple of mates around Europe in 1988, and meeting an American who loved “British culture, especially British comedy”. Oh really, we said, what comedy do you like -- expecting a response to include Monty Python, or perhaps Blackadder or the Young Ones, or some other fashionable, “alternative” comedy of the type we were all into. “Benny Hill” was his response. I vividly remember the uncomfortable atmosphere and us explaining that that wasn’t really representative of British comedy, but no, he bloody loved it. And he was one of the Yanks with a passport, so by comparison to average he should have been one of the better ones. Good grief.

    Benny Hill was, I think, the last gasp of the type of humour alternative comedy was a reaction against -- hackneyed, misogynistic, racist and massively, massively popular. In a nation with less than 56 million people in it, Benny Hill got audiences of over 21 million. Admittedly, there was practically nothing else on -- literally two other channels, one of which was probably showing an interview with Malcolm Muggeridge or something. But even so…

  9. consciousness razor says

    sonofrojblake, #2:
    Well, at least that got me to wash it down with some real Mingus…. I’ll leave a couple little treats here and here.

  10. Katydid says

    Ah, so because one American man backpacker in 1988 thought misogynistic sexual harassment was funny, therefore…something?

    I’ve lived in Britain 3 times. I remember watching snooker on tv, and gardening shows. Not showing people gardening; just featuring people talking about gardening. Still more entertaining that watching women be sexually assaulted for the LOLZ.

  11. mnb0 says

    “The tune got a new lease of life when slapstick comedian Benny Hill ….
    Perhaps that’s why the tune never really worked with me. Benny Hill always failed to make me laugh too. And I’m from 1963. So Katydid is not the only one. I prefer Monty Python and dark humour. Sure enough I found the clip with Chariots of Fire the funnier one.
    What I think funny is the Ballad of the Roasted Swan by Carl Orff.

    Once I lived on lakes,
    once I looked beautiful,
    when I was a swan.

    Misery me!
    Now black
    and roasting fiercely!

    The servant is turning me on the spit;
    I am burning fiercely on the pyre:
    the steward now serves me up.

    Misery me! etc.

    Now I lie on a plate,
    and cannot fly anymore,
    I see bared teeth:

    Misery me! etc.

    But I admit that it’s the combination with the lyrics that makes it work (am I happy that I understand some Latin).

  12. sonofrojblake says

    @Katydid,10: there was a point. You missed it. It’s not important.

    Out of curiosity, did you recognised any of the names in my first paragraph, and the point there?

  13. Katydid says

    I know who Jimmy Savile is, and I think you missed the point. My point was that sexual harassment and assault is simply not funny. Neither is blackface.

    There are any number of classic British shows that are entertaining without being abusive. To the Manor Born and All Creatures Great and Small are two from the 1960s/1970s and now there are just so many.

  14. Katydid says

    @rojblake, I suspect you consider sexual assault to be “wholesome family entertainment” because it wasn’t your gender being assaulted. I suspect a lot of the men who produced these shows thought it was just the funniest stuff ever because it wasn’t happening to men and because that’s the proper treatment of women, amirite?

  15. John Morales says

    @rojblake, I suspect you consider sexual assault to be “wholesome family entertainment” because it wasn’t your gender being assaulted.

    Son of, 🙂

    (I quite liked Blake’s 7 when it was on TV)

    Nah, it really was considered thus, which should inform you as to the culture at the time.

    Mind you, Benny would often be the one who came off as ridiculous and silly in his skits, that was part of the schtick.
    He was the buffoon.

    (If you really want to complain, what about the little old man whose pate he’d pat?)

    And yes, Rolf Harris was ultra-super-dooper-wholesome.
    Nothing particularly risque about his shows, though.

  16. sonofrojblake says

    @id, 14: (interesting, if I omit the first five letters of your nym, as you did mine, it’s oddly appropriate, don’t you think?)

    @rojblake, I suspect you consider sexual assault to be “wholesome family entertainment”

    And I suspect you don’t understand the concept of sarcasm, or lack the comprehension to spot it even when flagged with quotation marks.

    The point that sailed over your head was: the 1970s on British television was a cesspit of sexual abusers. You apparently couldn’t even be bothered to google the other names, or you might not have missed the point so spectacularly.

    tldr; I’m agreeing with you, you’re just to indignant to have spotted it.

  17. Katydid says

    @sonofrojblake; if agreeing with me is what you were doing, than I can only say sorry. You just have a really long history of being completely blind as to how half the population (that is, women) might think or feel in your zeal to “What about the MENZ, won’t someone PLEASE think of the men?!?!?” whenever an issue that might affect women comes up, so naturally I assumed this was another time.

    As to leaving out the letters of your name; I was typing on a phone while taking a break from supporting someone in hospice and it ate part of my response.

  18. sonofrojblake says

    @Katydid -- just google those other names, when convenient. Then reconsider not couching your not-pology with “if that’s what you’re doing”.

    If that doesn’t convince, really read post 8 again, for comprehension. Some notes:
    1. we asked the dude what comedy he liked
    2. we expected him to like what we liked.
    3. what we liked was the alternative comedy, the movement that was loudly rejecting the racism and misogyny of mainstream comedy of the generation before
    4. when he said “Benny Hill”, that made us uncomfortable.

    Furthermore, I’m not describing my woke, 21st century, read-a-lot-of-FtB, more tolerant self of today. I’m describing me at 18, already wishing to dissociate myself and my culture from the regressive comedy of Benny Hill. So yeah -- I’m agreeing with you now and I would have been agreeing with you 35 years ago.

  19. says

    The modern day version of this must surely be “My heart will go on -- Flute Fail”, a poorly played verson of the “Titanic” song. I’ve seen it laid over videos of people doing things while (without getting hurt) drunk out of their minds and uncoordinated. It never stops being funny.

  20. Tethys says

    Oy, sonofrojblake! Your sarcasm didn’t work, and I read your comment exactly as Katydid has.
    Benny Hill wasn’t ever wholesome, despite the fact that you correctly wrote down the names of several other misogynistic celebrities in the same paragraph. Being ironically sexist ‘for a laugh’ does count as misogynist.

    The last gasp

    Blimey, when did page 3 stop being tolerated?

  21. sonofrojblake says


    I read your comment exactly as Katydid has.

    Well if TWO people didn’t understand what I wrote, that must mean I wasn’t being sarcastic at all, and in fact meant precisely what I said, despite having deliberately put a bit of it in quotes for some reason.

    OR: alternative explanation -- your reading comprehension isn’t very good. Let’s test this alternative hypothesis.

    You extremely selectively quoted me using the phrase “the last gasp”, then made a point about when Page 3 stopped being tolerated.

    What was the context of the phrase “the last gasp”? Was it a general point about culture? Was it about newspapers? Models? Breasts? No. No. No. And no.

    In context, since you appear not to have read or possibly just not understood the whole sentence (or are disingenuously lifting out just three words so you can in bad faith make an unrelated point):

    “Benny Hill was, I think, the last gasp of the type of humour alternative comedy was a reaction against

    Was Page 3 “humour”, to you? What kind of fucked up attitude to women have you got if you thought Page 3 was, or was ever meant to be, funny???

    Or, possibly, did you not think that at all, but simply couldn’t think of a good-faith way to link the point you’d already decided to make to the entirely unrelated thing I’d actually said? Well, fair enough, but don’t expect people not to spot that you appear not to be paying attention.

    Benny Hill wasn’t ever wholesome

    Yes, that was my point. If you’d bothered to read what I wrote, or were bright enough to understand all the big words, you might have gone on to see that the very next thing I wrote was my characterisation of Benny Hill humour. Here -- let me repeat it for you because you missed it last time. I said, in precisely these words, that Benny Hill was:

    “hackneyed, misogynistic, racist “

    Now, if you honestly read that as me giving Benny Hill’s show a ringing endorsement as wholesome family entertainment, I pity you for the terribly confusing world you must live in.

    you correctly wrote down the names of several other misogynistic celebrities

    Again, you seem not to have got the point. I didn’t write down the names of misogynistic celebrities. That list could have gone on and on. I wrote down the names of proven prolific sex criminals. It startles me that you’d characterise those actual monsters as merely “misogynistic”. Would you describe Jeffrey Dahmer as “misanthropic”?? I mean, you could, it’s technically true I guess, but you come across as really, really weird if you go there.

    I made a really clear point. Benny Hill was a hackneyed, misogynistic, racist show first broadcast at a time when it didn’t seem out of place in the schedules, and carried on until it seemed really, really out of place. It was, I think, the “last gasp” of that kind of thing on British TV.

    You didn’t get that point, and neither did Katydid. I forgive you.

  22. sonofrojblake says

    Profuse apologies to Intransitive. First line of 22 should of course read “@Tethys”. Sorry again.

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