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I saw the article reporting 2011 Mark Twain Prize giving ceremony held on October 23rd at Kennedy Center, under the title “At Mark Twain shebang, comics clank a cowbell or two for Will Ferrell” in the October 24 issue of Washington Post.

I was arrested with the expression “comics clank a cowbell or two,” and then found another “cowbell” in the subsequent sentence:

“If you are a fan of the SNL sketch “cowbell,” you have got to tell Will,” Andy Samberg told the audience, “since the entire world still beg him for “more cowbell.”

As I wasn’t clear about what “clank a cowbell or two” and “more cowbell” mean, I checked some online dictionaries and found the following definition of “more cowbell” in the Urban Dictionary:

  • more cowbell - A quote from a Saturday Night Live skit featuring Blue Oyster Cult members recording "Don't Fear the Reaper" with a producer telling them to add "more cowbell". A funny pun on the cowbell in the song by BOC. Billy: "It needs more cowbell!" Joe: "LOLLERSKATES!"

From this I guess “more cowbell” means “more animation (ginger or substance)" or "sound volume" though I’m not sure. Tell me if I’m wrong. But what does “comics clank a cowbell or two” mean?

Why is “more cowbell” in singular form while "a cowbell or two" is in countable (noun) form? Is it because the former is used as an abstract noun and the latter is a material noun?

Is either “more cowbell” or "clank a cowbell" getting (or has it gotten) currency as an idiom or a buzz word? The “cowbell” is clamoring for me to ask a spell of questions.

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You certainly did your research!

Two crucial points that it's not clear if you came across, though:

1) SNL is an abbreviation for Saturday Night Live, a popular comedy show that features comedic stand-up skits and musical guests.

2) The cowbell, in addition to being a countable noun, is also an instrument.

Now, let's take a break and watch an excerpt from the skit in question.

The skit is a reenactment and parody of the studio recording of the song "(Don't Fear) The Reaper" by the band Blue Öyster Cult. The guy screaming "I gotta have more cowbell" is the producer. Because the cowbell player (Will Ferrell) and the producer (Christopher Walken) are popular actors, and because SNL was a successful show at the time, this skit became a big hit. The humor lies in that "more cowbell" seems like an absurd request - a background instrument becomes louder than the vocals, the melody, etc.

The phrase is "more cowbell" and not "more cowbells" because Walken is asking that the one cowbell that's there be played more loudly. This is actually standard usage - someone might similarly ask for "more bass" or "more guitar", both in the singular. (Or, in another context, someone might stay a stew needs "more carrot".)

The "more cowbell" joke can now be seen all over US pop culture, though at this point, I have to say it feels rather stale. While it's not an idiom, you could call it a "pop culture reference" or "meme".

Understanding it as a cry for "more excitement" isn't bad, actually, but I wouldn't read too much meaning into it. One of the appeals of SNL was its randomness, and people often quote it quite randomly.

  • 2
    Particularly because the cowbell is about the least musical instrument possible. It's the noisy thing people use at Winter olympics. So "more cowbell" on a record is like saying a stew needs more <some nasty tasting vegatable> – mgb Oct 26 '11 at 15:35
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    Perhaps "More of that ridiculous thing from which you seem to be deriving an unreasonable amount of enjoyment!" But that seems a little verbose. – Adam Robinson Oct 26 '11 at 16:26
  • 4
    @MartinBeckett: Have you heard a vuvuzela? – Adam Robinson Oct 26 '11 at 16:26
  • 1
    In the original BOC song, they used a wooden block instead of a cowbell. – Chris Cudmore Oct 26 '11 at 18:25
  • And a good illustration of the use of "needs more x", where x can be plural but the phrase uses the singular, is the Simpsons episode about brewing Red Tick Beer: youtube.com/watch?v=mtqbk9pgPXw – WhatRoughBeast Oct 5 '16 at 14:15
8

If you haven't seen the SNL sketch, it's Christopher Walken's recurring line throughout. All the other permutations are just references back to the original sketch. You can see the sketch here. I'd put it in the category of Internet Meme.

  • +1 because the link is unbroken and without a visual reminder the humor and meaning behind "more cowbell!" would be totally lost. – Mari-Lou A Sep 24 '13 at 3:26
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Onomatomaniak's wonderful response was spot-on.

I wish to share a completely unrelated, much more esoteric usage of the phrase that I am sure is less common.

Some independent Baptist churches (at least in West Virginia, USA) have cowbell services that features several preachers presenting brief sermons in quick succession. Each preacher has a time limit (five minutes to ten minutes time limits are common.) If the preacher goes over the proscribed time limit, the moderator rings a cowbell, which is the preacher's signal to wrap it up. This bell gives the service its name.

Thus, when one sees members of the congregation posting "More cowbell!" to Facebook, the meaning is "we would like to have another cowbell service!" To the uninitiated, however, it looks as if it is a chic cultural reference to the SNL skit.

1

As a musician with a long history of playing with groups, I can see another reason that this skit has resonated with so many people: maybe "cowbell" represents the rather loony metaphors that musical directors use when they don't know how to communicate. These metaphors, in my experience, were often accompanied by wild, hard-to-interpret, gestures. I can picture it in my mind: "I need, um, (how can I explain it?) more cowbell!"

protected by tchrist Jan 2 '18 at 18:21

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