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This song is about someone who has done or said something horribly wrong, which resulted in alienating everyone around him. It's a great example of lyrical songwriting, and very much a love-it-or-hate-it song. With the opening line, "I started a joke, which started the whole world crying," followed with "I started to cry, which set the whole world laughing," the song can be heard as achingly poignant or overly sentimental, depending on your mindset.
The Wallflowers covered this for the 2001 movie Zoolander. It's used in a scene where Derek Zoolander is confused about winning an award that wasn't his. (thanks, Greyham - Comox, B.C.)
This was famously covered by Faith No More and released as their last single, after the band already split up. They covered the song in 1995. It was released as a bonus track on the album King For A Day Fool For A Lifetime
in Argentina in 1995 and as a B-side of the UK and European Limited edition versions of the "Digging The Grave" CD single, which came out February 28, 1995. London Records released it as a single after Faith No More split up in 1998. The music video was made by the London Records 90 Ltd. with no creative input from the then defunct band.
Faith No More decided to cover the song after hearing it at a Karaoke bar in Guam, which used pornographic backdrops for the lyric screens. The band felt it was a bizarre melding and decided to record the song in bassist Billy Gould's basement. (Thanks to Chris in Abercwmpepsin, United Kingdom for the info and to Billy Gould
for confirming it.)
Robin Gibb told The Mail On Sunday November 1, 2009: "This is a very spiritual song. The listeners have to interpret it themselves – trying to explain it would detract from the song."
The song wasn't released in the UK as a single. These days just about anything that's a hit in the US will get a release in the UK, especially if the artist is of British origin, but it wasn't the case in late 60s.
This song features in a scene during the 2010 movie The Fighter, which is about the boxer Micky Ward. In the movie, Micky's brother Dicky sings it to their mother to comfort her, which works as she begins singing the song.
Robin Gibb's son played this song just after his father died from kidney failure on May 20, 2012. Robin-John Gibb told The Sun: "When he passed away we went out, they took the equipment away and we came back in. I picked up my phone and found 'I Started A Joke' on YouTube and played it. I put the phone on his chest and that was the first time I broke down. I knew that song and its lyrics were perfect for that moment. That song will always have new meaning to me now."
Reverend Horton Heat
The Reverend rants on psychobilly and the egghead academics he bashes in one of his more popular songs.
One of the most successful songwriters in the business, Desmond co-wrote "Livin' La Vida Loca," "Dude (Looks Like A Lady)" and "Livin' On A Prayer."