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LAURA SULLIVAN, host: Can you name this instrument?

(SOUNDBITE OF BASSOON)

SULLIVAN: Oboe? No. Trombone? Uh-uh. It's a bassoon. This instrument is often called the clown of the orchestra. And the truth is, the bassoon has a bit of an identity problem. Producer Lauren Silverman explains.

LAUREN SILVERMAN: You might think you haven't heard a bassoon outside a symphony before, but you actually have.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE FLINTSTONES")

JEAN VANDER PYL: (as Wilma Flintstone) Why is it men refuse to close doors? Even the closet door is open.

SILVERMAN: There's often a bassoon or a contrabassoon in the background of "The Flintstones." And remember Grandpapa from "Peter and the Wolf"?

(SOUNDBITE OF BASSOON)

SILVERMAN: How about "Leave It to Beaver's" theme song?

(SOUNDBITE OF BASSOON)

SILVERMAN: And of course, there's Mickey Mouse dancing with the broomstick in "Fantasia."

(SOUNDBITE OF BASSOON)

SILVERMAN: Yep, there's a trend here.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

EILEEN REYNOLDS: Uh-oh, things are going comically awry - and that's the way I think it's often used in television and movies.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SILVERMAN: That's Eileen Reynolds. She's played the bassoon since elementary school.

REYNOLDS: When I started playing it, I started getting these really strange comments from people. My dad said it looked like a plumber had gotten drunk - because there's all this tubing and all these keys on it, everywhere. And then I talked to my great-uncle, who'd been a professional trombonist, and he said, you know, we used to call it the farting bedpost.

SILVERMAN: There. She said it. Eileen admits when you hear those really low notes, it's hard to think of anything else other than...

(SOUNDBITE OF BASSOON)

SILVERMAN: You see, despite the fact that the bassoon is actually one of the most difficult instruments in the orchestra to play, people just don't take it seriously - which isn't surprising when you get a glimpse of the thing. There's this metal mouthpiece that's curved. And it sort of goes down, and it looks almost like a straw. You know what? Let's just consult a professional.

MARK EUBANKS: And then it's attached to almost eight feet of wooden tubing that's been fashioned with a bend in the bottom of it. So it's folded in half and the top part sticks up, and it looks like a bedpost.

SILVERMAN: That's Mark Eubanks. He teaches bassoon at Lewis & Clark College in Oregon. And he says the bassoon has been the butt of the joke since its early days back in the 17th century.

EUBANKS: Bassoon playing was very bad in those days, because they had bad instruments. The wood warped, the reeds changed from minute to minute, and there probably weren't that many good bassoon players. So it kind of took on a role as this quirky, nasty-sounding thing.

SILVERMAN: A century later, with better reeds and more keys, composers began to take notice. Again, Eileen Reynolds.

REYNOLDS: Haydn may have been the person who started this bassoon-is-funny-idea because he would have a part where the full orchestra was playing, and then it would get quieter and quieter and quieter, and everything would be very serene.

SILVERMAN: And then...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SILVERMAN: Whether Haydn was making a joke or just trying to wake people up, he started a trend that Beethoven picked up a century later, when he featured the bassoon as buffoon in his "Sixth Symphony."

REYNOLDS: People have compared it to the drunken peasant who stumbles into the party and is just like bom, bom, bom.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEETHOVEN'S "SIXTH SYMPHONY")

SILVERMAN: If you missed it, here it comes again.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEETHOVEN'S "SIXTH SYMPHONY")

SILVERMAN: This century, you've probably heard the bassoon on sitcoms, such as "Curb Your Enthusiasm."

(SOUNDBITE OF BASSOON)

SILVERMAN: Mark Eubanks has had enough of the bassoon being typecast as the Rodney Dangerfield of instruments.

EUBANKS: Why can't it play Irish music? Why can't a bassoon do, you know, any kind of ensemble: jazz, rock, whatever?

SILVERMAN: So Mark jams out with a group of other oonists - that's bassoonist, contrabassoonist, tenaroonists and so on. They call themselves the Bassoon Brothers, only one of them is a sister. They released three CDs. And this isn't Beethoven's bassoon.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY GIRL")

SILVERMAN: Don't like The Temptations? How about Hendrix?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PURPLE HAZE")

SILVERMAN: That's actually an electric bassoon. Mark attaches a small pickup mic to the mouthpiece, and then connects guitar pedal effects and an amplifier.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PURPLE HAZE")

SILVERMAN: And then there's Ben Wendel. When he's not playing the sax, he's jazzing it up on the bassoon.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BEN WENDEL: There are very few bassoonists out there that specifically deal in the world of jazz or improvising. We're like the Illuminati of the jazz world or something.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SILVERMAN: The bassoon has also made a move into the world of pop. There's a quartet of classically trained bassoonists that covered Lady Gaga's greatest hits. They call themselves the Breaking Winds.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "POKER FACE")

BRITTANY HARRINGTON: And we're in full Lady Gaga regalia. We have the wigs. We have funky costumes and kind of all the stops let out.

SILVERMAN: That's quartet member Brittany Harrington. She says their video went viral and before they knew it, they were on MTV. That's right: bassoon on MTV.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "POKER FACE")

SILVERMAN: The bottom line is modern-day bassoonists aren't trying to change the sound of the instrument. They just want you to know that while it can be bouncy and silly...

(SOUNDBITE OF BASSOON)

SILVERMAN: ...it can also be romantic, serious, even jazzy.

(SOUNDBITE OF BASSOON)

SILVERMAN: Lauren Silverman, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF BASSOON)

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