Josh Harmon ’18 learned how to drum before he could tie his shoes. At age 3, he picked up a set of chopsticks at a restaurant one night and began thumping on plates and saucers. The next day, his mother brought him to a music store to arrange lessons. Just as an employee said they didn’t take kids under 8, Harmon walked over to a nearby drum set and began to play. “My feet couldn’t touch the pedals,” he recalls. He became the store’s youngest student ever.
Now, Harmon has amassed nearly 3 million TikTok followers and more than 1 billion views across a variety of platforms, thanks in large part to his Rhythms of Comedy video series, in which he drums to the cadences of famous stand-up comics. He’s even appeared on The Tonight Show to play live against a clip of comedian Sebastian Maniscalco.
Harmon’s most popular video, though, has nothing to do with stand-up. It is a buoyant 30-second clip in which he uses drum accessories to recreate the sound effects of a dialogue-free cooking montage from the 2007 Disney film Ratatouille. Grinning, he grazes a wire brush against a cymbal to mimic the flick of a chef’s knife. He scrapes two drumsticks together to imitate an egg cracking. He tosses a percussive shaker to suggest salt hurling into a pot. These motions are mellow and assuasive, evoking the gentle thrum of kitchen activity. The video became an international sensation in 2021, generating news coverage from the Today show—where Harmon has a day job as an editor—and from as far away as Egypt and Japan.
Harmon’s brand is unconventional, even goofy, but it’s also comforting. Watching him on YouTube, I find myself lulled by familiar voices and tempos of comedians I respect, or transported back to a TV show I’ve enjoyed. But Harmon isn’t merely capitalizing on nostalgia. Instead, he’s gamifying the viewing experience: With the clatter of his sticks, I’m now focused on a comedian’s tightened repetition, calculated shifts in tone and jittery Morse code rhythms, when I might have otherwise taken these verbal devices for granted. Every time I notice a new inflection, I feel like I’ve collected a power star.
Harmon majored in French at Amherst. His thesis was on the disappearing art of French military snare drumming and its role in the French Revolution. That thesis culminated in his live tambour performance on campus. “One of the best nights of my life!” he gushes.
In addition to playing in multiple bands at Amherst, he developed his own comedy skills doing stand-up at Marsh Coffee Haus and editing the satirical Amherst Muck-Rake. (Tragically, he had to miss his second Mr. Gad’s House of Improv audition to attend the opera for a class. “A major Amherst problem,” he jokes.)
Harmon cites two factors that have led to his virality: One is his experience performing with the Amherst College Jazz Ensemble. The other is COVID-19. Like many young people who moved back home with their parents to wait out lockdown, Harmon got bored and picked up his camera. His first @joshplaysdrums video, featuring the late, great comic Mitch Hedberg, garnered hundreds of thousands of views within a few days of its July 16, 2020, release on TikTok.
And those Amherst jazz recitals honed his improvisational flair. During drum solos, Harmon figured out how to reap loud reactions. “People would laugh at something I would do. I’d play something really soft and then really loud or toss a stick and catch it.” He read spectators with his drum kit the way a comedian gauges the room and recalibrates their delivery based on the mood of the crowd: “The drum,” he says, “is just a communication device.”
Rhythms of Comedy appeals because it distills the very essence of joke-telling: timing. Pulsing and popping his drumsticks, he draws out the recognizable gyrations of raconteuring. The tap-tap-tings reveal new dimensions of John Mulaney’s motormouth ventriloquist dummy or Ali Wong’s snarling sinewave punchlines. Harmon’s work is pithy and playful, but also elucidative. By drawing your attention to the semiotics of stand-up, he intellectualizes what makes us laugh without an ounce of lecture. “It’s interdisciplinary,” he laughs: “the big buzzword of all Amherst classes.”
Harmon hopes to leverage his talents into a showbusiness career. In the meantime, he knows his videos have moved the right viewers. Not long ago, producer Jenney Shamash ’11 reached out to let him know someone special had enjoyed his video riffing on a crisp monologue from Hannah Gadsby’s Douglas. That person? Shamash’s wife, Hannah Gadsby herself.
Photograph by Valerie Duran