Singing the blue...

Ashley Frieze on why musical comedians can get such a bad press

To paraphrase a review from Chortle, ‘he took a well known song and changed the lyrics so they were a bit rude’. Is this what musical stand-up comedy is about? If so, then it’s at best cheap and pointless, and at worst just plain cringeworthy. As a musical comedian, I sometimes find myself facing resistance to the very idea of what I might do on stage. This results in such back-handed compliments as ‘well, I don’t like musical comedy, but I enjoyed what you did’ or ‘well, you weren’t bad, for a musical comedian’. Should I be ashamed to take to the stage with a guitar in hand?

There are a lot of great acts, who happen to use an instrument in what they do, are very entertaining, and actually have something to say. Are people’s perceptions of musical comedy wrong? Is musical comedy a cheap laugh? Is the unwritten rule about never putting two musical comedians on the same bill fair? I thought it would be interesting to categorise what comedians do in general, and see whether musical comedy has differences beyond the involvement of an instrument.

One aside, though. The guitar is described as the ‘six-string applause machine’. This is because there’s a convention that you applaud at the end of every song. Can’t we just agree that this applause, in general, is different to the applause breaks a non-musical stand-up receives when they’ve made a really good joke? If so, then perhaps the apparent applause-envy can be put to one side. Musical comedians know when the applause is genuine and when it’s just convention. It sounds different. The only applause in musical comedy that counts as special is either mid-song or when it builds and builds after the song ends.

Here is a brief comparison of spoken versus musical stand-up.

Wordplay and one-liners are a staple of many stand-ups’ sets. Change some of the puns for interesting rhymes, and use the pacing of a song to place the reveal of the gags, and you’ve got a comedy song. There’s no doubt that the song gives clues about where to laugh, whether it’s obviously funny or not, but the flip side is that non-musical comedians don’t have to make their lines scan and rhyme. If done well, both can be entertaining in the extreme. I’d happily listen to five minutes of Tim Vine’s puns or Duncan Oakley’s Roller Skating Naked In The Park.

Stand-ups can use their opportunity to deliver a potent message to the audience. Polemic with jokes is a wonderful way to bring people round to understanding your point of view. So, whether it’s the thought-provoking outlook of Steve Hughes, or the concentrated common-sense of Tim Minchin’s Obese Children, we’re laughing and learning, kids, laughing and learning.

Clowning around and being silly is as old as the first moment when someone slipped on some dog poo and was laughed at by his mates. This is where stand-up can slip into general comic performance. I’m a big fan of Chris Lynam’s inventive stagecraft, and have similarly laughed uproariously at the vocal trickery of Earl Okin, which he combines with some subtly visual gags and just being different. Rob Deering delivers both jokes and musical performance with charm and panache; it doesn’t matter which he’s doing; he’s just BEING funny.

Observational comedy is, to some, a swear word. When done well, though, it’s about showing the audience something they already know, but from a different angle. Musical comedians play the oft-dreaded parody songs, where they subvert a well-known song. This might be the equivalent of observational comedy, but I’m not sure it is. When a comedian talks about music and illustrates their point with a suitable song, perhaps a pastiche of something else, it’s definitely observational comedy. I think we can favourably compare your favourite observational comedy routine with something like Bill Bailey’s James Blunt anti-song, or Mitch Benn’s West End Musical. In fact, it’s useful to have an instrument in hand if you’re talking about the music everyone knows and loves, it’s the best tool to use to start the demolition.

Subverting reality is another part of stand-up. Some comedians will start a routine with ‘imagine if…’ Musical comedians seem to be less able to do this without derision; to paraphrase one quote ‘wouldn’t it be hilarious if Bob Dylan sang a song in a style ill-suited to him?’. Perhaps both the musical and non-musical version of this type of routine are equally cheap, or perhaps some people are just being snobbish about these flights of fancy.

A stand-up comedian has the licence to be offensive filthy and just plain wrong. Offensive is in the eye of the beholder, but acts like Brendon Burns and Jim Jeffries (and even some non-Australians) challenge their audience to laugh at taboo subjects and their reactions to it. This isn’t generally considered cheap.

Somehow, though, when you add music to it, it looks like becoming the dreaded filthy song; just cheap laughs from singing rude words, apparently. With a bit of inventiveness and a genuine purpose to the routine, a musical filth-blast can be as devastating funny and satisfying as its spoken counterpart. Tim Minchin’s If You Really Loved Me is neat, light, and delightfully wrong, and Australian.

So far, it looks like I’ve been trying to put forward a defence for musical stand-up. I don’t think it needs defending. As I said at the start, there are some great comedians out there who happen to use an instrument (or two) as part of their set. Good comedy is good comedy, regardless of genre, and it’s in the eye of the beholder.

I have a few bête noirs within the genre of musical comedy, though. It worries me more that some of the things I dislike are things I might actually be doing, justifying to myself that I’m in some way different. When I see a musical act that seems to be going for the cheap laughs, I worry that I’m seeing my own routine through a fairground mirror. Does all musical comedy look the same to the casual observer?

Hopefully I’ve shown there’s more to musical comedy than taking an existing song and just changing a few lyrics to make it a bit rude. Maybe the aspiring comedians out there can challenge themselves to write more about what they care about, rather than just push the audience’s recognition and filth buttons. Maybe one day I’ll even learn to play this guitar I’ve been dragging round gigs for the last few years. Sometimes I envy the non-musical stand-ups; they don’t even need to do a sound check. Easy comedy? I don’t think so.

  • Ashley Frieze is premiering his first solo stand-up show, The Seven Deadly Sings, at the Brighton Fringe on May 4 and 5. www.thesevendeadly.co.uk

Published: 28 Apr 2010

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