Bum notes

Ashley Frieze's guide to bad musical comedy

I’ve heard people complain that musical stand-up is cringeworthy, unfunny and unworthy of the conventional applause that most song endings trigger. Yet, when comedy is good, it’s good, regardless of whether it’s musical or not.

The current Musical Comedy Awards, with its extremely high standard of participants is proof that there’s a diverse range of funny people doing musical comedy. So is there really something intrinsically wrong with the genre? Or are there just a few pitfalls worth avoiding?

What follows is my own opinion on how to make bad musical comedy. If you’re a comedian and think it describes your act, or something that you’re thinking of doing, then I don’t guarantee that these things will prevent you from getting laughs. Just being a funny performer can transcend a hell of a lot. However, my personal experience is that these pitfalls can make it harder.

1. Sing out of key: Any weakness in your vocal or instrumental performance has a tendency to take the audience out of the moment. This discredits you as a performer and loses the laughter as the audience members try to close their ears.

2. Be shy: Musical performance needs projection and confidence. If you hide behind the song, it acts as a barrier between you and the audience. All stand-up is about reaching the audience, so you can’t afford to hold back.

3. Choruses: Repetition in musical comedy is potentially damaging. In some cases, the reinforcement of a chorus can make something funnier, provided that it’s really funny to start with; it can even be a bit like a callback in spoken stand-up. On the other hand, who laughs at the same joke twice within 30 seconds? In other words, if there’s no progression within the repeated bit, there’ll be no further amusement and that bit of the song actually reduces the momentum you’ve built up.

4. Unnecessarily instrumental bits: In a comedy routine, everything you do should be in the spirit of making the audience laugh. Long introductions or instrumental breaks within a song should be delivered in such a way as causes laughter, or at least entertainment. If you’re a virtuoso musician, then of course it’s possible to deliver a giddy rush of musical enjoyment part way through a song, and if you can do it, then you should. Otherwise, make it funny or cut it down.

5. Backing tracks: If you perform to a backing track, then you’re locked into the timing and duration of that recording. This means that before you’ve met the audience, you’ve got to guess the speed at which they’ll respond. It means that if the song isn’t going well, there’s no way out until the end. Overall, backing tracks are hard to judge and are worth avoiding.

5b. Not using any backing: Perform long musical routines without any accompaniment, be it instrumental or recorded, and you’d better be the world’s best singer to keep the audience in the mood.

6. Re-wording existing songs, word for word: If you’re using an existing song and follow its verse and chorus structure, and some of its original words, then you’ve got a very limited scope to inject your own meaning. If too many of jokes rely on noticing subtle adjustments to the original lyrics, then you’re expecting a lot from the audience. If the original song wasn’t structured in the best way for your gags, then the overall effect of the song will be diluted. Do not attempt all 27 verses of American Pie, with occasional substitutions of the original words for knob gags.

7. Forgetting the punchlines: Comedy needs funny bits. A general sense of amusement can be caused by a song, and rhyming can be clever and enjoyable. Comedy still needs peaks of amusement. Maybe these naturally come at the rhyme or the end of each line (and this is where music can make comedy easier to pace), or maybe you put them in surprising places (avoiding the pure Pavlovian technique we musical comedians get accused of). Either way, if you forget to include big funny bits, then the audience won’t laugh so much. Ideally, a song should have a pay off, a final punchline which justifies the applause the audience feels bound to give.

8. Formula writing: Clichés in any comedy are undesirable. Filthy words or other bits of button pushing in a musical comedy routine seem even more obvious and more clichéd when sung than when spoken.

9. Milking the applause: So every time a song ends, you get an applause. So, let’s do loads of little songs and get loads of applause, right? Not really. The more an audience applauds by convention, the less earnest it is. They clap themselves out. The only applause in musical comedy worth having either happens mid-song, or is extended way beyond necessary after the song is over. That’s because this type of applause IS spontaneous.

Regardless of any advice, of course, all comedians, regardless of genre, should be given the space to experiment, make their mistakes and find their funny; it’s easy to misjudge any form of comedy. Maybe it’s because music adds emotional weight to a comic routine that makes material that doesn’t quite work look a lot worse. Maybe this is why musical comedy gets so much criticism.

I hope that the above thoughts prove useful. If not, then feel free NOT to applaud as I reach the end of this piece, take a step back, nod and wait.

Published: 21 Feb 2011

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