Music to their ears?

Tommy Mackay on musical comedy

Musical comedy often splits a crowd. While alienating some audience members who just don't 'get' or like musical comedy, the musical comic also has to contend with accusations of cheating and hiding behind a prop by their fellow comics

Musical comedy does have a bad rep, especially amongst musical and comedy purists who view the genre with suspicion, if not outright disgust. And is it any wonder when most so called comedy songs are pretty awful.

The phrase 'comedy song' often equates with 'novelty.' This is bad. Think of The Birdy Song'for instance. Sorry for dredging that up, but, unfortunately, this extreme example of naffness is often what people conjure up in their heads along with countless other novelty number ones from yesteryear.

A strange example of this is Spitting Image's Chicken Song which began as a piss take of such songs. Ironically, it turned into the very thing it was parodying: a cruel twist of fate which often befalls the comedy song.

Away from novelty, though, there are plenty quality purveyors of musical comedy, not least, Bill Bailey, John Shuttleworth and Flight Of The Conchords to name just three acts off the top of my head. On the comedy circuit, such acts are at the top of their game, but how many times have you heard a groan when an act trundles on wearing a guitar? Trust me, I've heard it plenty. Not that I trundle. I leap.

You really have to up the funny when playing comedy songs live. Stand up purists often decry the fact that most punters naturally applaud after a song, no matter how funny it was and this does not necessarily reflect the audience's appreciation of the funny, but more the fact that the performer has made it to the end of the song. After all, most comics don't get applauded every time they reach the end of a one-liner.

Packing in punchlines in a song is vital. Keeping it short also helps. Also, although original and unexpected rhyming couplets are key, relying purely on end rhymes does not a comedy song make.

Changing the words of an already established song can also be a lazy cop out for the comedy songwriter. I'm guilty of this myself, but I do try and pack some twists and turns to the original tune in there alongside the jokes. Punters like to hear a familiar tune anyway, and the spark of recognition adds to the jollies.

This is especially true with topical songs, where the subject matter may lend itself to a well known title, eg. my recent ditty based on Prince Harry's subtle indiscretions; Dedicated Follower Of Fascism.

Topicality in comedy songwriting is a minefield. Invariably, the immediate stereotype people throw up is Richard Stilgoe. Pass me the sick bucket. An audience may immediately get the reference in a topical song, but there has to be some killer lines in there, else it falls flat.

Obviously, topical songs have a very short shelf life too, so whilst writing new stuff every week may very well be a good discipline and keep you fresh, there’s also a danger of churning out mediocre stuff willy and, indeed, nilly, in a bid to stay on the bleeding edge of satire. Quality over quantity and all that.

Plus, you never get to really hone your material if you can't repeat it. Using topical tunes is also frustrating as this week's chartbuster (do people still say that?) is next week's irritating ringtone.

There will always be those who will just never warm to musical comedy and to those I say, philosophically, 'Come and have a go if you're Kierkegaard enough.'

Published: 23 Feb 2009

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