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Writing Musical Theater: Song Types, Part 2 (Comedy Songs)

December 11, 2014

Comedy songs can serve any of the usual functions in musical theater: helping to give insight into a character; giving insight into the way the character thinks; moving the plot forward; and so on. They do so in a straight forward way, by making us laugh. But as the old actors’ saying goes, “Death is easy; comedy is hard.” How do you make a song funny?

Comedy is even more ephemeral than music. What is funny to some will not be to others, and what is funny at one point in time may not hold up over the years (or even less depending on the topicality of the jokes). Layer that over the idea of song structure and you have a potential mess on your hands. That said, writing a good comedic song can be done. Here are some of the basics first:

  • Tempo: Comedy songs can be any tempo, from a slow ballad to a fast rhythm number. The music itself is not the defining element.
  • Character versus Situation versus Jokes: As Allen Cohen and I write in Writing Musical Theater, the good comedy songs tend to be “based usually on character, occasionally on situation, but almost never on jokes.” Which isn’t to say there can’t be jokes, but that focus shouldn’t be on them.
  • Comedic structure: One thing Allen and I never covered in the book is how the comedy in a comedic song can be structured. I’ve found that comedic songs tend to fall into two types: (1) songs that use multiple jokes, each with a bigger punchline, and (2) songs with one joke, with the punchline at the end. Adelaide’s Lament from Guys and Dolls is an example of the former, while Chrysanthemum Tea from Pacific Overtures is a clear example of the latter.
  • Principle of Opposition: Allen and I talk about the principle of opposition, in this case the idea that something can funny because the character is in an unpleasant situation or sad moods (Adelaide’s Lament again). It can take other forms too, such as a character who is in denial about his or her situation (The Company Way from How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, or I’m Not at all in Love from The Pajama Game).

One of my favorite comedic moments — well, favorite TWO comedic moments — occurs in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. The male and female ingenues, Philia and Hero, sing the duet Lovely. The song is not hah-hah funny but “kinda cute” funny. Hero tells Philia that she’s lovely, and she freely admits that she may be near-stupid and talented but “lovely is what I do.” Okay then, a nice, cute, whimsical moment. But then…. In Act 2 there is a (rare for Sondheim) reprise of the song, this time sung by…Pseudolus and Hysterium, with the latter singing Philia’s lines. From what I recall no lyrics have been changed, only who sings them and the immediate context, and the results are pretty much fall-down laughing in the audience. If nothing else the reprise is an epitome of the principle of opposition at work.

I’ve mentioned this before elsewhere, but it bears repeating: Songs don’t have to be one type or another; there can be overlaps. Do You Love Me? from A Fiddler on the Roof is a case in point. The song is funny to be sure, but it also functions as a charm song, and it’s a ballad to boot.

By the way, sometimes an otherwise non-comedic songs becomes funny in a new context: Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life (originally from Naughty Marietta) takes on a whole new meaning in Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein (both in the original non-musical film and the later musical theater version). Ditto the use of Irving Berlin’s  Puttin’ on the Ritz in the same new context.

So, just how do you write a comedy song? First and foremost, find the funny — especially in the character(s), in the situation he or she is in, and in the character’s reaction to it. Don’t go for “joke” jokes if you can help it, and if you can’t help it, try to save it for the big finish.

Last comment: In our book Allen and I consider Brush Up Your Shakespeare from Kiss Me, Kate to be a comedy. Nowadays I’m not so sure. I think it’s far more of a charm song, albeit one that comes extremely late in the show AND for relatively minor characters at that. And yes, it has jokes, but they’re of the bad-vaudeville type with words purposefullly mangled to make rhymes for the most part. I find the song to be cute but not much more, and I question the need for it in the show, but whom am I to argue with Cole Porter?

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