Sep 21, 2010

What Ever Happened to Laughs?

Last week my mother got groped at Mass
What ever happened to class?
-cut lyric from Kander & Ebb's "Class"

Being funny in song is one of the hardest things a writer can do. If comedy is about timing, think about how hard it is to make a joke's rhythm work when the time is mapped out as rigidly as in song. Lots of songs make us smile at their cleverness or quirkiness, but laugh out loud? That's a high bar. In the BMI Workshop, they've talked about how the punchlines have got to always be in the same spot metrically--except when they're not, and you want to give the gift of surprise.

The above lyric was cut from the song "Class" when it was met with a "deafening silence" in a preview, according to John Kander, who did a BMI master class a few years back. "It drove my late partner crazy," Kander said then of Fred Ebb. "He never knew what was going to be funny. The only way to know is get it up in front of an audience." David Yazbek, who was on hand for the same master class, said that "Chimp in a Suit" from Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is one of his own personal favorite songs he's written, even though he admitted that he "never thought it totally worked" with audiences.

I'm actually at a loss to think of songs, in musical theater or otherwise, that have actually made me laugh. A well-performed "A Little Priest" has done the trick, if I recall right. Beck's "Hollywood Freaks" almost always makes me chuckle. On a good day, Allan Sherman still gets me. As far as musical theater goes, Marx and Lopez are fine craftsmen, of course (and Lopez's work with the South Park boys is, of course, duly anticipated).

I welcome other examples, dear readers.


isaac butler said...

This is where I don't understand your SHE LOVES ME hate. There are multiple songs with laugh out loud moments, most of which rely on fucking with the audience's rhythmic or melodic expectations through reusing familiar moments.

I draw your attention to VANILLA ICE CREAM's "I was sitting in that cafe / never knowing you were bald / Never knowing that you were... near" and the heroine's speed-thru the melody whenever she loses her place in the letter.

Similarly, in the title song, we get lots of little giggling delight moments ("Yesterday she loathed me AH! / Now today she likes me Ah! / And tomorrow") that lead up to the big punch line of George being so befuddled by the experience that he makes himself stupid:
I'm tingling such delicious tingle,
I'm trembling, what the hell does that mean?
I'm freezing that's because it's cold out.

WIth the "out" melodically signally that it's supposed to be some kind of epiphany.
There are laughs all over that show. They're maybe a bit corny, but "Tonight at Eight"'s franticness when performed right (i saw it with Boyd Gains) is hilarious, as is "Perspective", the charm song sung by Sipos, particularly the moment:
Bowing, scraping, nodding, beaming
Always humble
Not an ounce of self respect.
Yes sir, yes sir, you're so right sir
Black is white sir
'Scuse me while I genuflect.

Rob Weinert-Kendt said...

Agreed, "She Loves Me" has some titter-worthy songs to make up for the cloying repetition of some of its other songs (including "Perspective," I must say). I'm a terrible show queen, though--I wasn't dissing "She Loves Me" with this post, it's just that I go blank when asked to think of great musical theater examples when called on, which is why I welcome the input.

isaac butler said...

I thought you and I had a running disagreement about she loves me. Oh no, is this argument with someone else? Arg, I can't be losing my marbles at 31, can I?

Rob Weinert-Kendt said...

Oh no, it's on--I find "She Loves Me" a mixed bag, with about three songs that are as good as any ever written for the musical theater (the shoe one, the ice cream one, and the title) and the rest of the score pretty much a cutesy slog. Perhaps I overvalue the Lubitsch movie, but I vastly prefer it.

Cinco said...

There are so many songs which make me smile or admire their cleverness, but very few that make me actually laugh out loud. Among these I would count:

"A Little Priest" from Sweeney
"Kiss Me" from Sweeney
"By the Sea" from Sweeney
"Agony" from Into the Woods
"My Friend the Dictionary" from Spelling Bee
"Pandemonium" from Spelling Bee
"You Mustn't Be Discouraged" from Fade In/Fade Out
"Gee, Officer Krupke" from West Side

Of course, typically laughter is born of a combination of lyrics and performance...and sometimes it's hard to separate the two.

Rob Weinert-Kendt said...

Except for "Priest" those are all smiles at best. And when did you last laugh at "Krupke," junior high? That song (not to mention the show) hasn't aged all that well, in my very humble opinion. Actually, come to think of it, I find "America" funnier.

Cinco said...

Clearly where you merely smile, I laugh! All of those songs made me laugh the first time I saw them performed...and I was not alone. Of course, was it the performance that got me laughing? Was it the lyrics? Do I laugh at them when I simply listen to the original cast recordings? Nope. But of course, I already know the jokes.

You didn't laugh at any of those the first time you saw them performed? You are made of stone, sir.