The Guardian newspaper in the UK, a long-time supporter of the Conchords, had quite an in-depth article by Brian Logan on musical comedy - i.e. comedy with a musical element, not stage shows or films. It's at
http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2009/oc ... -conchords
"I saw Stewart Lee perform the other week. Lee is loved by his audience, and is a standup comedian at the top of his game â€“ but even he felt bound to apologise at the end of the show, when he announced he was going to sing a song. "No one thinks it's a good sign," said Lee, "when a comedian picks up a guitar."
Old prejudices die hard, and Lee is probably right: musical comedy is still held to be, in Bill Bailey's words, "some kind of horrible social leprosy". But the stigma is fading. This week, the coolest comic act in the world at the moment, the Kiwi spoof folk duo Flight of the Conchords, release their new album, I Told You I Was Freaky (its predecessor won the Grammy award for best comedy album). Back in the UK, Aussie troubadour Tim Minchin is taking musical comedy to an arena-filling level hitherto attained only by Bailey himself. Both prove that there's more to this maligned branch of comedy than the popular conception of it as something a bit naff and unfunny, what Bailey caricatures as "a guitar alongside a weak rhyme".
How did musical comedy pick up its bad reputation? Bailey fingers the "folk singers who did wacky songs" in the 70s â€“ people like Billy Connolly, whose Welly Boot Song was a staple of that decade's entertainment. The era's novelty singles â€“ the Barron Knights' oeuvre; the Goodies' Funky Gibbon; Benny Hill's Ernie (The Fastest Milkman in the West) â€“ likewise cast a long shadow. To others, the artform is damned by its association with the innuendo-laden music hall tradition â€“ a genre that reached its zenith, or nadir, with the Two Ronnies, and whose spirit was cruelly distilled by a notorious Not the Nine O'Clock News parody: "We're titting up and down on the willy bum bum/ Pillocking around with the cobbler's nobblers." Then again, to others,"musical comedy" conjures terrifying images of ladies and gents in evening wear being frightfully witty to the sound of a plinkety piano, in the style of Flanders and Swann, when today's audiences prefer something less genteel.
Musical comedy has been criminally misrepresented. As Bailey says, when put alongside straight standup, it can "make for a more rounded show. Stand-up demands a cerebral engagement. With music, you don't have to think too much about it. It hits people on a visceral level." At their best, comic songs are a giddying delight, as the dual pleasures of humour and musical uplift join forces in a two-pronged assault on our defences. Good comedy songs are conjuring tricks, Houdiniesque escapes from what the comedian Rich Hall calls the "jail cell" of musical form and lyrical convention. "The structure you're forced into is what makes the joke funny," Hall says, "because the audience knows that's all you have to work with."
However, it must be admitted that comedy songwriting had reached a low ebb a few years ago, and needed to be reinvented â€“ which is where Bailey came in. It was he who relocated the comedy from the lyrics to the music; he who made the music itself funny. Sometimes that involves a loopy kind of parody: his Kraftwerk-sing-the-Hokey-Cokey number, for example. Sometimes â€“ as per his current tour with orchestras â€“ it's about anatomising music, much as observational comedians anatomise life. "You have to know intimately the music you're ripping off," says Bailey. "There's a knowingness about it, which the audience participate in when they recognise familiar riffs or chord changes. So there's no point saying, 'I'm now going to subvert the minimalism of Arvo PÃ¤rt.' It's the comedy of recognition. The standup equivalent would be talking about shared cultural references."
Bailey's success challenged the suspicion that, as Graham Fellows (who performs as amateur organist John Shuttleworth) argues, "if you were a virtuoso musician, you wouldn't waste your time on comedy songs". To today's musical comics, the music must be as good as the comedy. Rich Hall won the Perrier award with his alter ego, the country singing jailbird Otis Lee Crenshaw, and he approaches comic songwriting "as music that just happens to have funny lyrics," he says. "I always imagine someone driving along listening to the radio and not paying attention to the words. And I'd want them to think, 'This is a nice song.'"
The better the music, of course, the funnier the song â€“ because nothing elevates daftness like disproportionate effort applied to it. Chris Larner is a comic songwriter for the theatre, whose perfect numbers for double-act the Right Size (of The Play Wot I Wrote fame) never fail to raise a smile. A connoisseur of golden-age musical theatre, Larner marvels at "the absolute care that Richard Rodgers takes with his tunes, and Oscar Hammerstein takes with his lyrics. If somebody goes 'la la la, this is a funny song', you might as well be in the pub. But if a comic song is given due care and attention, the astonishment you feel at such ludicrousness is heightened, and it becomes truly absurd."
That's why, when fellow comedians tell Mitch Benn, composer of topical songs for Radio 4's The Now Show, that musical comedy is the easy option, he gets irritated. Yes, he admits, "if you turn up with a guitar and hit the audience when they're peed enough for a sing-song, and get a bunch of rude words to go with the tune of Wild Thing, you can bring the house down." But musical comedy is usually tougher than that. "It's not easy to write the tune and the words," says Benn, "and to withhold the punchline until the chorus, so people have to sit through the whole verse before they know what the joke is about. That is by no means a sure thing in a comedy club."
Benn, like Bailey (and, after a fashion, the Conchords) dabbles in pastiche, in spoofing other bands. His songs include a cod-Eminem number that recasts Macbeth as a rap: "Now Malcolm was back/ To attack and harass the Mac/ With a pack of Sassenachs." Its popularity has convinced Benn that his audience is more akin to a music than a comedy crowd â€“ because "they whinge if I don't play the old stuff," he says. Benn sees himself as working in a similar vein to Neil Hannon and Jarvis Cocker, songwriters capable of writing with a comic twist. And making people laugh is "as valid a thing to do with music as anything else. You wouldn't dispute a songwriter's right to try and make you cry. Or Billy Bragg's right to make you angry."
The best comic songs bear repeated listening, not only because the jokes continue to delight, nor even because the music's good â€“ but because they access weirdly profound truths. From Eric Idle's Always Look on the Bright Side of Life to Randy Newman's Political Science, from Ivor Cutler's Squeeze Bees to John Hegley's gnomic verses about his Luton childhood, comic songs can express social and emotional realities just as ineffably as their "serious" counterparts. "You can get away with a depth of feeling," says Rich Hall, "that you can't to the same degree when you're standing onstage telling a joke." Larner cites Gershwin's Our Love Is Here to Stay as an example of a light-hearted lyric in which "there is emotional truth as well as gags. You don't have to sacrifice poetry for a laugh. If someone in the audience is pissing himself, and the person next to them has a tear in his eye, I think I've done my job."
I'd cite Shuttleworth's hymn to tea-time tradition, I Can't Go Back to Savoury Now, as just such a song. The lyric finds Shuttleworth at the dinner table, reluctantly spurning an invitation to finish his daughter's main course. "That shepherd's pie was stunning," he laments, "but I'm halfway through my pudding." It's funny, it's catchy â€“ but it's also heartfelt, about the kind of everyday experience conventional songwriters overlook. "It's a subject everyone can identify with," says Fellows, who wrote it. "And it's sung in a grandiose way, but about something as mundane as eating your tea." And obviously it helps, in musical comedy, if the initial premise is funny. Bailey's Insect Nation (about an invertebrate takeover of Earth) is one example. Likewise Tim Minchin's signature tune, Canvas Bags. "If you were to break that down to its lyrics," says Rich Hall, "you would go, 'Eh? What?'" But the concept â€“ a bombastic rock anthem about eco-conscious shopping â€“ is memorably incongruous.
Shuttleworth's song is also notable for its dotty wordplay. "I like to really push myself with tenuous rhymes," says Fellows. Music may have risen in the mix, but in the comic song, the words are where most laughs still reside. Hall, for all his dedication to the music, writes a mean couplet: "When I see her, there'll be tears down my face," runs his song Women Call It Stalking. "It might be love and it might be mace."
Larner is a veritable scientist of the funny lyric. "Funny rhymes are the same as music," he says. "When you're listening to a tune for the first time, you play games in your head. How is this phrase going to be answered? How is it going to work? The trick of both melody and lyric writing" â€“ as for comedy in general â€“ "is in part to confirm your audience's expectations, so they're comforted, and in part confound them, so they're surprised."
The success of these comedians' lyrics doesn't lie just in wordplay, but in character. If there was something clever-clever about old-school comic song, today's practitioners defray that danger by inventing (usually idiotic) characters to sing their songs for them. It's hard to seem smug when you're an ex-security guard at a Rotherham sweet factory, as Shuttleworth is supposed to be. These personalities also give an extra dimension to the songs. "You're getting extra laughs from the sense of character," says Fellows. "If Max Bygraves sang my songs, they might not have quite the same humour."
That fashion for character-based musical comedy has revitalised the art-form. Likewise, the advent of YouTube, which launched acts such as American teenager Bo Burnham, whose Ku Klux Klan and underage sex ditties have been watched 52m times. YouTube also enabled the introduction of Britain's first Musical Comedy award, which launched earlier this year (the winner's were double-act Adams and Rea) and has recently invited applications for 2010. The day may be dawning, then, when musical comedy gets the kudos it deserves.
"For me," says Bailey, "the greatest accolade came when I was outside a club one night, and John Entwistle from the Who was getting into a cab. And he saw me, and he focused a bit, and he came towards me and poked me in the chest. And with each poke, he went: 'Insect Nation.'" What Entwistle knew, and everyone else is fast learning, is that when a comedian picks up a guitar, it's no longer anything to be scared of."