Some things are made for each other. Cheese and pickle. Fred and Ginger. Bert and Ernie. But what about music and comedy? Anita Awbi takes a look at the often overlooked craft of comic songwriting.
Who hasn’t had a giggle at Benny Hill’s ode to Ernie, the unlucky milkman? And who couldn’t name a George Formby ditty, remember their favourite YouTube spoof song or chuckle at The Mighty Boosh’s bizarre musical interludes?
From music hall tradition, through the variety show era to Billy Connelly’s cod-folk, comedy songwriting has tickled us for years. It has given us a rich cultural heritage and a hilarious back catalogue of unlikely number one singles.
On the surface, it seems as though comic songwriting is in bloom; Bill Bailey, The Mighty Boosh, Tim Minchin and Flight of the Conchords are never too far from our television sets or theatres. Why then, as Bailey told The Guardian newspaper, is it often viewed as ‘some kind of social leprosy’?
Mitch Benn, musical lynchpin of Radio 4’s The Now Show and king of the pastiche pop song, understands Bailey’s point. ‘The one thing about comic songwriting is that it doesn’t get you much love on the comedy circuit because there is an entire school of thought that regards it as cheating,’ he says.
Interestingly, he goes on to explain that the music in many comedy songs annoys him because it’s often second rate. Could it be this lack of musical ingenuity that had led to the genre’s ridicule? Or just that the genre seems plain old fashioned? ‘It tends to be, “Let’s just slam out some chords and get a few rude words to rhyme”’, he says. ‘Still to this day the music end of it can be really perfunctory, which doesn’t do it any favours.’ But then, Benn is best known for his satirical digs at Elton John, Andrew Lloyd Webber or Coldplay, which demand the capabilities of a competent musician in his own right.
‘In one respect, that view suits me – it’s kind of OK for people to see musical comedy in that way,’ he goes on. ‘I’d hate it to come into fashion, because when anything is in fashion it will eventually go out of fashion. As long as it bumbles along with a medium level of naffness – enough for me to make a living out of it – then I’m fine!’
So when did the great tradition of musical comedy fall out of vogue? The much-maligned stereotype – a daft rhyme paired with an obligatory strum or piano chord – seems as long-lived as it is exaggerated. And while many still revere the old time songs of the Edwardian Flanders and Swann or even earlier Gilbert and Sullivan, things have moved on so much since then.
A hilarious back catalogue of unlikely number one singles
Back in the post-war heyday of the variety performance, nearly every entertainer would finish their act with a song. Then later, into the 60s, 70s and 80s, comedians like Ken Dodd, Les Dawson or Victoria Wood wouldn’t dream of walking off stage without singing us a tune. And although there are still some more traditional comics that finish on a song, such as Peter Kay, when was the last time you saw Glaswegian comic Kevin Bridges or bumbling Ross Noble regale us? It just doesn’t happen so much any more.
It’s a shame that, despite the popularity of The Mighty Boosh’s Julian Barratt and Noel Fielding, or the gifted performances of Australian expat Tim Minchin, comic songs are still sometimes seen as crass or basic. The best comedy songs can convey as many emotions as their serious counterparts. From the social injustice of Gus Elen’s If It Wasn’t For the ‘Ouses In Between to the touching Beautiful Cosmos by Ivor Cutler, humorous songs can pack a punch as powerful as that of early American folk. Add to that the real life dilemmas faced by Graham Fellows’ alter ego John Shuttleworth, immortalised in his epic ballad I Can’t Go Back To Savoury Now, or Vic Reeves’ wicked parodies of northern club singers, and you’ve got something for everyone.
There are millions of comedy songs, and you’d be surprised where some of them are lurking. Renowned lyricist and musician Richard Stilgoe finds some of the best comedy in the lyrics of ‘serious songwriters’ John Lennon and Paul McCartney, particularly the wry wit and imagination in songs like Maxwell’s Silver Hammer or I Am the Walrus.
‘Conversely, it’s very difficult to be a comedian without a sense of rhythm and a sense of pitch,’ he says. ‘Without them, how do you know how to time a joke? It’s about flow. The skills between the two are similar.’
Comedy actor and musician Fellows has honed skills on both sides, slipping in between his fictional characters with stage-learned grace and driving his personas with deftly crafted songs. He first found fame through alter ego Jilted John in the late 70s, with a punk pastiche that reached number four in the singles chart. He went on to cultivate the fictional singer-songwriter and radio presenter John Shuttleworth and has since become a Radio 4 staple.
‘I like people who work against the idea of the comedy song. Someone like Ian Dury – he wrote comedy songs. Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick is a comedy song but its disguised with beautiful music. The best comedy songs have a few layers, and musically they should too… It’s got to work on at least two levels. It’s no good just repeating one simple funny image.’
‘I tend to start with a title, or a premise, for example, two margarines being in the fridge at the same time and that being an uncomfortable situation! But then I start thinking of the jokes that could be within that… Then the tune, which is a really important bit, arrives quite early on.’
For many comic songwriters, their focus on the perfect marriage between lyrics and melody mirrors their more serious songwriting counterparts. And their influences and inspirations can come from all the same places too. Many of them know that comic songwriting is actually funnier when the music is good. It gives characters freedom to really grow into their alter egos and raises the bar in artist parody too. It also allows comedians to exploit the natural humour in music, something that Bailey does so well.
Bailey has worked with the BBC Concert Orchestra, headed up TV panel show teams and lampooned just about every musical genre going. He’s the comedy world’s most famous multi-instrumentalist, yet interestingly, Mitch Benn doesn’t regard him as a comic songwriter.
‘He’s more of a stand-up comic who punctuates what he does with insanely brilliant musical flourishes. He’s written some funny songs but that’s not what he does. He’s an ingenious stream of consciousness comedian with all the musical trimmings.’
What’s in little doubt however, is Bailey’s universal appeal. His ingenuity has helped reshape the genre, making in-roads into diehard prejudices of musical comedy as an outmoded art form. But, despite all the originality that is present today, there still seems to be small appetite for musical comedy on mainstream television.
Richard Digance, a songwriting comic with his roots in the 1960s folk and alternative student scene, believes that the tide might soon turn, but worries that the genre has been left high and dry for too long.
‘I think because we are treated, funnily enough, as a little bit odd. We’re not mainstream comedy and watching the young people doing it, they almost seem to be a speciality act, a freaky act. But for performers so out of fashion, we still seem to sell a lot of live tickets!’ he jokes.
Clearly, there is a gap between live performance and television. Digance, who was a TV native throughout the 70s and 80s, explains that he would go on tour straight after a television series, or vice versa, and the two were always inextricably linked. But these days, programmers seem little interested in building musical comedy interludes into series like The Graham Norton Show or The Jonathan Ross Show, narrowing the showcase opportunities for upcoming acts.
Benn agrees. ‘There is definitely a bit of a resistance to putting musical comedy on TV, only because I think people are a bit nervous, they think, “What are we looking at? What are we going to see on-screen? Is it going to just be a two minute long shot of a guy standing with a guitar; that’s terrible TV!”
‘I’d rather hoped that The Flight of the Conchords had blazed a trail, but people think, “That was [cable channel] HBO and they’re made of money. We can’t do something like that.”’
You find something important and prick it with the comedy songwriting pin
But it’s become increasingly possible for people to record their material with cheap lightweight cameras, while online editing gets easier and faster to use. A quick flick through most of the user generated content on YouTube will testify to that. There is a world of new and exciting musical comedy online and at alternative revue shows around the country, propagated by social media and flourishing outside of the mainstream. Perhaps these will become new homes for comic songwriting?
Comedy performers Adam Buxton and Joe Cornish, known together as Adam and Joe, have been at the forefront of DIY comedy videos since the days of Channel 4’s Takeover TV series in the 90s. Aside from his recent Radio 6 Music show with Cornish, Buxton hosts BUG, a regular music video showcase at London’s BFI. In between the shorts, he plays a selection of his own musical comedy and homemade videos, and cherry picks the funniest stuff from YouTube.
Meanwhile, Welsh rapper Alex Warren and singer Terema Wainwright shot into the press last year for Newport State of Mind, their parody of Jay Z’s Empire State of Mind. The re-edit became an overnight internet sensation and was played on Radio 1.
It seems we are always finding new places to create, watch and enjoy our comic songs, and we might even be seeing a resurgence in its popularity. But for some, the premise will always remain the same: ‘You find something important and prick it with the comedy songwriting pin. It works because everyone likes to laugh and it provides variety. Comedy is necessary,’ says Stilgoe.
Over the next few days we’ll be publishing extended interviews with everyone we spoke to for this feature, so make sure you come back for more!