After last week's rather serious musings upon failure and success, I thought I might turn my attention to the lighter side of the craft...
When setting out to write this little blog I thought... what makes me the expert on funny things? But if you've been reading my blog lately you will discover that I am not proclaiming to be an expert on anything. I read somewhere that it takes 10,000 hours before you become a master at something, and by that reckoning that makes me a master of the following:
1. Sitting on my couch watching box sets.
2. Sleeping and walking.
But what I'm attempting to do with this blog is start conversation and thoughts amongst the theatrical song-writing community. To create a dialogue that will benefit those making musical theatre at the moment. So here goes... feel free to disagree and shout things at me if anything jumps out as being ludicrous.
In my (admittedly limited experience) I have discovered some things that I think are worth sharing. Alan Ayckbourne said something very intelligent once (more than once probably), I can't remember what it was, but it went something along these lines:
If your story is inherently dark, throw as much light as you can on it. If it is inherently light, throw as much dark as you can on it. The light will highlight the dark and vice versa.
Basically what I think he meant was that if your story is serious, bring out the humour in it. If your story is humorous, bring out the seriousness. And what he is doing is using "irony" in it's most holistic sense.
In my experience this word can be misleading. People often have very different thoughts on what makes something ironic. For my generation, most of these misunderstandings can be blamed directly on Alanis Morrisette and her song 'Ironic'.
"It's like 10,000 spoons when all you need is a knife." (lyric from Ironic)
This is not an example of irony. This is an example of extreme inconvenience, general misfortune or an unfortunate choice of catering company.
"It's like rain on your wedding day."
This is not an example of irony. This is an example of unluckiness, or in the case of a winter wedding, bad planning.
For clarity and for everyone who has ever used the word and then immediately wondered whether they've used it correctly... this is what irony is:
An event or statement that deliberately confounds our usual expectations (often with humorous implications).
When I talk about irony in theatre song writing I use two different versions of this:
When a character confounds us by acting/speaking/singing in a manner that is contrary to our expectation of that character's behaviour.
eg. A character who has been portrayed as a brutal, murdering beast reveals that he absolutely adores tiny fragile flowers. We would not expect this to be the case from a savage and therefore our expectations are confouded.
When a lyric is set to the opposite sort of music that it's content would initially imply and vice versa.
eg. When a lyric that sings about torture and rape is set to a delightful, upbeat tune. We would normally expect such heavy topics to be dealt with seriously and with the appropriate gravity. We are confounded by the sound of someone singing of such deplorable acts in a seemingly delighted way.
Depending on the situation of your song, one or the other of these types of irony might be useful to you, it's even possible to combine the two.
So what Ayckbourne has expressed with all of his wisdom is a manner of ironic playwriting. Whereby the whole manner in which we intend to tell our story (be it a musical or a play) is intended to confound our audience's expectations of it.
90% of the humour of a song will come from the set-up. Or in other words if the situation or perspective is inherently amusing then it's likely that the song will be too. In these cases, a line taken out of context of the song would not be amusing at all, but in the situation to which it refers a perfectly banal and plain sounding lyric can make an audience cry with laughter. And working against that, if the set up or perspective is not handled correctly then the funniest joke in the world will fall flat.
When writing songs we should be aware that lyric is not the only thing that is important in making a joke land. Music itself can be amusing without lyric so it stands to reason that when combined with a funny lyric the music has an important role to play in whether something comes off or falls flat. Irony comes into play heavily in both lyric and music when writing funny songs. Confounding an audiences expectation so that they cannot see a joke coming (perhaps throwing in an unexpected rhyme or non-rhyme or a 2/4 bar in a 3/4 song) will defy your audience's expectation. An actor is not the only one with comic timing. The writer must use all the tools at their disposal to ensure timing works to their advantage.
A good comedian will build to the funniest bit of their joke, they won't blow it straight away. Because a good comedian knows that a good proportion of an audience's enjoyment will come from the build-up or anticipation of something really great. Think of it like foreplay. You can't just go straight for the goal, you're audience won't be ready for it and will only lead to a disappointing experience for all of you. The longer you can keep your joke ticking along but always holding the best bit back the more fun everyone will have. For those of you old enough to remember, whenever the littlest of the Two Ronnies did his "joke telling" at the end of the show, he spent at least 5 minutes digressing, being distracted etc from the actual joke. This meant that when the punchline of the joke finally came, his audience would roar with laughter. When you actually listen to the basic joke itself, it really isn't very funny. It's all in the preparation and delivery of the joke that it becomes funny.
We should remember this when we are writing songs that are intended to be funny. Anticipation and build up is key.
Metaphor and simile are often used to great effect in amusing songs. They are often ironic in their usage as well. We see a romantic young tenor lead on stage, he has just been left alone by his love to soliloquise a while... If we were to hear him sing the phrase:
"Love is like..."
We might expect it to be concluded by something soppy and romantic such as:
"Love is like a bunch of roses in bloom. It seems as if it will never fade."
"Love is like the sound of a nightingale singing in a tree. It's song lives in my memory."
We might NOT expect to hear:
"Love is like a Dyson vacuum cleaner. It really sucks."
"Love is like a pair of flip flops. It's only appropriate on holiday."
"Love is like diabetic chocolate. Tasty but too much of it will make you shit yourself."
I'm not saying that these are necessarily funny, but depending on what character is saying them they might confound our audience's expectations.
Also, some words are just naturally funny, I'm not going to tell you which ones.
One final thing to say is that I think humour is one of the greatest assets of any theatre maker in allowing your audience to care about your story. If a character makes you laugh, you will cry all the more when they die. Just watch "The Fault in Our Stars" if you don't believe me.
I'm going to leave it there for the moment, since it's a Sunday and my brain is slowly dissolving into a pool unwatched box sets, which are pleading at me desperately to watch them while eating Ben & Jerry's. After all I'm a master of it. Just in case you were wondering, that isn't an example of irony. That's an example of awesome. I'd love to hear other songwriters thoughts on what makes things funny in songs... post in the comments so we can all learn about funny shit.