The Art of the Novelty Song (JMag – 2012)
All comedians want to be rockstars, all rockstars want to be comedians and everyone wants to be Flight Of The Conchords. By this theory, musical comedians should have the best of both worlds right? Yeah…nah. Musical comedy is the estranged uncle of the stand-up scene and the ‘special’ cousin of the music industry. That said, it’s a rich and troubling genre that I’m wont to share with acts such as Tim Minchin, Tripod and Ben Lee.
Musical comedy started when sad clown took up the lute. Inside every musical comedian is a serious balladeer trying to write the great Australian folk song. Structurally, funny songs are the opposite in that the lyrics overshadow the music. That is why many comedic songs have watery chords, so they don’t get in the way of the jokes. I once had a friend tell me my music was too good for a comedy song.
How does a prog-novelty practitioner know if a song is working or not? You give it the laugh test. Straight stand-ups argue that musical comedians are cheating, because even if no-one is laughing you can still enjoy the music, and you get a clap at the end. (Guitars are six-string clapping machines). Muso-comics have a cat-like state of awareness that allows them to hear the crowd over the music – the Cack Foldback.
You can tell when a funny song bombs, because afterwards friends will say ‘the audience were just concentrating on the lyrics.’ I once played I Think My Cat Has Got Depression which ran through different kinds of mental illnesses and related them to cat behaviour. (Depression – sleeping all day. Schizophrenia – meowing at nothing. Eating disorder – throwing up lizards). If I’d delivered the idea as stand-up it would have succeeded. Instead, I played a Radiohead-esque ballad, subverting the genre, and leaving poor Sydneysiders confused. It’s hard being a pioneer.
Yon from Tripod describes their bomb-out moment: “We had this song called Food on the Table. The first lines were: You’ve got to make a living/So here’s our show. We were going with the comedy maxim: Just Tell the Truth. No matter how up the vibe was and how much choreography we injected into the song, we came across as ungrateful assholes.”
Josh “Train-Cakes” Earl describes: “I had a song about a girl who has a nut allergy, eats a peanut and then goes into anaphylactic shock. As she was trying to grab her epi-pen I was lecturing her about the fact that a peanut is not actually a nut but a legume. I thought the comedy would be in how men can’t admit they are wrong, and have to argue the point, but the audience just looked at me like I was a dick.
Inspired by Weird Al, I once tried a parody of Pulp’s Common People, called Awkward People. No matter how much spit and sweat flew from my face, I got the impression that kids didn’t want to hear a sacred song bastardised. I think we are in a decade where music has never taken itself more seriously, thus my parody of Do You Realize? (That You Have The Most Food On Your Face) went poorly at Harvest Festival. It’s hard being ahead of your time.