Musical Comedy Versus Comic Music

Molly Taite Jupp 15 March 2022
Image Credit: Creative Commons licences

It’s Sunday afternoon, I have just submitted an essay, and I’m on the train home listening to Tim Minchin. With the freedom to think about something other than the literary output of the Long Eighteenth century, it is the very nature of Minchin’s music that has occupied my thoughts for most of the journey thus far. As ‘Rock and Roll Nerd’ provides the soundtrack for the flash of fields and platforms which colour my periphery, then, the simultaneous audacity of Minchin’s wit and the alacrity of his piano prompts me to consider the nature of humour in music: specifically, what makes something musical comedy as opposed to just comic music?

Whilst this may seem, on the surface, to be a spurious question – surely musical comedy can be described as comic music, and vice versa? – there is something about music made purely for a comedy set that differentiates it from songs which are funny in and of themselves. True, Minchin is practically virtuosic in his musicianship – a verified pianistic genius – but his output largely comes under the umbrella of ‘comedy-music’ as opposed to everyday music which also has a humorous element. Take as an example ‘Inflatable You’. A mock-ballad about a professed love affair between Minchin’s persona and an inflatable sex toy, the lyricism is amusing from the start. Playing with bathetic timing, for example, Minchin, proffering no initial hints about the subject of his affections, effuses that ‘your love for me is not debatable / your sexual appetite’s insatiable’, before dedicating his song in the following line to ‘delectable, inflatable you’. Framing the ballad with hyperbolised versions of the cliched idiolects found in the sultry love songs he mocks, Minchin thus lyrically sets up romantic expectations which are not only dashed but rendered ridiculous. The ‘prickly’ goosebumps of first love are, in a similar way, soon explained away as mere ‘static electricity’: the song ends by merging into the Beatles’s ‘Don’t Let Me Down’, remoulding a lovelorn classic into an entertaining extension of the inflation/deflation metaphor Minchin sustains. Whilst the musical and the comic are clearly inextricable in Minchin’s setlist, with songs like F Sharp using purposeful piano errors and an off-key melody rather than witty lyrics to make people laugh, the relationship is evidently largely one way: the music supports the comedy rather than the other way around.

For the most part, then, we see Tim Minchin residing within a clearly defined genre of comedy music. This is not to say that his songs are one-sided or gimmicky – his output is often personal and occasionally political – but most are constructed first and foremost to prompt laughter, a facet of a larger comic show. Yet can the same be said of all funny music? More specifically – does the purposeful inclusion of humour in a song immediately categorise it within the bracket of Minchin-esque musical comedy?

Increasingly, the answer is no. Recently, the line between comedy music and music which is funny without being generically ‘comic’ is one that is becoming more and more blurred. In fact, if we consider the soundtrack of the 2016 mockumentary ‘Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping’, it is clear that the boundaries between music and humour are collapsing. Whilse Popstar’s hits are explicitly constructed with their comedic impact in mind, for example, they also highlight the unconsciously funny elements of ordinary music. A closer look at ‘I’m So Humble’ demonstrates this: we hear failing pop-musician ‘Conner’ (played by Andy Samberg) rapping egoistically about his own humility, satirising, in lyrics which claim that ‘I’m so unpretentious for a genius’, the laughably self-aggrandising content of personality pop songs. Mirroring the flow of Kanye West’s verse in ‘Monster’, ‘I’m So Humble’ specifically parodies a musician who, either facetiously or seriously, released ‘I Am A God’ just three years before. In the humour of ‘Popstar’ releases, then, we can also laugh at the genuine output of real pop artists. Similarly, in the 1984 mock rock-doc ‘Spinal Tap’, Nigel Tufnel and David St. Hubbins perform bygone classic ‘Stonehenge’ – the epitome of poetic and performative ‘style-over-substance’ – poking fun at the proliferation of Led Zeppelin-esque mythic imagery in soft rock. Consequently, whilst these two film soundtracks fall in many ways into the comedy-music genre, their placement is unstable. In imitating ordinary music, satire soundtracks become distanced from conventional ‘comedy’ songs; simultaneously, in laughing at ordinary music, they reveal that music is funny without being an explicit musical comedy.

The liminal space between generic ‘comedy-music’ and simply funny songs, however, is not solely reserved for the pastiche. In fact, for groups willing to tread the fine line between consistent humour and the risk of devolving into a ‘joke’ band, it can serve as a means of presenting a wry social commentary, signalling an anti-establishment mentality through mere tonal perversion. For Half Man Half Biscuit, for example, wittiness is unifying, their lyrics exposing a laughable side to the shortcomings of modern life. Consider ‘Upon Westminster Bridge’: upending the idealised vision of London presented in Wordsworth’s ‘Composed Upon Westminster Bridge’, Biscuit makes the slating assertion that ‘if Jesus came to Earth today / They’d crucify him straight away / Upon a cross of MDF / And they’d use “No Need For Nails”’. Similarly cutting is the sardonic illustration of British ennui in ‘For What is Chatteris’, which acerbically reveals about small towns that although ‘you never hear of folk getting knocked on the bonce / […] There was a drive-by shouting once’. From Half Man Half Biscuit, it is thus clear that the purposeful construction of a song around humour does not automatically define it as ‘comedy’, even if Biscuit’s constant lyrical witticisms simultaneously prevent them from achieving the mainstream fame of more commercially oriented artists.

To return to my original question about the distinction between ‘musical comedy’ and merely comic music, then, I ask, maybe unsurprisingly – if there is such a distinction, does it really matter? Maybe this kind of generic fluidity is the point. In Bo Burnham’s ostensibly comedic ‘Funny Feeling’, for example, we see both humour and heart-wrenching emotional honesty, with the ‘funny’ feeling he describes shifting in seconds from being laughably funny to funny in the sense of oddness or disconcertion. We get the sense that something can be humorous and serious at the same time: the comic idea of ‘obeying all the traffic laws in Grand Theft Auto 5’ can hide the painful reality of being a ‘total agoraphobic’. Comedic music, in its hybridity and various permutations, is thus able to achieve something beyond the realms of ordinary comedy or everyday music. Reflecting, in its resistance to categorisation, the accordant indefinability of human existence, then, this generic no man’s land should instead be considered an every-man’s land, as fluid as the ‘funny feelings’ it evokes and describes.