Comedy Genre: Musical Comedy
Posted on 21 February 2013
My guess is that bawdy humorous songs have been around since singing began. Spend some time at a Renaissance fair and you will hear songs such as “The Bastard King of England” or “The Chastity Belt”. I’m more familiar with humour songs beginning around the time of the music halls and vaudeville.
The Vaudeville/Music Hall Era and A Little Beyond
Variety shows did indeed specialise in innuendo. Famously music hall singer Marie Lloyd at the turn of the century was taken before the local watch committee for her song “She Sits Among the Cabbages and Peas“. When they forbade her to use the word “peas/pees”, she simply altered the lyrics to “She sits among the cabbages and leeks/leaks.” Mae West was also famous for being able to twist any phrase, so you thought “the wrong thing”.
When radio became popular in the 1920s many variety performers made the leap from the stage to public broadcast. When talking pictures became popular, more performers left the stage. The new media of the era is largely blamed for the death of vaudeville. People who made these leaps include Jimmy Durante who was particularly famous for his novelty song “Inka Dinka Doo” and the Marx Brothers. By the time television hit the scene in the late thirties vaudeville was all but dead, but continued to be a source for comedians and in particular musical comedians.
My earliest memories of comedy songs include former vaudeville composer Allen Sherman’s song “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah“, Danny Kaye patter songs, and the works of composer/bandleader Spike Jones. It’s worth noting that Spike Jones’s parodies were in fact inspirational to later parodist Weird Al Yankovic.
Tom Lehrer’s comical music career rose about this same time (1945-1971). His is an interesting case that parallels the rise of musical comedians on the Internet. When Lehrer was a student studying mathematics at Harvard, he experienced some success performing his comedy songs at local nightclubs. He decided to pay for studio time and recorded his first album.
No radio shows at the time would touch his music. It was too controversial, covering subjects such as venereal disease. Nevertheless, he sold his records to other students on campus at cost and through Boston newsstands and record stores. Their popularity spread swiftly across the US and abroad through word of mouth. His big break came in the UK when Princess Margaret described her musical tastes as “catholic, ranging from Mozart to Tom Lehrer”. At which time he started being played by BBC radio. Recently, his song “The Elements” was performed by Daniel Radcliffe on the Graham Northon Show.
British Musical Comedy
Late nineteenth century Britain took the lead in musical comedy when Gilbert & Sullivan began creating their comic operettas. They were inspired by French composer Jacques Offenbach, also quite humorous. In turn they inspired many many other people including Tom Lehrer, P.G. Wodehouse, Jerome Kern, Ira Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Oscar Hammerstein II, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Cole Porter, Lorenz Hart, and the list goes on. Their influence on American and British musical theatre is considerable.
Gilbert & Sullivan’s songs “I am the very model of a modern Major-General” and “I am a pirate king” continue to be favourites and are much parodied in their own right. “I’ve got a little list” is famously rewritten every production to list current items of public annoyance. I am very fond of “If you’re anxious to shine” and believe it could become the hipster anthem. British/Canadian Anna Russell performed a delicious routine on how to compose a Gilbert & Sullivan Opera.
Though British music hall emphasized innuendo, such as George Formby’s “When I’m Cleaning Windows” and this continued with the likes of Benny Hill’s “Ernie (The Fastest Milkman In The West)“, unique to Britain is the sheer volume of songs relying on absurdity.
Most people will remember Spike Milligan’s “Ying Tong Song” which is made up entirely of nonsense words in the vein of Lewis Carroll. You may also remember his song “I’m Walking Backwards for Christmas“. Milligan was highly influential in establishing this style.
The Goodies later wrote quite a few absurd songs for their television series. These were penned by Goodies member Bill Oddie. Their best remembered chart topper is “The Funky Gibbon“, but they had five hit singles in 1975, including “Make a Daft Noise for Christmas“.
Monty Python continues to have their songs sung to this day, and their their stage musical Spamalot is still touring. My favourite as a child was “The Lumberjack Song” (start at 3:50). Their “Spam” song has become the theme song of the Internet generation.
US Musical Comedy
The US has had a number of sources for its musical comedy. As well as Vaudeville, jazz, country, and hippie cultures all produced novelty/comedy songs. “Nagasaki” is a jazz song from 1928 by Harry Warren and Mort Dixon with plenty of laughs. “You Can’t Rollerskate in a Buffalo Herd” is a perennial country comedy favourite by Roger Miller. The Vietnam era produced many angst ridden protest songs, but it also had its share of satirical, mocking, and just plain silly songs. Most iconic of the time would have to be Arlo Guthrie and his song “Alice’s Restaurant“. I’m also very fond of The Smothers Brothers who are from this same era.
A significant influence on the popularisation of musical comedy in the US was Dr Demento. In 1970 Barret Eugene Hansen took on the name Dr Demento while working at Los Angeles radio station KPPC-FM. He specialised in playing novelty songs and his show was so popular it was syndicated in 1974. The radio show ended June 2010, but it continues online today.
Dr Demento introduced young people to some of the joyous silliness of the past. He also promoted new comedy artists. He brought the song “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” by Elmo and Patsy to national prominence. Barnes & Barnes became a favourite with songs such as “Fishheads” and “Party in my Pants“.
Most famously Dr Demento was instrumental in Weird Al Yankovic’s rise to fame. In 1976 when he was sixteen Yankovic gave Dr Demento a tape of original songs. Dr Demento played one of those songs on his show. However it wasn’t until 1979 when Dr Demento played his send-up of “My Sharona”, entitled “My Bologna” that Yankovic’s career took off and he was offered a contract with Capitol Records.
Interest in musical comedy in the US seems to have peaked in the 1980s. I’m not certain if public interest has really waned or music executives found it too risky betting on comedy performances. The book industry notoriously has this problem. You have to prove you are funny elsewhere before they will bother publishing you, because they don’t trust their own instincts for comedy.
The current US musical comedy writers of which I am aware are not played on the radio. Saturday Night Live has been a hotspot for musical comedy for many years. Adam Sandler’s “The Chanukah Song” was performed on SNL and became immensely successful. Demetri Martin developed his fame at clubs and on television. Garfunkle and Oates tour comedy festivals and venues. Most US musical comedy has moved onto the Internet with people such as Albino Blacksheep coming to prominence.
Australian/New Zealand Musical Comedy
Historically the bulk of Australian and New Zealand comedy songs have been folk in nature. Outback/country humour struck a chord with people for many years.
One of Australia’s most famous exports and an example of that folk humour is Rolf Harris. His song “Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport” was written in 1957. In 1960 it was number one in Australian charts and was a top ten hit in UK charts. In 1963 a remake of the song made it to third place in US charts.
John Williamson is a country music songwriter with 30 albums to his name and numerous awards. Not all of Williamson’s songs are humorous, but he is certainly famous for them. His “The Vasectomy Song” (1983) caused a stir, and was refused radio airplay because it was seen as being too risqué. Despite this or perhaps because of it, the song was popular.
New Zealand’s Topp Twins are hugely popular in that country, winning a variety of awards from music to televsion to film, and were inducted into the New Zealand Music Hall of Fame in 2008. Their style of country humour music, such as is found in the song “C’mon Dolly Parton“, would not sound out of place at The Grand Ole Opry.
Joe Dolce’s “Shaddup You Face” (1980) mocks Italian mannerisms. It is the most successful Australian produced single in music history. Internationally the song has sold more than six million copies. Australians haven’t risen to such comic musical prominence again until recently with Axis of Awesome. Their song “4 Chords” has attracted over eleven million views on YouTube.
More recently Australia has exported Scared Weird Little Guys and their patter songs, Axis of Awesome who enjoy parodying pop music, and Tim Minchin and his niche anti-theist songs. Touring within Australia well-loved groups have included the feral Doug Anthony All-Stars, geek charmers Tripod, and dry parodists The Kransky Sisters. Australia has many many fine musical comedy performers doing festivals right now.
No list of Australian/New Zealand musical comedy would be complete these days without mentioning Flight of the Conchords. This New Zealand group has stormed the world. They won a US Grammy for best comedy album, and member Bret McKenzie’s composition “Man or Muppet” won an Oscar in 2012 for best original song.
This article was a lot of work. It was also a lot of fun. Musical comedy is an important form of humour. It’s one of the few genres where people don’t mind hearing the same material over and over again. It also sticks in people’s minds in ways nothing else does. Use this power for good, grasshopper.
Peace and kindness,