Playing for Laughs
Musical comedy is a hard genre to crack, and even the brightest stars are often sidelined. Here’s how a so-called niche genre is getting its groove back.
Tim Minchin has played the Royal Albert Hall. Flight Of The Conchords are international megastars, selling over 50,000 copies of their self-titled album in America in one week. The Lonely Island went from a quirky television act to cult status overnight. Even relatively left-of-field acts like Weird Al Yankovic and Stephen Lynch pull in a huge audience – Yankovic’s recent video for his song Fat has been seen over four million times on YouTube.
On the surface, it’s a very good time to be a musical comedian. But you’ve only got to stare at the numbers for a couple more seconds to realise that they don’t tell the whole story. Despite huge successes, musical comedians are still very much viewed as niche performers: novelty acts who don’t have as much credibility as other musicians. They don’t make it into the big music mags or the broadsheets. Their album releases are not trumpeted on the front pages of iTunes or Spotify. And for the most part, their craft is one practised on the stages of small nightclubs, where they have to compete with stand-up comedians for audience attention. Frankly, if they didn’t have a sense of humour it might all get a bit depressing.
There’s no easy answer to why this is the case – blaming a competitive industry only takes you so far. After all, even the ones who are elevated to the huge heights (like Minchin, who did not return answers to questions by the time we went to press) are often not taken seriously – there is really no other word to use – as they should be. Even the legendary Gilbert and Sullivan, whose 19th century comic operas are among the greatest musical comedies ever written, were often unsuccessful in their earlier productions.
Carrie Marx is a member of The Segue Sisters, and when she and her two friends Kerrie Fairclough and Charlotte Jo Hanbury step onstage, their challenge is larger than most. The Segue Sisters not only have to make people laugh, they have to do it while convincing them of the merits of three-part harmony singing – a style that last enjoyed major acclaim in the 1940s.
Fortunately, their approach is absolutely hysterical, and watching them go from the old standard The Boogie-Woogie Bugle Boy From Company B to a falsetto take on Alice Cooper’s heavy metal anthem Poison is a joy.
The Segue Sisters first met at the Edinburgh Fringe, a hot point for musical comedians, and performed live for the first time in London. “I remember our first gig very, very clearly – two years ago, at The Albany on Great Portland Street,” says Marx. “It was pretty terrifying, actually – it was the first time we’d ever done anything like this sort of comedy before, or performed at a comedy night. We started off with Bugle Boy, and then to subvert the form, sang the second song which we learnt, which was Rape Me by Nirvana. It went down a treat, thankfully.”
Marx is able to shed some light on why musical comedy often doesn’t get the respect it deserves. The argument goes something like this: making people laugh is hard, but making people laugh and tap their feet at the same time is very, very hard. Therefore, there are fewer people who try it, which equals fewer musical comedians, which equals less chance of competing with their stand-up brethren – and less chance of being seen as anything other than a niche genre.
As someone who has to painstakingly rehearse with her band-mates – practising at her flat while her housemate plays piano and assists with arrangements – Marx is fully aware of how much graft good musical comedy requires. “I think in order to be good as a musical comedian, it takes a lot of work. You have to be very clever and insightful, and every line has to be a laugh. We’re lucky in that we do covers, although we are going to start working on writing our own stuff, but there is this pressure to get the laughs out.”
One of the biggest misconceptions, Marx says, is that musical comedy is tired and lazy – but, she goes on, there is the other side of the argument, which is that musical comedians can take time to build a joke, and have an instrument to rely on if the laughs fail to materialise. Marx’s husband is a stand-up comic, so she’s seen both sides of the problem: “Straight stand-up can be harder than musical comedy, because you have that prop – or you can be accused of having that prop – so occasionally, I have had people say it’s easier for musical comedians because people are so much more responsive to that sort of thing. But if we work hard, I don’t think there’s any difference.”
The good news is that on a grassroots level, more and more opportunities for musical comedians are springing up. Ed Chappel is a case in point. His Musical Comedy Awards (MCAs) have become the go-to event for recognising the genre’s best, and have sold out for the past three years.
The seed for the event was planted while Chappel was a student at Warwick University. As part of his course, he had to pitch a business idea to a group of investors. “We had a mock-Dragon’s Den situation,” he says. “It was a hypothetical exercise for the course, but they took my idea seriously – the idea to set up an independent platform for musical comedy.
“I felt that it was often seen as a sidekick of stand-up, and there wasn’t a dedicated music circuit for it. And you’d have lots of stand-up gigs where a musical comedian would come, and the other comedians would be like, ‘he’s just doing the music, he gets easy laughs!’ I felt it was important to promote the genre as an independent artform. So I got some money from them, set up [the company], and have been organising the Musical Comedy Awards ever since … I could see that there were people who were doing massively well – Tim Minchin, Bill Bailey, Flight Of The Conchords. It was quite striking that there were so many individual geniuses without there being a platform to celebrate the genre independently.”
Chappel – a musical comedian himself – says that there are other factors which are good news for his genre. For example, musical comedy got a staggeringly large boost from the rise of online video and YouTube; there’s an argument that without it, Weird Al Yankovic would be just be, well, a bit weird.
“Some of the biggest musical comedians have brilliant videos, which then go viral,” says Chappel. “It’s probably easier for an amazing musical comedy song to go viral than a brilliant stand-up routine, because people want to share it.”
There’s a final pertinent issue to deal with – and it’s a doozy. How, exactly, do you go about making people laugh at a song? Is there a formula for it? What are the kind of things that make people crack up? And, if we’re going to explore this fully, why are chart songs and big mainstream hits very rarely funny? After all, there’s nothing stopping Laura Marling or Ellie Goulding from cracking the odd joke in a song, so what gives?
We’d love to say there’s an easy answer to all of this, but there isn’t. The closest you could come would be to resort to truism, and say that different people laugh at different things. The Segue Sisters are a riot live, but put Carrie and her buddies on a pop chart and they’d just get strange looks.
The closest you can come to talking about a formula for musical comedy is suggesting that it seems to be easier for singer-songwriters – and even then, you’re on tenuous ground. “Having a one man or woman or guitar is useful for the storytelling approach,” muses Chappel, “and that can also be in some ways equated to musical stand-up. But the winner of the MCAs in 2010 was a group called Abandoman, and they do improvised raps and hip-hop spectaculars that are based around audience suggestions. So there’s a strong element of singer-songwriters, but there are lots of other groups there as well. There’s a lot of variety in the genre.”
What’s the good news? Despite the challenges it faces, musical comedy is a genre that is very much on the up. Chappel’s MCAs are just getting bigger and bigger, The Segue Sisters have an album of covers in the works, and the superstars like Minchin and the Conchords continue to impress. “I would say that it is thriving more than ever,” says Marx. “But in the mainstream, it needs to be addressed.”