Friday, July 09, 2010

Laugh-Out-Loud Songs In Musicals

I've been listening to some old musicals lately, and one thing they've gotten me thinking about is the difficulty of writing a really laugh-out-loud funny comedy song. Of course most comedy songs are funnier in the theatre, with an audience, than they are on a record, so I'm not judging them fairly, but even in the theatre it's hard for a song to make me laugh as hard as funny dialogue or physical action -- there's just too much going on for a joke to "land" even in a first-rate song. "I Cain't Say No" is a funny lyric, but there are no spots for audience laughter, and the point is more to make us smile than laugh.

Also, while comedy songs are often loaded with rhymes and puns, those things don't always get laughs. If you look at the original cast performance of "Please Hello" from Pacific Overtures, in ten minutes of dazzling rhymes, there aren't many laughs from the audience except at the simplest jokes: the repeated "Don't touch the coat," and the first mention of "Detente" where the audience gets the topical joke. (Stephen Sondheim has also said that the song "Barcelona" gets its biggest laugh right at the beginning, with the simple exchange "Where you going?" "Barcelona.")

The songs that get the biggest laughs are, first of all, songs that have some built-in laugh pauses (either a literal pause or a repetition, like of the song's title, where we don't need to hear the lyrics). And they're often songs that don't have a lot of big jokes in them, but have some overriding comic idea. "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" is, in my experience, a song that gets big laughs even on a record -- but only if it's sung by the kind of voice it was written for, a legit soprano voice. The gag is the contrast between the carnal sentiments of the lyrics and the sweetness of the melody and voice; when it's sung breathy and sexy, it is (again, in the performances I've heard) not a big laugh-getter.

And then there are some songs from unsuccessful shows that make me laugh harder than even comedy songs from some of the great shows. That's what got me thinking of this: I was listening to the cast album of the 1964 failure Bajour (about a band of Gypsies pulling an elaborate con on a naive anthropology student and her mother), and I was reminded that the song "Honest Man" always makes me laugh out loud.

It was added on the road as an eleven o'clock number for Herschel Bernardi (as the leader of the main Gypsy tribe) and Herb "Golden Girls" Edelman (as the leader of the Newark tribe). It's built around basically one joke, the "echo" joke where the characters repeat the last few words with a different meaning. But, because of the timing and the placement of the jokes, plus Bernardi and Edelman's delivery, I always, always laugh. And I bet I'd have laughed even harder with some of the visual business, like both actors taking off their hats as they sing "I swear by every hair on my head."

Are there any musical-theatre songs that always make you laugh?

Bajour is a pretty interesting show, though unrevivable since it's almost entirely built around negative ethnic stereotypes. It had great choreography by Peter Gennaro (who choreographed "America" and some of the other Sharks dances in West Side Story). The score, by a newcomer named Walter Marks, is quite good overall, entertaining even in the weaker songs, but Marks faded into almost complete obscurity after writing one other musical later in the decade (Golden Rainbow for Steve and Eydie, which produced Marks' only hit song, "I Gotta Be Me"). I think he wrote some material for Carol Burnett, and wrote the Merchant-Ivory flop movie The Wild Party. There were a lot of talented newcomers in the Broadway of the '60s who didn't quite make it, like Milt Schaefer (Drat! The Cat!), but Marks just sort of seemed to vanish, though I believe he's still alive.

The show was not an out-and-out flop, managing a run of about half a year. The problem with it, according to musical director Lehman Engel, was that it had two female stars, Chita Rivera (as a gypsy in charge of pulling the con) and Nancy Dussault (as the conn-ee). Rivera was better known, and you'd think that the "bad girl" would have the best material. But in fact, Dussault's material was generally better, and she was so good that she stole the show from Rivera. A lot of the tryout period was apparently spent trying to build up Rivera's part rather than fixing the fact that the male characters (except Bernardi) were weak.

Dussault and Bernardi proved they had the goods in another number that always makes me laugh, "Words, Words, Words," essentially a Vaudeville word-association sketch in musical form.

And, not comedy-related, but here's a sample of Gennaro's choreography, Chita Rivera dancing the title song. In this clip she sings it as well; Bernardi's character sings it on the cast album and in the script.


stevef said...

Ella Fitzgerald's recording of "Bewitched..." is probably the best example, but it's not part of a cast recording. That doesn't stop me from listening to it.

I always thought "Poor Judd is Dead" sounded funny on the original cast recording of "Oklahoma," but in the movie it falls flat for me.

I've heard some stuff from "Young Frankenstein" that must be getting laughs."I Love the Brain!"

Maybe it's too easy, but listening to Rex Harrison in "My Fair Lady" draws a chuckle every time. "Why Can't a Woman?" and "Why Can't the English?" are spot on. I think the secret is in Harrison speak-singing the lyrics. The added inflections make it work.

David Welsh said...

It's probably obvious, but "A Little Priest" from Sweeney Todd always makes me chuckle. "Why Do the Wrong People Travel?" from Sail Away makes me laugh. What else? "A Weekend in the Country" from A Little Night Music (specifically "Pack everything I own that shoots"). I know I'm forgetting several.

Sean Gaffney said...

There's half a dozen songs from Once Upon a Mattress that make me laugh out loud. Shy, A Girl Named Fred (even without the visual business), Happily Ever After, Sensitivity...

Marry the Man Today from Guys and Dolls.

I'd mention That's Your Funeral from Oliver!, but the musical is so edgy in its dark humor that I find it's hard to get a laugh from it (it was cut almost immediately, that may be why.)

Noel Katz said...

I immediately thought of Markell and Bernstein’s Something (Upstairs at O'Neals): the teacher Morales complained about in A Chorus Line returns from beyond the grave to complain about her. Viewing all of Nothing’s story beats from the opposite view is, I think, an inherently funny idea. Larry O’Keefe’s Sensitive Song starts out like the world’s sweetest, sappiest ballad, and then shocks us by becoming a vehement tirade against the “skanky whore” the singer’s dumping. Both of these songs have listeners falling on the floor in hysterics; NOT mere chuckles and smiles.
But they're not from book musicals. Here are some that are:

Big Ass Rock (The Full Monty)
Butler's Song (So Long 174th Street)
David Kolowitz, the Actor (So Long 174th Street)
Everyone's a Little Bit Racist (Avenue Q)
Fish (The Apple Tree)
Gooch's Song (Mame)
If You Were Gay (Avenue Q)
I Get Embarrassed (Take Me Along)
Jubilation T. Cornpone (Li'l Abner)
Love Is My Legs (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels)
Lovely (reprise) (...Forum)
Original Musical ([title of show])
You Can Be As Loud As the Hell You Want (Avenue Q)

Kasey said...

Does Tubular Boobular count? :P

stevef said...

"The Internet Is For Porn," Avenue Q.

Aaron Long said...

David Tomlinson's songs in "Mary Poppins" (maybe some other ones in it as well), as well as anything Rex Harrison sings in "Dr. Dolittle" or "My Fair Lady". I think it's the speak-singing, as stevef pointed out. So I guess it's kind of cheating. Anthony Newley's singing in Dolittle is also pretty funny.

I also like "Make 'Em Laugh" from "Singin' in the Rain", but I don't know if it's really the lyrics that make me laugh.

Most of the time it seems that the performances are make me laugh, rather than the lyrics.

Maybe Barney's suit song from How I Met Your Mother's 100th episode. And if we're counting songs from TV shows, the Simpsons has some funny ones.

Some Muppet songs are pretty funny, like "Movin' Right Along", "I Hope That Something Better Comes Along" and "Hey, a Movie!"

Jeff said...

"It's a Business" from "Curtains." Well, at least the spoken lines always kill me:

"I put on 'The Iceman Cometh'--and nobody came-eth!"

"For me the theater is a temple..."
"What, so it should only be filled on Shabbos?!"

Richard Heft said...

"If the Ku and the Klux and the Klan can,
Baby, you can can-can too!"