By Paul Krueger
In previous pieces I wrote on this site, I separately stated that comedy is a difficult art, and that musical comedy is even harder. Unlike other types of hybrid comedy, there’s a fairly wide spectrum of musical comedy acts to choose from, ranging from parody institution “Weird Al” Yankovic to the brief musical interludes in the otherwise spoken acts of comedians like Zach Galifianakis and Demetri Martin. In 2012 alone, we saw Garfunkel & Oates get a half-hour special, Flight of the Conchords selling out an entire tour in ten minutes, and the release of a Tenacious D album so good it made my year-end best-of list.
So why doesn’t musical comedy rule the roost?
If I had to pin it down, my gut answer is simple: most of it’s not particularly good. In that regard, it’s not really any different from normal stand-up. Consider the example of Louis CK. On the surface, his act is a load of remarks carefully engineered to trigger ire and umbrage in the most open-minded person. His material skirts the edge of racism, sexism, and a lot of other ism’s that don’t fly in today’s world. But the thing that sets CK apart from the likes of Daniel Tosh is that the ways in which he tries to offend us reveal a genuine point of view that’s been carefully thought out. He doesn’t say these things for the spectacle of it; he says them because to him they’re the best, if not only, ways for him to communicate.
Musical comedy, in my experience, tends to fall more on the Tosh side of the spectrum. The acts I’ve encountered--acts like Stephen Lynch or the Axis of Awesome--perfectly fit the age of YouTube, where ideas can be quickly shared and forgotten. Axis’ big hit was “Four Chords,” which mashed up nearly fifty pop songs that shared a similar chord progression. Stephen Lynch’s approach is high-concept, using flashy ideas like Jesus’ fuckup brother to mask the fact that his comedy doesn’t really have much on its mind. It’s like comparing the work of a high schooler, who creates to be heard, to the work of an adult, who has something to say.
The notion I keep coming back to is “novelty.” Axis’ “Four Chords” is the textbook definition of a novelty song: it comes at its audience with a cool concept, but doesn’t have that much to say beyond, “Isn’t this a cool concept?” They miss or outright skip the opportunity to comment on the inherent recyclability of most pop music, and in its place just pile on more and more examples in the hopes that that’ll be enough. I recognize the technique because it’s how I managed to make the word counts on all my term papers in college. The effect is the same: people who take in the work won’t be able to deny it was competently crafted. But that song, like my term papers before it, provokes very little in the way of afterthought.
Even the greats are guilty of this. The aforementioned Weird Al can pump out some absolute treaures. Take, for instance, 2011’s “Skipper Dan,” a Weezer pastiche about the hellish life of a once-promising actor who never managed to get his big break and is stuck working on Disneyland’s Jungle Cruise ride. For every “Skipper Dan,” though, you get tracks like its album-mate “Party in the CIA,” a low-hanging-fruit parody of Miley Cyrus’ “Party in the USA.” Musical comedy has, in addition to its usual duties of hilarity, the added onus of being euphonic. “Skipper Dan” finds that golden ratio between its chocolate and its peanut butter. “Party in the CIA” is there musically, but at least on that track, Al doesn’t bring the funny. And it’s not hard to see why not. By the time that album was released, “Party in the USA,” and indeed Miley Cyrus herself, were on their way out of the public consciousness. By choosing a target with a such a short shelf life, Yankovic fell into the trap he’s normally so good at sidestepping: novelty.
In my write-up of the best comedy of 2012, I related the viewpoint that on Rize of the Fenix, Tenacious D neglected neither side of their discipline. Frontman Jack Black commits unself-consciously to the part of rock n’ roll raconteur, giving the D’s comedy that much sought-after effortless feel. Yankovic and yes, even Stephen Lynch can be hilarious, but the problem with them most of the time is that the blood and sweat they put into their hilarity is visible. The D takes their time approaching the point they’re making, and that casual-but-committed approach puts their listeners at far more at ease.
Unfortunately, musical comedy will probably never occupy its fair market share. It’s a vital branch of comedy, but relevance comes harder to it than it does most other disciplines. While that particular struggle remains ongoing, though, it’s managed to endure where other hybrid styles have failed, providing the sort of context for which we can be grateful. Specifically: it’s completely outlasted the rise and almost immediate fall of the comedy magician.