Ep2. Weak jokes made worse by having to sing them
Being funny is hard enough, but it’s even harder in a song. One of the reasons is timing: you, the songwriter, are effectively giving the actor a line-reading by dictating both the rhythm and inflection of the joke. And then you’re usually adding the demands of rhyme, just to make things harder.
In a perfect world, this occurs:
- The joke is funny to begin with.
- You deliver it with natural syntax, and an unforced rhyme.
Here’s Frank Loesser at work, in Adelaide’s Lament:
You can feed her all day with the vitamin A and the bromofizz
But the medicine never gets anywhere near where the trouble is.
If she’s getting a kind of name for herself, and the name ain’t his …
See? He makes it look easy.
More often, this occurs:
- The joke wasn’t that good in the first place.
- The rhyme twists the syntax, which stuffs up the delivery, or
- The syntax is fine but the rhythm forces you to add extra syllables, which stuffs up the delivery.
Here’s a moment from David Lindsay-Abaire’s lyrics for the musical of Shrek. Princess Fiona is telling Shrek how hard it was for her in the tower:
Twenty years I sat and waited
I’m very dedicated
On the walls the days were added
Luckily those walls were padded
Here’s what wrong with it:
- You don’t add days on walls. You scratch them on walls, you scrawl them on walls, you cross them off on calendars.
- Even if you do add days on a wall, that’s the order you’d say it, not the passive “on the walls the days were added”.
- Who says “the walls were padded”? You’d say “padded walls”, right? Or “a padded cell”, or “the rubber room”.
- The joke about padded walls is tired anyway.
Here’s another, from Amanda Green’s lyrics for High Fidelity. Rob is explaining his record store colleagues:
What can I do?
They came as temps.
But then they started showing up here every day!
It’s been four years.
They just won’t leave.
They never even ask me for a raise in pay.
The gag should be something punchy, like “They don’t even want pay”, or (weaker) “They never ask for a raise”. As it stands, it rhymes and it makes sense, but it has no chance of surprising you: with all those padded syllables you can hear the (very mild) gag coming a mile off.
I have a theory as to why this occurs so frequently. Actors, you see, will do anything to make a joke land. They want the laugh. So they mug, they caper, they grimace, they use their funny voice, and eventually they get a laugh. Then they do everything in their power to protect that laugh and get it again and again, every night.
And the lyricist, sitting in the audience in previews, thinks, “Hey, I was gonna tweak that line, but you know what? I’m pretty funny.”