Make ‘Em Laugh: The Foundations of Musical Comedy

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By Rebecca Harrell
Music Journalist

Popularized by Saturday Night Live, carried out by classics like “Weird Al” Yankovic and The Lonely Island and now continued on by late night show hosts, YouTubers and rappers, comedy music has transformed from an accent to emphasize a storyline into a surprisingly legitimate genre. With my prior knowledge extended by continued research, I’ve divided the genre of comedy music into three standard categories: traditional, tribunal and independent. Though each subcategory entails an individual premise and pathway to execute. Altogether, the end goal is to simply make people laugh. 

In order to understand the latter two, we first must expand on the foundation of comedy in music. 

Perhaps the earliest recognizable form of musical comedy can be found throughout, well, Broadway musicals themselves. While each musical number is tailored to push along the plotline, we neglect to notice their subtle comedic elements. “West Side Story” (1961), directed by Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise, follows the Romeo and Juliet tale of two star-crossed lovers rivaled against each other, ultimately ending in the main character’s epic downfall. Although the storyline revolves around real-world issues like socioeconomic status, racism and corruption, the piece “Gee, Officer Krupke” works to provide comedic relief to a heavy plotline and furthermore, can stand alone as an individual piece of music fans listen and sing along to, speaking from personal experience. Other examples of this type of piece would include “Make ‘Em Laugh” from “Singin’ In The Rain” (1952) performed by Donald O’Connor, “Choreography” performed by Danny Kaye in “White Christmas” (1954) and even “Ain’t Got Rhythm” from the beloved Disney Channel classic series “Phineas and Ferb”. 

Danny Kaye and Bing Crosby standing in front of a blue background with white clouds scattered. They are wearing short, flat-brimmed straw hats, maroon suit coats, and each holding a cane in their left hand.
Danny Kaye and Bing Crosby performing “Blue Skies” in the 1954 film White Christmas. Image from Wikimedia Commons

The beauty of these naturally embedded comedic tunes is listeners seldom notice it is comedy. While we are engulfed in these melodic tones we can’t help but sing along to even after the visual performance is over. Post-peak musical era Saturday Night Live also regularly incorporated comedic musical numbers to emphasize a skit while also raising its comedic value. In November of 2018, for example, the cast along with guest host Steve Carell performed a friends-giving sketch where the table discusses how there are no famous Thanksgiving-themed songs. A couple at the table attempt to remind the other guests’ of “that one” famous Thanksgiving song, and the skit ends with all six characters singing this fabricated song in unison. Although the song was essentially the entire subject of the sketch, the point is that it was an entirely orchestrated piece of music to enhance the acting, and it’s catchy enough to sing off stage. “Saturday Night Live” tends to do this continuously throughout the seasons, gifting us with those hilariously embedded tunes to stick in our minds forever.

The overall conclusion I present is that comedy was a dark horse in early musical and comedic television strategy. We laugh with the music without even realizing what we’re doing. From this point on, comedy music still has quite a ways to evolve into other forms and subgenres, but this original, incorporative style was the spark to a fire. Next, we’ll take a look at what I call tribunal comedy music, so if you’re a fan of parody humor, stay tuned.

Featured image by Rebecca Harrell via Canva

Written by: Piper Blake

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