With the Edinburgh Fringe festival rapidly coming to an end, we have the opportunity to look back and reflect on the eclectic array of acts that it had to offer. Although not the strangest type of performance on offer I have always had a penchant for musical comedy, with the likes of Frisky and Mannish and Axis of Awesome appearing on the Edinburgh A-list. Despite the genre’s popularity within the comedy clique I have discovered that musical comedy has gained the oddest of reputations more generally (here is an interesting interview with Tim Minchin discussing the topic). This reputation consists in one of two claims that musical comics (or comedic musicians? I’m not sure on the nomenclature) are either:
1) Talented comedians poor at instrumental arrangement, or
2) Talented musicians poor at penning laughable limericks
I disagree with these characterisations. What I mean is I can’t accept these as valid reasons, because it just doesn’t seem to be the case. I just think it is a peculiar reason to loathe such a well established genre—the style has over 140 years of tradition, brought to life in the 1880s designed to capture and parody the overly saccharine times of Edwardian Britain. The point that people make is that one art form appropriates the other into a kind of walking stick, a crutch if you will, to support the other towards the aim of a successful mishmash of chords for chortles. But it has worked with other unlikely combinations; animals and therapeutic massage, for instance. Dog masseuses. Bad example?
But masseuses aside, of all the successful comics-cum-musicians I know they are neither poor musicians nor poor comedians: Reggie Watts, Stephen Lynch, David O’Doherty, Tim Minchin, Lonely Island, Flight of the Conchords. This list is not exhaustive, of course. Some of them are more comedians than musicians, sure, but they all produce listenable, if not enjoyable, music of some kind.
Of course, I haven’t forgotten that subjectivity inherently defines artistic creation and appreciation, and that questions such as “Do you enjoy a good ol’ piece of music?” are insidiously misleading. Music performed well and that is technically immaculate does not necessarily, ladies and gentlemen, lead to it being appreciated or lauded. I, personally, dislike classical guitar compositions. Why? Just not my cup of tea. It’s not because it is poorly performed or technically inaccurate but rather, in the famous words of Austin Powers… it just ain’t my bag, baby. If it’s not your cup of tea, I can deal with that. But don’t be a purist about it all. I will decline to shovel down my morning Kellogg’s with orange juice instead of milk on a matter of taste, not because I think that doing so will do an injustice to both.
Besides, it was Arthur Schopenhauer that wrote “Music reproduces all the emotions of our innermost being”. Mirth, especially as a product of finding things in our cultural environment hilarious, is an emotion just as worthy of musical expression as sorrow or joy. We listen to Ben E. King’s ‘Stand by Me’ and we get that little tingle in our chests. We listen to Bill Withers’ ‘Lean on Me’ and we feel simultaneously joyous and tearful. And I listen to Rob Carter’s performance of the song he brandished to win over his ex-girlfriend’s heart and I can feel myself struggling to keep back the laughter.
My own personal gripe against the genre is that its creations ought to be original and written from scratch. A simple stipulation we demand from both the music industry and comedy circuit alike. For instance, Weird Al Yankovic’s musical comedy stylings can be extremely funny and witty but his song writing is half completed before he even begins. That is not to say that his material is any less humourous, it’s just that his particular type of musical comedy is a small circle within the much bigger and richer circle that is musical comedy. So to those of you that have understandable reservations about musical comedy just know there is a whole ocean of funny to explore out there, and Weird Al is just one drop.