As Dorothy Parker once said, “Brevity is the soul of lingerie.”
Which, in turn, is a turn on “Brevity is the soul of wit” and, while I could talk about lingerie all day, I thought I’d offer a few words about brevity in comedy songs. (Finding illustrations for lingerie might prove distracting.)
Shaggy dog story is defined as a tale (or a tail?) that goes on and on, only to reach a disappointingly small punch line. Seems like everywhere I turn, I come face to face with the musical equivalent of a shaggy dog, a comedy song that rambles on at such length, you end up sorry you started listening in the first place. The Hypochondriac’s Song, by Ryan Scott Oliver, actually makes reference, at one point, to going on and on and on. But I’m not sure there’s any irony there. It merely outwears its welcome.
If you asked musical theatre performers under 30 to name a song that makes them laugh, it’s likely A Summer In Ohio would be the most-mentioned title. And sure, it starts off with some hearty chuckles. But after we hear the humorous name, Wayne, it ceases to be amusing, as if the lyricist suddenly ran out of jokes. Great writers of comedy songs, such as Frank Loesser or Sheldon Harnick, structure in a way that makes each punch line stronger an the last. I consider Harnick the greatest living lyricist, particularly for having the ability to milk a good premise for all it’s worth. A masterpiece of the genre, like Larry O’Keefe’s Sensitive Song, gets increasingly outrageous. And David Yasbek, in songs such as Man and Here I Am has an understanding that comic energy can come from the music as well. I particularly admire Man‘s musical quote, of The Magnificent Seven, music that’s funny in and of itself.
Of course a musical quote is decidedly different from a musical theft. Drew Gasparini’s catchy chorus to My Year appealed to me until I realized its similarity to the 60s hit, Tracks of My Tears.
Overlong songs don’t eat away at my soul because I’ve the cathartic experience of pruning them down to fit into time-limited showcases I musical direct. And with many a modern funny song, once you trim the fat, you’re left with a pretty good piece of meat.
I may have mixed metaphors just now, but what’s with the songwriters of today? Why didn’t they cut to a reasonable size themselves? The compulsion to write taxingly long songs is a mystery to me. Sometimes I think writers have forgotten about the audience. A gargantuan piece might be embraced by performers looking to impress with their vocal stamina. But when you think of a favorite vocalist, and what you like about them, the ability to sing 300 measures seems very much besides the point.
Might this be an example of the tyranny of the marketplace? With singers looking for showpieces for their cabaret appearances, writers recognize a market for songs performers can show off with. This leads to people getting reputations as good musical theatre writers before they’ve ever written a musical. That’s messed up. But worse still is the way self-indulgent performers and incapable-of-self-editing creators have left the audience out of the picture. And what we’re looking for is songs that will keep entertaining us from start to finish, at any length.