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Thoughts on Barbershop and Musical Comedy

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The shibboleth in barbershop circles is that any attempt at comedy has, first and foremost, to be sung well if it is to work. The better it’s sung, the funnier people will find it. This post unpicks this assumption: there’s something to it for sure, but I don’t think it tells the whole story.

The reason why this generalisation seems generally plausible is, I think, because ‘well sung’ functions as an effective proxy for ‘thoroughly-rehearsed’ and ‘has high standards’. Ensembles that develop their skills in one of these dimensions typically improve in the others too. Lurking behind the truism is the memory of mediocre performances that were not very well executed as comedy, didn’t have enough jokes in them (those they did have being rather obvious), and that were also not very well sung.

But this is a case of correlation, rather than causation. It’s not necessarily the fact that they’re singing better that makes a successful group more funny. In fact, these two dimensions are at least moderately dissociable once you’re beyond the base level of ‘does the audience trust your skillset?’

If you think about your favourite musical comedians, and your favourite singers’ voices, they’re rarely the same people. Pavarotti wasn’t very funny, and Tim Minchin rarely uses his full vocal resources when performing as a comedian (I’m thinking here what a revelation it was to hear him in the role of Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar). Noel Coward wrote notes for every syllable of his songs, but in performance spoke at least two-thirds of them. Excellence in the execution and delivery of comedy are in many examples almost totally independent from those qualities usually associated with excellence of singing.

And I think this is not merely that ‘better singing’ is not a pre-requisite for ‘better comedy’, but can actually be antithetical to it. To sing with beauty is to show that you take your art (and, by extension, yourself as a singer) seriously. Comedians work primarily within an aesthetic of self-deprecation; polish – unless handled ironically – can actually impede their comedic impact.

Approaching the question from the other side, the primacy of singing quality as indicator of value in barbershop contest terms is entirely appropriate: it is after all a singing contest. Whatever you want to move your audience to (laughter, tears, tapping of feet) is subordinated to the clarity and ring of the harmonies. This doesn’t mean that the group that wins because they sing the best necessarily has the best sense of rhythm (we know this is barbershop’s musical Achilles heel), and it likewise doesn’t make ordinary punchlines funnier.

Indeed, notwithstanding the pretty strong correlation between the best-sung and the funniest barbershop comedy performances, you do see very well sung performances scoring very heavily despite somewhat inconsistent and/or self-indulgent comedic material. It’s a singing contest, they deserve their rewards, but it does perhaps lower the bar on what a barbershop audience will regard as hilarious.

So, my practical take-aways from this are:

  1. Whatever else you do, you need to sing well enough so that any audience can relax and not worry about whether you are going to get through the performance safely.
  2. If you want to win singing competitions, you need to sing better than everyone else.
  3. If you want to make people laugh, you need good material. This means lots of jokes, with well-crafted punchlines falling in the right musical places, and that will be meaningful to your chosen audience(s).
  4. If you want to do 2 & 3 at the same time, you need to find a way to navigate the potential contradiction between vocal/musical excellence and the aesthetic of self-deprecation.

And that last thought led me to a wider conclusion. Barbershop is, you would think, quite well placed to chart that course, what with its commitment to vocal craft and its roots in popular entertainment. But actually, one of the things that barbershop runs into difficulty with in managing its public image is precisely the way its tendency to take itself seriously (power ballads, anyone?) sits rather awkwardly in the vaudeville frame through which wider culture observes it.

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