Comedy and Musical Structure 2: From Phrase to Form

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In my previous post on this subject, we looked at the basic building block of comedy, the set-up/punchline dyad. (Dyad is such a poncy music-theory kind of word, isn’t it? Possibly ‘combo’ is more appropriate here.) Our tutor, James Cook, quite sensibly started us off on the purest, simplest form of joke – the one-liner – in order to make this fundamental structure clear. You know, like when you’re teaching harmony, you build a lot of phrases using I-V-I before you start doing fancy stuff like substitute chords and modulations.

Now, one-liners are great as instant pay-off. They require the absolute minimum from the audience in terms of cognitive engagement over time, as the punchline comes hard on the heels of the set-up. No need for deferred gratification at all. It’s a spend-all-your-pocket-money-at-once style of comedy.

So they’re great openers. They build audience rapport quickly and get everybody laughing, which is what they’re there to do. But once you’ve done a few in a row, things become harder. You start to get a diminishing return, as the audience gets habituated to the style of humour (a classic bit of hedonic adaptation, indeed), and after a bit longer they start to get tired. The quick-fire approach starts to get a bit dizzying as you lurch from subject to subject, and they may start to crave something to get their teeth into.

This is why building a long set entirely around one-liners is hard. It’s not just that you need so much material, it’s that it’s hard to control large spans of time if you keep arriving at closure every 10 seconds. It’s like you don’t get to travel very far from your house if you have to come home to check you didn’t leave the oven on every ten minutes.

Which is why many stand-up comedians use narrative. This gives you a chance to build longer stretches of attention. You can hook an audience into a story and keep them there for longer as it’s more open-ended. It’s easier for them to suspend disbelief and settle into the world you create for them.

So, the basic musical parallel is fairly obvious here: it’s about harmonic variety, modulation, thematic contrast and development. All the stuff that you use when you want to build a structure longer than 8 bars.

There are two more useful points beyond this, though. One is about what happens during the journey. Even if you are building a longer narrative, you still need some local points of arrival (cadences, punchlines). James gave the rule of thumb that a stand-up should not go more than a maximum of 30 seconds without giving their audience something to laugh at.

This is important for both those creating longer musical structures and those performing them. It reminds us that our audiences are participants in the conversation, even if we don’t hear their mental contribution in the way we do when a comedian’s audience laughs. But if we just build huge structures with no moments of relief or revelation on the way, they get bored – in the same way you get bored being talked at by someone who never gives you space to respond. So this is why both Paul Davies and David Wright talk about the importance of moments in an arrangement. It’s also germane to the questions of musical stamina in performers I was talking about before Christmas.

The other point is about what comedians call the ‘call-back’ – where you refer back to a previous joke to create a new punchline. These are comedy gold. They build on previous set-ups so you get a sense of concatenated punchlines, and they also make use of shared experience earlier in the set to turn the material into an in-joke (with its cachet of connoisseurship and feeling clever). They also serve to bind the set together into a more continuous, integrated experience.

Nineteenth-century symphonists were into this stuff too. Motivic interconnection within and between movements served two purposes. First, to hold longer musical structures together. The patterns of tonal contrast that allow you turn a ditty into a 4 or 5 minute movement aren’t necessarily enough to build a 20-minute movement and hold it together – you need some more overt cross-connections to keep people following you. Otherwise, your cliffs get too far apart.

Second, musical call-backs serve to make pieces more individual. If you refer back to the themes of movements 1, 2 and 3 in the introduction to the Finale (a trick that caught on in all kinds of guises post Beethoven), it makes it harder for someone to slip in an alternative slow movement for a change. This sounds like an odd risk to cater for with our current culture of respect for the Integrated Musical Work, but if we remember that symphonies were typically broken up with other acts between the movements in early C19th-century concerts, it makes more sense.

I’ve written about the relationship between unity and variety in music before, but thinking of both singularities and moments of self-referentiality as types of punchline is proving a useful way to imagine – and thus craft – the impact of a piece of music on an audience. Rhythm and form emerge as the pattern of cognitive reward, the bits where the audience gets to respond.

And that in turn reminds me of a wonderful video of brain responses to music, which I’ve been meaning to share with you for a while: The Tango Brain

(Hat-tip to String Visions)

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