On the Writing of Parody Lyrics & Comedy Songs

‹-- PreviousNext --›

I’ve had several conversations recently with people involved in writing comedic parodies and/or needing to update references in existing comedy songs. And in the process a few themes have emerged that I thought it worth pulling together a bit so I’ve got something useful to link to if I find myself having more such conversations.

Have enough jokes

Like the concept of Retroactive Inevitability, this is something that Roger Payne used to talk about. It’s very easy to get a brilliant idea for a parody, but end up with essentially just the one joke. For sure, having one major concept you build around is a good strategy for a coherent whole, but you also need regular laugh-points along the way.

On the stand-up comedy course I did way back when, the guide-line we were given was to make sure you never went more than 30 seconds without a punchline. Given that songs tend to be a more compact and less wordy form than stand-up, I wouldn’t be surprised if you need them more often than that in music. I tend to measure musical time in bars rather than seconds, and my feeling is at least every 16 bars, but with some at 8-bar intervals., is what you’re aiming for.

Crafting your jokes

One of the conversations found us noting the process that the joke-crafting was going through, as we did it in real time, and that feels like a useful thing to capture.

First came the overall concept: what is the joke about? At the heart of every joke is a nub of incongruity, whether that comes from something conflicting or absurd in the content, or simple wordplay. The impact of the joke isn’t simply a result of the degree of incongruity, however, but may be amplified (or indeed inhibited) by things like relateability or transgression. Getting this in place logically precedes the other stages (even if you sometimes stumble across it when playing with rhyme schemes).

In stand-up, you’d then look at how you craft this into a tellable joke, getting the set-up and punchline to communicate efficiently, and landing on the key word of the reveal at the end of a sentence to make space for the laugh. In songs, you’re doing the same thing, but with more constraints because your joke needs to fit into a defined metrical structure.

So we tend to do this in two stages. The rhyme scheme is the key element of framework to get in place first, and I’ve written about this in considerable detail before, so no need to repeat that. Once you’ve got your end-rhymes in place, you need to craft the rest of the lines for scansion and singability. They need to have the right number of syllables, with the emphasis in the right place, and with patterns of vowels and consonants that fit readily in the mouth. You don’t want to be stumbling over awkward sequences of syllables when you’re trying to deliver a joke.

The bigger picture

You also need to decide which jokes go where in the overall form. To a considerable extent, this is determined by the overall story you are telling; some comedic subjects lend themselves to a clear sequential narrative, though others are more loosely theme-based and require you to make more decisions about how to navigate through it.

Within your overall arc, you need to get your musical and comedic moments lining up coherently. More than once in the conversations that prompted this post, I’ve found myself saying: this joke isn’t strong enough for this place in the music. Not every joke has to be a belter - indeed, as with the challenges of building a set out of one-liners, it’s arguably better to have a variety of comedic impact levels in the same way you want light and shade in your musical phrasing. In the same way that surprising words in the wrong place can unbalance a phrase, too funny a joke in a spot that is musically just en passant will mess up your flow.

But you do need your big musical moments (ends of sections, key changes, things that are signalled in any way as a climax), to have the best jokes on them. If the music is getting all worked up to elicit a stronger emotional response, you need your comedic material also to have its greatest impact at the same time.

...found this helpful?

I provide this content free of charge, because I like to be helpful. If you have found it useful, you may wish to make a donation to the causes I support to say thank you.

Archive by date

Syndicate content