Bo Burnham And The 5 Types of Comedy Songs
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Many stand-up comics consider music to be a crutch or a gimmick. As a musical comedian myself, I have dealt with several comics who are adamant that what I do is “not stand-up at all."
What they don’t realize, other than the fact that they are lousy at singing, is that good comedy songs don't degrade the artform. In fact, comedy music can push the boundaries of what live comedy can be. For proof, check out Bo Burnham.
Over the past 13 years, Burnham has been mastering the craft of comedy music. He had an early start, still the youngest comedian ever to star in their own “Comedy Central Presents” at just 18. This drive for exploring comedy music has allowed him to perfect every type of comedy song over the years. Here's a breakdown of what I consider to be the five types of comedy songs, with examples from Burnham and other comedy tune masters.
But before we get started, let's define “comedy song” as a joke or series of jokes, set to music, that connect to a singular theme with the intent of making you laugh. So we won't include bits like Demitri Martin’s “Guitar Jokes,” which is a series of stand-alone gags set to music. We'll also disqualify Outsider Music artists like The Shaggs, Tiny Tim, or Tay Zonday – their songs may be funny to listen to, but comedy wasn't the artists' intent. And out of respect for the art, I have not included any 2010-2021 YouTube parody artists as doing so would likely crash your phone or computer.
The Classic Comedy Song
These songs are the basis of comedy music. They tend to be formulaic in a musical and writing sense, with a classic verse-chorus structure you'd find in any pop song. The lyrics consist of a single “theme” supported by several rhyming jokes.
Often, the verse works as a set-up to the punchline, or theme, in the chorus, then the lyrics are jokes playing off that theme. This is where most comedy musicians start out. The Classic Comedy Song isn't considered worse or better than other forms of comedy songs, but it is by far the most ubiquitous. The jokes rule here – you could read the lyrics and get the laughs without even needing to hear the song.
This is where Weird Al, Steven Lynch, Garfunkel and Oates, Flight of the Conchords, Tenacious D and The Lonely Island lean into pretty hard. Bo Burnham’s earlier work is also firmly planted in this category. Here are some examples from Klan Kookout, one of Bo’s edgier early songs (he was like 16, give him a break).
Grab a seat
Have something to eat
Help yourself, it's all right
If you want a beer, they're over here
But we only got Coors Lite
Try a chip with my homemade dip
The stuff is outta sight
Right before bed we’ll shave your head
Good thing you’re dressed in white
'Cause it's a Klan cookout
'Cause it's a Klan cookout
You can see a similar structure – both music- and joke-wise – in Weird Al's eBay.
There are countless others. Find a comedy playlist, hit shuffle, and you’re likely to land on this style of comedy song.
The Song is the Joke
Now this is where things start to get interesting. Instead of prioritizing actual jokes, these comedy songs prioritize the theme of the song and the music.
For example, Richard Cheese is classified as comedy music, but why? While he’s not making jokes, the ENTIRE SONG is the joke! Crooning modern songs like Frank Sinatra with a cheezy big band is where the humor originates.
Weird Al’s parodies always have a degree of this, with silly lyrics planted in familiar pop songs. Not to mention that Al’s polka parodies are entirely jokeless, aside from the fact that the music just sounds funny. Want more? Weird Al has songs like “Trapped in the Drive-through," "Albuquerque" and "Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota," where an overarching joke is how long the song is.
John Mulaney’s Sack Lunch Bunch derives most of its humor from producing lavish Broadway numbers about very small problems like only eating buttered noodles and wondering if flowers exist at night. Tom Lehrer's The Elements is funny because it’s impressive to recite every element in the periodic table. The songs from Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story make fun of other artists' writing and singing styles. "Springtime for Hitler" from The Producers works because the flamboyant music and lyrics are a stark contrast to the dark subject matter. Jon Benjamin has an entire jazz piano album where the catch is, he has no idea how to play piano. These songs won't make you laugh just by reading the lyrics, but the background context drives the meta joke home.
Burnham's “Beating Off In A Minor” is a comedy song with zero lyrics and the song only works because he prefaces it with the title (and mimes jacking off for the entirety of the song). The Bezos tracks off of Inside also fall into this category, with humor coming from a mismatch between sound and content.
The Classic Comedy Song (Subverted)
This category's humor comes from presenting something as a comedy song and breaking the rules! As a musical comic, this is the zone where I have the most fun playing. These songwriters know the formulas of comedy music and by bypassing those rules, initiate a surprise, which in turn gets a laugh. Take a song like Cont by TIm Minchin.
Minchin sings an entire song featuring offensive lyrics, then at the end, he reveals that he accidentally covered up half of the lyrics with another sheet of paper. He then plays the entire song over again with the correct lyrics – which qualify his racist opinions with dubious context.
Stephen Lynch’s Love Song is another great example. The entire song is a completely normal and sweet love song to his significant other, leaving the audience to wonder where the comedy is. Then after a full minute, Lynch delivers the final line: “And also I have herpes”. The Norm McDonald of comedy songs.
Reggie Watt’s avant-garde style subverts comedy song structure entirely. With each song, you have zero idea where he is going next, which is exactly where he wants you.
Lonely Island’s Captain Jack Sparrow uses the context from the intro of the song, where Michael Bolton raves about Pirates of the Caribbean, to later subvert the expectations by having Bolton sing only about Jack Sparrow.
Sammy J and Randy’s Love Song begins as a duet as the two sing about the women they love. But the song keeps stopping as the singers realize they are in love with the same woman, who is cheating on both of them with the other.
Burnham uses this style in a number of songs over several albums. He introduces A World on Fire, leaving the audience to expect a comedy track, then subverts that expectation by just screaming and banging the keys. He does it again within the song What Did I Do Last Night:
“This song is called what did I do last night
What the (expletive) did I do last night!
I cried myself to sleep.”
End of song. Chef’s kiss.
Taking a Jab At Society
This is as serious as comedy music gets. These are the songs where modern Bo Burnham and Tim Minchin really shine. These songs consist of jokes about a theme, but the end goal of the song is to deliver a message and make the audience think.
For an easy example, Tim Minchin often comments about religion. In songs like Thank You God, Tim talks about how wrong he was for not believing in God after his friend's mom’s cataracts were cured after his church prayed for her.
“Thank you God for fixing the cataracts of Sam's mum
I didn't realize that it was such a simple thing
I feel such a dingaling, what ignorant scum
Now I understand how prayer can work
A particular prayer in a particular church
In a particular style with a particular stuff
And for particular problems that aren't particularly tough
And for particular people, preferably white
For particular senses, preferably sight
A particular prayer in a particular spot
To a particular version of a particular god
And if you get that right, He just might
Take a break from giving babies malaria
And pop down to your local area
to fix the cataracts of your mum”
Randy Newman’s Short People is a funny song about his hatred for short people on the surface but is actually an allegory for racism.
Bo Burnham has excelled at this form since he released Art is Dead in 2010. Since then he has written songs like Repeat Stuff, which bashes the music business for brainwashing young girls. From God’s Perspective conveys Bo’s thoughts on how God would view the world. Bo tends to end his shows with big numbers about his mental health and how he feels about his life currently. Then of course, with the release of Inside, he focused mainly on this style of comedy song.
These are the loosest form of comedy songs in that the comedy usually stands on its own, but music sets the comedy's rhythm. Rhyming is not the goal with these songs (although they may rhyme from time to time), and a repeating chorus often binds the jokes together. Usually this technique is used as a way to tell a story or have a conversation.
Bo Burnham uses this technique with Kanye Rant, using a Kanye West-style backing track to tell jokes about his insecurities, with no need for rhyme structure at all.
Nick Thune does this all the time with songs like Missed Connections, where he relates the posts he would put on Craigslist in the Missed Connections section, then intercuts his stories with a chorus.
Flight of the Conchords use Musical Backdrop with their song Jenny from their HBO special. The song is just a conversation between two lovers reuniting, except one of them can’t remember the other. The same could be said for Albi the Racist Dragon, just a simple bedtime story set to an acoustic guitar backing.
Tim Minchin has a nine-minute beat poem called Storm, using a backing track to punctuate story beats and to drive certain jokes home.
We can thank Bo Burnham for breathing new life into Comedy Music, a genre that has been pretty niche in the recent past. While these are the five types of comedy songs that science has allowed us to identify so far, we're pretty sure that if any more are created, Burnham will master those too.
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