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Thursday, March 15

Watching Them Die

A comedian should expect a large proportion of what he or she writes to fail when tried out in front of a live audience. Spoken material can be built up a few sentences at a time, and, as a result, if a line doesn't work, you drop it and forget it ever existed.

With songs there's a lot more to do before the song comes into existence in the first place. You have to pluck the concept out of your imagination, go through a couple of drafts of lyrics, find a tune that suits it, rewrite to make the words hug the tune, ensure everything rhymes as it's meant to, rehearse it, rehearse some more, and then you have maybe a minute or two of potential hilarity to share.

When I first perform a song it almost always goes wrong. There have been some notable exceptions to this. In the case of the notable exceptions, which have become instant bankers - virtually never failing - the songs have almost written themselves and I've instinctively known how to play them. However, I don't necessarily believe that something needs to work first time out for it to prove to be as funny as it was in my head when I wrote it.

Last night I tried to play my third attempt at a McFly parody. Why I'm parodying McFly is a good question, and there is a reason, but it's not worth explaining. I think I probably diluted the effect of the material with reference to how it's a McFly spoof, but I was really trying to dispell the notion that you had to be a McFly fan to get this song. It's a self-contained piece.

Just for completeness, here's my McFly parodying history:
  • November 2005: Wrote "We can write a jaunty tune" - which used McFly's musical tricks to talk about the band
  • July 2006: Tried to show how McFly make a cheery song out of their superficial understanding of serious subjects - "Weekend Dad" was the song which jauntily sang about the troubles of the divorced father. It could have worked, but had a first version which overlapped another comedian's spoken material (unintentionally) so I dropped it. There's a rewrite, but it's never been tried
  • March 2007: Wrote "Only a real woman" - a McFly-esque song, sung from the perspective of a 33 year old. This takes the standard McFly setup of seeing a pretty teenage girl across the street and singing about it
What happens in an adult man's life that he takes three attempts to write McFly songs. In all three cases, I'm really pleased with the musical treatments I've given the songs, and each has a good degree of wordcraft in the lyrics. I wrote three separate songs, rather than try to reword the same tune. I really want to do the whole boy band thing. I think I need to work on it some more. I think my song is funny.

However, it's possible that the song isn't funny. The only laugh I got with that routine last night was with the alternative title. I decided, during the pre-show rehearsal, to throw the alternative title out there. It's not how I would name the song myself, but it's a good gag of a title. I've told the audience that I'm about to sing a song about a teenage girl and that I'm 33. So I call the song "She's legal, but it's still wrong". Part of the reason I wanted to do this was to make the song less about pedophilia (as in, not at all about it) and more about the fact that the gulf between 19 and 33 is a big one. I'm too old to date an 18 year old. It's not just what's culturally acceptable. 18 year olds are, for the most part, children. That's quite a scary thought. I remember when being 14 seemed mature.

The problem with the song might be that it's intended for a 30+ audience, but relies on a cultural reference for a 20-something (or younger) to get. Maybe it is too confusing. Maybe only I get it.

Or maybe I didn't do it justice on first performance. Where the first performance of spoken stand-up involves just talking about something and trying to make it make sense, I've got to make my sung material hold together musically. So, I'm trying to remember the exact lyrics, the chords, the strumming pattern, the body language, the tune and the tempo (and I always end up going faster than planned, making everything else harder). Maybe there's not always room for the actual funny. A song can block out interruption. I know enough about comic songwriting to know how to signpost a gag and where to put a pressure point (I'll give you a clue - it's usually the key word on the second line of a rhyming couplet), but sometimes that's not enough.

In general, if an audience don't go for the first couple of punchlines, then they'll rule out any further "getting it". My song fell flat last night.

Do I do it tonight? Maybe. I'll see.

The problem with stuff I've spent a while preparing is that I get quite attached to it. It's like a child. I don't want it to fail, or flounder, or die. I made it to be happy and get laughs. Songs are also infectious blighters - they get inside you. The tune for "Only a real woman" is still in my head and I really want it to work. Maybe it needs a harder hitting start. I laughed when I thought of the first punchline. It's really subtle, but it's a totally ludicrous thing to sing in a song. Even so, I really hammer home a few things in the middle of the song. The final section is so true-to-life that, again, I think it's absurd to be in song form...

...but just because it's absurd doesn't mean it's a definite laugh.

You can hear a version of the song here - it's a rehearsal recording, so lower your expectations accordingly.

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