When I look back over the countless writers' nights I have attended in my life, I recall a great deal of boredom mixed in with the chill bumps. A single accoustic guitar plucked to yet another ballad can truly be yawn-worthy. Nothing quenches the thirst brought on by too much sincerity like a truly funny song. So often, in a round of say, four players, one writer will unleash his funniest piece, and a barrage of humor will follow. Talk about a welcomed relief!
From the hysterical to the sardonically bitter and witty, funny songs will always have a place in music. If you have never tackled a giggle-inducing composition, try it, you'll like it! Here are ten tips to help you get started.
1. Use an Uncomplicated Format.
Jokes, if not told in just the right fashion, can be missed. I am fine writing humorous songs, but stand me up and make me tell a joke, and brace yourself not to laugh. I am the worst at leaving out an integral piece of information, or blowing the punch line too soon.
The best jokes have a fairly simple format, and the same is true with songs. Don't let the song's structure or melody get in the way of the joke. Approach it like a folkie story song, and adapt it to your style of preference. Most country songs are well-structured for humor.
Human nature is, at times, a very funny thing. Writing about actions and emotions we all share, but don't care to admit to, can be hilarious. Who hasn't picked their teeth in the rearview mirror only to find the driver in the next car staring at you? Who hasn't been so jealous that they have practically stalked the object of their affection? Who hasn't missed a loved one but for all of the wrong reasons?
There is something warm and fuzzy in being reminded that we are not alone in our tacky, petty, pitiful ways. Encouraging your listener to identify with someone else's embarassing story makes them feel human and less isolated.
Tony Martin and Tim Nicholl's song, "I'll Think of A Reason Later", recorded by Leann Womack, really made me giggle.
She may be an angel who spends all winter,
Bringing the homeless blankets ad dinner,
A regular Noble Peace Prize winner,
But I really hate her,
I'll think of a reason later.
Exaggeration drives a point home by making it larger than life. As a child I recall wailing, "I'm starving!" when, in fact, I was merely a tad hungry. I'm sure my parents rolled their eyes and shared a conspiratorial smile.
It is not necessary for rantings to be believable. The fact that they are not underlines the desperation of the speaker and his or her own very human self-pity. For some strange reason, this is funny. We are just wired that way.
Taylor Swift has a talent for exaggerating the slightly humorous side of pain, exemplified in her song, "Mean."
You with your voice like nails on a chalkboard.
4. Consider Your Audience.
Children love the ridiculous over-statement, the toppling of the mighty, the slapstick version of anything. Adults, on the other hand, like more subtlety. Keep your proposed audience in mind when choosing the type of humor you will employ in your lyric.
International audiences, even those that speak the same language, use different idioms, have different social mores, and are offended by different topics. The idea is to make your audience release a few endorphins, not insult or enrage them.
5. Employ Laundry Lists.
Long lists of things conjure up a sense of chaos, and chaos is always funny. Lists can be used to underline an emotion or to contrast a situation.
In Paul Simon's "Fifty Ways To Leave Your Lover", the list of ways to leave takes on a cynically funny tone because of its very existence.
Step on the bus, Gus. No need to discuss much.
The point of the song is, "Get out of there, man!, and just choose a way to do it!"
Gary Burr's song, "I Try To Think About Elvis", recorded by country star Patty Loveless, is a shining example of the use of lists. The singer lists countless thoughts that are intended to distract her from the dreaded him.
I try to think about hairdos, tattoos, sushi bars and saxophones.
The elements have little in common and again,this creates a sense of desperation.
6. Sarcasm, Anyone?
You picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille. Four hungry children and a crop in the fields.
Roger Bowling and Hal Bynum's hit song recorded by legend, Kenny Rogers, shows the darker side of humor. A song about the pain of being left behind can be powerful, but pointing to the more practical side of the abandonment can bring smiles.
Lead singer of The Kinks, Ray Davies, penned several sarcastic songs, one of them being "A Well Respected Man." The lyric pokes fun at the British middle and upper class.
And his mother goes to meetings.
While his father pulls the maid.
Writing with the intent of making social commentary can be very amusing indeed. We all like to see the high and mighty cut down a notch or two!
7. Try the Twist
Who doesn't love being totally thrown off by a story? People can't stop talking about movies that end with such a twist that the viewer heads home with a touch of whiplash.
Johnny Cash's "A Boy Named Sue", penned by the irreplaceable Shel Silverstien, is a good example of the twist ending. The assumed point of the song is to show how a fellow's father named him Sue in order to toughen him by the inevitable ribbing he would experience during the course of his life. For most of the song, it seems the singer is appreciative. The last line of the song, however, changes course.
And if I ever have a son, I think I'm gonna name him Bill or George, anything but Sue!
8. Find the Humor in One Word
Writers Steve Seskin and Andre Pessis nailed a one word titled country song in "Wrong." Both verses set up a positive scenario in which the singer has the romance in his life all figured out. The first word of the choruses is a resounding "wrong", and brings a big laugh every time.
I should have known it all along,
When the future looks too bright,
Can't be anything but right,
The brevity of the song's hook is so concisely ironic that it can't help but be funny.
9. Employ Universal Themes
Aging, gaining weight, bodily functions, jealousy, drunkenness, ad infinitum, are issues that most of us deal with at one time or another. Brad Paisley has recorded a number of such songs dealing with everything from fishing, to humiliation, to toilet seats. When a listener finds himself thinking, "He did not just say that," he is both disarmed and relieved. The humorously taboo being brought out into the open is captivating.
Brad's song, dually named "The Fishin' Song", written along with Frank Rogers, is a case in point. When the singer's wife threatens to leave him unless he gives up fishing, the first line of the chorus is the very tongue-in-cheek:
I'm gonna miss her.
10. It's All About Timing
What fun is a joke when you can see it coming from a mile away? It takes a very clever hand to word humor with just the right pacing.
In witty songwriting, as the lyric progresses you should drop clues, but not so much that all of the guesswork is taken away. Remember that the way you set up the punchline is actually more important than the punchline itself. As the blower of many a good joke, I can attest to this. One word too many or too few, and the laugh is not optimum. Give a lot of time and thought to this aspect of a song. Rewrite until the hook bites to the max!
As you tackle this genre of writing, be daring, and realize that almost anything can be funny if the delivery is on the money! Good luck!