Barbershop and its Comedic Registers

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So, after reflecting recently on how barbershop has certain emotional registers that feel more central to the genre that others - in particular certain flavours of nostalgia - I started to think about the genre’s relationship with comedy. The vaudeville heritage of the style roots it in light entertainment, and indeed the outsider’s stereotypical view of the genre is that its default setting is to get you laughing.

(As I document in Chapter 4 of my barbershop book, one of the things I discovered when I started writing about the genre was that if you show a room full of musicologists a video clip of men in pink tuxedos singing a ballad, they will snigger, even if the song is a heartfelt paean to love lost. It was fun, mind you, when I started giving papers that opened with this phenomenon and then went on discuss why outsiders felt the need to laugh.)

But the genre itself has of course kept the comedic alive as one particular stream of the performance tradition, and quartets who succeed in actually being funny are always very popular on the show circuit. Not all quartets do succeed as well as others, of course - a generalisation that is also true of general singing skills, but as the late Roger Payne used to contend, there is more of a pass/fail dimension to comedic performances. The music still gets through a semi-skilled vocal performance in a way that comedy doesn’t so well.

But, like barbershop emotionality, barbershop comedy comes in quite defined flavours. It’s not just the general imperative for family-friendly material (so no sweary or rude jokes), there is a quite limited and very specific kind of comedic palette the style paints from. You don’t get satire, for instance, or irony. But you do get slapstick and parody.

And I think this relates in part to the general ethos and emotional world the genre nurtures. It is a very sincere form, and so its comedic registers are likewise straight-up rather than knowing. One of the things it offers is a sense of safety, a refuge not just from modernity, but from the things that might divide the audience in real life. The butt of the joke is always within the quartet, and relies on shared stereotypes that nobody will take personally because they are compliments as well as insults.

This makes it sound like barbershop humour is simplistic. And to be fair, the prat fall is an effective mainstay of its appeal. But it can also be complex and witty, playing on shared repertoire and performance codes to construct extended and exceedingly clever routines. Storm Front’s Lida Rose sequence is exemplary here.

Thinking about this has got me reflecting on how the parody is effectively an extended in-joke. The closer to the original the word-sounds are, the funnier it is. The narrative needs to work for someone who doesn’t know the original - so the punchlines need to be at the right places musically; indeed, there need to be some actual jokes in there - but for someone who does know the original, the twists on it amplify the jokes in the parody.

And, like nostalgia, the in-joke binds people together. The more you need to know in common to get the joke, the more you feel safely at home with them. The parody is to the comedic register what the old songs are to the tradition-loving emotional world of the genre.


A final note: be wary about songs *about* comedy, as these are your classic hostage-to-fortune songs. ‘Make ‘em Laugh’ won’t - there isn’t single joke in the whole damned song.

I recall an ironic moment when a BHS quartet wishing to protest publically about the number of songs being sung on the contest stage that were outside the barbershop style umbrella, used a parody of the song "Please Mr Columbus, Turn the Ship Around" to do so ... which in itself did not satisfy the stylistic rules... But thinking about it, I'm not sure that humour was their main aim :)

I enjoyed the article, although I think a short list of some favorite comedic barbershop songs would have helped. Also, I'm curious about your opinion about using a "straight" example of barbershop quartet music for comedy, such as in the I Love Lucy episode, "Lucy's Showbiz Swan Song" where the cast turns "Sweet Adeline" into a funny comedy routine at the end of the episode.

Thank you.

Well, that was half an hour well spent. I'd not seen that episode before, and enjoyed it no end. Having spent a while thinking about it, I suspect there's more in there to comment on than will fit into this reply - so I may well come back to blog about it in more detail in the future. Thank you so much for drawing it to my attention!

Before I watched the episode, I thought your question might have been about the 'song as straight man' effect - whereby the comedic content is entirely in the business that goes on around a song which the singers are delivering seriously. (At this point, I went off to try and find a youtube clip of Freestyle singing 'I'm in the mood for love' very sincerely, but in velcro suits which keep sticking them together. Alas, I could not find it - you'll have to imagine it from that description.)

But this is rather more a case of them hamming themselves, and to an extent the style, up. As I wrote about in my barbershop book, often this cultural impression of barbershop as inherently comedic, even (or especially) when it takes itself seriously, can be really quite problematic for barbershoppers. But I tend to feel in the I Love Lucy example, they are sending themselves up as much as anything - the style doesn't really get to be the butt of the joke, just its vehicle. As I say, though - more thinking to be done about this one!

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