Saturday, September 10, 2011

Funny Songs: The Elements and I am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General

My Fellow Comedists,

This week I begin work on a new theological tract. Yes, the annual meeting of the Lighthearted Philosophers' Society is almost upon us and my paper needs writing. I am looking at particular mechanisms for non-joke-based humorous utterances and that includes funny songs. I have particular interest in two. One is Tom Lehrer's "The Elements": A funny song. What makes it funny? On the one hand is the incongruity of the subject. The periodic table is an odd subject for a song. But even after the initial "how strange" wears off, it remains funny. Part is the speed. Fast is funny. But part is the skill of Lehrer at creating such intricate and tight rhymes.

Now consider Gilbert and Sullivan's "I am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General" (make sure you watch through until the Major General sings): Also a funny song, indeed musically the same funny song. Again, the speed and the mentions of unusual fodder for song like quadratic equations are in play. No doubt it would be even funnier to those of the time who would have found the social satire angle more apt.

But having seen that Lehrer's version plays off of Gilbert and Sullivan, does it make it more funny, less funny, or is irrelevant? Certainly, Weird Al Yankovic's spoofs are enhanced by knowing what he is spoofing. Is the same true here given that it is not a spoof in the same sort of way? It makes it more clever -- that he could take music pre-written and adapt it for such an intricate task. But does it make it funnier in the way that a good impersonation is funny? Would that be needed information before you saw it the first time, so that Lehrer's never is the canonical version in your mind?

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve