Musical Misadventures in Comedy

Hey Dave – You had a question a few weeks ago about adding music. I’m thinking about ending my comedy set by doing a rap song. Just the background music like karaoke would be on a CD and I’d do a funny rap over it. I’ve seen other comedians and even speakers do this and think it’s a great way to close with a big ending. Any thoughts? – MW

It’s showbiz!!

Hey MW – Yeah, I always have a few thoughts. The first leans toward the music side. I’m not a rapper; I’m a rocker. So, if the rap wasn’t rocked out with Steven Tyler and Joe Perry (think Run-D.M.C. and Walk This Way WAY back in 1986) I probably haven’t voluntarily listened to it.

Involuntarily… well, that’s another comedy bit. I’ve had two teenage sons living in my house and know what it’s like to have rap songs blasting louder than my Aerosmith rock anthems. So, in other words, I know it’s popular enough to make me a dinosaur when it comes to musical tastes. But…

My second thought relies on the above descriptive term – popular. In showbiz terms that means it sells. It also means – and I’m working off a personal opinion here – that most anyone cool (dinosaur term) enough to go to a comedy club will be familiar with rap. This is opposed to say, a Gregorian Chant which is a musical term that makes even someone like me sound new school.

Okay, enough musical nonsense. My creative recess is over. Let’s get to the point.

Raise the showbiz factor!

Music can add energy and raise the showbiz factor in a performance. It’s like bringing the glitz of Las Vegas to your gig. And it also keeps to my theory (and I explain this to public speakers in my college course) that live shows today are competing against what has become common on television and in movies:

Keeping audiences with short attention spans interested in the program.

There’s a reason why TV commercials have shrunk from one minute to about 15-20 seconds over the decades. Short attention spans. And to keep viewers from changing the channel, these commercials must be entertaining or informative all the way through.So, with that being said, it’s the same with live performances. You must entertain your audiences and hold their interest. And with modern audiences used to 20 second entertainment bursts on television, it’s like competing against a 20 second commercial.

The problem with a live performance is that the viewers can’t change the channel. That’s why comedians and speakers need to “up” their entertainment factor. In other words, a mediocre set isn’t going to result in too many return engagements.

Using today’s topic, music can be a great attention grabber.

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In fact, it’s become the standard way in most comedy clubs to rev up audience excitement for the comedians. When I managed the NYC Improv back in the late 80′s and early 90′s, the MC would be introduced, and the show would start. The MC would then introduce each comedian. There was no musical fanfare – just words.

Now that’s all different. Now it’s SHOWBIZ!!!

Comics request certain songs to be played after they are introduced and are walking onto the stage. It raises the excitement and audience attention factor. Music will do that.

Now to your question about adding a rap song to your set…

Yeah – try it. Why not? It’s all about entertaining and if it’s funny and energetic, chances are it will be entertaining. BUT here are a few things to keep in mind.

Sometimes techno things (my term that includes playing background music while you sing or rap) don’t go as planned. Here are a few warnings…

Make sure you really practice the words you are rapping or singing over the music. If you screw-up the lines, the background keeps going. You’ll still have to make it work for the audience. Ad-lib or admit you messed up but make it part of the performance. You don’t want to just die on stage or let the bit fizzle out. You’ll look like an amateur.

Make it easy on the tech / sound person at the venue.

Don’t hand him a CD with 20 tracks and ask him to play a particular one when you give the signal. Sure, most can do it – but remember they have other sound, lights or audience distractions going on in the club and they might cue up the wrong track. What are you going to do? Will it ruin the bit?

Here’s an example…

A comic in one of my workshops decided to open with a rap song. Not to rap over it – but to do a funny dance as he walked on stage. Now, this is not an exaggeration. This really happened.

The sound guy got the CD’s mixed up and played Over The Rainbow instead of the requested gangsta’ rap. He didn’t know it was a mistake, so it continued to play.

The comic was shocked but went with it and danced to Judy Garland instead of… well, probably Lil Wayne. It turned out to be funnier than the original concept. But the reason it worked – and he just didn’t stand there looking “duh” – was because he had been warned this could happen.

I gave him the warning, which leads me to another story…

Sometimes at the NYC Improv (not always and especially not during weekend shows) we used to screw-up audio cues on purpose. It could be very funny (at least for us – the staff and other comedians) and would throw the unexpected at the comic on stage. It was always fun to see how they would react.

So, keep that one in mind. It could happen – even sometimes on purpose!

The lesson is to just have the ONE song you want to use be the ONLY song cued up on the club’s sound system (most today use Spotify or other online music source). If they’re old school and still use a CD player (always ask what they use), be sure the ONE CD you give to the sound person has ONLY the ONE song you plan to use. This will lessen the odds for a screw-up (or great joke at your expense) on their part.

And finally – sometimes the tech thing just doesn’t work.

The online system or CD player might be broken or already set up for the headliner (if you’re not closing the show). If it’s still your big ending, be prepared to do it a cappella (just your soulful voice and no backing music).

It doesn’t matter if the equipment is working or not – the show must go on.

So, the bottom line is to give it a shot. It’s showbiz, so go for it. But be prepared for the best and the worst. When you start adding effects to your stage performance, you’re no longer the only one in control of your act.

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Thanks for reading and as always – keep laughing!!