Bill Bailey's guide to musical comedy
Musical comedy – two words that can turn up the noses of both critics and audiences within seconds. Crafting a song that can make people raise a smile and tap their feet is no laughing matter, you know.
As the UK's favourite musical comedian, Bill Bailey is the man to talk to when it comes to musical mirth. “When I was growing up, there wasn’t much [musical comedy], really," he says. "Most of it was musical comedy bands, but the music itself was pretty dire. You could have taken the music away and read the lyrics out to a church bell sounding in the distance, and it would have had the same effect.”
Blazing a trail for innovative and, crucially, hilarious musical comedy that the likes of Tim Minchin and Steel Panther have followed, Bill Bailey almost single-handedly proved that, after years in the wilderness, musical comedy could work. As he gears up for a run of gigs for his new show Qualmpeddler, we caught up with the bearded genius to discover the secrets of making it in musical comedy.
Don't forget the music
“I think it is easy to get it wrong. I think musical comedy was, for years, derided as some kind of mongrel version of neither comedy nor music.
"It suffered a lot of very bad press for years and years. I remember I’d always get castigated for it, and I couldn’t understand this antipathy towards it. I think that the association was that it would be some bawdy song and the music was immaterial.
"[With] the early comedy and music acts - and comedy and music generally for years - the music was secondary; it was irrelevant really. You could take the music away and just read the funny lyrics. What I tried to do over the years was to make the music centre stage so that the music is an observational gag in itself.
"You pastiche the style of music in a way that people can recognise. It’s not just an anonymous sound that just happens to accompany some funny words; it is integral to the comedy itself.”
Know your audience
“I think that people who consume music and popular culture will inevitably look to enjoy comedy as well. I think a lot of comedy references music, so there’s a lot of crossover.
"With rock and metal, there’s a lot of fans that like a lot of sci-fi books and also a lot of comedy. There’s a similarity in a lot of ways because it is performance; very often music is about personal expression, and comedy is the same.
"People often have a favourite band, and through that you find other people that like that band and kind of music, and it is a community of people – it’s a shared like. It's the same way with comedy. You’re finding a kindred spirit with other people who find the same thing funny. You feel part of a bigger thing.”
“When you write comedy, it might just be something that occurs to you then and there; it might be off the cuff. Comedy can work like that – it’s mercurial.
"It can come out of the ether; you’ll talk to the audience on the night, and there might be a bit of banter and then an idea sparks into life. With the musical sections, they have to be a bit more considered.
"You have to plan them, rehearse them and polish them. You have to present them as a finished article. You can’t really improvise them; otherwise, it just sounds like jazz... and you don’t want that.”
Be a perfectionist
“A lot of effort goes into getting it right. In the show, I do a dub reggae version of Downton Abbey, and a lot of time and effort went into getting it right and getting the sounds right and mixing it.
"I do all of that myself on the computer and get it right so that it sounds authentic. I think if you’re doing musical pastiches, the comedy of it is only enhanced by the accuracy of the pastiche. The more time you spend on it, the more loving the tribute to the type of the music that it is. That only serves it greater.
"The more recognition you can get from the audience saying they recognise a certain genre, the better. It can be quite specific: On one show I did a trip-hop version of Zip-a-Dee-Doo- Dah in the style of Portishead.
"It was slowed-down, scratchy drums, and you have to get it right and make sure it sounds convincing – so it could feasibly be by Portishead, and they had decided to cover Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah. That’s the challenge of it, and in that way, it serves the comedy.”
Be inventive…but don't alienate your audience
“I did Metallica with the horns [and] a Rammstein version of Scarborough Fair – that was a particular highlight for me.
"It’s always an unknown quantity. You never quite know how much a style or a genre resonates with someone to the point that everyone in the audience will know that kind of music. That’s the thing.
"I wrote a song based on the New York, austere, post-punk industrial-cool genre, and only a handful of people knew what I was taking about. Sometimes you have to cast your net into a place where people know what you’re talking about.
"But weirdly, I did a dubstep hymn - I do a dubstep version of Jerusalem - and people seem to know what that is, and that surprised me. I thought dubstep was a London underground DJ kind of thing, but it must have morphed into the mainstream due to scamps like Skrillex.”
Aim high, but don't expect too much
“When I did the horn version of Metallica, it was painstaking. You have to figure out how many notes you’re going to need: Do you need one scale? Two scales? Two octaves to play Metallica on the horns?
"Then I had to have them specially made, and then I had to have them arranged in a certain way so that I could play them. They were arranged in the style of the piano keyboard with black notes and white notes. It took a while, but the effort paid off.
"But they didn’t ask me to play on their album. That was obviously what I expected them to say: ‘Can you come do a horn solo on our next album?' But we’ll see what happens.”
Match your material with your gig
“Festivals can be unpredictable. Particularly an outdoor festival in Britain - chances are it's going to pour with rain.
"Trying to do subtle observational jokes to people standing in the pouring rain is maybe a bit of a challenge. That’s why I made it more of a musical set when I played Sonisphere.
"But I just played a festival in the Cotswolds, and there was a good crowd of people, and I just did my show as I would in a theatre. It depends on the kind of festival. If you’ve got a short time slot, and if it’s a music based thing, you have to acknowledge that and realise that standing in the rain listening to some bloke talk through a microphone might not be the most exciting.
"I try to make the show visual, as well with film and animation – they are spectacles in themselves.”
Bring in a whole band
“Luckily, when I did Sonisphere, I had a brilliant band, including Dean from Feeder and Jason Bowld - who was playing with Killing Joke at the time - and my guitar techs Trev and Jimmy, and they’re all brilliant musicians.
"We rehearsed for about two or three days; it was pretty intense. In that time, we managed to nail down the arrangements. It was very satisfying.
"We did an album after Sonisphere, which was metal versions of my songs. I’m tempted to do another album, maybe a concept album. Birdsong, horns and death metal. And a concept, a crystal zebra or something.
“I have a great amount of affinity for that and I love doing that. I love the mechanics of music now far more. I did a show where I played with an orchestra, and that required an enormous amount of attention to detail going over every part.
"There is something quite satisfying about arranging a piece of music and how it all comes together. I enjoy that process almost as much as actually doing it.”
“Always try and take a risk; don’t bottle it. If you set yourself a task and want to do some gigs and write some songs and perform them, do it with as much competency as you can.
When I look back at so many gigs I think, ‘God, with just a bit more attitude I would have just progressed and dispensed with certain styles of comedy far sooner than I did.’
"A bit of confidence and a bit of attitude, and do as many gigs as you can, even the ones you think will be a disaster. No gig is wasted.”
Bill Bailey's Qualmpeddler will be touring from 14 September. Full tour dates and information can be found at the official Bill Bailey website.