This weekend Dominic Maxwell kindly featured me in The Times. They run a regular column called ‘The Secret of Comedy’.’ Each week a comedian gives his/her view on what makes good comedy. Some people do this quite seriously (timing, punchines) others are more ‘jokey’ in their responses (the suit, hecklers). I guess mine was more serious: I do believe that rhyme can make good comedy, just on its own, regardless of content. We were confined to 200 odd words, I wrote:
“In the wrong hands rhyme can make my stomach turn. Bad rhyme grates. It’s clunky, laboured and above all just really, really cheesy. The secret of any kind of poetic constraint is to make it seem effortless. Once the metre or rhyme starts dominating you, then it all falls apart: “I got a present / it was a pheasant.” No you didn’t, and no it wasn’t.
However, good rhyme can be utterly delightful. And what’s more it can be hilarious. Supremely inane. John Hegley is the master of this: “I am guillemot / I use my bill a lot.” We laugh because the rhyme comes far sooner than we expect it, it’s also technically smart and above all, you can’t argue with the point it makes. The grand cannon of comic poems and songs are filled with great gems like this. Rhyme may not always be fashionable in comedy but it truly delights something child-like in us. Let’s hear it for those songwriters and poets.”
They cut it down to just the second paragraph, which on reflection was a good move. Other examples are John Cooper Clarke’s Burnley.
I’ll tell you once and I’ll tell you firmly
I don’t ever want to go to Burnley
What they do there don’t concern me
Why would anybody make the journey?
It’s the third line that gets me. The understatement of ‘don’t concern me’ is funny in itself, but its the second repition of the rhyme, this time in compound form, that really tickles us, I fancy.
Last week I was featured on a great Radio 4 programme called Doggerel Bard, hosted by my good friend Elvis McGonagall. The show was about comic, and in particular, satirical verse. I talked about rhyme a bit, mentioning Joel Stickley‘s poem, The Nakedness of the Long Distance Driver.
why so many?
If I’m honest
Yes, why any.
Such a silly rhyme – many/any – but it’s inanity, and particularly the bluntness of it (we are expecting something a bit cleverer) cracks me up every time.
Tim Clare often gets laughs from his rhymes. Perhaps not in the inane, almost anti-comedy way that Clarke, Hegley and Stickley have above. I particularly like this run of clever rhymes from Heart of Class:
Marriage forecasts all look gloomy
Cheer up, here’s some grilled halumi
My, this Volvo does feel roomy
drink some zinfandel, then screw me!
Again, the third rhyme is where the laugh comes. I appreciate there is something more than rhyme at work here but the satire alone would fall flat without the rhyme linking this collage of silly middle class images.
Comedy often works in threes and rhyme is no different. A great staple of the comic poet is the stanza consisting of three rhymed lines followed by a chorus line. Tim Clare’s loving parody of this form sums it up better than I could:
Select a setting to evoke
Rhyme with the line that you first spoke
Then undercut it with a joke
This line’s the title
The three point list is a good currency for comedy – we expect the format but not the punchline. Comedy is often about confounding expectations, so the audience need to know what you’re doing before you can confound them. The speed and cadence of poetry can be too confusing to the untrained ear – by the time the audience have the rhythm of what you’re doing – they’ve missed the joke. This is why a three point, rhymed list loosely in iambic tetrameter is a good fall back for the comic poet, his audience, often fans of stand-up comedy, will grasp it a bit quicker than something more complex and he can get down to the important job of making them laugh.
I’ve been thinking about this today because tonight I am doing this gig at The Udderbelly with Chris Addison and Byron Vincent. Chris, a stand-up most famous for his role in The Thick of It, is making his poetry debut, although his book of Cautionary Tales For Grown Ups came out four years ago. It is interesting that to get laughs in poem form Chris has resorted to a century old style of rhymed verse pioneered by the likes of Hilaire Belloc. I’m really looking forward to see how he performs the poems (which are great btw), I’m sure an experienced stand-up like him has a few tricks to show me, so it’ll be an interesting night. What’s more, it’ll be damn funny.