By Andrew Thomas
I’d like to take a moment to discuss an area of composed music that is frequently overlooked: comedy. Consistent with the attitude of the rest of the industry, comedic music is seen as the cheap, uninteresting little brother of the bold, exciting dramatic score. Want proof? In the 12 years since the Academy stopped giving Oscars for both comedic and dramatic scores and consolidated them both into one category, only one comedic score has actually won (Michael Giacchino’s, for Up.) And only 7 of the 60 nominees in that span were comedies, and 5 of those were animated.
But I don’t even want to discuss music in comedic features. I’d like to draw your attention to a few programs that are doing interesting things with music on the small screen. Comedies on cable are employing music in ways that network comedies and studio features wouldn’t even consider, using it not just to create mood and reveal emotion, but also to set up expectations and then defy them, or even comment on the on-screen action.
Below, I’ve listed some of my personal favorite examples. The key to what makes these shows musically special is that not only does the music do all of the above, but it also sounds nothing like anything else on TV.
It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia
Though we’re all familiar with it now, Always Sunny had a certain amount of shock value when it came out for being a sitcom with such truly despicable, wholly unlikeable characters. Not that this hadn’t been done before, but it hadn’t been done with such glee and enthusiasm for being so detestable. So when they chose the music for the show, the creators decided to choose music that highlights this unbridled joy. But the real genius of their choice was to go with happy, joyful, wholesome music that sounds like it would be much more at home in the family-values sitcoms of the 50s. When this bright, melodic music is setting up a scene where the characters discuss the mechanics of a glory hole or dress in blackface for a short film, the contrast serves to increase the shock, and strengthen the comedy. Take this clip from season one. Not only does the music add punch to the comedic cut and highlight the characters’ giddiness, it’s also comedically inappropriate for a scene about the characters enthusiasm for guns.
Curb Your Enthusiasm
According to legend, Larry David first heard “Frolic” by Luciano Michelini in the background of a bank commercial, and liked the tone it brought. Now, of course, the theme song and the show are indelibly linked. As Larry David himself put it about the song, “It just sort of introduces the idea that you’re in for something pretty idiotic.” The rest of the music used for the show has a similar feel, light and airy, but also generally dissatisfied, not unlike Larry’s own outlook on life.What I love about this music is how it reinforces the consequence-free nature of the show. It acts as a tension valve, allowing the viewer to laugh at the awkward situations instead of leaving them to be tortured by the awkwardness, a la the British Office. This works beautifully in this clip. Having stashed a water bottle in his pants because the usher outside won’t allow him to take it into the theater, Larry suddenly realizes that everyone outside of the bathroom thinks he basically just molested this little girl. But as soon as I hear the “Bom-bom-bom” of the ending credit music, all that tension is released and I can’t stop laughing.
Louis C.K. is basically the most hands-on showrunner working today. He has a hand in everything, the writing, acting, producing, directing, editing, and I’d be shocked if he didn’t have a very specific idea going into the process about what he wanted the music to be. At times bluesy, jazzy and even classical, the music of Louie is always melancholy, reflecting Louie’s own grim perspective on his world. It creates a tone for the awkward, honest comedy with which Louis C.K. excels. I’ve heard people claim that the music on Louie was influenced by the music on Curb, and I would definitely agree, but Louis C.K. is not just aping Larry David’s choices. Louie sounds much heavier, even darker, and while it still highlights the characters’ comedic buffoonery, it also reminds us that this comedy is coming from a real, often painful place. (Bonus nugget: all of the original music on Louie is composed by the great Reggie Watts) Louis C.K. also uses music to help the tone of the show step into a more comedic world, however briefly. Take this clip from season two. At 3:47, Louie’s co-guest confronts him with the question: “Are you happy now?” Rather than answer it, Louie uncomfortably looks down while everyone sits silently, and a non-diegetic cello comes in to serve as the answer. Everyone shifts awkwardly for a moment, and then Greg Gutfeld happily continues on as though nothing strange happened. Perfection.