Musical comedy has been a popular comedic force for ages. The iconic “Weird Al” Yankovic debuted his self-titled album in 1983. And The Lonely Island – the brainchild of Akiva Schaffer, Andy Samberg, and Jorma Taccone – reinvented the wheel in the early 2000s.
Yet, over the past few years, there’s been a burgeoning trend of musicality in the New York City comedy scene. The trend isn’t surprising, however. After all, improv itself has long been having its day. And sketch, too, has witnessed its contours expand – especially in the form of online (and hopefully viral) content.
But considering the influx of musicians and musical theater aficionados who’ve adopted and re-shaped the live comedy arts, stages at Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB), the People’s Improv Theater (PIT), the Magnet Theater, and many other outlets have now been jostling with laughs and beats.
“When I got to New York, there were barely any house music teams [out there],” said Douglas Widick, who is a founding member of touring improv hip-hop group, North Coast. “There was I Eat Pandas and Baby Wants Candy. But now there’s all these sub-sects. The Magnet has quadrupled its musical improv classes.”
The lineage of musical theatrics – from classic Rodgers and Hammerstein compositions to free-form riffing on such topics as, say, foot fetishes – isn’t as farfetched or traif as one might think.
“If you’re a musical theater kid – and you’re funny – musical comedy is your thing,” said Rebecca Vigil, who along with Evan Kaufman comprise the popular Your Love, Our Musical! duo. “I certainly wanted to be Wayne Brady from Whose Line Is It Anyway? I recall thinking, ‘I want that. I want to do that.’”
“Wayne Brady is the Michael Jordan of musical improv. Or at least the George Mikan,” Kaufman added.
Vigil and Kaufman’s show, which consists of interviewing a couple in the crowd and then improvising a musical based off their love story, just had a sold out run at the New York Fringe Festival. They’re also a regular act at the PIT.
Like any other art form, practice is the key to consistency. And the mental preparation for game day – especially for musical improv groups, like North Coast – is rigorous.
“We do a warm up called ‘topics,’ where we throw words at each other and you have to rhyme instantly – rhyming is vital,” said Widick. “But we also do extensive scene work rehearsal and physical dynamics choreography. We have a lot of different component parts that we isolate in rehearsal and then let all of that come together in the show.”
Widick and North Coast task themselves with building entire hip-hop songs and scenes based off a single word suggestion from an audience member – like the word “milk,” for instance. Even though the rotating cast of ten (which includes Kaufman) view themselves as comedians first, music is the glue that keeps their comedic appeal and jokes intact.
“There’s an accessibility to music. It’s just the truth. You feel it in your soul,” said Widick, who is also a member of musical improv group Pop Roulette. “Like when you do a rap that references The Jinx documentary on HBO, maybe five members of the audience are dying laughing because they get that. But everybody is still nodding their head to the beat. So there’s this unifying factor of music bringing everyone together. It’s kind of just a cheat code to musical improv: it’s very high energy.”
Audiences undoubtedly come to see the funny; there are plenty of music-specific performances elsewhere in New York on any given night. But there’s still an expectation for the music in comedy to be – at least – above average.
“The baseline for successfully playing music while performing comedy on stage is that the audience has to be comfortable and not worry about if you can play the music well or not,” said Dan Fox, a founding member of UCB’s SPANK-turned-extended-act The Trumpet Boys. “If you immediately get the audience on your side, and they’re like, ‘Oh, these guys can play trumpet,’ that trust you get from them is different than an improv show [where you’re a little more vulnerable].”
Fox, who prior to forming The Trumpet Boys with Ian Stroud and Mark Vigeant, last seriously played his instrument in high school.
“The Trumpet Boys are ‘Connecticut’s premier trumpet trio’ – they’re not supposed to be professional trumpet players,” said Fox, who just released a Christmas Special “digital versatile disc” online. “So the audience isn’t expecting any of us to triple-tongue perfectly. Maybe professional trumpet players – if they came to the show – would probably think, ‘These guys are really bad at trumpet.’ But that’s why I sometimes think of [the music element] as a magic trick. Audiences appreciate the double entertainment.”
And what’s entertaining for musical comedy’s growing audiences is addictive and fulfilling for its performers.
“When I was young, I made up songs. I’d make people laugh on the bus,” Kaufman reminisced. “It’s such a guilty pleasure because singing and making stuff up is very, very fun. It’s just pure id. Instead of saying the funny thing you’d want to say [in a traditional improv show], here you get to sing it. How could you not love doing that?”
Photos by Ryan Kelly Coil, Luke Fontana, and Ian Stroud.