The Art of Humor Gallery, take 1

A while back, one of my colleagues was getting ready to direct Into the Woods, and was telling me how excited he was about the project. “I mean,” he said, “this show has real depth – it’s not like The Pajama Game.”  Which I let go at the time, since I like the Sondheim work a lot myself. But I also like Pajama Game, and especially like its no-pretensions-here attitude. I think some of the “deep” Sondheim stuff gets credit for using  what is really cartoonish neurotic behavior as sophistication, at the expense of more realistic-but-still-funny recognizable stuff, like “friendship,” say. In Into the Woods the cartoon behavior works, since the characters are archetypes anyway, and they are allowed to be funny, not just sarcastic/wounded. It doesn’t have the standard late-20th-century this-is-important undercurrent to the humor.

The Pajama Game, while not as minute-to-minute effective as a bunch of other classic musicals (including one that shares a bunch of DNA with it, The Music Man), uses some comedy tropes really well. I think the female lead’s first number is well paced and silly in a good way, in line with a lot of Hammerstein numbers. I appreciate the chorus’s “obviously, naturally, definitely”  responses – pretty much the same thing as you’d find in lots of buddy-comedy songs.  Who doesn’t like musical banter?

It’s true that the whole show bogs down a bit, and the movie version in particular doesn’t show the later numbers to their best advantage, but still, the thing holds up way better than lots of message musicals or the more recent jukebox shows. I know that part of my affection for it is based on growing up with the cast recording, which was on a regular rotation in our house with other classic 50’s shows, for which I thank my mom. And it is funny for long stretches, featuring mainly gentle ribbing. It is not trying to address the ills of all the world – so, I guess it’s not deep, but that’s OK.

You don’t see the classic musical comedy banter too much in art song venues, which probably comes from a combination of historical tendencies and solo singer recital preferences. Sometimes when one of my own humorous songs is programmed on a formal recital, the performers can be uncomfortable with it, not wanting to seem silly. Plus, the audience members are not sure whether or not they can laugh. (This usually takes of itself if the audience has the texts to the songs in front of them – then they can see for themselves if they really heard a joke.)  Just last week some other colleagues performed a song cycle of mine on texts by Sarah Manguso. Parts of it are really comic, no kidding (so to speak). They’ve sung this a few times now, and so are completely OK with selling the jokes that are woven into some serious texts:

So, I’m hoping that the upcoming movie of Into the Woods is very funny in addition to having depth, as my director friend would say. I’m cautiously optimistic, given the basic gentle humor between the characters I’ve seen in stage productions. But then, there was that awful movie of A Little Night Music which had no comedy whatsoever.

On a short trip up Route 100 today, we passed a sign that said “Art of Humor Gallery – next right.”  It seems like it’s a real thing.


This seems very promising – a whole gallery for the Art of Humor! ..and the Vermont artist that shows there seems very much into the gentle-comedy idea…

Author: beth wiemann

Beth teaches composition and clarinet at the University of Maine in Orono, ME. She also spends time in Massachusetts with her husband, David Rakowski, and in her Subaru going back and forth on Routes 95 and 93.

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