How to be funny?

Several years ago, I learned about an entrepreneur accelerator program from a friend, who encouraged me to apply with the songwriting method I had co-developed with a fellow student from the Prescott College Sustainability Education PhD program. I submitted an application, fully expecting to be rejected. Why would they think songwriting was a good idea for a successful business? When they accepted me into the program, I was surprised and fairly terrified. I had a wealth of experience in public speaking, and I had just earned a doctorate, but I had no idea how I would fair as an entrepreneur.

The program was exceptional. Fellow cohort members supported me in my burgeoning attempts to talk about my product and practice my business pitch. Program gurus David Parker and Lianna Kushi, accompanied by guest speakers, provided incredible leadership, wisdom, advice, and many opportunities for practicing the art and method of entrepreneurship. I graduate from the program and earned a $3250 scholarship for my presentation at the final pitch contest. Overall, it was a nerve wracking and inspiring experience that pushed my comfort level to its furthest reaches. However, as a yoga teacher shared with my class this past year, if you aren’t uncomfortable, you aren’t evolving.

Three years later, and my business is inching along. My confidence still leaves something to be desired, but I find myself persevering despite nagging from my inner critic.

Recently, a businessman and lawyer I met at an event in connection with the entrepreneur accelerator program sent me a blank email with the subject heading: Available?

Sure, what do you have in mind? I wrote back.

It turned out that he wanted me to write a funny and ribald song for his friend, who was turning 70 January 6.

I know there is a stereotype that Jews are all naturally hilarious, but while I may have my moments with witty retorts to things people say I do not consider myself a seasoned comedian, much less a comedic songwriter. I did not hesitate to accept the challenge, but I accepted with a healthy dose of terror.

Though I don’t have a typical way of composing a song, I do generally begin with a spoken story, particularly when I am working with another person. I then shape the text into a free verse format, looking for possible themes that could become the chorus and for a way to consolidate the events of the story into a few verses that will communicate the overall feel of the event without having to share the entire story, which is often several pages of single-spaced typed text.

To begin the process of composing a funny song, I met with my client via online conferencing and asked him to tell me about his friend and their relationship. I typed everything he said and told him I might email him with follow-up questions.

Next came a really difficult process of going through the short anecdotes, words, and phrases I had been given to try to gain a sense of the friendship between these two people and also of the a person I had never met. The prospect was daunting. I sat staring at the text for long periods, shaping phrases and verses and a possible chorus and then closing the document to allow for some time to just sit with the story.

I sent follow-up questions to try to learn more. What was the friend’s favorite color, flavor of ice cream, etc. Could my client share any more stories of their time together with as much detail as possible?

Who was this person I was writing a song for? What would they think of the kinds of song bytes I was creating? Would they find the song funny? Offensive? I had no idea.

I had asked my client to share some words and phrases to describe how he felt about the friendship. I did this because in the back of my mind I was envisioning a song with funny/ribald verses resolved by a softer, gentler chorus with expressions of love and gratitude for the decades-long friendship.

I sent a possible chorus to my client, who wrote back that it was too Hallmark. My sensitive songwriter was crushed, but I knew that he had requested something fairly scathing, so I went back to the drawing board to try again.

This time, I elicited the help of my husband. Songwriting alone can be daunting, and I believe strongly in artistic collaboration. Plus, I was desperate. I did Google searches for how to write a funny song, but I didn’t find anything very helpful. I shaped and reshaped verses. I listened to sound models that my husband suggested.

How about basing it off of a funny Irish song like the one by the band Flogging Molly? he said.

So I listened to the song The worst day since yesterday and mapped out the melody for the verse. It was a good starting point to begin trying out different melodies, which I did by singing the words and also plucking out notes on my ukulele.

I sang and sang and definitely swore a few times. I kept working. I sat with the lyrics and melody. I tried variations on phrasing and melodic turns as I went about my day. I did dishes, laundry, and vacuumed my apartment. I ate and I slept, and slowly a comedic song began to take shape.

When I finally sent the song to my client and received a reply, I held my breath before reading his response.

It was positive! I breathed an enormous sigh of relief. While my relief was tangible, it still felt surreal. The important note here is that I finished the song. It was a challenge, and I had to reach out for help, but I did it. In all, I think there were somewhere between four to six different versions. I really struggled with getting the phrasing to be something singable because there were just so many words I was trying to include. I would have moments of complete frustration and moments of clarity that made it all worthwhile. It was most often the small victories over seemingly insurmountable challenges that kept me moving forward. An epiphany in phrasing, like rhyming the word seen with Caribbean. Typically, I really don’t make much of an effort to create a rhyming scheme, but my sense of what might make a song humorous kept coming back to funny rhymes.

Don’t forget my fearless helper, my husband, who suggested that I could replace the word questionable (with four syllables) with the word iffy (two syllables). Brilliant!

I have read a lot about writing on the creative process, and a common theme seems to be the importance of completing projects. It doesn’t matter if they are amazing. What matters is that they are finished. There is an echo here from my time as a doctoral student as well. A very committed and encouraging member of my dissertation committee would tell me time and again, There are a lot of ABDs (All But Dissertation) out there. Remember, it’s just a dissertation. Make sure you finish it.

So here’s to a year full of trial and error, of humor, and most importantly of finishing creative projects!

2 Comments Add yours

  1. What a daunting yet rewarding process in songwriting especially for someone else’s approval. I could feel your terror and trepidation from your writing about it…and also your triumph. How’s that for a song title lol! Anyway I hope you are settling in to life in Brussels, I know that you’ve been plagued by the “plague” and I hope you are feeling better. I get tidbits of news from Erlene, so I’m not really creeping on your life.
    xo, Melissa (aka peggysdaughter)

    1. marieke says:

      Hi Melissa!!!! Thank you so much for reading and for your love and support. The plague has turned into an allergy to the mold we found in our apartment. Ugh! The songwriting experience was indeed a challenging one (and yes, scary!). I am honored you read my posts! Hope you are well, friend! Your knitted hat keeps me warm. xoxo

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