How to Write a Comedy Song

Jonathan Coulton noodles until he comes up with a musical idea that he likes.
  • Transcript


Question: How do you write a comedy song? 

Jonathan Coulton: I like it best when there's just a little crystal of an idea that comes from somewhere, I know not where, and it just sort of springs forth. A little tiny idea. It can be a line, or an image or just something that a character would say and, ideally, when it works best, it's a thing that occurs to me and then I immediately know everything about that character. It's a little nugget of a thing that makes me completely understand who this person is and then it just sort of comes out and it's very easy. 

It's rarely like that however. More often, I have to really kickstart that process at any number of points. So I might sit around with a guitar and just play and play and play and play. You know, noodling until I come up with a musical idea that I like. And then I'll play the musical idea over and over again and sort of hum nonsense syllables against it until I hear a word that I think works and maybe that word becomes something. You know, "I know this line ends with the word 'dissolve.' And so, what rhymes with dissolve and then what could that be about?" And along the way you have to sort of keep stepping back and looking at it and seeing if it makes sense and thinking about where you wanted to take the listener and just sort of piece by piece, stringing it together until it's the thing that you believe it should be. 

Question: What genres have proven most influential in your music? 

Jonathan Coulton: I'm a real sucker for the slow, sad, sensitive, folky stuff. I really am. It's one of the reasons that I love bluegrass. I came to listen to bluegrass relatively recently but it’s one of the few styles of music that actually can move me to tears when I'm listening to it. Some of the sadder bluegrass songs are so amazingly powerful, have such an emotional quality to them even though the music is very simple and the message is very simple. There's always a child dying or somebody's mother is dying or it's somebody just missing their family who's far away. It's very simple concepts but something about the simplicity of the music and the simplicity of the ideas, just expressed in this really raw way. Really, really hits me. 

And so I try when I can to, you know a lot of the time I am writing funny songs, but I try to bring out that emotional aspect of it when I can. I try to find sympathy for the characters that I'm writing about, even if they're ridiculous, which frequently they are. I like to think, "Well, what, you know what do they want?" and more important, "What is it that they want that they're not getting, that they're never going to get and why is that sad to them?" That’s to me the heart of writing a good song, is getting to that piece of it. 

Question: What bluegrass song really does it for you? 

Jonathan Coulton: I can't think of the name of the song now, but it's a Stanley Brothers song and it might be called “My Precious Children,” or something like that, but he's talking about how his kids have grown up and moved away and it used to be the family was together all the time and now they're dispersed and he rarely sees them. I'm getting a little shivery just thinking about it and maybe it's because I'm a parent now that, that means so much to me, but that's the one that you know I was driving somewhere in the car and that song came on and I started weeping. It's really, really amazing.

Recorded on May 6, 2010