Articles / On Writing

What Jonathan Coulton Can Teach You about Writing Comedy

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Well, it’s one day before the big tax deadline, so I thought I would keep it light. Today I’m sharing with you five classic Jonathan Coulton songs and discussing what they can teach you about writing comedy.

If you don’t know who Jonathan Coulton is, you’re really missing out. He’s an independent artist with a folksy sound and a sharp wit. Mr. Coulton tells stories through his songs; therefore, his songs are great tools to use to illustrate some of the key principles of writing humorous books. And the same keys that make his songs so hilarious can transform your manuscript.

So let’s get started. 🙂

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1. Irony buried in a recognizable and relatable circumstance is the key to good comedy.

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In this song, “Re: Your Brains,” Jonathan Coulton mixes zombies with business negotiation. And like in most business meetings where one party has another over a barrel, what is called “compromise” is just a façade to make a bitter pill easier to swallow. Coulton brilliantly and hilariously illustrates this point by turning one “monster” into another and by keeping a truly uncivilized negotiation civilized. Add to this the living dead analogy and how it relates to the business world and the comedy here becomes genius. The congeniality of the Bob the zombie is the cherry on top of the sundae. It’s irony on top of irony, and it’s delivered in a scenario that the listeners are familiar with.

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2. Comedy is found in contrast (sometimes even ridiculous contrast).

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In this song, “Skullcrusher Mountain,” there is an evil genius in love. His hearts-and-flowers feelings are juxtaposed with his maniacal plans to destroy the world. This character has enough emotional capacity to love a woman—not in a good way, mind you, but love her nonetheless—but on the other hand, he has no feelings at all toward his fellow man. The comedy lies in the ridiculousness of the scenario: A highly intelligent character who is oblivious to his flaws who is in love with a woman who can only see the bad personality traits the character cannot see in himself. The contrasting setup here is brilliant and the comedy almost writes itself. The upbeat and positive tone to the song just adds to the humor on every level.

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3. Packaging Matters!

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Recognize this song? Well, maybe not in this format. In this version of “Baby’s Got Back,” Jonathan Coulton turns the popular but often disdained song by Sir Mix-A-Lot into something palatable and hilarious just by changing the way it’s delivered. Not only is it comedic gold, but it’s something you wouldn’t feel bad about listening to even though the acoustic version of the song makes you realize just how “dirty” the original song was. And in this way, Mr. Coulton points a sharp finger at the hypocrisy in us all. The lesson here is that good comedians know how to package something that would otherwise be offensive in an acceptable manner or in such a way that you won’t care how objectionable the material really is.

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4. Pacing matters!!

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In this song, “I Feel Fantastic,” which is about living a drugged existence, Coulton chooses a pacing that makes his listeners feel as if they are the character in the song. The pacing will affect the listener in one of two ways: positive or negative. Why? Pacing is a way in which you direct your readers’ emotions and intuitions on a subconscious level. If you find the pacing subtly uncomfortable, you will also find the circumstances that caused the pacing (i.e. a drugged existence) undesirable. If you find the pacing enjoyable, the listener may feel positive toward the circumstances. It’s quite a brilliant way in which the songwriter has shaped the listeners’ opinions without them even realizing it.

As an author, you too can use pacing to great effect. It could mirror emotional turmoil or even stand in contrast. Like Coulton, you could use pacing to make your readers feel a specific way about a setting or circumstance or you could use disharmonious pacing to indicate something is off about a character or coming event. In comedy, it is often all about the pacing. If it’s off, the delivery of the humor falls flat.

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It’s okay to use a character’s ignorance of their circumstances to add comedy and illustrate a point.

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In this song, “Shop Vac,” Jonathan Coulton sings about a man who just doesn’t see what his life has become. In this way, the songwriter creates a scenario in which the listeners are in on a joke the focal character doesn’t get. The hapless protagonist can be wonderful tool if used properly. In this song, the character is equal parts hilarious and tragic, and the songwriter uses that as an object lesson. I bet you’ll never look at your Shop Vac or suburban life the same again, will you?

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Note that Jonathan Coulton routinely uses the same types of tools in some combination. The pacing may illustrate something about the character. If the character is sad, the song may be slow. If the character is hopped up, the song may be fast to reflect this. He often uses a tone that is opposite in feel to the character or circumstance he is singing about. If the circumstances are sad, the type of music and the theme may be light and happy. If the character is dark and flawed the music may be cheery and whimsical.

Generally, his songs have a deeper message that isn’t conveyed on the surface. His characters are often ignorant of who they truly are. Or if they are cognizant of it, it’s only partially. And finally, he weaves irony and contrast purposefully throughout his songs. For example, in the song “Shop Vac” the character is kind of bragging about his great life, but he is blind to how mundane, empty, and sad all the examples of his life’s “greatness” truly are. This is irony and contrast used in a fantastic manner. When combined, theses two elements in particular make for good cerebral comedy.

I think Jonathan Coulton has honed the art of using comedy to challenge people’s perceptions. Good comedy not only entertains, but it teaches. And as any good public speaker will tell you: if you can make people laugh, they’ll listen to what you have to say.

I hope you’ve found this journey through the world of Jonathan Coulton’s music helpful and entertaining. Now that you’ve listened to the songs, how did they speak to you? What have they taught you about writing comedy?

Drop me a comment and let us know what you think, and then get back to writing. 🙂

 


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