Looney tunes

Whether it's pizzicato or parody, composing music for comedies is serious business.

Steve Martin said it three decades ago, and it's still true today: Comedy isn't pretty. It's a caveat that's particularly true in the world of film and TV music. Dramas, epics and action movies seem far better launching pads for memorable musical moments than gag-laden comedies, and composers often find themselves presented with the less-than-ideal choices of either aping physical action with "funny" music or simply trying to stay out of the way of the jokes.

Somehow, though, composers come up with unique approaches to the genre every year, and 2006 is no exception. Mychael Danna collaborated with the group DeVotchKa to create the quirky, charming sound of Fox Searchlight's summer hit "Little Miss Sunshine"; John Powell is providing music for an army of computer-generated penguins in Warner Bros. Pictures' "Happy Feet," opening Friday; and Hans Zimmer is teaming with director Nancy Meyers for Sony's planned December release "The Holiday" -- not to mention a host of other recent examples on both the big and small screens.

Since the function of the score for a comedic film is largely to set a particular tone, one of the biggest challenges facing composers is striking just the right musical balance in a genre that can range from jet black to light and wacky. "The heart of comedy writing is walking that tonal tightrope of the film," says Andrew Gross, who, along with John King, penned the music for New Line's upcoming Jack Black starrer "Tenacious D: The Pick of Destiny." "In all genres of comedy, you have to find the balance of the character's inner emotional state -- what they're feeling at the moment -- and the film's comedic tone. Otherwise, if you play it too silly, you betray your character's emotional state, and if you play it too dangerous, you take the comedy away from the scene."


Before a note is even written, determining a very clear approach is essential to composing for comedies, but getting to a point where composer and director are on the same page can be a daunting process. In the case of Danna and "Sunshine," a musical game plan fell into his lap. Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris were both fans of the eclectic, Denver-based musical quartet DeVotchKa -- the group uses a unique mix of upright bass, glockenspiel, tuba, accordion, trumpet and theremin -- and the directors thought the band's music would be a perfect match for their film.

When music supervisor Susan Jacobs suggested the filmmakers still hire a composer to shape "Sunshine's" music, they met with Danna.

"I thought it was a perfect analogy for the movie," Danna says of the band's cacophonous sound. "The movie is a family of misfitting pieces, and DeVotchKa is kind of a group of misfitting instruments.

In both cases, they just make it work, and the conflicts, mismatches and paradoxes within the onscreen family and the musical family just says what the movie is, so I thought we should do both -- use their songs and do the score thing and write all the parts for them."

It's not always that easy, however. Determining a director's musical tastes and learning his sense of humor -- both very subjective areas -- can take a great deal of time. "On (Sony's August release 'Taladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby'), there was a scene where the two best friends decided they couldn't be friends anymore," says composer Alex Wurman, who had previously worked on another Will Ferrell comedy, 2004's "Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy." "I started up with this sort of 'Guiding Light' piano, and we all started laughing very hard, but we ended up not using the music. The reason was because we thought people might take it seriously. That's typical of what it's like working on a comedy -- you're looking for what makes you laugh, and you're gauging whether it's going to play; that's a lot of fun."

Most veterans of the comedy score agree that the bane of the genre is "funny music" -- jangling, overly busy accompaniment that's usually loaded with musical pratfalls. "The lucky thing on 'Little Miss Sunshine' is the film really worked already," Danna says. "It's not like we had to rescue anything, and I can see how you might sometimes be in a situation where you have that burden because you're dealing with something that's not working. We never had to provoke a laugh with the music, and I'm grateful for that."

Zimmer, who has scored comedies for Meyers previously and for director James L. Brooks, agrees: "If it's a well-written comedy, the comedy part will play, and you stay out of the way of that. The things I'm trying to do with the music is to balance it out. If the jokes work, then don't overlook the emotion. If it's a good joke, no one's going to hear the music anyway because they're going to be falling over laughing, so try to enhance the emotional thread."

But while some of the best comedy scoring effectively ducks out of the way at crucial moments, music can be a powerful force to generate laughs on its own. On "The Pick of Destiny," Gross and King found themselves working in a thunderous mode to fit in with the outsized personality of Black, his collaborator Kyle Gass and their band Tenacious D.

"We had to create this deep mythology that they were destined to be together," Gross says. "So, we used choir and orchestra, and it's very dynamic. The bigger we play it, the funnier it is -- you're framing it within the 'Star Wars'/'The Lord of the Rings' scale of things and applying that to these two guys."

But even parody has its pitfalls: Some musical standards have been used for comedic effect so many times that their intrinsic meaning as music has been mutated -- as the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra discovered last year when a performance of Bernard Herrmann's famous shower-murder music from Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 classic "Psycho" produced audience hysterics. "When people use 'Psycho,' it's now used for comedic effect, where when it was initially used, it scared people," Gross says.

In the world of television, comic scoring can range from the baroque, almost cold pizzicato underpinning that Steve Jablonsky uses to propel the bleakly comic moments of ABC's "Desperate Housewives" to the lightning-fast, in-and-out transitions that have been a staple of three-camera sitcoms for years. Those quick stingers aren't as easy to concoct as one might think, and they also are not the only kinds of music composers working in sitcoms are asked to provide.

Composer Kurt Farquhar, who got his start writing music for comedy with 1991's "Livin' Large!" currently works on CBS' long-running sitcom "The King of Queens," and he says styles and approaches have changed dramatically over the years -- namely, composers now have the freedom to pen music appropriate to characters from a wide range of backgrounds.

"On 'Good Times' or something like that, you couldn't have seen a lot of difference between the music in that, where there are African-American characters, and 'Archie Bunker's Place,'" he says. "When I started (working on series including 'Moesha' and 'The Parkers'), it was a very big deal to be able to do what was necessary but using music that worked with the characters you were seeing."

Farquhar says the biggest lesson he's learned is when not to use music. "As composers, our initial thought is, 'Yeah, let's put some music in there,'" he says. "A lot of times, a serious moment can be more serious without the music, and a funnier moment can seem more uncomfortable and funnier by not having music at a given point."

Farquhar also says a willingness to collaborate is critical for composers, even if it means receiving tips from some unlikely sources. "You always have to be able to play with others," he says. "You have to work with the producers and directors of the show and the network execs -- whoever has a creative hand in it -- and collate all that information into a cohesive viewpoint. When I first started, I don't believe I ever got a note from a network exec, but at this point, it's a given. I think it can be for the better because I've gotten some really interesting ideas from people for whom music might not be their area of expertise."

While Jablonsky's pizzicato underpinning for the darkly comic scenes in 'Housewives' has become some of the most distinctive and imitated scores on television, it actually originated as a demo the composer wrote after viewing the show's pilot episode. "It was my gut reaction to what this show needed," he recalls. "Pizzicato strings seemed to fit the quirkiness of Wisteria Lane, and it's a timeless sound that can live with the show without becoming dated. Pizz strings also have a percussive element to them, which works well because the show usually moves at a fast pace."

The quirky sound manages to say "comedy" while some hair-raising things are going on. "One term we use is 'wicked fun,'" Jablonsky adds. "There's a lot of evil behavior on the show, and it's my job to help infuse some fun into these moments. When Gabrielle (Eva Longoria) is doing something incredibly nasty to Carlos (Ricardo Chavira) (or vice versa), the music needs to reflect the evilness, but, at the same time, it needs to keep the scene from becoming melodramatic. A lot of scenes that I score could easily become completely dramatic scenes if I were to score them that way. But when necessary, the music helps remind the audience that as disturbing as things may look, we're still having fun."

So, what's the reward for a job well-done? Maybe not accolades or applause, but once a composer demonstrates a flair for comedy, chances are he or she will be in demand. The fact is, it's so difficult to do comedy well that composers can find themselves being asked to do it ad nauseam once they prove they have a knack for it.

That truth isn't lost on Theodore Shapiro, who most recently scored Fox's September comedy "Idiocracy," from director Mike Judge. While his resume includes independent movies like 2000's "Girlfight" and several features for director David Mamet, Shapiro has composed music for more than a dozen comedies and says that his score for "Idiocracy" might be the biggest, most complex orchestral work of his career.

"Comedy can provide you with some remarkable opportunities to mine gold in genres that you have great affection for and yet couldn't really work in the same way today," Shapiro says. "I've spoken with other composers who get a lot of work in the thriller genre about how we should have some kind of work-exchange program so we could do different kinds of work."