Part 5: Form

Classical music and standup comedy share a preoccupation with form and structure.  Just as composers carefully consider the pacing and proportions of their forms, comedians tinker with timings and reorder elements to maximize the effectiveness of their jokes.

In the Dave Chappelle bit, there are three main sections: 1) the setup - establishing the topic and building up tension; 2) the punch line - “he’s still here” - shift of perspective, introduction of something unknown and unexpected that punctuates the built-up tension of the setup; 3) riffing on the situation following the punch line.  In order to accentuate the form of the bit, I created musical sections that mimic the comedic ones.  

In the quartet treatment, the sections are: 1) fragmented angular speech gestures distributed among the bottom three voices (bowed) with pizzicato of shifting rates in the violins; 2) cello pizzicato, groaning sound in first violin, thick textures based on speech shapes in the second violin and viola; 3) cello pizzicato continues, strident speech rhythms in other three voices.

While formal considerations are crucial for any kind of comedic bit, it is easiest to see them up close in well-shaped one-liners.  In Hack, the miniature movements of the Third Set, based on the jokes of Rodney Dangerfield, forefront such forms.  One joke (in Hack, referred to as “Rodney Dangerfield 4”) goes like this: “I tell you, my wife, she never went for me.  Yeah, the first time I called her up she told me to ‘come over, there’s nobody home.’  I went over, there was nobody home.”  The three part structure of this joke is neatly indicated by the placement of the periods.  

I analyze the joke’s form as:

  1. Generic introduction (“I tell you, my wife she never went for me”)

  2. Specific setup (“Yeah, the first time I called her up she told me to ‘come over, there’s nobody home.’”

  3. Punchline (“I went over, there was nobody home.”)

And the musical form I used:

  1. Full quartet plays loud, aggressive gestures

  2. Viola solo with “crunch” in the violins

  3. Full quartet plays moderately quiet lines coalescing around a final chord

Like the Chappelle movement, the Sarah Silverman movement features a setup, a punch line, and an extended “riffing” section.  In this case, however, the bit is unusual in that the section following the punch line consists almost entirely of silence.  In adapting this form to music, I wanted to echo this use of negative space and the role that it has in balancing the form around the fulcrum of the punch line.

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