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Choosing Music For An Improv Show

The other day I was challenged to blog about my top ten songs of the year. Unfortunately, my top ten Spotify 2021 songs have a common denominator; they are not from 2021.

Despite this, I am too much of a music snob to pass up on an opportunity to shove music down people’s ears introduce people to music they might appreciate. Much in the same way that I have spent zero seconds looking at other people’s Spotify wrap ups, most likely, no-one will anyone to pay attention to mine. Therefore, I had to come up with a cover story to geek out about music while still having a chance of it being read. Since I do tech for easylaughs shows on Friday nights, that story quickly presented itself: The thought that goes into the music choices on show nights.


Pre-show

So you walk into Crea at 20:05 (because being on time seems to be optional) and you hear music playing. Enjoyable music, hopefully. Is it some auto-created list? Well, no. The music before the 20:00 show and in between sets come from carefully curated playlists lovingly put together by the tech crew.


There are some basic requirements to these songs. Besides being careful with potentially explicit material (so for instance no N.W.A.), a simple requirement is that songs have to both start and end without a lot of silence; cross fade has its limits. If you've ever tried to assemble a suitable playlist such as this, you’ll quickly realise it’s not only the Smiths who hated DJs (or other music mix creators). You’ll stumble across a perfect song for the playlist, only to find that it fades out for half a minute. (I’m looking at you, Diana Ross).


Furthermore, this pre-show music should be happy and energetic. While I love the work of Nico (of Andy Warhol/Velvet Underground fame), putting The Marble Index on before a show will put people in a gloomy mood. Or, to make it clear without the use of niche references, if the music is stereotypically for depressed people, it is not meant for a pre-show playlist.

Besides the common sense behind these rules, I also have some personal preferences (or, uncommon sense). For example, since the easylaughs community is from all over the world, I like to add songs in languages other than English. My pre-show list currently contains songs in Spanish, German, Italian, and French, and used to have songs in Russian, Swedish, and Mongolian. Similarly, I try to stay away from songs which I believe to be well-known. For instance , the song on my list with the least Spotify plays (Forever Young by Sparks) only has been listened to 91k times (if you’re suffering from insomnia, ask me how criminally underrated Sparks are, and I’ll rant you into a coma.)


Countdown

When most people have finally made their way in, the tech team needs to make sure the audience gets their energy up for the show. We do that with a countdown. Fellow tech team member Marco Meurs has created the ‘standard’ easylaughs countdown, but in addition to this, we have a library of roughly 15 other countdowns to choose from too. Typically these are energetic chunks of music without lyrics, building up to a nice finale. Suitable music for these countdowns is surprisingly scarce (or outside of my awareness. For my ego it is better to believe they are scarce). The countdown I am most happy with is taken from Ramses Shaffy’s Shaffy Cantate. Incidentally, for people who want to know a bit more about Dutch pop culture, Ramses Shaffy is a nice person to read up on.


MC Entrance

Once the countdown is over, it's time for improv! Right? Wait? More music? Yes.


After the countdown we typically play another song to get the host of the show onto the stage. These songs are sometimes picked by the hosts themselves, but otherwise it's up to the tech team to choose something. We typically look for songs which have some tension from the beginning, but that also go suddenly loud within the first 30 seconds. A simple example of this would be Blur’s Song 2.


This entrance song sets the tone of the show and can also give the audience additional information. For instance, we always use the song Back to Life by Soul II Soul for the Back to Life format. Alternatively, some hosts like to enter on the same song each time they host. For instance, Jochem Meijer often enters to Wham rap. As a result, within three notes of that song playing you already know who will be hosting (and hopefully will be excited about that).

Besides being informational and tone-setting, this song can also augment the entertainment. Some of my highlights of 2021 were Huib van der Gaag starting a jam with Queen’s Don’t Stop Me Now, Janette starting a grad show with Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious (this may contain a typo or two), and Marco doing a dance to Eye of the Tiger. The way they played with the music was a lot of fun, for them and for the audience.


The one time I hosted an easylaughs show myself, I requested Fiesta by The Pogues. If you have some hours to burn, it can be fun to browse through your music and figure out what you would choose for your own entrance song.


Inbetweeners

Finally, improv! Well, for a few minutes anyway as the 8 o’clock show is often a short form show. In between the short form games, we typically play some music to boost energy. As these soundbites have to immediately burst in with the black-out, we often use samples on a loop or pick something from lists with songs that are loud from the very first second.


While this is true for the generic, all-purpose songs you can use in any break, I personally prefer to pick relevant songs as the games are played as a bonus for those who are paying attention. I caught the idea from ex-easylaughs cast member Jochem Meijer; he played Blondie’s Denis after a stand-up set which featured a bit on Hitler’s dog Blondie. That made me chuckle, and I rarely laugh out loud (I am very Dutch).

Anyway, as this is a blog there is no scene to choose anything specific for, so let me give an example of a generic inbetweener that’s different from the previous three songs in this article: Little Richard’s Tutti Frutti.


Scene backgrounds

In long form and some short form games, we play music to support what's happening on stage. This helps both players and audience to feel the mood of what's going on. The golden rule is: The music should support the scene. This is why we have to be careful with music that contains lyrics. We don’t want the content of the song to distract from the content of the scene, and performers shouldn’t have to compete with an entirely unrelated voice.


Largely the music choices can be split up into three categories:


1. Genre music: Music taken from film soundtracks work well here, perhaps obviously. The challenge is to know which tracks are useful for which scene. In general, it is important when doing tech to know your playlists inside out. For instance, Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells is well known from the horror movie The Exorcist (or for Dutch people: from Bassie en Adriaan). What many people don't know, and is particularly useful when using it is that the song eventually transitions into a happy, weird, song. That way you know to fade the song out before a Wes Craven scene turns into a Wes Anderson scene.


2. Non genre-specific background music without lyrics: These are the songs which you can play throughout a scene, even when the performers are talking. My discovery for 2021: Keith Mansfield's Funky Fanfare.


3. Non genre-specific background music with lyrics: As mentioned, lyrics are dangerous. However, in silent scenes, or to begin and end a scene the distraction of lyrics is no longer a problem. One example of the added value of such a song can be seen here in an easylaughs show where Nicole Mischler dies elegantly to Edith Piaf’s Je Ne Regrette Rien.

Without the music, her acting would have had far less impact, it transcended the scene to another level (and vice versa, without Nicole the music would have had no additional context).

End of show

The last song of the show is an important one. It’s the start of the weekend, which is not necessarily captured in every upbeat song. Currently I have a grand total of two (2) songs that fit that bill. To not burn them out, I won’t name them here. Instead, I’ll raise awareness of another song so that I might soon have three (3) such songs to choose from. In order to make this happen, please learn the lyrics and dance moves to the Time Warp from The Rocky Horror Picture Show. You will be quizzed in the first show of the new year.


Musical improv

“Willem! You’re writing about music in improv without writing about musical improv.” Yes! I am! I am sure Marco Meurs, who is doing our musical improv workshops, will write about musical improv at some point. The thing is, the tech booth has relatively little music to add to a musical improv set. All music is taken care of by the performers and pianist. However, there are many musical improv games and warm ups which feature ‘regular’ songs. The most obvious example of this is The Crystals’ Da Doo Ron Ron. One of my ambitions for 2022 is to find songs which can be turned into musical improv games and exercises. If you know of any, feel free to send me your suggestions.

So, there you have it. Nine songs plugged under the guise of it being about providing music during an easylaughs show. I should mention that the views above are my own, and if I implied that there are any strict rules, I am sure that I will have broken each and every one of them, intentionally, at some point. If I haven’t, then I will find a way. As with all improv: you gotta follow the fun.

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