Mitch Benn

PLAYING IT FOR LAUGHS: Mitch Benn is the musical lynchpin of BBC Radio 4's The Now Show, and the king of the pastiche pop song, having sent up everyone from Elton John to Coldplay. Here, he talks to M about the ongoing perception of comedy songwriting as a bit naff and how he’s been able to carve a niche in that. He also questions British audiences’ aversion to home-grown comedy songwriting talent...

Anita Awbi
  • By Anita Awbi
  • 26 Mar 2012
  • min read
PLAYING IT FOR LAUGHS: Mitch Benn is the musical lynchpin of BBC Radio 4's The Now Show, and the king of the pastiche pop song, having sent up everyone from Elton John to Coldplay.

He also contributes to It's Been a Bad Week for BBC Radio 2, and has made three series the Radio 4 show Mitch Benn's Crimes Against Music. On TV, Mitch appears regularly on BBC1's The One Show as the writer and arranger of The Complaints Choir.

In 2003 Mitch formed the band Mitch Benn & The Distractions with Kirsty Newton and Tash Baylis, performing at the Edinburgh Fringe, touring the UK and releasing songs.

Here, he talks to M about the ongoing perception of comedy songwriting as a bit naff and questions British audiences’ aversion to our own home grown talent…

How did you get started as a comedy songwriting? Was it something you'd always wanted to do?
I dunno! I’ve been doing both for a long time now. Stand-up was a late development. I don’t know many comics who are pursuing their boyhood ambition; they all sort of get side-tracked into it while trying to do something else! So in that respect, I suppose you could say I was into music first, but before that I was into theatre. Certainly I was already writing songs and had been in bands before I got side-tracked into comedy in my early 20s. I immediately incorporated songwriting into it because it genuinely didn’t occur to me not to. I know quite a lot of comics who are very good musicians in their spare time but have never incorporated it into their act.

Why do you think that is?
Maybe they regard it as a hobby they can pursue outside of work? But the one thing about comic songwriting is that it doesn’t get you much love on the comedy circuit because there is an entire school of thought that regards it as cheating. Which it isn’t! This isn’t a competition! But a lot of comics are competitive and they will shy away from anything that they think other sneery comedians would think a gimmick. But if you are going to start decrying things as on-stage gimmicks, where would you stop? Any kind of talent is a gimmick so I’ve never regarded that as a legitimate argument. Who knows, maybe that’s why some of them don’t do it?

I’m more inclined to believe that a lot of comedians like to treat music as a way to express themselves creatively outside of their work. But for me, I wouldn’t think of not including it. It kind of became my USP. A lot of comics who start off doing music will abandon it in due course, but I never did. If anything, I’ve reemphasised it.

It feels wrong to talk about the tradition comedy songs without mentioning the old theatre and music hall acts. Has that era influenced you in any way?
It’s obviously an influence in as much as everything influences everything else. While I’ve never consciously listened to Flanders and Swann, I’m sure it’s found its way into my work. The guy who was a direct influence was Tom Lehrer. He was a maths lecturer at Harvard in the 50s, who used to write songs on the piano for his own amusement. He got persuaded by his pals into releasing a limited edition LP during the 50s. He was very edgy and ahead of his time, probably because he wasn’t writing for the entertainment industry as it was, he was writing for his own amusement. His stuff was quite bleak for the 50s. He would write songs about nuclear testing and sadomasochism. The thing about him was his music was very good.

The thing that annoys me about a lot of comedy songs – still to this day – is that the music end of it tends to be really perfunctory. It tends to be ‘let’s just slam out some chords and get a few rude words to rhyme’. I actually think it’s funnier if it’s musically good. Particularly when you get into the artist parody stuff and start deconstructing people’s styles. I might come up with a Coldplay song that is no Coldplay song in particular but like every Coldplay song you’ve ever heard. If you’re going to do that sort of thing you’ve got to be on the ball musically because you’ve got to understand what the artists are doing. If you’re going to point out people’s shortcomings, you’ve got to be at least as good, musically, as they are.

Where do you get your inspiration from?
Deadlines! The Now Show started this week; I’ve got to write a lot of songs. I’m permanently under the cosh and it’s amazing what that does for your creativity! You can talk about the divine methods as much as you like, but when you haven’t got the choice, you just write! I write over a hundred songs a year. With The Now Show, we do 17 a year and I write two songs for that each time. But I also get lots of wacky commissions coming in. And then on tour, I get ideas from the audience at half time and write something over the interval.

Is there much opportunity for comedy songwriters these days?
Yes and no. I’ve carved myself out a little niche. I wouldn’t say, from the point of view of career advancement, that musical comedy has done me any favours. The way onto telly for comedians over the past 10 years or so has been on the panel shows. And the panel shows won’t touch me because I’m the song guy. Why would they need me? They just stick them behind the desks and ask for crap jokes.

There is a bit of a resistance to putting musical comedy on TV, only because I think people are a bit nervous, they think, ‘What are we looking at? What are we going to see on screen? Is it going to just be a two minute long shot of a guy standing with a guitar – that’s terrible TV!’ But as it’s increasingly possible to do stuff with lightweight cameras and online editing gets faster and faster, you can do good stuff. I’d rather hope that The Flight of the Conchords had blazed a trail, but people think, ‘That was HBO and they’re made of money. We can’t do something like that.’

For some reason, with the possible exception of Bill Bailey, who I don’t really regard as a comic songwriter, he’s more of a stand-up comic who punctuates what he does with insanely brilliant musical flourishes. He’s written some funny songs but that’s not what he does. He’s an ingenious stream of consciousness stand-up with musical flourishes. When it comes to TV, we seem to be OK with comic songwriters as long as they’re not British. We’re in the process of embracing Bo Burnham and Stephen Lynch, but they’re American so that’s OK; we love Tim Minchin, but he’s Australian so that’s OK; we love Flight of the Conchords, but they’re kiwi so that’s OK. I can’t remember the last time where anyone like Richard Digence or Richard Stilgoe get anything other than a hard time! I don’t know why that is. We give our own musical comedians a hard time but seem to love everybody else’s. I’ve never understood that.

In one respect, it suits me. I’d hate musical comedy to come into fashion, because when anything is in fashion it will eventually go out of fashion. As long as it bumbles along with a medium level of naffness – enough for me to make a living out of it – then I’m OK! I’d hate it to become this year’s thing because then it will be next year’s last year’s thing.

What do you use as the starting point for your songs?
You start with the joke. What’s the gag here? It’s easier to write a joke about a news story that isn’t funny. If you try to write a song about the wacky stories, the joke’s already there. Sometimes in the grim stuff, if you can find the dark heart of the story – that can be the most effective thing. Satire and musical comedy are not mutually exclusive but they’re not the same thing. Something can be satirical but not be funny. Sometimes the inspiration is just, ‘I need to say something about this’. Whether people find it funny or not can be secondary sometimes. That can be the source of inspiration.

Upcoming tour dates:
April 2012
11, Bath Rondo; 12 Swansea, The Grand; 13 Salisbury, Arts Centre; 14 Canterbury, Gulbenkian Theatre; 19 Leeds, City Varieties
May 2012
10 Penzance, The Acorn; 11 Dartmouth, Flavel; 12 Falmouth, Arts Centre; 13 Great Torrington, Plough; 18 Cambridge, The Junction; 19 Reading, South Street; 25 Fareham, Ashcroft Arts Centre; 26 Barnsley, Civic Centre; 31 Borehamwood, The Ark

M interviewed Mitch for the You’re ‘Avin’ a Larf! comedy feature