A cappella recording has become a big business within a budding industry. Indeed, given the improvements in recording and distribution technology, and the increase in professional services available to groups interested in recording, it seems like groups at all levels, from small high schools to major universities to post-collegiate social groups to full-fledged pros are releasing new recordings each year.
In Recording Recommendations, we offer our two cents on best practices in recorded a cappella.
In this edition, our focus is on humor.
Humor has its place in a cappella. After all, a form of music rooted in using your mouth simulate the sounds of instruments can't afford to take itself too seriously, especially at the scholastic or amateur levels.
Just the same, I get that people--myself included--have their reservations about humor. If a group tries to be funny and falls flat, it can come across as a particularly uncomfortable kind of failure. Moreover, comedy doesn't land with every audience, or every audience member the same way. When a group depends on inside jokes or referring to current events everyone isn't up to speed on, or old jokes that are over-exposed among a particular demographic, they run the risk of alienating the crowd. On top of all that, there's the issue of being taken seriously by others--judges, critics, and discerning audience members. It's not at all fair, but there does exist a preconceived notion that the group that plays for laughs doesn't take anything seriously--that they aren't as musically proficient (even if they, objectively, are) or that they won't care whether they take home an award.
Groups can fall into the trap of going too far for a laugh, at the expense of musicality or otherwise thinking out its recording. If a group's sole intention is to entertain, and that's the group's wheelhouse, then there's no reason to back away from it. But, troubling as it may be, groups do need to be more careful about how they deploy humor when they are seeking acclaim. This might mean only including but so much humor to ensure your overall work is perceived as professional. It may also mean thinking critically about track order--not kicking off an album with a comedy track that will set a tone you weren't aiming at; not embedding comedy between more somber and intense tracks in such a way that undercuts their impact, but rather using it as the appropriate release valve at a critical point in the album to "reset" and switch gears, or using it for a fun closing number to send your listeners home happy.
There are exceptions to all of these rules. Established acts get a lot more leeway with comedy (Pentatonix can record all the comedy they want and still be taken seriously), there are acts that have successfully made comedy a cornerstone of their careers (e.g., Mr. Tim) and there are well-crafted albums that use humor in creative ways. That said, comedy is a gamble in serious a cappella recording, and groups need to consider why and how they intend to use it before diving in.