Humour and laughter in children's music (and musical television)

I've just had an article published in a special edition about laughter in the Jeunesse journal which focusses on 'young people, texts and cultures' (Apologies. You will need access to a University library to access some of these links).

Writing the essay gave me a chance to think more deeply about the role of humour in children's music.

It seems to be the norm that music for children is often produced to make them smile and laugh. Silly songs are everywhere and serve and important social role by breaking down the barriers of authority between adult and child, as asserted by children's author and broadcaster Michael Rosen and John Patrick and Eric Pazdziora, the authors of this essay in the same journal edition as mine.

Picture courtesy of The Muppet Show Episode 214

My essay is specifically about the songs on The Muppet Show, specifically the many songs of British Music Hall that were on the show. I've written about the music of The Muppet Show and Sesame Street before in the context of jazz in children's television. Each programme takes up a whole chapter in my book: Sesame Street because of its use of a detailed curriculum to which each of the songs and sketches were tied, and The Muppet Show for many of the subversive and provocative reasons I mention in this essay about humour.

My argument about the use of humour in the Music Hall songs on The Muppet Show accepts that silly songs and humorous musical sketches have the ability to break down social barriers between adult and child family members. However, like 'childhood', 'the family' and other socially-produced discourses, humour has the power to both construct and constrict the child's interpretation of what they hear and see in the songs of The Muppet Show.

Picture courtesy of The Muppet Show Episode 304

In the journal article, I'm critical of the way that children and adults are often treated as separate audiences in terms of their ability to 'get the joke'. Scholars often refer to a dual address where TV shows, music and other media designed for 'families' (rather than just children) occasionally send references 'over the heads' of children. This could include the references to sex, sexuality and violence in the songs I looked at in this essay. However, my thinking is informed by the idea of 'competence' whereby viewers/listeners/readers of any age will understand the bawdy joke, or 'adult' reference if they have acquired the interpretive skills.

Picture courtesy of The Muppet Show Episode 410

In other words, it doesn't matter whether you are a child, an adult or somewhere in between, if you don't have the skills (often the recognition of an intertextual or vernacular reference, or a synonym) , then the humour will pass you by.

Similarly, many a UK viewer would struggle to appreciate every reference by the array of American guest stars and cast of The Muppet Show, especially with over 40 years of historical distance. Vice versa, non-UK viewers (of any age) might struggle to unpick the 'hidden' references to prostitution, homosexuality, the sex life of the Queen, and other matters covered in the Music Hall songs on The Muppet Show, cloaked and masked as they are, by Cockney Rhyming slang, Victorian/ Edwardian sartorial references, and the subtle nudges and winks that characterise the performance of bawdy humour.

Competence is the key to unlocking the full range of meanings that, in the 1800s, were hidden from sensitive middle-class Music Hall audiences through humorous lyrical devices, double entendre, parody and irony. Modern-day child audiences, and the 'sensitive' adults that may accompany them as co-viewers of The Muppet Show, can all access the vernacular humour in the songs. They just need to be taught the interpretive tools. Life, 'the family', music and TV are essential in this educational process.

Heather Snell, the editor of this edition of Jeunesse, wrote a short introductory piece about my article ( and the others) in the opening editorial which lays out my main ideas.

In “‘Laugh! I Thought I Should’ve Died’: British Music Hall Humour and the Subversion of Childhood on The Muppet Show,” Liam Maloy acknowledges the productive uses of humour, but argues that it can reinforce rather than challenge dominant ideologies. Its embedding of humour in bawdy British music hall enabled The Muppet Show to launch powerful critiques of normative constructions of childhood.

That it did so by appealing to an intergenerational audience was important, because watching the show with adults provided opportunities for children to interpret it in ways they might not were they to watch it only with other children. Watching funny shows together affords opportunities to witness laughter in response to material that may or may not be funny to all; this witnessing can influence how we approach new texts. Not surprisingly, much of The Muppet Show’s complexity and controversy stems from its dual-audience orientation.

As with other scholars included in this special issue, Maloy highlights the ability of humour to tackle difficult knowledge. At the same time, however, he warns that the dual-audience address may also be the show’s Achilles heel as it strives to embed adult-oriented humour in relation to issues of race and ethnicity. While The Muppet Show has been interpreted by some scholars as transgressive in a good sense, Maloy suggests that the family format introduces tensions we may want to pay more attention to in studies of laughter.