Whenever people ask me, “What do Andy Samberg and Beethoven have in common?” I usually point to the obvious: “They both have big hair” or, “they both lived in different centuries.” The comedian and the composer both sport unwieldy manes of brown curls, lending them an air of frazzled genius; both have striven to push the boundaries of their (different) art forms in different centuries. Andy Samberg (b. 1978) is a cast member of Saturday Night Live and the comedy troupe “The Lonely Island.” He is known for his “Digital Short” music videos, such as “Dick in a Box,” “Jizz in My Pants,” and “I’m On a Boat.” Ludwig van Beethoven was a German composer who lived from 1770 to 1827, most famous for his symphonies (especially the odd ones–numbers 3, 5, 7, 9), string quartets (especially the odd and even ones), and piano sonatas. Lately, I have been considering the relationship between Samberg and Beethoven more carefully. Why are Samberg’s songs so funny and popular? What makes Beethoven’s music tick? How has Beethoven influenced Samberg? Or even, how has Samberg influenced Beethoven? Two approaches to these questions seemed plausible: 1) a personal one, via a comparison of Beethoven’s and Samberg’s humorous tendencies, and 2) a musical one, focused solely on a close analysis of their creative output. While the first approach yielded some wonderful anecdotes about Beethoven’s propensity for comedy (he was, apparently, a master at verbal punning), the second was more fruitful. I found that Samberg and Beethoven employ a similar compositional technique—rhythmic “foreshortening”—to pump blood into their works. And where Beethoven piles on chromatic harmony, Samberg notches up the absurdity.
In rhythmic foreshortening, a technique pioneered by Beethoven, the composer divides phrases into ever-smaller units, achieving a heightened intensity with each division. An eight-measure phrase becomes a four-measure phrase, the four a two, the two a one. The composer shaves off melodic material until only a fragment of the original motif remains, wailing against the inevitability of harmonic resolution, which usually follows shortly after. The effect could be compared to stumbling forward as you sprint: once you’ve lost your footing, there is no turning back until your face is in the cement. Most fundamentally, foreshortening aims to thwart a listener’s expectations. The average listener knows the basic arc of a musical phrase, whether or not s/he can articulate it in musical terms. Foreshortening alters the usual procedure of a musical phrase by cutting up a melody that, at the outset, seems secure and complete in itself. Broken down into fragments, the music pushes forward, and ultimately gives way to a new idea.
Beethoven used rhythmic foreshortening even in his earliest works, albeit not too dramatically. In the first phrase of his Opus 2 no. 1 piano sonata, a two-measure melody is heard in the right hand (measures 1-2, see figure 1), then repeated on a different harmony (measures 3-4). (For theory enthusiasts: on a _dominant_ harmony.) Next, the second halves of the melody (measures 2 and 4) are heard in bars 5 and 6, but _without their arpeggio antecedents_. The melody has become a half melody; the listener senses the music propelling forward. The phrase reaches its peak in bar 7 with a quickly rolled chord, finally coming to a rest in bar 8. The tension of the phrase relies on cutting the two-measure melody in half, thus doubling the stakes.
This technique appears throughout Beethoven’s oeuvre. The first movement of the Third Symphony compacts the theme again and again, culminating into a series of punchy, completely unmelodic chords at the end of its first section. The theme’s lyricism ends in violence. The scherzo from his Opus 131 String Quartet—a five-and-a-half minute movement—relies almost entirely on four measures (~4 seconds) of material (see figure 2), which is chopped up and scattered throughout. The first eight-bar phrase (itself comprised of a four-bar idea, which is then played backwards) is repeated once (measures 11-18) and then divided into two-bar ascending units (measures 19-24), which build rhythmic and harmonic momentum toward the release in bar 25. A little further down, those two-bar units become one-bar units (37-41), presented in canon for a particularly overt “forward-stumbling” effect. An eight-measure idea thus becomes two measures; two measures become one measure. The technique is remarkably efficient. Few other composers could squeeze so much music out of so little material. (Another good example: the first four notes of the Fifth Symphony, which bleed into the entire work.) As lyrical expansiveness condenses into its constituent parts, the music audibly accelerates.
Andy Samberg, like Beethoven, finds success in one-upping his audience’s expectations. In his most successful “Digital Short” videos—“Dear Sister,” “Dick in a Box,” and “Jizz in My Pants”—he has harnessed the principle of rhythmic foreshortening for comedic effect. The brilliance of his shorts is surprisingly formulaic: he doubles the absurdity of a joke with each iteration, and in some cases cuts the time between each joke in half. While this approach to humor isn’t entirely novel—some common forms of improv comedy take a sketch and repeat it faster each time—Samberg has made the model a well-oiled machine. An unexpectedly absurd joke arrives sooner than you think. The technique is remarkably similar to Beethoven’s, who often ups the harmonic tension of a phrase as he foreshortens its rhythm. Both Samberg and Beethoven raise the stakes from two angles.
Take “Jizz in My Pants.” The (http://www.hulu.com/watch/47604/saturday-night-live-digital-short-j-in-my-pants) features Samberg, his “Lonely Island” cohorts, and Justin Timberlake singing about how they unexpectedly ejaculate in their pants at the slightest provocation. It’s structured around repeated build-ups to the punch line “I jizzed in my pants,” which arrives sooner and sooner in a transparent act of foreshortening. The first verse is a 12-measure phrase. It takes place in a club, where Samberg flirts with a woman. Once she intimates sex (“I want some more,” she says) he ejaculates. The second verse is only slightly foreshortened—10 measures leading to the punch line—but effectively doubles the absurdity of the joke by placing the action in a grocery store. A man jizzes in his pants when the attractive check-out woman asks “Cash or credit?”—a line few would consider sexy. The third verse puts the song into high gear. Samberg walks out of a movie theater, sees that he missed a call on his cell phone, and then jizzes in his pants, all within 4 measures. The build-up is so foreshortened that the audience can barely digest the scenario before the punch line arrives. From there on out, absurdity doubles rapidly as phrases are cut in half: 3 bars, 1 bar, 1 bar, 1 bar, 1/2 bar, 1/4 bar. By the end, jizzing occurs when “Bruce Willis was dead at the end of the sixth sense” or when “A breeze rolled by.” Rhythm is foreshortened as absurdity is stretched. Foreshortening guarantees that the audience will always be one step behind Samberg; it can’t be anticipated.
Samberg’s music videos are intensely focused on a single joke. Whether that joke is a musical-motif punch line (“I jizzed in my pants”) framed in a number of contexts, or an action whose volume and intensity are increased (the gun shots in “Dear Sister,” the spoof of the “O.C.” season two finale), Samberg’s humor doesn’t stray too far from where it begins. His treatment of source material mirrors Beethoven’s. Samberg squeezes a host of jokes from a single motif; Beethoven could draw a fifteen-minute work from a three-second musical unit. Students of music theory and comedy alike should consider the relationship between these two unlikely friends if they hope to move forward in their respective fields.