Terry Teachout throws down a nice challenge today: name a great Hollywood film score written for a comedy. Tough, because, like so much else about comedy, if you notice the score, it's not really doing its job. Comedy is all about efficiency—film scoring is all about luxury. For a comedic one to work, the effort has to be imperceptible.
For an example, let's examine what I think is one of the all-time best comedy film scores: Franz Waxman's for The Philadelphia Story. The first thing you notice is that it's hardly there at all—maybe twenty minutes of music, and that includes some ambient Cole Porter arrangements for the big party scene. Which leaves, what? Ten minutes of actual cues? Maybe less? Yet without those ten minutes, the movie doesn't work at all.
Take the opening scene, a flashback in which Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant acrimoniously end their marriage. She breaks his golf clubs; he winds up to punch her, and instead puts his hand over her face and pushes her to the ground. Pretty tough start for a guy we're supposed to spend the rest of the movie rooting for. Waxman smooths it over with pure cartoon music, mickey-mousing every bit of action with imitative instrumentation. Not only does it decisively confirm the scene as slapstick, it reassures us that the main dramatic conflict is not serious enough to turn into drama. Waxman doles out a little more of the same later, when, depressed and confused, Hepburn downs an entire tray of champagne saucers. Incipient alcoholism? Nah—the insouciantly echoing clarinet line slyly signals that it's the beginning of her salvation.
Waxman brings his full romantic arsenal to bear in only one scene, the late-night dance between Hepburn and Jimmy Stewart—and even here, he sneaks in, ingeniously dovetailing the cue with some languid jazz coming from an on-screen radio. That's his strategy all the way through: slip into the scene, gently tip it in the right dramatic direction, and then slip out again.
Big, epic comedies can produce great scores (John Williams' underrated score for 1941 springs to mind), but such scores are usually forgotten because the resulting movies almost never work. (I'm racking my brains to come up with an example of one that does, and the only one I can think of is Ghostbusters, in which Elmer Bernstein's Stripes-redux score jostles for space with a lot of 80s pop.) Interestingly, some of my favorite music for comedies is pre-existing: Scott Joplin rags in The Sting, Carmen in the original Bad News Bears, the Marriage of Figaro overture in Trading Places. Lisa Hirsch nominates the collective work of Warner Brothers animation composer Carl Stalling—divorced from the films, the music does have a modernist, fragmentary musique concréte energy, but that's a response to the structure of the visuals, not an inherently musical inspiration. Alex Ross suggests Danny Elfman's score for Beetlejuice—I'd go back farther to Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, Elfman's first score and still one of the best things he's ever done, a pitch-perfect musical embodiment of the movie's loopy atmosphere. I searched high and low for that soundtrack, and when I found it, I wore it out.
That's the exception, though. I remember a few years back, when the Modern Library came up with their list of the 100 best non-fiction books of the last century. I was ticked that the Julia Child-Louisette Bertholle-Simone Beck Mastering the Art of French Cooking didn't make the list, but really, the elegance and wit of that book's writing will always take a perceptive backseat to its functionality. That's what good comedy scores are like: ideally stylish, but necessarily efficient.
The readers, blessedly more intelligent than me, have posted many a fine comment.