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Thursday, February 21, 2013

COMEDY and TELLING THE TRUTH

Charlie Chaplin, who knew a great deal about comedy while telling the truth
Today's blog at Theater is a Sport, comes to you from an essay I was asked to write for Brooklyn Publishers play catalogue.  The piece, called comedy and telling the truth, is a subject I have been, well, obsessed with for quite some time.  I believe comedy is funniest when it is honest.  This essay appeared in this year's Brooklyn Publishers catalogue as an introduction to the section on one-act plays.  I print it here with permission, and I hope you find it interesting!

COMEDY AND TELLING THE TRUTH

By Bobby Keniston


             I’ve been told that I’m a funny guy.   When this happens during a social situation, I smile, say thank you, then have a nervous breakdown in my mind.  Suddenly, I feel a sense of pressure to perform, to live up to this person’s expectations.  I may toss out dozens of one-liners, hoping that a few will land.  My energy rises, my volume increases, and, before you know it,  I am attracting attention, mostly positive, the Silly Monster comes out, and no one can tell just how uncomfortable I’m really feeling.  After I go home, I tell myself that I’m never going to let that happen again, no more will I play the fool and work for cheap laughs.
            Of course, there’s nothing wrong with cheap laughs.  However, when I am being myself and behaving as I am honestly feeling, that’s when I believe I am at my funniest.  That’s when I get the most laughs, the easy and true laughs that come from a situation or conversation and not just some random silliness on my part.
            I read an interview a few years back in which Steve Carell (of TV’s “The Office”, as well as many funny movies) said that actors who are in a comedy shouldn’t be allowed to know that they are in a comedy.  I wanted to stand up and yell “Yes!  That’s absolutely right!”  Unfortunately, I was in a crowded diner, so my enthusiasm was limited to a knowing smile.  This is a quote that I share with my students whenever we take on a comedy.  At first, they may be confused--- how are we supposed to not know we’re in a comedy?  Everyone was laughing their heads off during the read-through!  I assure them that it is perfectly fine that they know that they’re in a comedy.  They just shouldn’t behave like they’re in a comedy.  This does not always lighten their confusion.
            By the end of the rehearsal process, I think it is safe to presume that they finally “get” what Mr. Carell and I were trying to say.  Whether an actor is performing in a comedy or a drama, they need to be telling the truth.  I would almost go so far to say that this is particularly important for comedy.  We’ve all seen people on the stage or the screen entertain themselves by hamming up every line, milking every laugh, and mugging shamelessly.   Such performances are good for maybe a chuckle or two at best, and grow particularly tiresome after ten minutes.  Real laughter comes from the connection of relating to a character as a fellow human being.  Real people in heightened situations is where humor comes from, because the audience can get lost in this person’s predicament and wonder what they would do themselves if such a thing were to happen to them.  Laughter then becomes a kind of commiseration and shared experience between performer and audience member.
            When I’m writing a comedy like “I Don’t Mind That You’re Ugly” or “My Prom Date Was a Felon”, I am always more conscious of creating believable, relatable characters than I am of “being funny.”  Please don’t get me wrong--- I want people to laugh, and I want them to laugh hard.  I even have a daydream of high schools and middle schools all across the country doing my plays to audiences that are laughing so hard that they require medical professionals to be on standby in case people begin passing out.  But if I write even one line that sacrifices a hint of truth for a laugh, I feel like I have failed to some extent.  Noah, the male lead from “My Prom Date Was a Felon” is in a very unhappy place at the beginning of the play, dining alone on Prom Night because he couldn’t find a date.  He even gives an impassioned speech about how awful he is feeling, and how afraid he is of missing out on what should be a milestone of his high school life.  There isn’t much funny about that, right?  However, when fate decides to team him up with Indigo, a tough girl who just broke out of a juvenile detention center, the outlandish situation gives us permission to laugh at the proceedings, because we begin to see these characters as real people and not just clowns for our amusement.
            In this catalogue, you will find many, many plays that have hysterically funny situations that are relatable to young actors and audience members of all ages.  So my advice is to just relax, build your characters, and keep telling the truth.   Let the playwrights worry about whether it’s “funny” or not. 
            As for me, I’ll try to take my own advice next time I’m at a party.  I prefer honesty over the Silly Monster any day of the week.


Thank you for reading today's edition of Theater is a Sport.  To learn more of the wonderful scripts Brooklyn Publishers can provide for school and community theatres, please visit there website, which you can get to by clicking here:  www.brookpub.com   Here, you can also find many of my plays, as well as many terrific plays by a number of my colleagues. 

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Tomorrow, I will be presenting an interview with three wonderful people who, for me, exemplify how important community theatre is to our culture.  Until then, remember:  theater is a sport. 

See you tomorrow...

1 comment:

  1. I've seen a few plays, where the actors were trying so hard for a laugh, it was absolutely painful.

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