Taking Comedy Seriously

We’re up and running at Florida Studio Theatre. (For those of you just tuning in I’m working on Steve Martin’s adaptation of “The Underpants”) It has been a delightful show to perform, zany and silly and full of energy. And one of the things that is particularly enjoyable about performing this piece is how supported we are by the writing. The jokes just work and there is not a lot that we have to do except move forward and fly through them. Hearing the audience respond to Steve Martin’s utterly surprising sense of humor is a real pleasure.

It has raised some questions about comedy and the lens we approach it through, however. And on this issue I’m afraid I have more questions than opinions. Much of the humor of Martin’s piece comes from misogyny and anti-Semitism (in addition to flatulence, romantic intrigues, funny accents, and randy spinsters). And while Martin is certainly not condoning this world view—the misogynist and anti-Semite are the butt of the jokes—it does make me curious about where we draw our comedy from.  Should we include such statements in our plays? Is it alright if they are laughed at? What does the act of laughing at them do to the statements? What is the difference between satire and farce? Or, as my director calls Martin’s piece, a “character driven comedy”? Do satiric elements in a play that is not fundamentally satiric have the same impact, the same politics as they would in a piece centered around satire?

Additionally, we are all playing into a lot of stereotyped characters and milking them for their comedic value. How do we feel about reinforcing these stereotypes, even if motivated by comedic effect? And I would venture to say that the overall message, if there is one, is certainly not one of emancipation or empowerment (except perhaps on a very micro level). So what should we think about all of this?

Well. The play is very funny.

Why? What tickles us?

There is comedy in the ridiculous, there is comedy in the truth, there is comedy in misfortune, and there is comedy in surprise. It seems to me that on some level comedy is fundamentally distancing—even when we are laughing at things we recognize as “true.” To find something humorous we can’t really empathize, otherwise we’d be crying or cringing. We have to situate ourselves outside of the event, separate ourselves to laugh. (Which is, incidentally, the opposite of what the actor does to make a joke work—the actor has to live and experience it fully—cannot comment on it or push it too hard or the joke dies.) This separation is part of why satire is so powerful and has such potential to incite social change- the audience is positioned outside of the events—and is able to see into them with keen and biting eyes. But this distance also doesn’t really allow the audience to look closely at themselves in that moment. They are outside laughing at events, not introspectively experiencing and evaluating their own lives and responses. But should we even care about this in a comedy? Most of us don’t go to comedy to think about things that closely. Most of us go because we want to laugh—we want to laugh long and hard. So to get that laugh, how far should we go? Is all fair in love and comedy?

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