Wednesday, March 10, 2010

On Robert Klein and the Craft of Comedy...

I went to see Robert Klein last night at The Ice House in Pasadena with Angie and my friends, John Bader and Jim Petersmith. He was brilliant. Sixty eight years old and at the very top of his game. An absolutely seamless performance. I found myself at one point pounding the table with my fist and laughing. This is saying something, too, folks, cause I'm a tough audience when it comes to comedy.

A couple of things about Klein. First, I didn't see one single segue in the entire set. I never once noticed him moving to a different subject. You know what I mean, "Speaking of airline food..." Nothing like that. We were practically on the stage with him. Johnny B. had gotten us VIP seats and Klein was literally on top of us all night. The other thing about Mr. Klein, of course, was his razor sharp timing. Fifty years of doing stand-up will do that, I suppose, but still I wasn't quite prepared for it. This guy can take a comic pause better than anyone in the business. Jack Benny was known for his laugh filled pauses. He had nothing on Klein last night.

All of this got me to thinking about comedy in general. Playing it, rehearsing it, understanding it.

I am always surprised when other actors don't "hear" the comic beats while onstage. I have never been very good at trying to describe it. Once, years back, I was doing a silly farce called Run for your Wife down in Florida. During the run another actor in the play came to me and asked how I was nailing all the laughs. Not boasting here, just recounting. In any event, I found that I couldn't make him understand it. The closest I could come was likening comedy onstage to playing a trap set. Drums. I have always been able to hear it. And after lots of thinking about it, that's still the best way I can describe it. One has to hear that in one's head.

Sometimes it's easy. I was doing Guys and Dolls, playing Nathan, in Pennsylvania some time back. Another actor came to me and said, "Why can't I get this laugh on such and such line? I know it's there." I said, "Say the line louder." He tried it that night and had to hold about ten seconds for the huge laugh that followed. Sometimes it's easy.

When I was teaching in Chicago, I always sort of groaned inwardly when a couple of actors would bring a comic scene into class. Because I knew, short of actually getting up there with them and READING the lines myself, I would be very hard-pressed to make them understand how to get the laughs. Plus even when I DID that, it was MY timing that was getting the laugh, not theirs, so often it didn't work anyway.

An old adage: there are people that say funny things and then there are people that say things funny. Onstage, of course, always best to go with the latter.

Case in point: Gene Wilder. It's almost impossible to imitate him. He could get laughs on lines that no other actor alive could. He just said things FUNNY.

Another truism: Just because someone is funny offstage does not mean they will be funny onstage. I've seen this happen again and again throughout my career. "Oh, Bob is SO funny in real life, he'd be PERFECT for this funny role onstage." Hardly ever works. In fact, if I'm at an opening read-thru of a play and one particular actor is getting huge laughs from the company, I can almost bet my entire salary that that actor will not get very many laughs on opening night.

I was doing a show called The Show-Off with Elaine Stritch in New York once and she said something really great about comedy. She said, "I don't care if it's Neil Simon or Billy Shakespeare (she could call him that because I think they dated), it ALL comes down to BA-dump...BUMP." She's right. It always does...UNLESS one has the innate ability to say things funny. Then all the rules go out the window.

I did another show with Nathan Lane in New York. We have since become pretty good friends. Nathan was once telling me that his instinctive comic timing was sometimes a curse. No matter WHAT he said, people laughed. He said he used to get angry about that but now just takes it in stride. He's right. I used to be immobile with laughter hanging out with him. I can't adequately describe it...he's just funny.

I have thought about it many times, this comic timing thing. And reluctantly I have to say, it probably can't be taught. One is either funny onstage or not. Sometimes, an actor has a writer like Neil Simon under him. Big laughs all night long. The actor probably starts to think he's pretty funny. And indeed he may be. But more often than not, it is Simon getting the laughs, not the actor. It's pretty hard to fuck up Simon.

Another interesting thing is this: Comic actors usually make pretty good dramatic actors but dramatic actors RARELY make good comic actors. And of course this brings to mind the old Edmond Keane quote on his deathbed: Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.

Twain said humor is based on exposition and comedy is based on surprise. I think that's true. And it's almost impossible to teach surprise.

If you get a chance to see the incomparable Robert Klein live sometime, do yourself a huge favor and do so. He's a very funny, smart, perceptive man. And the man can wail on that harmonica.

See you tomorrow.