Sunday, May 9, 2010

A few well-tempered words on playing comedy...

One-acts are a strange beast.  I mean in general.  When I first started writing for the stage many years ago (my first produced piece was a one-act at Missouri State called "Closin' Time" about...well, no one's quite sure what it was about, including me), I wrote in the one-act format all the time because I didn't have the patience or the fortitude to write full-lengths.  So I churned out one-acts.  And strangely, most got produced.  I say "strangely" because they were just awful.  Mostly high-falutin', pretentious little pieces about things I was too young to write about in the first place.

In my entire life I've only run across one that I liked.  It was called "This is the Rill Speaking," by Lanford Wilson.  The grad students at school were doing a bunch of them and this one stuck in my mind.  It was about growing up in southern Missouri.  A very well-written piece, as I recall.  Brought to mind "Spoon River Anthology."

Since then I've come to like one-acts even less.  And to add salt to the wound some years back the whole notion of the "ten-minute play" began.  I just don't get it.  What can possibly be said with any gravitas in ten minutes on the stage?  Part of the craft of writing plays, a huge part in fact, is developing character.  That is to say, introducing and fleshing out a person for the audience.  In the one-act formula there is simply no time to do this.  I suspect the same problem exists for prose writers and short stories although there are a lot of short stories I like out there.

I like to write in what is called "Aristotle's Unity of Time."  That is to say, without teaching a course here, the time elapsed onstage is the exact time elapsed for the audience.  It's the most difficult type of writing for the playwright because he and he alone is responsible for the peaks and valleys in the play.  No blackouts, no scene changes, no clumsy segues.

Having said that, Praying Small, oddly, is not written that way.  It is a non-linear piece completely full of episodic writing.  It was the only way to tell the story.

So here I am in a night full of one-acts.  I try and make the best of it.  My theory is to say the lines so fast the audience won't have time to think.  Probably not the best approach but it keeps me sane.  Fortunately one of them (I'm doing two) is flat-out comedy so it seems to work.  Dying is easy, doing comedy in a one-act is hard.

I have changed my mind about playing comedy over the years.  I used to think it could be taught.  I don't think that anymore.  Either you "hear" the comic beats and rhythm in your head or you don't.  No one, no matter how good a teacher or director, can give you that.  The comedic piece I'm doing now is a prime illustration of that.

There is an old, old line used in the theatre, meant as a joke.  "Faster, louder, funnier."  Well, I'm not so sure it's a joke.  Most of the time that's exactly the direction an actor should be given.  It's not that complicated.  So often I've wanted to say to an actor I was directing, "faster, louder, funnier."

American actors, especially, find it hard to grasp this concept.  They've been taught, usually beginning with academia, to question everything.  To ask WHY they're being told to say the lines faster, louder and funnier.  And once that happens, whatever the piece is, ceases to be funny.

There's an old Oliver story about when he was working with Noel Coward in Private Lives in the 1930s.   He apparently had a funny line that he could never get a laugh on.  It had something to do with asking for a cup of tea.  Finally, after weeks of not getting the laugh, he pulled Coward aside and asked him what he thought.  Coward said, "Well you can start by asking for the tea instead of the laugh."  Laymen may not quite get that piece of advice but actors will.  It's a fine line.  If we try to be funny it's usually not funny.  Acting is not stand-up.  Always ask for the tea.  The laugh will follow.

I've always contended there are a thousand ways to say a dramatic line but only two or three ways to say a comedic one.  Just watch or read Neil Simon.  The timing and the cadence of the laugh are IN the line itself.  Simon is a genius at that stuff.  He's damn near actor-proof.

Look at one of his famous lines from The Odd Couple.  Felix leaves Oscar a note.  It says, "Dinner is in the fridge.  F. U."  Later, Oscar says to Felix, "It took me an hour to realize F. U. meant Felix Unger!"  Think about it for a second.  How do you get the laugh on that line?  It's inherent in the line itself.  The stress and structure of the laugh are there.  You just have to read the line right.  It's almost impossible to fuck up.  And yet, there are actors that inevitably will.  The only variable for the actor to play is the volume of the line.  Pretty simple.

Sometimes the laugh is in the space between the lines.  The pause or the hesitation before or after a word.  This is also something the actor either hears or he doesn't.  Some actors can't hear it.  I've always likened it to hearing a drummer and his trap set in your head.  Some actors here that beat and rhythm and pace and some don't.  And I honestly don't believe it can be taught.

And then there are the instinctively funny actors that throw the whole theory out of whack.  These guys play outside the rules.  Gene Wilder comes to mind.  I've always thought he introduced an entirely new way to be funny.  He falls into the catagory of "some actors say things funny and some actors say funny things."  The former is far more rare.  Gene Wilder said things funny.  Watch the film version of The Producers.  It's all there.

I've always thought it interesting that dramatic actors rarely do comedy well but comedic actors can easily slip into drama.  There are very few exceptions to this rule.  Meryl Streep comes to mind.  She can do either with equal ease.  But then again, she's Meryl Streep.

Brando was never successful at comedy.  DeNiro only slightly successful.  Mostly because he's quirky.  But certainly not inherently funny.  Pacino can be funny, but only INSIDE a dramatic structure.  Ed Norton seems to grasp both concepts.  Most watchable dramatic actors CAN be funny, but again, mostly inside a dramatic premise.  To be flat-out funny without the given premise and most dramatic actors flounder.  Comedic actors (Robin Williams, Jackie Gleason, Zero Mostel, etc.) simply adjust their timing a bit and easily slip into the right cadence and delivery.

And another thing.  Actors that are funny OFF stage mostly aren't funny ON stage.  It's kind of like taking the high school class clown and sticking him in a farce.  He's not funny.  Hundreds of thousands of directors through the course of history have made this deadly casting mistake.

Well, there you have it.  A quick and free dissertation on the nature of comedy.  I get a hundred bucks an hour usually for this type of information.

Mark Twain said, "Humor is based on exposition.  Comedy is based on surprise.  I'm a humorist."  That's a pretty nice bow to put on things.

See you tomorrow.