Thursday, August 10, 2017

Give comedy its due

How’s this for a premise of a play or movie? A single-mother abandons her young son and her brother is forced to raise him. Her brother works in a soul-sucking job that he hates more than anything.

So he quits his job and tries to lead an unorthodox life, all the while teaching his young nephew the joys and absurdities of life. All the while, he and the boy become very attached to each other.

But this nonconformity lifestyle attracts the attention of social services who feel the unemployed man is providing an unhealthy environment and threatens to take the child away from him. So in order to keep the child the man has to not only get his job back but eat shit in the process.

Sounds like fun, doesn’t it?

It actually IS. It’s a comedy.

The play (and later movie) is called A THOUSAND CLOWNS. It was written by Herb Gardner. It also happens to be my all-time favorite play. It’s from the early ‘60s but practically everything in it is universal and relevant today.

I’m always rankled by “comedy” being considered a second-class citizen to drama. And the hairs on the back of my neck go up when I get a note that starts with, “Well, yeah it’s funny but…”

Do you know how hard it is to make something really funny?

And how much harder it is to make a dramatic point but through humor? How many movies use the crutch of soundtrack music to create the dramatic tone they wish to set? A jilted lover walks down rain slicked city streets late at night while “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning” by Sinatra plays. How much more difficult is it to create that same mood but with dialogue that isn’t on-the-nose dramatic?

Through comedy you can make dramatic points in a way that doesn’t seem off-putting. You can get tough points across easier and reach more people. Yes, it’s a tightrope act, but that’s why comedies should get more respect and not less.

As a writer I’m always searching for the truth. The best drama and the funniest comedy comes out of the truth. We laugh because we identify with it, we recognize it, we’ve experienced it ourselves. Comedy writers may not win Tonys but we do win hearts. And that’s good enough… although we also want Tonys. Or at least nominations.


Wally said...

I'm paraphrasing and can't remember the source, unfortunately, but they said the difference between comedy and drama is this:

You walk into a room of 10 people and tell a joke, 3 laugh hard, 1 chuckles, 2 smirk, and 4 have no reaction.

You walk into a room of 10 people and pull a gun, all 10 raise their hands and back up.

VincentS said...

I agree 100%, Ken. There are a few glimmers of hope, though. Certainly MASH proved that comedy could be respected, Billy Wilder got a lot of credit long before he "retired" and arguably the most revered artist in motion picture history is Charlie Chaplan.

Greg said...

I used to audition using a monologue from this play. It was about spending the day going to the movies.

Pat Reeder said...

I discovered the script of "A Thousand Clowns" in my high school library, and I think I actually read and reread it until the words started to fall off the pages. I recently recorded it off TCM, and watching it back after all these years, I still had entire scenes forever cemented into my memory, word for word. This, James Thurber and Robert Benchley, and "The Dick Van Dyke Show" were the things that resonated the most with me when I was a kid and made me want to write humor. Interesting to hear that it had the same effect on you. If it hadn't been for "A Thousand Clowns" and "The Dick Van Dyke Show," would there have been any comedy writers at all in the late 20th century?

Mark said...

Drama is supposed to be more realistic than comedy, but no drama seems real to me without a dose of comedy in it. Because real life is ridiculous and absurd.

Beetlejuice was right: "I've seen The Exorcist about 167 times, and it keeps getting funnier every single time I see it."

Kirk said...

I've seen the movie version and felt sorry for Robards having to run to catch that bus at the end. Maybe more so than if it had been a drama.

Scott said...

Comedies never get the credit they deserve.

You discussed the problem in theatre. I think it's amazing that Neil Simon gets the respect that he deserves, but even then, the critics are more divided than audiences.

In film, comedies seldom win awards. I joked with a friend that the only way a comedy would win best picture (Annie Hall) is if it went up against an even more reviled genre (Science fiction and Star Wars).

But now it's started to spread to television. Nearly all of the commentary about the current "golden age of television" is focused on dramas, ignoring the comparative dearth of great comedies.

VP81955 said...

And Wilder's inspiration? Ernst Lubitsch, as Billy would tell you.

Barry Rivadue said...

Gene Saks's scene is one of the most brilliantly written and played meltdowns in movie history.

Craig Gustafson said...

I first saw the movie "A Thousand Clowns" when I was in junior high. Loved it, but thought, "This is supposed to be a HAPPY ending?!" At that age, the idea of making sacrifices for the people you love hadn't established itself in my mind.

You're taught in writing class that there is a protagonist and an antagonist. Albert tells Murray that he (Albert) is not the villain Murray thinks he is. Nick says outright that he has a great time but it's really *not* a good environment for a child. When I grew older, I realized that Gardner was a genius -- Murray is the protagonist. And he's his own antagonist. The problem Murray has to overcome is Murray.

Arthur_121 said...

Brilliant movie, whose tone (comedy ... but...) is certainly informed by its casting and director, what a convergence of founding directors/players of seminal acting/performing institutions: Playhouse 90 (director Fred Coe, considered "patron saint" of golden age TV writers) Compass Players/Second City (Barbara Harris, via her husband as director of Compass Players, transition into Second City) Actors Studio (Martin Balsam, who won the supporting actor academy award for Thousand Clowns) and obviously Jason Robards was no slouch. I can't imagine today getting funding for a comedy, attached to a director the equivalent of the one responsible for the successful Playhouse 90 dramas. And Robards was hardly a leading man comedic type, even if he had been performing that role on broadway.

E. Yarber said...

Herb Gardner had been friends with New York radio personality Jean Shepherd, who was enraged by what he found to be a wholesale lifting of his on-air personality in "A Thousand Clowns." He felt the popularity of an ersatz Shepherd encroached on his own ambition to break into a wider audience.

One of the most striking similarities between Shepherd and Murray Burns comes in the scene of Murray's shouted defiance to his neighbors from the alley. This sounds very close to a Shepherd routine known as "Hurling Invective," in which he asked his listeners to put their radios to their windows and turn the sound all the way up until it seemed like Shep was screaming hysteria into the night from every building in the city. Later on, Paddy Chayefsky consciously redid the same prank with the "I'm Mad as Hell" scene in "Network.

William C Bonner said...

I've really enjoyed "The Carmichael Show" and am interested in your opinion. The reason I mention it here is that is seems to cover a lot of serious issues in a comedy show. I know that some of the issues it covers will very much date the show, but I'm enjoying it now.

NOT RACHEL said...

So impressed that, when I was dunb enough to buy a life-sized plush, zebra, I named it Dr. Morris Fishbein.

scottmc said...

William Daniels was in the original Broadway cast of A THOUSAND CLOWNS. The movie version was a rare example of casting; most of the original cast was in the movie. Earlier this year Daniels released his autobiography. He had a signing in New York. The line was around the block. Most were there because of Boy Meets World; some brought their replica car from Knight Rider. But to me he is 'John Adams' from 1776 and 'Albert' from 'A Thousand Clowns'. The chapters on the stage and movie versions are fantastic. He actually contributed one of the funnier moments in the play(and movie) because he worried they were thinking of cutting his big speech. I asked him to sign my copy of the DVD. Years ago I used the 'Is this someone with good news or money?' bit for my answering machine message.

Craig Gustafson said...

"The best drama and the funniest comedy comes out of the truth."

Sorry to keep mouthing off, but it's a great topic.

I was recently on a panel of local theater directors, and a director in the audience asked what to do about an actor who was playing everything as a caricature. A very broad character, and broadness was all that was showing up. The rest of the panel and I suggested she discuss what was going on with the character internally. What's his reality? My example was this:

When I directed "The Odd Couple," I had two *brilliant* comic actors for Oscar & Felix. I knew they could get the laughs. And that was a problem in the scene where Frances calls and doesn't want to talk to Felix.
FELIX: Why did she call?
OSCAR: She wants to know when you're coming over for your clothes... she wants to have the room repainted.

Oscar was snapping out the line with perfect comic timing. I said, "You can't do that. You've just spent half an hour talking this guy out of jumping out the window. This could send him right back out there."

So when it was in front of an audience, it went like this:
FELIX: Why did she call?
OSCAR: (SAD PAUSE WHILE HE TRIES TO FIND A NICE WAY TO SAY IT.) She wants to know when you're coming over for your clothes... she wants to have the room repainted.

Invariably, at both Oscar's attempt at kindness and the stricken look on Felix's face, during the laugh women in the audience let out a highly sympathetic moan. That sympathy is what is needed to put the show over. "The Odd Couple" doesn't work if it's just two guys sniping at each other. You have to believe that Oscar would invite Felix in the first place.

Humanity makes comedy easier, not harder.

cadavra said...

We did "A Thousand Clowns" in high school. I played Leo; everyone said it was perfect casting. I decided to take that as a compliment. I gave him a moderate Yiddish accent (the character's religion is never specified, though it's assumed he's Jewish) and got many of the biggest laughs of the show. So I guess they were right.

workplace innovator said...

Carrie Fisher once said "If my life wasn't funny then it would just be true And that is unacceptable." Here Herb Gardner has Murray say something similar (a few decades earlier): “Gee, if most things aren’t funny then they’re only exactly what they are. And then it’s just one long dental appointment interrupted occasionally by something exciting like waiting, or falling asleep.”

WendyT said...

One of my all-time favorite movies. And, from what I understand, the play's ending is different from the film's.