Thursday, June 07, 2018

Counting laughs

I have a good friend who is a terrific playwright. Mostly dramas. She writes very moving plays that usually touch on important social issues and often have gut-wrenching moments.

And I always kid her that she has it easy.

She doesn’t have to get laughs.

Meanwhile, she’s always needling me about counting laughs. Which I do.

It’s akin to self-torture, but I can’t help it. I don’t know whether it’s the curse of writing comedies or just my own neurosis, but I try to fill my plays with laughs. Underneath are always serious stories, characters are grappling with major issues, and the themes are weighty – but beyond that I want to hear near constant laughter.

A comedy should be FUNNY, damn it!

So it is nerve wracking because not every joke will work, and from night to night different lines get different reactions. Yet I want every joke to land, as unrealistic and utterly insane as that might be.

Meanwhile, for my friend to enjoy a performance of one of her plays, as long as people don’t text, snore, or walk out, she’s golden. The length of a comedy play expands if there’s a good laugh spread. Is there a sniffle spread that elongates dramatic plays?

I’m sure a lot of comedy playwrights say if their play got ten or fifteen good laughs they’re happy. Not me. I shoot for a few hundred.

And there are times I get them – times when everything is working just great, the air conditioning is on, the cast is on its game, and the audience is rocking. I can’t think of a greater high (that doesn’t involve stimulants or someone else’s consent).

So I shall continue to count and make myself unnecessarily nuts.  If only I could think of a good tragedy...

I'm in New York to see my one act play, WHEN ROMCOMS GO BAD as part of the Gallery Theatre Festival in Brooklyn this weekend.  Then next weekend I'm off to Grand Rapids, Michigan to see a production of my full-length play, OUR TIME.   If you're in either of those areas, stop by.  


E. Yarber said...

Count yourself lucky that you only have to keep track of the laughs. When I had to attend a performance of my last play after being shut out of rehearsals, it was like visiting a friend in the hospital after they'd suffered a terrible accident. I was keeping up a mental tally of TWO columns: the jokes that got a response and the moments that should have worked but were totally botched.

Good luck with YOUR plays! OUR TIME certainly keeps the audience going at a fast clip. I was impressed by the number of extra gags you stuffed into the bag between the two performances I attended.

VP81955 said...

"When Romcoms Go Bad" -- what a terrific title!

Best wishes at the festival; if it's a competition, I hope you get some sort of award. It's an exhilarating feeling.

I know, since I recently received one at the Die Laughing Film Festival, as my Colleen Cossitt was named Best Character in a Screenplay for my sci-fi/romcom "Stand Tall!"

Doug in Dallas said...

Any chance any of your plays will run in Dallas?

Covarr said...

"I’m sure a lot of comedy playwrights say if their play got ten or fifteen good laughs they’re happy."

If you're getting ten to fifteen decent laughs in a two hour play... that's roughly one every eight to twelve minutes. Every four to six minutes if you get that many in a one hour show. I've seen dramas that get more good laughs than that. If I were in that scenario, I'd take a good hard look at my script, because one of two things is happening:

1. There are not enough jokes. At that point, can you even claim it's a comedy? Might be better to try and sell it as a drama.
2. The jokes are falling flat. The script could be in need of a serious examination.

Mike Bloodworth said...

"Dying is easy. Comedy is hard." (Attributed to Edmond Gwenn) Don't just 'break a leg,' get a COMPOUND FRACTURE.

DBenson said...

One of Mark Twain's least favorite jokes: A humorist gets up before a small town crowd and starts his act. Silence. He plays a little broader. Silence. He starts to sweat. He begins pulling out all the stops. Silence. At the end the audience applauds pleasantly, and he staggers offstage, figuring his career is ended. Afterwards, everybody comes up to thank him for a hilarious show. "Why, it was all we could do to keep from laughing out loud!"

Pat Reeder said...

This definitely rings a bell with me. I remember when I was a little kid, I was baffled by why my parents watched dramatic TV programs. I honestly couldn't understand why anyone would want to watch someone that didn't have laughs in it. To me, a drama was just a comedy without any jokes, and I could not see the point of that (today, of course, comedies without any jokes are known as "Best Comedy Emmy Winners.")

When I discovered the Marx Brothers (still remember the first film I ever saw was "Monkey Business"), it was a mind-blowing revelation. I'd finally found the perfect form of entertainment, where every line and action was hilarious. Seeing "Duck Soup" for the first time was for me like what shooting heroin for the first time must've been to Kurt Cobain. I think it was a sign from God that I was born to be a comedy writer.

James said...

I have Arnold Auerbach's memoir. He was a radio and early TV comedy writer.

He told an anecdote about working for his first boss in radio, the long forgotten David Freedman. Early on, he was given the job of clocking scripts. He'd take the script home and listen to the show on the radio and he'd follow along and grade the laughs for size and duration. 5+ was a big laugh and got applause. 3s were so-so. Zeroes meant you only heard someone cough in the back row.

Auerbach won an Emmy writing for Phil Silvers. Clocking scripts may have helped.

Rashad Khan said...

You know the old saying "you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar." Well, when it comes to provoking audiences into really thinking about an issue, and maybe forcing them to see it in ways they hadn't thought of before, I believe you can get 'em to do just that more with a comedy than you can with a drama or tragedy. In a piece that falls into the latter category, it's like they know going in to expect to be enlightened or to have their views challenged, so they throw up the old walls beforehand; and as a result, nothing gets shared, or learned. On the other hand, with a comedy, the more progressive ideas at least get to sneak in through the proverbial back door; and it's only afterward, when the audience is finished laughing, that they realize what's been going on the whole time.

Man, I love it when good, funny writing can be like that.