I recently highlighted a very funny rendition of “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” and asked people to think about what makes it funny. Here are some of my thoughts (and I encourage you to read the thoughts of my readers from the original column) . . .
1. Okay, so this one is obvious. Obviously the concept is a hoot—Dame Judi Dench playing a character who is sixteen. Not only is she so far removed from that age, but the facial expression that earns her roles like Lady Catherine de Burgh in Pride and Prejudice is even farther removed from sixteen going on seventeen.
2. Dench takes the comedy bit a step further, however, by caricaturing the character. She makes coquettish hand gestures that are a step larger than what the actress playing a part of that nature might otherwise do. She highlights her actual age and expression through the caricature.
3. Dench also adds to the concept in her facial expression, which is deliberately flat. She makes head turns and movements which don’t exactly match her facial expressions, which are naturally hard-edged. You could imagine where a young girl playing the part might look flirtatious, shy, or intimidated, but instead, Dench just looks mean.
4. The chorography is done specifically simple and childlike, which magnifies the ridiculousness of the whole thing, including her hair and costume. There is also the intricacy of the motion of the boy touching her breast and her slapping him, which is also very clever.
I grew up watching the best in comedy. I feel sorry for kids today who find Yes, Dear or The George Lopez Show so hilarious (I’ve seen an episode or two of each, and I simply don’t find them that funny). Though I am thirty-one, I grew up watching The Carol Burnett Show, The Andy Griffith Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show, I Love Lucy, and The Honeymooners, not to mention classic comedies like Singin’ in the Rain, The Fuller Brush Man, The Parent Trap, and Thoroughly Modern Millie, all of which are television shows and movies with many burst out loud laughing moments (many comedies people tell me are hilarious these days really only have three or four good comedy bits). What is Drake and Josh and Hannah Montana to kids today was what Facts of Life and Diff’rent Strokes was to me and my siblings—there is no comparison in quality.
In order to write or direct comedy, you have to know comedy (and even then, it’s not easy). It’s something innate, something that you can only teach yourself. It’s not something born within you; it’s something you get from experiencing the best. I’ve had moments in plays I’ve directed where comedy bits or lines are laugh-worthy in rehearsal but when the audience comes, the actor gets nervous and changes an inflection, a volume level, or even a head turn. Something as simple as that can completely destroy a laugh line.
I guess I have no point to make, except perhaps if you are a writer or director (or aspiring to be one), surround yourself with great work. Don’t turn away because it’s old, in black and white, or has actors you don’t know. Expand beyond one type of comedy. Even if you hate Adam Sandler’s work, like I do, at least give it a try. See what you can learn.
the Broadway Mouth
August 20, 2008