Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Make ‘Em Laugh

I am a huge fan of the Michael Kantor documentary that aired on PBS (and is now on DVD) Broadway: The American Musical. Kantor’s latest work is Make ‘Em Laugh, about the history of comedy in America, and it is currently making the rounds on PBS stations across the country. I just happened to catch the tail-end of one of the sections, and just like the Broadway documentary, I’m finding this one fascinating. I’m looking forward to getting to see the entire series on DVD (PBS has horrible reception in my area, and I don’t have cable).

I’m still not confident of what (if any) strengths I have as a writer of musicals, but I think my experience of growing up watching way too much television has actually helped. As a writer of scripts and plays, I can’t believe how fortunate I was to grow up watching I Love Lucy, The Honeymooners, Diff’rent Strokes, The Beverly Hillbillies, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Patty Duke Show, Father Knows Best, The Facts of Life, and The Andy Griffith Show (among many others). These are hilarious, brilliantly written comedies, and I actually got to grow up experiencing them.

When I was teaching acting, I realized that as a play director, I could direct a kid to be funny (which I did, quite successfully) but I could not teach him to be funny. When I had to revise my curriculum to fit state standards (the ones my state spent millions upon millions to implement before repealing them just a few years later—only one of the reasons congress needs to allow teachers to do the teaching), I decided to break down my units into different kinds of acting—a comedy scene, a dramatic scene, or something along those lines.

And I realized you can’t teach kids to be funny. As any writer or actor knows, the comedy of any given scene is dependent on at least two things, the rhythm of the comedy line (which includes wording, phrasing, situation, set-up, and character development) and execution. You can have a very funny play destroyed by a bad director or an inexperienced actor (think of a high school production you may have seen), and you can have a very funny actor bogged down by weak material (think Elaine Stritch in the movie Monster-in-Law or a very hard-working Chestor Gregory II in Tarzan on Broadway).

To remedy this, I tried showing them classic comedy bits and analyzing them. Yeah, it didn’t work so well (Who ever heard of anyone not laughing at a classic I Love Lucy scene? I did, when I showed them to my high school students that year.).

The ability to analyze is the key to anything challenging you may want to undertake. Kids who become billionaires from creating computers started out by taking them apart, reassembling them, trying to create something new. Those well-paid mechanics who forgot to put the oil cap back on my car learned to fix things by tinkering around with engines at a young age. I learned about writing and storytelling by experiencing it at a young age AND analyzing it. Just as a mechanic learns his way around an engine by getting in there and taking it apart, a writer learns by getting into stories and taking them apart to see how they work and why (or why not). It’s the same set of skills as a mechanic; it’s just less provable on a resume.

I’ve said this before, but I feel sorry for kids today who focus on the newer, not-so-funny sitcoms like Yes, Dear; According to Jim; The George Lopez Show; or That 70s Show. There’s a wealth of styles of comedy they are missing out on entirely because they don’t get the older stuff. I didn’t have seventy-five channels to choose from, so when Green Acres was on, it was either that or Taxi or The Munsters. How will the comedy writers of tomorrow learn what they need to know if they’re only learning from today?

If you’re a writer and aspire to write for Broadway, then run out and buy Broadway: The American Musical, and when you’re done with that, you could probably gain something by checking out Make ‘Em Laugh as well. After all, the ability to analyze is a key step in writing.

the Broadway Mouth
January 20, 2009

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