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Bringing Comedy to Audiences Is No Laughing Matter

One Person's Comedy Is Another's Tragedy - Dutchovensupreme
One person’s comedy may be another’s tragedy. People don’t always laugh at the same things, but no serious performance student can ignore comedy these days.

Some performers claim they don’t do comedy, or are not funny on stage, and some training establishments frown on comedy. However, if one can be funny with friends, then a true performer can get a laugh out of an audience. It is hard work, unless a person is naturally gifted in the art of self-mocking willingness to endure the prat fall, of being the butt of the gag, of publicly suffering error, failure and defeat and of enjoying the tears of the clown.

Peter Ustinov, the late Russian raconteur who made a career on stage and screen playing pompous English gentry, described comedy as, “simply a funny way of being serious”.

No comic entertainer ever takes it lightly, but nurtures the gift for coaxing laughter from the crowd, as assiduously as any other artiste practises his or her art form.

The History of Stage Laughter

Clyde Park has posted on the web a theory that primitive man, sitting by a cave eating badly cooked meat and farting is not funny, but primitive man sitting by a cave eating badly cooked meat and farting with at least one other person present is funny. Thus, he argues, comedy was born.

Greek and later Roman theatres echoed to the sound of crowds laughing and crying, probably in equal measure, although many held the view that comedy was tragedy’s poor relation. After an intense period of mourning, like at a funeral, people often find themselves hysterically amused later, in relief and contrast, sharing the joys of being alive.

The symbols of the ancient Greek theatre were the pair of masks – the comic and the tragic. Globally, today, the iconic image represents theatre. In medieval times, the jester was as much a part of life as the cook, the swordsman and the blacksmith.

Like most genres of arts, now there is much more fusion, less definitive boundaries between the two apparent extremes of comic and tragic.

Shakespeare wrote plays that are tragedies (such as Othello, Romeo & Juliet, Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Titus Andronicus); and plays that are comedies (like Comedy of Errors, Two Gentlemen of Verona, Taming of the Shrew and Love’s Labours Lost). However, he also wrote comic scenes into tragedies and Measure for Measure and All’s Well That Ends Well which contain mixes of comedy and tragedy.

In Shakespearian times, a comedy meant a play with a happy ending, a lighter story than a tragedy or a history play. Nowadays, people think more of comedy as stand-up, satire, parody, circus clowning in live theatre, sit-com or sketch-comedy on TV or rom-com in the movies.

The 16th Century Italian art form commedia dell’arte out of which grew circus clowning, pantomime and English Punch and Judy succeeded because it contained the lifeblood of laughter: stereotypes like rogues, authority figures and sexy women, wrapped up in physical theatre and miming.

Poking fun or deliberately being offensive or political, has long been part of the repertoire of performance comedy. In Britain in the 1960s, That Was The Week That Was, the TV satirical programme paved the way for Spitting Image in the 1980s, where the famous and powerful were reduced to laughing stocks through latex puppet likenesses.

Comedy Is the Essence of All Performance

What makes people laugh ranges from nerves/embarrassment, to enjoying somebody else’s misery (what the Germans call schadenfreude), to being glad it isn’t them in a given situation, to recognising themselves in some farcical situation, to physical theatre/miming comedy to toilet humour, either verbal or physical.

Funny is the thing going on behind somebody; the slip on the banana peel, the tumble down the open hole; the mistaken identity; the secret revealed; the loss of control or authority; the clumsiness, awkwardness, embarrassment of life and relationships; and it is the exaggeration of mannerisms, characteristics, beliefs, values whether serious or absurd.

In his UK published book, Why Is That So Funny?, (Nick Hern Books, 2006), John Wright argues that comedy and tragedy are co-dependent. He says that as comedy can wreck the serious, deflate the arrogant, trivialise and debunk anything, it’s essential it is explored in theatre, developed and used to benefit society beyond the arena.

Wright claims comedy is a revolutionary force: live theatre is a tightrope act, and while people admire the skills and courage that go into the performance, many harbour a secret wish to see somebody fall, or ‘come a cropper’ in English.

Besides stand-up, there is alternative comedy, which particularly knocks the establishment and improvisational comedy which is usually done without preparation, in early commedia tradition. Impressionists have long been a favoured vehicle of satirising celebrities.

The film industry recognises within the broad genre of comedy film a number of sub-genres: gross-out, parody, screwball and slapstick, black comedy.

Laughter is, it is assumed, the best medicine. It is also as much as applause, the fix for performers.

First published on Suite 101, 30 May 2010.

Photo: One Person’s Comedy Is Another’s Tragedy – Dutchovensupreme

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