We Had a Convening About Comedy in Theatre and People Couldn’t Stop Farting

Do you remember laughing at something so hard that it made you pee a little? Do you remember having an intense emotional release triggered through seeing something funny? What about experiencing a moment where comedy has disoriented and destabilized you and/or a culture, or where you have felt how sharp and precise comedy strikes at the heart of societal and personal problems? Do you remember how healing laughter can be? Do you remember joy?

You probably do. You may even have a memory from last night.

But the American theatre has forgotten.

According to a recent (fake) study (not) conducted by Todd London, Theatre in America has been ranked as the third most unfunny art form in the country. Decision makers, at least the ones not interested in profit, have worked it into their heads that audiences are not interested in having a good time, or making vocal reactions to art, or enjoying a simultaneous intellectual, visceral and emotional connection to the show they’re watching. Seriously, what is with all this drama?!

According to a recent (fake) study (not) conducted by Todd London, Theatre in America has been ranked as the third most unfunny art form in the country.

Don’t get me wrong. I “love” drama. I love being really serious about something and being all #important. And there’s nothing more fun than going to a live event where the audience, you know, just sits there. Silent. “Listening.” Just like you can at home watching one of those dramas on TV. But my point is, comedy is better. And even if that’s not true, it is definitely true that there needs to be more, new, diverse contemporary comedies on our stages and more support for its development from the ground up. Comedy is powerful, needed, wanted and can, god forbid, be really fun, too! 

On 17 and 18 October, thanks to the support of my National Playwright Residency Program grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, a small, humble, non-definitive/non-authoritative/but-seriously-awesome group of comedy theatremakers (Dustin Chinn, Jon Kern, Julie Felise Dubiner, Karen Zacarías, Lila Rose Kaplan, Rose Oser, Sean Daniels, and Wendy MacLeod; dubbed “The League of Elite Thespian Humorists”) gathered at HowlRound to talk about comedy and how to get more comedy* on our stages. People couldn’t stop farting.

group photo of convening participants

Comedy Convening participants. Photo by Blair Nodelman. 

Here are some highlights of things we talked about. I’ve tried to make this sassy in the hopes that you’ll keep reading it.

(*by “more comedy” I’m not talking about “more comedies from England.” Especially Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s comedies haven’t been funny for several hundred years. Discuss. #theresnothingtodiscuss) 

First, We Made a Shrine 

Every good convening starts with a shrine. Participants placed ribbons and sock puppets and cologne and chickens and other miscellany that symbolized their particular connection to comedy. We heard stories of how comedy has subverted, hurt, healed, released, destroyed, rebelled, connected, and been grossly misinterpreted.

This led us to our first question of the meeting:

Why Comedy?

“Comedy is dangerous. Comedy is beautiful. Comedy provides a much needed release. Comedy connects us in times of profound disconnect.”—Lila Rose Kaplan

Here are some reasons people love comedy:

  • The audience makes noise. The connection between the audience and play is like an electric circuit. Laughing in a group forces vulnerability. When successful, it can unify.
  • It is transgressive. It can transform powerful things into powerless fools.
  • It is not universal. It is subjective. It is not uniform. The more specific something is to a certain community, the funnier it can be.
  • For some of us, it just happens to be our default point of view on the world.
  • It often addresses and deals with enormous topics from a sideways angle, catching you by surprise.
  • It can be a strong form of defense. It can also inflict pain. It can make you feel gooey.
  • It can trigger empathy when you least expect it.
  • Audiences crave comedy! And, as comedy makers, we don’t think we’re “selling out” by giving it to them. Unless, of course, you mean that comedies tend to sell out the house.

We all agreed that the most important thing about comedy was—whoops we’re out of time. On to the next topic.

Comedy Craft

“When we sit down to write a play, do we know how funny it’s going to be?” That was the question that launched a solid hour of nerding out on how we craft our work. Here are three take-homes:

The genre is broad and diverse and only knowing that something is a “comedy” is about as helpful as knowing that the animal you can feel breathing on your face while you’re sleeping in the woods is a mammal.

We were all really different. Some of us came from improv/standup/sketch backgrounds. Others didn’t even realize we were writing comedies until we were informed by a dramaturg. Some of us write jokes. Some of us lean away from that impulse and find humor in other ways, including one of us just eating soup (was it soup, Jon?) for an entire open-mic standup set. We are not all using “the theatrical play” as our initial model. There are great comedy traditions that come from our cultural backgrounds and our personal histories which greatly inform what we think is funny (My German heritage, for example, leads me to write lots of comedies about hopelessness, death, and starch. And my gay identity leads me to write a lot of comedies about anuses.).

[There] was a lack of a running definition of what makes a play a comedy. Our differing standards and aesthetics are generational, informed by relationships to popular culture, technology and training. Some attendees and the keynote made an appeal to the classical definition a la Aristophanes, yet I can’t remember a contemporary non-musical/parody play in recent memory that had a ‘happy’ ending.—Dustin Chinn

two men sitting and talking, one gesturing with his hands

Comedy Convening participants. Photo by Blair Nodelman. 

The craft of making it can be strenuous and meticulous.

There is a certain type of mechanical engineering and mathematics that is required when writing comedy. There is a certain point in the process where it is like writing music or orchestration for many of us.

We are at the mercy of our audience.

God damn them! We love them! The audience is comedy’s mood-swinging lover. We’re all trying to figure out how to manipulate them, delight them, infuriate them, let them in, and give them permission to laugh. Many of us like getting audience involved pretty early in the development process.

“Jokes. Funny. Comedy. These are three different concepts blended and blurred by subjectivity. 'Comedy' can lack jokes and be funny, or have jokes and lack funny. 'Jokes' can be nestled in drama as much as comedy as much as a mix of both. 'Funny' can be strange or comforting or provoking or nihilistic. More than style, what matters is being moved, being made to feel, and thus transformed from intellect into emotion.”—Jon Kern

After crafting away, we took a little break to fart, and then broached the question,

Is/How Is The Current Moment In Time/Political Climate Affecting Comedy?

This was perhaps our most non-funny conversation. Suffice to say, the current moment in time is affecting comedy and how we are approaching it. Comedy is often intended to provoke, satirize, even make an audience uncomfortable, and thusly is particularly susceptible to eliciting strong reactions. Some of us have felt and/or worry that our work, or its intent, have been and/or will be misinterpreted. Some of us have experienced the swift judgment of social media call-out culture from various ends of the political spectrum. Also, some of us are actively questioning what stories we have the right to tell.

On the more positive end, many found hope by laughing in the face of all the terrible awful, and testified to the power of comedy to fight evil. It felt like most of us are very eager to keep punching up.

A room full of funny playwrights grew serious when we discussed issues of representation and we had more questions than answers. Can an able-bodied playwright write a disabled character? What if they’re working with a disabled actor on the project? Can a playwright of color write characters of a different race or ethnicity? Does research make up for the gaps in firsthand experience? Do we have to limit our characters to those that align with our own identities? Do white playwrights or male playwrights have to stop writing altogether to make room for other voices? Is there room for social justice comedies?—Wendy MacLeod 

And then we drank, ate, slept, and gathered the next morning, alongside some fabulous Boston theatre people to discuss

What Is The Current State Of Comedies in American Theatre?

There is a bias against comedy in the American Theatre (and perhaps among snooty elites, in general.)

This manifests as:

  • A skepticism that comedy is capable of being “important” or about something. (Whereas Long Day’s Journey Into Night is “about” four hours of my life I’ll never get back.)
  • Theatres not willing to take a risk in commissioning/programming an untested comic work as easily as one would commission an “important” drama. (Um, we’re theatre people. None of what we do is important. Except for Hamilton.)
  • Not trusting silliness. (Unless it’s enhanced by a commercial producer)
  • Not valuing joy, healing, or pleasure felt by an audience (other than getting them drunk at the fundraising gala).
  • And finally, by labeling comedies as “sit-commy.” We find it dismissive and meaningless, an easy way to diminish the effect of the work by saying that it doesn’t belong on stage, that it’s not “theatrical.” What is more theatrical than a group of strangers laughing together because of the live energy from a performer? Do you know what’s really too sit-commy? Your life.

We all agreed this bias might be largely due to too many artistic directors with no sense of humor. (Though I suppose the fundraising process is enough to suck the happiness out of anyone.) But seriously, is it possible that the “deciders” maybe feel less confident about their judgment in what is a good comedy, especially if it does not come attached with a previously glowing review or recommendation?

I find myself wondering why (Generalizations again. Sorry, not sorry.) we don’t like our audiences, or trust our audiences, or feel ok about giving our audiences joy or a point driven home with a laugh. And then we have the nerve to wonder why those audiences are dwindling. Over the course of my derailed career, comedies done well have sold better than depressing shows. There is room for both, to be sure (yes, and), but why is it that every season planning process I have been a part of reaches a climax of confusion as the season falling into focus is filled with all the sad, serious stories and we have to scramble to find a comedy or a musical or both. And then the depressing musicals get tossed in, and we leave no room for joy. Or a point driven home through metaphor and laughter.—Julie Dubiner

There is a lack of diversity in the comic voices that do get seen on our big stages

Theatres need to start letting different kinds of people be funny, celebrating the true breadth of hilarity that is being written, appreciating the new forms of it that are emerging, and allowing comedic work that speaks to diverse and/or new and or newly diverse audiences. More wild and delicious comedies by women and people of color, please! (There does not need to be a greater percentage of comedies from gay white men. I think we’re fine.) 

There is a lack of ground-up support in the form of commissions and grants for Comedy.

See “bias.” And it’s too bad, because they can be pretty fun to develop.

“We [Merrimack Repertory Theatre] only produce new work and we produce a lot of comedies, and yet even I tip toe around being overly proud of them because I’d like to be thought of as a real artistic director. But it’s time, time to admit loudly that joy is a core value of ours, and that we respect the true craft it takes to write a joke that can still be funny when the playwright isn’t there to explain it.”—Sean Daniels

Smaller, scrappier, cheaper companies are taking bigger risks with comedy and are the vanguards. Also there seems to be a division in America between the Improv and Sketch worlds and the Legit Theatre worlds. There doesn’t have to be.

See “duh.”

I guess I wonder if comedy even wants to hang out in serious places. Some smart person in the room said that comedy is meant to lower, to make something more accessible. Some other smart person in the room said that comedy is meant to upend institutions and question systems. For me, comedy lives in the world of improv and sketch and shitty theaters where people can have a drink or five. Some other-other smart person in the room told me that I'm in my twenties so I don't know I'm an alcoholic yet. Fair point. But more to the point, what do we want comedy to achieve, and where is the best place for comedy to do it?—Rose Oser

Comedy is particularly subjective and hard for theatre people to read

Tone is always a hard thing to convey, but perhaps particularly challenging in comedy. It’s possible the way plays get programmed (mostly by reading something off the page) inhibits their selection. Hot Tip: Many play-readers spoke to the power of a meaty author’s note, as well as the use of idiosyncratic stage directions, as a way to help a reader better understand the world that is being created.

We’re losing new creators and audience by not evolving what comedy is in theatre. Plus, it’s too expensive.

Comedy, as a form, is exploding in all other mediums. In terms of accessibility for creators to create and showcase their work, scrappy theatre is competing with even scrappier YouTube!

Finally, we got around to talking about 

Things We Could Do To Promote More Comedy In American Theatre

people talking and taking notes

Comedy Convening participants. Photo by Blair Nodelman. 

We brainstormed some things that could improve our station in the world. These range from “dreamy and large” to “low hanging fruit.” Such as

National Initiatives:

  • A festival or recently produced new comedies in a sexy place where everyone comes and has a great time?
  • A national comedy prize—perhaps named after a comedy legend.
  • A multi-million dollar national comedy commissioning program.           

Academic/Research projects

  • Publishing comedy anthologies (for example, Comedies from 9/11 to Obama.)
  • Taking a scholarly look at how comedy has evolved in modern theatre.
  • Conducting a study of LORT theatres and seeing how comedies are selling across the field.

A Kilroys-y List of Comedies?

  • Erm, maybe not. It seemed weird to some to create a genre-based curated list and worried it could be more of a barrier than an opening of a door.
  • Also, comedy can be super subjective. So, how could comedies be recommended to others that would help give a whif of their smell? Could their be a way to recommend comic work by matching the tastes of producers and and the flavor of comedies? (You know, like how Amazon continues to suggest that I might want to buy boar urine for hunting. I’m not kidding. It gives me hope that humans still have a chance.)

Building a Comedy Theatre Community

  • Hosted events for comedy writers to gather and work and share. Perhaps a book club, a meetup, mentorship, classes, collective anthology performances.
  • Creating a listserv or google group of comedically inclined theatremakers.

Writing some articles for HowlRound about it and hope to continue the conversation and grow the community and hope that will spur more comedy and development in our great nation.

I’m doing that right now! I just did. And there’s more to come! In the meantime, you can read reflections from other participants about the gathering.

The whole point of throwing this meeting together was to hopefully begin what could be an ongoing creative and field conversation about comedy as well as to put some ideas for getting more it out there into action. 

My summary barely accommodates all the thoughts raised over the two days, let alone all of the strong opinions and ideas many many other people have, like you.  

So let’s keeping talking about it. Let’s do something about it. Let’s Make American Theatre Funny Again! (Belated trigger warning about that last sentence.) 

Fart.

If you would like to be added to a email list of people interested in keeping this conversation going and taking some action about it, fill out this form.

group of smiling people

Comedy Convening participants. Photo by Blair Nodelman.

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I agree! The time for comedy has arrived! Especially since the [fake] Supreme Court of the United States recently [the 12th of Never] ruled that one cannot copyright the idea of someone choking to death on somebody else's vomit!

By which I mean to say that my contributor's copy of the new Smith & Kraus "2018 The Best Men's Stage Monologues" (edited by Lawrence Harbison) ( https://www.amazon.com/Best-Mens-Stage-Monologues-2018/dp/1575259265/ref=sr_1_1) just arrived, and it contains my comedy monologue "Dusting For Vomit"! (Taken from the opening of my ten-minute play of the same name.)

So if you're looking for a comic monologue to audition with that everyone else hasn't heard a million times already, you might want to check it out! (I think the book goes on sale in earnest January 1st.) Particularly if you're a final of "This is Spinal Tap" and/or of making (good-natured) fun of famous actors.  (C'mon, admit it, you know that you are... and that you do!)

(By the way, my monologue is easy to find: It's right next to a serious one by Tanya Saracho!)

Several of my other ten-minute plays (many available on the new play exchange) are comedies as well, so I'm glad to see that maybe the times are changing and they will finally get some love!  And after writing several full-length dramas, the current one I'm working on is a comedy!

https://newplayexchange.org/plays/3619/dusting-vomit  "A former movie star uses unusual methods of persuasion in his attempt to convince a one-time fellow stage actor to co-star in the upcoming blockbuster crime scene comedy "Dusting for Vomit". A biting satire that truly does 'go to eleven'!"