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.
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