Write Something Funny

Why Comedy is Vital to the Future of Theatre

There is something wonderful about a theatre full of laughter.

I’ve experienced moments of tragedy as an audience member so tense that you would shush a pin for dropping, have been enraptured by spectacle storytelling, and have had my personal values challenged by deep intellectual pieces that sit with me for weeks.

But there is something different about a theatre full of laughter.

The build, the release, and the way an audience becomes a community of people willing to believe the world is a bit less scary than they know it to be, if only for just a set-up and punchline.

In my experience as a professional playwright, literary manager, and comedian, comedy as an art form is often treated with a kind of “less than” mentality by the theatre world. It’s fine and good for a pallet cleanser, but “real art” is a proper drama.

I worry, though, that in the modern theatrical landscape, great comedies are becoming harder to find. I am, of course, aware of the incredible critical and commercial success of Broadway hits like The Book of Mormon, A Gentlemen’s Guide to Love and Murder, and Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. But Broadway is Broadway, and though these shows can tour and be produced by large regional theatres, it’s inarguably becoming difficult to find modern, contemporary comedies that fit a smaller theatre’s mission, production requirements, and artistic expectations.

On paper, this doesn’t make any sense. We’re in the midst of a multi-medium comedy boom, and with theatres worrying about their patron demographics increasingly trending older it seems natural that they would look to capture the millennial audiences that have become comedy’s main consumer. Furthermore, great comedies provide more artistic variation in a theatre’s season, and are often easier to market to new or non-traditional theatre audiences.

But comedy writers don’t gravitate towards the theatre in 2016. The rise of YouTube and the explosion of web series have allowed comedians to circumvent an often years-long development processes in favor of creating media ready for instant consumption.

Comedy theatres and schools like The Second City, iO, and Upright Citizens Brigade are viewed as stepping stones to getting television writing jobs, and the vast majority of comedy writers will tell you about being bit by the comedy bug after watching a movie, television show, or stand-up special. I have yet to meet a young comedian who took up improv and sketch classes after reading The Importance of Being Earnest (though I can still #dream).

But the disconnect between many young comedy writers and the theatre also has to do with the attitude many theatre professionals themselves take towards comedy.

In my experience as a professional playwright, literary manager, and comedian, comedy as an art form is often treated with a kind of “less than” mentality by the theatre world. It’s fine and good for a palate cleanser, but “real art” is a proper drama—one that deals with contemporary issues, builds to great moments of honesty and character reveal, and, just for kicks, throws in a familial relationship that serves as a contemporary microcosm for a larger societal tension or issue.

Comedy, they’ll say, is meant to entertain, not challenge.

The problem is that this archaic viewpoint doesn’t apply to comedy in its modern form. Post-alt comedy, through the recent work of Jon Stewart, Key and Peele, Amy Schumer, Louis C.K., John Oliver, and countless others has proven that mainstream humor can be socially aware, strikingly honest, and effectively introspective. Yet plays that defy the theatre’s expectations of what a comedy can be—that provide biting social satire or ground themselves in genuine and real human dilemmas (or both)—are viewed as exceptions, rather than sought out as the rule. In reality, great humor, just like great theatre, is about real people, and gives us the chance to hold a mirror up to ourselves and give ourselves hope.

an actor an an actress looking out into the audience
Kate Braun and Ken Ferrell in Bloomington Playwrights Project's 2014 production of Kalamazoo by Michelle Kholos Brooks and Kelly Younger. Photo by Matthew Levandoski.

Yet there is a seeming ignorance to the understanding that comedy itself is a learned craft that can be taught alongside traditional theatre education. Creating a great comedic play involves more than just knowing how to write a great drama with some jokes, and to say comedy is just about jokes is like saying tragedy is just about someone dying at the end. Comedy is about timing and character motivations, certainly, but it’s also about contextual construct understandings in your scene, subsequent construct breaking via believably incongruous focus shifts meant to surprise, and pointing out what is unseen but logical to audience members, all balanced with the expectations of the audience themselves.

Principles of humor like these and others are rarely, if ever, taught to students learning about the dramatic structure of plays, which means that playwrights who wish to venture into the realm of comedy are often left without knowledge of why things are funny in the first place—forcing them to rely on creating plot points that seem funny, rather than allowing the humor to flow naturally from the reality, constructs, or characters they’ve created.

I don’t presume to believe that comedy is some sort of theatrical “saving grace” and it is certainly worth conceding both that great new comedies do exist and that the American theatre is bustling with new and exciting voices already. My point is simply that comedy in its modern form deserves a more substantive place in the modern theatrical landscape, and that perhaps a shift in attitude on both sides can bridge the gap between the two worlds.

Perhaps a literary manager can see development possibility in a seemingly light comedy’s potential to be more than just frivolous. Perhaps a biting satire could use a consulting comedian’s touch to help veil the message in more well-rounded wit. And perhaps theatre professionals can learn from the way in which comedy has reinvented itself and utilize it to improve artistic diversity in their seasons, reach new audiences, and sustain their product for years to come.

And as a special note to young comedy writers: don’t fear the theatre. It is a world that will push you to be a better writer and performer, a more critical thinker, and will give you a voice you never knew you had.

And, if nothing else, it’s worth it just to hear that theatre full of laughter.

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Hank, what a terrific read with cutting observations. There is nothing like laughter to illuminate the true nature of humanity.

HAND OF GOD?BARBEQUE?BOOTY CANDY?GEORGIA MCBRIDE?our own PERFECT ARRANGEMENT?

I find today's new plays rich with the comic spirit.

Smart comedies are greatly needed in the American theatre. Writers who can explore ideas through comedy are more likely to have their voices and ideas really heard and absorbed by audiences. If you can get someone to laugh about it, they will also think about it. I program a season every year and am truly desperate for comedies and comedy-dramas that look at contemporary life and culture. Especially comedies written by women and African-Americans that are for and about communities outside of NYC. If we want to fill our theatres and make them relevant to larger, younger and more diverse audience, comedy is a tool we need. Playwright training programs - teach your students those comedy skills and encourage them to work that muscle. Improv comedians - try playwriting. Playwrights - make me laugh at the world so I can see it in a new light.

I pick a season every year. Let's face it, good comedies are very hard to find. I agree with the idea of community coming together and filling the theatre with laughter and joy. I even agree with, of course, including comedies in a season. However, a good comedy that plays well is very difficult to find. Btw, our older demographic is NOT the demographic that likes comedies the best. Just the opposite. The last sentence sort of depletes the argument that comedies are seen as a lesser art form. The case made in this article did not speak to me very well as an artist. And the last line sort of sums up why: "And, if nothing else, it’s worth it just to hear that theatre full of laughter. -"

Hey, Lauren --

We got one for ya: Assisted Living: The Musical. Not a parody show, flexible cast from 2 to 18, unit set, flexible band from piano to eight musicians. It's not a parody show (a la Menopause), it has no F-bombs and no Depends jokes. Fun, funny, celebration of aging. Steele Spring Stage Rights is the publisher. Enjoy!