Monday, February 11, 2013

That's funny?

Humor is an elusive animal. It can be hard to find the right delivery or the right punchline. You can kill it if you think too hard about what's funny or if you have to explain too much to get the laugh. And conversely, laughter can multiply to the point of hysteria if the jokes and humor get going at just the right pace.

My sense of humor is pretty firmly rooted in the second grade classroom. Sorry, I spent many years amongst 7 and 8 year old for whom humor is their favorite language. The simplicity of their jokes and logic are unparalleled, pottymouth aside. The sheer pleasure kids get from being funny and making others laugh has a lesson for us. They are unself-conscious and just keep things rolling. In my classroom, the kids knew if a chuckle quickened into giggles, they could throw out something classic and my sides would heave with the best of the best of them. It still works.
     What goes Ha-Ha-Plop?
     Someone laughing their head off.

     Where did George Washington hid his armies?
     Up his sleevies.

And yet, if you anticipate a laugh too much, it can be extinguished. The simple joke falls flat. The sophisticate thinks you sound stupid for uttering it. But, if you manage to pull off some surprise, a good lilt of the voice and rise of the eyebrow,  the prize will come to you.

The Book Club Play is a comedy, and the lines run quickly and depend on the delivery to rile the audience.  It is not a play of jokes and smart retorts, and yet I find it extremely funny. I laughed outloud when I read the script at home, and I continue to chuckle throughout this process. At rehearsal, I have been watching how the actors play with intonation, speed, pauses, choreography, and small shifts of movement in order to get the right audience reaction to their hijinx and human foibles. The tarzan yell has been played silly, robust, sexual, playful and all of the above at once, each time with different effect. Physical humor like falling off a couch and throwing pillows occurs several times, by different characters in different ways: a  big gesture or small roll, wicked fast throw or playful flip. Some lines come fast and funny, spoken right through the intended laughter. At other points, actors hold and let the guffaws rise and fall.

But there is no audience! I find it amazing that they can rehearse a comedy with no one laughing in the room. It's like my second grader running through his jokes alone. That's not fun. We are at the halfway mark of the rehearsal period. Twelve down and 12 to go before an audience arrives. The first full run-through occurred this Sunday. I watched from the sidelines and couldn't help chuckling, although I felt almost embarrassed to be doing so. The rehearsal room is intentionally quiet except for the actors. But you are supposed to laugh during this play!

I found myself laughing most often as the character Ana spoke. This surprised me. She's not at all the "funny" character in the show. She's quite serious, unbelievably neurotic about her Book Club and her friends, and more and more high-strung as the play goes on. In fact, by Act II, my laughter at her lines felt far more  uncomfortable than humor should. How can I be laughing?  The tension builds in the book club meetings, emotions between friends run high, and then, boom, some little thing gets said. It's ha-ha-plop. A laugh rushes out of me, involuntarily almost. I have to release the emotion. I am so tied to the characters.  I hate spoilers so I'm not going to give examples, but it's fabulous how closely entwined deep emotion and humor are. It's also fabulous how these actors can be super serious and then whip out a doozy.

There are certainly lighter, humorous scenes. For instance, the pundits who appear in between scenes are charicatures of experts used by the documentary maker, and they are played by the cast members doubling their roles. It is great fun to see how the actors do a far different character - reserved, intellectual Will one moment, and Secret Service agent full of bravado the next, and unfocused, carefree Jen moves to the edge of the stage and with scarf and big eyeglasses becomes a smug, middle-aged literary agent. Very comedic performances, and again, I hate spoilers so I won't say more.
Opening night and the following weeks of performances will undoubtedly bring the humor to a new level. For one, there will be an audience!

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