Monday, March 28, 2011

Sometimes Laughs Lie Below the Surface of the pudding in Comedy

I was trying to explain to someone why a recent theatre piece we saw didn't really work as a comedy. Yes, it was meant to be funny but despite a few giggles, groans and that odd blowing sound people make, like a strangled sigh, the work didn't really get any honest belly laughs. Why?
I had to consider the material for a while until I could pin-point the issue. It was chocked full of local and pop cultural references. Sometimes an audience will acknowledge 'familiarity' with a laugh and sometimes they won't. I think the proof is in the pudding. The what? Well, what I mean is - if you lay something right out in the open on the surface, something familiar to people, of course they will get it. But is that funny? Well, no. However, if you make them work a little for it, think about it, dig into the pudding to uncover it, the laugh will be there.

Let me explain further. OK. Maybe stand up comedians simply use material that we all can relate to. Our acknowledgment or more specifically, our recognition of it, can make us laugh. We hear something within the joke that we identify with - "Oh I have done that!" etc..

Example: George Carlin was infamous for pointing out simple things we could relate to- such as a simple statement like: "Have you ever been wearing a hat for a while and then you take it off, but it feels like the hat is still on your head?" Or "Have you ever noticed that anybody driving slower than you is an idiot, and anyone going faster than you is a maniac?" - In essence, these are very simple observations that most of us can relate to and admit - "Yes! I have done that!"

But as simple as these observations are - each takes a moment to think about, we have to dig down a little further and uncover a memory of "wearing a hat" or calling someone an "idiot" while we were driving. Note: we had to think. We need to call up a mental image of ourselves or maybe someone else, and when we find a memory that allows us to recognize the image - we laugh. Why do we laugh? Well, maybe because we realize we are not the only one who "thought" about it. Wow! A whole room full of people have felt the phantom hat!

Now, if you merely sprinkle your dialogue with blanket references, such as mentioning a popular game show, or presidential candidate or local radio jingle, sure the audience may "relate" and/or "recognize" it but their "thinking" doesn't have to go very deep. It's nothing very personal, it's merely a recollection.

Here's another example of a cultural reference that I saw just recently in the film "Rango". Near the beginning of the movie, there is a traffic accident in which the chameleon, played by Johnny Depp is tossed through the air on a desert highway and for an instant, lands against the windshield of a car driven a character who appears to be Hunter S. Thompson. Why is that funny? Well, anyone who has read "Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas" will be familiar with the beginning passage where the character "Raoul Duke" is having vivid hallucinations as he drives through the desert. OK that's one level. Let's dig down in the pudding further - the film version of "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" had Johnny Depp starring as the character Raoul Duke. So, in essence we have a Johnny Depp character interacting with... yes, you guessed it, a Johnny Depp character. This very quick visual reference or joke works on two levels, but you had to processes a bit of mental thought and recognition to get it.

The bottom line is the reference will be funny if your audience has to think for a moment or to actually work to "get it". That is why the theatre piece we saw didn't invoke much laughter. Having one character say, "Wow, she's a real Sarah Palin" - doesn't do much. Just saying the name Sarah Palin isn't really funny. Maybe if the line were, "Wow, she would make a great Governor of Alaska!" - could work better. We would have to think and provide the reference for ourselves - in other words, do the work to make the joke.

So, simply throwing out references on the surface your dialogue, on top of your pudding, will lay there somewhat flat. Give the audience some spoons.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Upcoming Production of Play-Dead Murder Mysteries

The Galva High School Theater Department will present “Murder Me Always,” a play by Lee Mueller, on March 25-27 at the school.

Galva Illinois which is not too far from a place I spent a whole lot of time as a youth, that being - Galesburg Illinois. Stomping grounds of my Grandparents and birth place of my mother -not to mention Carl Sandburg. Also site of one of the Douglas-Lincoln debates at Knox College and as rumor has it - the city where the Marx Brothers created their infamous nicknames of Groucho, Chico, Harpo, Zeppo and Gummo! Apparently it was during a poker game.

Anyway, the play, details are as follows:

Murder Me Always - Galva High School

The story line features a wealthy banker and merchant, Mr. Swanwallow, who has invited many prestigious guests to his dinner party to celebrate the birthday of his dear friend, Widow Vanderventer. But not all of the guests were invited – and some of them seem very suspicious.

After a guest is suddenly murdered, the remaining dinner guests (and audience) must solve the mystery and find the murderer.

1020 North Center Avenue
Galva, Illinois 61434

Curtain times are 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 3 p.m. Sunday.

Admission is $5 for adults, $4 for kids. Dessert can be purchased at intermission for a $2 donation.

Also I received some great news from Daniel Ostrander in Nagoya-Shi, Aichi, Japan. Despite the recent events in that country The Nagoya Players planned production of "Murder Me Always" will go on as scheduled.

This is indeed a courageous decision of "show must go on". But truly there is nothing like a few hours of light hearted escapism to give your thoughts a rest. I can recall being a part of a comedy sketch/improv group that was scheduled to preform the night after the Challenger shuttle explosion. Although the crowd was sparse and there was a very tense gloomy cloud hanging over everyone's head, the show went on. I know it has been said before, but sometimes Laughther is the best medicine.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Review of "I'm Getting Murdered In The Morning" in Clifton,VA

Sold-Out Crowd Applauds Clifton Dinner Theater 'Whodunnit?'
By Elizabeth Vittori
-Fairfax Station Patch

If ticket-holders didn't know better, they might have thought they were crashing a real wedding reception at last night's sold-out performance of Lee Mueller's "I'm Getting Murdered in the Morning."
Thanks to Aida's Events, the usually spare Clifton Town Hall was transformed for Clifton Dinner Theater's inaugural performance, bedecked in lavender tulle and topiaries. The atmosphere was authentic, right down to the antique Bentley limousine parked in front.

Aside from its dedicated cast and crew, this very funny, even somewhat silly, murder mystery drew on recognizable references to the people and places that make the tiny town unique.

Several volunteers, including Julie Thompson, owner of the Clifton Wine Shop, tended bar during a very social cocktail hour. Act One opened as guests (audience members) were served dinner by a group of local students and Clifton residents Felicia Wright, Gail Gertner and Lisa Graine.

Disc Jockey (Sonarak "Rak" Ieng) announced to the guests that the spoiled bride and her cloddishly endearing groom (played by both Nichole Klocke de Rodriguez and David Barnett) have been delayed, due to a flat tire on the Fairfax County Parkway.

As guests awaited the not-so-happy couple's arrival, they became acquainted with their well-heeled host and hostess (Harold and Mildred Montegieu) and members of the bridal party, Benny and Bunny, played by Hilary Rinke and Terri Grimes Marin. An obvious veteran of community theater, Marin was particularly engaging in her role as the "know it all" Maid of Honor.

As traditional reception rituals played out, a "murder" occured, threatening to sully the Montiegieus' already compromised reputation. After all, this is their daughter's third (or is it her fourth?) trip down the aisle. Lorraine Hoppe of Fairfax Station is delightful as Mary Burger, the society reporter who steps in, along with "fact-finder" Parker (former Clifton Town Council Member "Brant" Baber) to solve the quizzical crime. Wayne Matten is dryly funny, if quiet, in his role of Alfonsius P. Buckley, the victim. Stand-out performances were given by Helen Rusnak in her role as Mildred, mother of the bride, and Jolanda Janczewski in her role as mother of the groom, Sheila Coquette.

The crime-solving process inevitably reveals many motives for Buckley's murder. It is the play's cataclysmically coincidental and hilarious solution that "made" this production and had guests falling out of their seats with laughter. Without spoiling the conclusion for tonight's "guests," suffice to say that in true murder mystery form, the killer is the very last person anyone would suspect.

Cast and crew concede the production was intentionally colloquial. That is where its charm lies. While one cast member admitted to missing more than one of his lines, he said fellow cast members were quick to adjust. "It's not just about the performance, it's about the whole community," Lorraine Hoppe added.

Producer Dianne Janczewski said the group is still considering future productions the group will tackle, and her pleasure in a job well done by all was evident last night.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Upcoming Production of Play-Dead Murder Mysteries

The Sentinel Upstage Players of North Florida Community College present “A Plot of Murder” on Friday, March 4 and Saturday, March 5 at 7 p.m. at NFCC’s Van H. Priest Auditorium. Tickets for this hilarious murder mystery are only $6 and available now – call (850) 973-9481 or email belld@nfcc.edu. Tickets will also be on sale at the door each night before the show.

The play begins at a Fleur Estates Neighborhood Association meeting; the scene of several uproars. Lou Braunhorst, friendly neighbor and conspiracy theorist, has information that the quiet streets of the neighborhood will soon be sold and re-zoned for commercial development. He also believes that Black Helicopters are buzzing his house and transmitting signals through his satellite dish that put a "liberal spin" on all his television programs. But Lou's concerns do have validity - the rezoning, not the helicopters.
There is a 'secret' real estate scheme to institute "Eminent Domain" over the subdivision to make way for a Family Fun Pizza Parlor and a Strip Mall. But Board President George Holmes' is having problems with his hearing aid and his young lovely wife Fannie Mae wants the whole "rezoning" matter ruled out of order and dropped. Councilman Ratcliff who knows more about the neighborhood 'take-over' than he wishes to reveal, can't stay around because he is participating as an Elvis Impersonator at Elvis-O-Rama and must leave. But before Elvis can leave the building, he turns up dead. Was it foul play or the ultimate Elvis impersonation? Special Secret Agent McManshon is quick to arrive and conduct an investigation. It seems Secret Agent McManshon knows a lot about this plot of murder, but unfortunately, it's a secret. For now…