Friday, January 19, 2007

Make 'Em Laugh

Now you could study Shakespeare and be quite elite.
And you can charm the critics and have nothin' to eat.
Just slip on a banana peel
The world's at your feet!
Make 'em laugh,
Make 'em laugh,
Make 'em laugh!

Cosmo - Singing in the Rain

Here's a story. Back in my first year of university I returned to my highschool to watch the student film festival they held annually. I went 'cause I still knew a lot of the students at the time. One of the guys did this great, really funny short film, and afterwards took questions. I raised my hand and said something to the effect of, "I have a question actually."

And someone behind me turned to his friend and whispered, "Ooh, this is going to be good."

You see, I had earned this reputation in my last year of highschool of being rather humorous, and the kid I guess remembered me. I felt the huge pressure suddenly as I asked my question. Fortunately, heck, is was pretty 'good'.

But here's the thing. Being funny? That's still a relatively new concept to me. One I am not sure I am altogether comfortable with yet.

I was never a really funny kid. At least that wasn't what I was known for. No class clown me. I was smart and I was talented and that was how I defined myself. I went to an arts school (mentioned below), and there there were truly funny kids. Kids who could get up on stage and do an improv and be brilliant. Knock your socks off, pee in your pants funny. I would get on stage, and this is no lie, the teacher would tell me I was boring (this was in grade 7).

I wasn't an improv actor. I was a Shakespearean actor. In my mind. At 12. And that served me well. I put myself in a nice little category and never attempted to stray.

In highschool I remained true to this belief system. And my teachers followed suit, casting me in typically serious roles. I did take an improv class, and while I wasn't funny I did learn I could be an okay straight man, which I quite enjoyed. So that was all good. And then . . . something odd happened.

The first odd thing that happened was I was cast in a scene in drama class as a dumb blond. Like I'm talking a really stereotypical dumb blond role. Something no one had ever cast me as ever. Namely because I wasn't blond. And also I had this reputation as a 'serious actress'. And you know what? I nailed it. I got laughs. And even more than that I learned how to get laughs from an audience, when to milk things, the give and take. It's was an amazing feeling really.

But the second thing was odder. The second thing was I wrote a play. It was a parody of the murder mystery genre called, "Elementary my good man" and it was put on as one of three shows at the school's one act play festival. And . . .

It was funny.

I didn't set out to write a funny play. I just had to write a play for my grade 12 playwriting class. But write a funny play I did. And not only sort of tee-hee humour, but actual punchline to a joke kind of comedy. It caused riotous laughter. It was freaking quotable. It was . . . dare I say it. . . witty.

How did this happen? I . . . have . . . no . . . idea . . .

And then the pressure was on. Suddenly I was known as 'clever' and 'funny', and the things coming out of my mouth made people laugh (namely the words coming out of my mouth, but let's be honest folk, stuff like chewed up food falling out of people's mouths is always good for a chuckle too).

Then I wrote my other play. And darn it! It was funny too. And then . . . oh dear . . .

And then I wrote my book.

And . . . well . . .

I hate to say it.


It's pretty amusing.

And this sucks the most because now, NOW, I have this sequel I'm writing and I have all this pressure to be funny and it's so darn hard to do that! You can't force the funny. Okay there are some tried, tested and true gags you can put in there now and then, but the real comedy comes to me in those elusive moments of inspiration. One of those moments that come so rarely and you have to work through the rough patches to get to.

And you know, it just isn't fair. I never asked to be funny! I was more than happy being an intellectual, quoting my Shakespeare, and letting others get their laughs by playing off me.

I can see why comedians are some of the most neurotic people on the planet. Because the more famous they become, the more people out there expect them to be hi-larious. Like poor Marlin in "Finding Nemo", who is always asked to tell a joke, just 'cause he's a clown fish.

Because it isn't being funny that sucks. Making people laugh is one of the greatest joys out there, and being able to do it with some regularity is really special.

No what sucks is the reputation that goes along with it. The expectations people have of you. Along with the desire to meet those expectations.

And to, when the time comes, live up to the whisper, "Ooh, this is going to be good."


ORION said...

It's all about expectations. (this is taking longer as friday nite we sit around and drink wine and I am forgetting which letters go to which keys...)
There is always pressure after number one for number two to be twice as good.
Take a deep breath and let it happen.

Lisa McMann said...

Go get 'em! This is a great story. I've written funny short stories, but none of my novels are what someone would consider 'funny'. It really *is* a lot of pressure to be funny/stay funny. But just keep looking at life in that skewed way and you'll be fine. :)

Thanks for stopping by my blog!


Holly Kennedy said...

So cool... Your UK agent, Darley Anderson, knows my NY agent, Liza Dawson. Small world, and all that great stuff.

I THOUGHT Liza had mentioned Darley's name and when I searched Publishers Marketplace, I found a deal they'd co-agented in 2004 (pasted below).

29 July, 2004
Rebecca Shaw's first three novels in the Barleybridge series, about the dramas of life in a veterinary practice set in an British country village, to Rachel Kahan at Crown for Three Rivers Press, by Liza Dawson at Liza Dawson Associates, co-agent with Darley Anderson.

Marjorie said...

Hi, Adrienne!

Don't worry. As you've already seen, comedians are a mentally unstable bunch, probably precisely because they're expected to be "on" all the time. I have this image of Robin Williams as being extremely difficult to live with, what with his manic humor and energy, but then I hear about his problems with drug and alcohol abuse, and I wonder about the pressure that kind of image does to your psyche.

Oops. Here I go trying to console you, and I end up musing about drug abuse and mental health. Sorry!


As for being cast as a dumb blonde despite your reputation for embracing the intellect, I've always found that playing dumb is one of the hardest things to do and requires not only good timing but also keen intelligence and self-awareness. One of my best friends and I once thought about making T-shirts with this slogan printed on the front: "It takes a certain amount of intelligence to be this dumb." And then it would have a picture of Bob Denver as Gilligan on the back. (Don't ask.)

Love love love the picture of Donald O'Connor!!!


adrienne said...

Thanks all for the support as ever!

Holly how cool! Though I don't know Darley all that well to be honest, I met him once. My agent at the agency is Julia Churchill, do you know of her too?

Marjorie, I loved being cast as a dumb blond and wish it would happen more often to be honest. It was just that it was a huge turning point in my life because up until then I had never been the funny character on stage, usually the subtly wry one. And yay Donald O'Connor! I have always adored him! And the "Make 'Em Laugh" routine is just fantastic.

ORION said...

Thanks for the link!!
Too cool...
Patricia Wood