Thursday, April 24, 2014

Without Fear and Selfishness, What would Happen To Comedy?

Years ago, so many, I was an intern with the Manhattan Comedy Club run by the smart and helpful Steve Kaplan. Illeana Douglas got her ass over there first, after we all graduated from the Neighborhood Playhouse School of Theater, and very kindly did her generous best to pull in a few of her fellow Reality-of-Doing-Every-Moment-Has-A-Meaning Alumni. It was one of those rigorous internships where you had to do script readings, take improv classes and lo' and behold, do a tech assignment (the main slave maneuver). Attendance was key. Many didn't make it. Illeana did not last the year, moving onto other things. Patricia Heaton came in two times, got cast on a TV series and  never looked back. I, of course, did the whole thing, dutifully, and even ran the sound board as my tech assignment for the future creator of Nurse Jackie and gave out gag canned goods on our Sunday Matinee Easter show. I can still here Linda Wallem saying to me, "Oh Boya, thanks for the Goya."

But back to my thing, here.

What Steve taught us--in addition to what everyone knows about improv: Never say NO to what someone puts forth--and a whole bunch of other things, was, Comedy is basically selfish. If you want to be funny, you have to want something and you have to want it selfishly and just go for it.

Easy enough. We were all young actors looking to own the world. We did this trick and the scenes ended up being funny. It's just funny when people are selfish.

Without this selfishness of the soul, comedy would hardly exist. Think of guys and gals just going for their venal needs, without thinking of the welfare of others, and watch the problems fly. It is so recognizable and so humorous as shit hits the fans, relationships fall apart, fights break out, and revenge rears its funny fangs.

One of the things we did, too, was character work. But most of us were bad at it. I was terrible at it. I did not want to slant my eyes and go, "No ticky, no laundry," or anything like that. This was the late 80's and everything was thankfully changing, so making fun of hackneyed stereotypes was not really the way to go.

And so today, I was thinking about that. How, there we were, a few decades ago, already moving away from silly accents and regional tropes, but today, all you have to do is open up every third or fourth issue of The New Yorker, and you can still find yourself a cartoon of a thug, which is usually a depiction of a Goombah, which basically says, "Southern Italian American criminal" --and everyone gets a good laugh.

I do not get upset when I see louche-bitchy gay cartoons in The New Yorker because usually the cartoon is making fun of the privilege this class of gays have. Or the animals. Everyone loves funny talking animals. The only ethnic group, really, The New Yorker continues to make fun of, stereotypically, is the Guinea Gangster. Can you imagine if they were still doing Step-and-Fetch-It type characters or doing little quips about Jews sitting on pots of money? No, that would not fly. Or an Irish drunk singing to himself? Or, even, a Swiss person being all neutral? Okay, I went too far.

But the privileged editors of The New Yorker let these thug imagines go into print.

But let's face it. The Goombah cartoons are often, on average, as funny as the other cartoons. They are tinged with dark wit about the meaninglessness of life in the face of death. They are in the similar camp as The Grim Reaper character who continues to rear his dead head.

Basically, without TYPES, you can't have humor. You just can't. If you don't have things collectively defined, then you don't create a collective understanding and then, usually, a twist on that understanding. So you need a little prejudice. Which is really just fear. Fear of the other. So for now, we let the Greasy Goombahs slide because we need them so we can hear them do something UN-Goombah-ish so we can have a twist and a laugh. But I bet not for much longer. That type has disappeared in reality. Or, maybe, The New Yorker is going to stick with it and then, too, bring back a tap dancing Buckwheat? Or a selfish Shylock?

Or maybe fat opera divas?

Or let's not stop there...children with learning disabilities. We're all afraid of that. Where are those cartoons?

Our fears continue. It is interesting to note what we allow ourselves, publicly and collectively, to make fun of.

Sort of makes you want to find out where the Staten Island Ferry is...and then you hear the guy with the big limp wrist over his head, sashaying, winking and exclaiming in a lispy high pitched lust cry, "Over here!"

No comments: