LIMITS OF COMEDY

In recent years it seems anything can be the subject of comedy—even on television, at least on cable. And, of course, much of the reality we find ourselves in richly deserves restorative mockery. But an experience I had in the 1990s suggests that some topics will—or should—always be off-limits to comedy.

For a couple of years, I wrote and performed a sketch-comedy act in New York with Myra, a friend and fellow writer. We played some comedy clubs and several branches of the New York Public Library. For a few weeks we filled in at an off-Broadway theater on the nights-off of their regular attraction, a popular lip-synch artist who performed in drag; the device he used to obscure his male traits was always hanging next to the mirror in the dressing room.

In our publicity we quoted the description of our act that appeared in the Village Voice: “Comedy laced with drama.” They picked up that phrase—which I had written—from our press release.

After either of us wrote the draft of a sketch, we would decide if it was worth rehearsing. Each sketch, naturally, had to involve one female and one male character. We explored romantic situations and the relations between parent and child. Myra played my mother in our version of Swan Lake—which became, in our fractured German, Shvan Lake. (The prince tells his mother he wants to marry the enchanted Shvan Qveen, and he wants the spell broken—not for her to stay human, but so she can stay a shvan. You had to see it.)

In our perversity we did a version of Our Town skewering Emily’s very moving vision of how people do not appreciate life. Our method was the time-honored one of taking a situation in pop culture or contemporary society, or an old tale, and distorting some aspect of it to draw the action to an absurd conclusion.

In one of our work sessions, I mentioned something that had occurred to me in regard to Anne Frank, whose story I knew mainly through the dramatization of her diary in which I’d once acted. “What if she’d been like an American teenager?” I asked. “How would they get her to go into hiding?”

Myra liked this premise and said she wanted to write the sketch. We knew the concept was outrageous, but Myra had the excuse that her own father had been a refugee from Hitler’s Europe.

Anyone could identify the sketch we rehearsed with the historic teenager because of the fame of the book, play, and movie. In our version, she asks about the things she would have to give up, like friends, lipstick, and strudel. At the end, the strong-willed, selfish—and very American—teenager flatly refuses. I know it doesn’t sound funny, but we counted on the appalling nature of the concept to make it work.

We decided to add it to our next performance, which happened to be at a public-library branch on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, a neighborhood known for its sophisticated, often Jewish, population. The building included a cozy performance space with a real stage. We had a good audience that evening, appreciative of our literate comedy and mild social commentary.

As we got to the point in the program where we’d slotted in the sketch, I whispered to Myra, “We can’t do it.”

Myra was insistent; she didn’t like last-minute changes. “We have to,” she said.

“We can’t,” I said.

We couldn’t go on with this argument on stage, so we started the sketch.

As soon as the audience realized what the sketch was about, the room became totally silent. Horribly silent. They were obviously aghast. As we went on, the silence—deeper than merely the absence of laughter—got even horribler.

They didn’t applaud at the end of the sketch—at its clever, punchy ending—but we’d have been crazy to expect them to. It was only after the next two or three sketches that they were willing to resume laughing at anything we did or said.

As Myra and I went on with the act in the following months, we were sane enough to never do that sketch again. Then over coffee one night, after a performance for a handful of people at a dismal comedy club (where at least the management didn’t treat us like garbage, which sometimes happened), we decided we weren’t young enough or desperate enough to go on in the comedy business. So our run was over.

Our agreement from the beginning was that whoever did the actual writing of a sketch would own it. Over the years I’ve made use of several of the sketches I wrote, in print or in performances by various actors. I’ve lost touch with Myra over the years, so I don’t know if she’s done anything with that unfortunate sketch.

But I really doubt it.

NOTE: I wasn’t sure I ought to include this story, with its record of indulging in really bad taste, on this blog. Then I saw a fascinating profile of Philip Roth on PBS, reminding us of his early principle of not censoring oneself. The program seemed, though, oddly free of criticism of his work or character by other people. He must have had final say on what was included in the program, and all the negative reaction to his work was reported by Roth himself.

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