80-post 2: Gags

On Gags

Dan Hodge is playing Detective Fix in Around the World in 80 Days. It’s been great to watch him work on the gags and routines that are making up much of his performance, which is a kind of homage to John Cleese and Sellars’ Inspector Clouseau. I find myself in the unusual position of straight man to his clown for some of the play. It’s unusual because I am usually the clown. But as a straight man, I am more convinced than ever that the laughs generated by the clown work because he has a good straight man as a partner. In fact, much of what we call “comic timing” is the work of the straight man: the reaction shot, the take, the slow burn, the blank stare.

Dan rehearses the slipping up the stairs bit.

Another observation: the smallest physical gags take endless rehearsal. Dan does a tripping-on-the-steps routine which Aaron taught him and he practices it endlessly. Dan and I have developed several bits in our scenes early on, in which I play the British Consul. One involves stamping documents. Another involves a falling wallet. A third involves comically inappropriate touching. In each case, we have been polishing the sequence of tiny pearls that make up the of necklace of the gag. It’s an exercise in minutia and precision. In Italian, these would be lazzi. Fava said: “Comic acting is scientific” and I didn’t understand him. I do now.

Most of my comic work is an exercise in character and extremity. If an audience enjoys my performance, they will enjoy it in part for the same reasons they enjoyed the Tuna plays. I play 15 different characters in this play and “is that the same actor?!?!” is part of the joy. But also executing characters quickly which are both familiar to the audience, and have some truth in them. Familiar because part of comedy, I believe, is the celebration of characters and experiences that we are all familiar with. So the laugh of the audience is doing several things: it is celebrating the work of the actor, and it is binding the audience together in common recognition. Enjoying a comedy among an audience of strangers is the best tonic for loneliness that I know. (There’s a great scene in a Woody Allen movie – I forget which one – in which Allen, comically on the brink of suicide, saves himself by going to a Charlie Chaplin movie.) So I hope my characters remind you of someone – maybe of another performance you saw once. That’s part of the fun. Most of my characters are based on the work of other actors: David Niven, Denholm Eliot; or are inspired by movies (Dr. Strangelove) or TV (the Twit of The Year episode from Monte Python). Some are elaborations of voices I heard in my head while I was reading the play early on. Others are based on suggestions Aaron gave me during the first week of rehearsal.

Backstage scenes.

“Some truth”means that the best comic acting is rooted in something that might possibly be true. So the character retains some connection to reality. These elicit the greatest belly laughs, because the hit is closest to home. If we can imagine, somehow, that we might be in a situation like the comic actor, or that we might behave that way, or fantasize about behaving that way, or know someone who does, then our laughter has a cathartic release in it. If, on the other hand, the comic actor is divorced from reality entirely, or has lost connection with the world of the play, or is indulging in some kind of ostentatious exercise, then we may smile or chuckle, but that’s about it.

“Extremity” means that in at least two cases, I am pushing the boundary of truth right to the edge with some scenery-chewing characters. For this, the actor must rely on a director with good comic instincts to pull him back when he crosses over into random insanity. We are in good hands. Aaron began by saying he draws the line at “cheap laughs”. But as rehearsals progressed, we quickly realized that “cheap” is in the eye of the beholder. In one of his moments of disarming humility, Aaron admitted, “I guess ‘cheap’ means whatever I don’t think is funny.” Extreme choices ask the actor for enormous energy and invention, and a complete willingness to look like a total asshole. I happen to be good at this.

Greg Wood is playing Fogg, and you might argue that he is the real straight man in the play. But I think it’s more complicated than that. Firstly, Fogg is rarely involved in comic duets. But more than that, he is the man of action we must be invested in if the conceit of the title is to work. So he has to be sympathetic. He is more engine than straight man: the sun of romance and mystery that we – the satellites of yucks – revolve around. Greg is Philadelphia’s greatest leading man, in my humble opinion. He has that combination of dazzling good looks, quiet masculinity and self-effacing humor that all great leading men share: George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Cary Grant, Denzel Washington. He is finding moments of genuine pathos in the midst of all the gags, and is the exemplar of professionalism.

James Ijames is Passapartout, and some wonderful supporting characters. I have loved getting to know him. He is creating a Passapartout who is French African, with a wonderful lilting accent. He too is a kind of foil for the clowns, but he and Dan create an on-going comic duo which reminds me of comic duos I have seen in Pantos. He has a soft, genuine innocence which is endearing. But he is a kind of hybrid character, because he has moments of his own comedy too. Most of it lives in the ironic or amazed aside. But some of his comedy is the comedy of surprise and reversal: when this beautiful, gentle servant turns on a dime and does something completely unexpected. That’s all I’m going to say about that.

My view from backstage left.

Farah Bala is our beautiful Auoda, and supporting characters. She is in the unenviable position of being not only only the only woman in the cast, alone in her dressing room, but also the only out-of-towner, having come from New York. But she has dropped into our Philly camaraderie completely. We may all stay in her apartment tonight if we’re too exhausted to drive home in between 10 out of 12s. She is creating an exotic and innocent ingenue – perhaps the most thankless role in the play, having to be a straight man for the clowns and a love interest for Fogg. But she has found some surprising moments too, and because she grew up in India, she brings an authenticity to her role which is wonderful to watch, and to listen to. She gives me precise speech notes on my one Indian character. Working with her makes me want to see her in a role which gives her more to do.

On the way to rehearsal today, it occurred to me that this is the fourth Christmas season in a row I will be performing in a comedy. My wife Susan is having her first Christmas without a Panto, so for years, the two of us were on different stages making people we didn’t know laugh at Christmastime. Is there a connection between the birth of laughter and birth of salvation we celebrate? Doesn’t this season of light in the darkness contain the heroic clown, who sings of a beautiful life right before he falls in the snow? And what does the newborn babe do to us, if not make us smile?