Is Comedy Endangered?

Large Bay Area companies are not producing new comedies. Turns out, comedy is both risky and difficult.

The question seemed rhetorical at first. Playwright and Mime Troupe emerita Joan Holden fixed the audience with her owlish gaze and challenged them to name a new full-length, fully staged comedy that had been recently produced by a Bay Area theater. There was some shifting in seats as the attendees at the 27th annual Bay Area Playwrights Festival thought about it. Stand-up comic and writer Doug Holsclaw, one of the other panelists chosen to talk about subversion in comedy, craned his neck expectantly, as if expecting a flood of answers.

And there was silence.

A woman in the second row finally piped up with “They just did Noises Off [at the San Jose Rep], and it was a huge success. There’s a lot of comedy.”

Noises Off is twenty years old,” Holden and Holsclaw said virtually in tandem. And suddenly, a discussion that had meandered gently around other issues became intensely focused on the problems playwrights have getting their comic works staged. Surely it couldn’t be true. Don’t we see comedy all the time? Could the discussion merely have reflected the bias of four people getting hit by the same budgetary blues facing every artist in California? But it’s true, particularly in the large houses, and particularly in the East Bay.

Study recent season listings, and it becomes clear that large houses are not producing new comedies. Dramas with comic elements, sure. Time-tested comic works by playwrights such as Shakespeare, Ionesco, and Shaw, or adaptations of classic works such as Charles Mee’s loose adaptation of Aeschylus (Big Love) and the forthcoming Geoff Hoyle take on Georges Feydeau, For Better or Worse, yes. But for new, long-form, nonimprovisational comedy in the East Bay, audiences have to turn to the small or amateur houses.

Berkeley Rep managing director Susie Medak was incredulous when she heard this hypothesis, but as she sifted through the past two seasons she agreed that the Rep’s last new full-length comedy was Big Love — back in 2001. Only one of the seven shows in the new season will be a comedy. Between 2002 and 2004, three of the Aurora’s ten plays were comedies, and only one — Michael Frayn’s Alarms and Excursions — was remotely contemporary. Walnut Creek’s CenterRep does a little more comedy (it’s putting up Steve Martin’s Picasso at the Lapin Agile this season), and while CalShakes does a comedy or two a season, the company’s mandate pretty much ensures that the playwright has been in the ground for quite some time. The midsize Shotgun Players once again bucks the trend by not only doing new comedies, but doing farces (such as their production of Molière’s The Miser), which we virtually never see in the East Bay. Transparent did new comedies — and now it’s gone, after two and a half seasons.

Perhaps the dearth is not immediately obvious because we do have some very funny things going on. We’ve had Hanifah Walidah and Sia Amma bringing their racy, socially relevant pieces to the Black Box and La Peña. The Berkeley Rep has hosted several comic one-person shows in recent memory — notably Karen Finley’s The Distribution of Empathy, Josh Kornbluth’s Love and Taxes, Sarah Jones’ Surface Transit, and Mike Daisey’s 21 Dog Years. But other than the Jones piece, these shows tend to be second-stage shows; they fill in dead spaces and are minimalist in their staging.

We’re also up to our ears in comedy improv, both short- and long-form, as Robert Avila documented in the June 2 Bay Guardian. Two week-long improv festivals now grace the Bay Area, and the East Bay scene is blossoming with such groups as Pan Theater, Delta City Improv, East Bay Improv, and the veteran Oakland Playhouse Improv Troupe.

And then there are the community houses, which often seem to do nothing but comedies, or musicals, or some combination thereof, with a mystery thriller thrown in for good measure once a season. But the comedies all have stellar track records and are rarely very challenging.

New, full-blown comedies are risky and difficult. The risks are financial, the difficulties artistic. The result is that companies of all sizes report that getting comedies into their seasons is a major struggle. One-person shows and improv don’t raise the same issues. The former require far fewer actors, designers, and technicians. Meanwhile, improv often relies on non-Equity personnel, so it’s cheaper to stage and, as Zvaifler notes, tends to be local and audience-driven — making it less likely to offend than stand-up, and more immediately responsive to audiences than scripted plays.

It’s ironic that comedies, which really aren’t seen as “hard,” should be so difficult to come by. Theater directors identify a host of headaches inherent in comedy, usually starting with finding good stuff to present. Many admit that choosing the comedy is the hardest part of planning a season. “It’s always the hardest thing to find, and don’t ask me why,” laughs Playhouse West’s Lois Grandi, who recently moved her company from a thirty-seat storefront in Walnut Creek to the Knight 3 Stage in the Dean Lesher Center, with a concomitant and dramatic rise in operating costs. “It’s always a dilemma finding comedies that are going to be interesting and challenging for our audiences without putting them off.” Grandi went through seven hundred plays to put the current season together, and tells me that there’s a stack of fifteen plays on her desk right now as she tries to find the comedy that will round out next season. Even Impact Theatre’s Melissa Hillman, who insists that there is no lack of comedy in Bay Area theater, admits that “It’s not hard to find good new comedies — it’s hard to find good new comedies that are right for us. We get three hundred unsolicited submissions a year, yet I’m still tracking plays down.”

Some theaters get around the difficulty by writing their own, or cultivating playwrights. Impact is a good example, as are CentralWorks and the Shotgun Players. CentralWorks’ Zvaifler admits that she and her collaborator Gary Graves started making the occasional comedy because “The board asked, ‘Don’t you guys ever want to do something funny?'” But their writing process is no easier on the comedies than the dramas: recently thinking about developing a piece based on the classics, Zvaifler recounts saying to Graves, “‘How about Cassandra? A woman who can see the future and nobody believes her. Now that’s funny. ‘”

It’s hard for directors to admit that they’re influenced by their audiences’ preferences; nobody wants to be thought of as pandering to subscribers. But if you’re not selling tickets, you’re not paying actors, technicians, or rent, all valid concerns in the state’s current rough financial situation. “I look for something new and modern, but I’m always on the fence about turning off audiences,” Grandi admits. “It’s not that I’m afraid of shocking people. But I want to make sure I have an audience left.” Asked if Berkeley’s politically conscious audiences might be more sensitive to certain kinds of comedy, Berkeley Rep’s managing director Susie Medak suggests that local audiences are slightly more “bifurcated,” and more likely to stick with one sort of experience than try different ones. “People aren’t changing channels,” she says. “They venture out less to things that might make them uncomfortable.” She also notes that “comedy makes fun of, not just with. If people get very earnest, and everything is off-limits, that affects the situation.”

Grandi’s audience surprised her last season when she put up Only Kidding, a raw comedy by Jim Geoghan about stand-up comedians working the Catskills circuit. She’d become good friends with Geoghan — such good friends that he offered to bowdlerize Only Kidding for her. “He took it home and cut the 247 F-words or whatever it was to a ‘manageable’ fifteen. And the actors and I sat down and read it, and looked at each other, and said, ‘It’s not as funny.'” So Grandi went back to Geoghan and told him they would do it as originally written.

But Grandi was so nervous that she put up a warning sign in the lobby and cautioned audiences before the show that there would be some “adult language.” But if any of her largely older subscribers had a problem with the language, she didn’t hear about it. “That’s not adult language,” one patron teased her, “that’s teen language!”

During the Playwrights Foundation panel, both Holsclaw and Holden put some of the blame for theaters not taking risks on directors and actors, suggesting that some may have a hard time “hearing” the comedy in a play they’re reading. Grandi acknowledges that: “When I read a play, I have a very strong visual. I can see exactly how it should be. I’m sure that I’ve passed up some very good material because I couldn’t visualize it.” But she goes on to defend actors, noting, “Authors don’t always get the comedy out.”

Comedy unquestionably is hard to act and direct. “There are certain actors who are naturals,” Grandi says. “And then there are certain actors who, if they try to be funny, are going to be a disaster. Some great actors just aren’t funny.” CalShakes artistic director Jonathan Moscone agrees. “Doing comedy is extremely, extremely hard,” he says. “It’s so unforgiving. You have to hit the mark. When you’re doing a drama, you don’t have to hear a response to know it’s working. If someone’s trying to land a joke and it doesn’t get a laugh, it hasn’t succeeded. The actors must take everything seriously. The character is serious.” The director’s job is as hard as the actor’s. “You have to discipline yourself as a director not to think of the jokes at all. You have to ask the same questions you would if it were a drama.”

Theaters also fear the Rodney Dangerfield syndrome — that they won’t get no respect. Hillman voices the widely held sentiment that, as hard as comedy is, companies, directors, and actors fear that they will not be taken seriously. “There is a perception that if you focus on drama you’ll get media attention, grants, awards. People will see you as an important company. People perceive that Pinter or Shakespeare’s dramas and Beckett are more important than Shakespeare’s comedies or [Christopher] Durang or whatever. You look at the Oscars and see that comic actors don’t get the nomination; comic movies don’t get it.”

So if comedy is so hard to find and put on and be rewarded for, why bother with it at all? Because comedy is serious business, as cathartically necessary as a good drama. “All great comedies come from something deep,” Moscone says. “Comedies are ultimately celebrations of life — they may work through a dark theme, they may work through death, but they are ultimately about going on in the face of the paradox of life.” Hillman says Impact does so many comedies because “there’s an element of celebration and joy to what we do,” that is best expressed through comedy. “I believe that what we’re doing is serious and important. Every Impact Theater season is a love letter to my audience. I’m saying, ‘Look at this cool thing I found, it’s a gift to you.'”

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