What makes us laugh?

Open Forum

Comedy is a funny thing.  We often don't know why something strikes us as particularly hilarious.  But we do like to laugh, so we let ourselves go.  Other times, the source of the humor is all-too-obvious and it's unsettling, even disturbing, yet we may still join in the "fun" only to wonder if we are doing the right thing.  Such was the case for me in viewing  “A Thirties Affair” by Carl Williams, produced by Brave Community Theatre during Ag Days.

I want to preface some thoughts on the play by saying that I am a big fan of community theatre and the role it plays in bringing people together to share in a collective experience.  BCT is to be commended for doing this year after year for over 45 seasons, relying often on volunteers and a minimal budget.  I appreciate without reserve BCT's dedication to live performance and its potential for community enrichment.  With our now virtually unlimited ability to tap into electronic and digital entertainment sources of all kinds at all hours, it is no small feat to draw audiences to live events.

So, I admit to conflicted feelings about writing criticism of what it seemed was for many a fun night out with others in their own community.  But in my opinion, “A Thirties Affair” asked actors and thus the audience (as willing participants) to go too far in not only accepting but making fun of inappropriate, dare I say potentially abusive, physical contact between two human beings.  Sure, these human beings were playing characters, and, because Spring Valley is a small community and the band of players within it is also small, we know the individuals involved and we trust that they are behaving respectfully with one another.  Still, I have to ask, do we have to go to that length of risky physical contact, of reducing the female body (once again) to a comically proportioned ("over-endowed") prop to get a laugh?  The actors involved in the show were all adept enough to carry the comedy without the addition of this physical shtick, which, frankly, sent me out the door.

To be honest, it was not only this moment that I found problematic in the play.  The comedy relied on clichés (of marriage, of husbands, of wives, of loneliness), stereotypes (the garage-bound husband, the controlling wife, the dumb blond, the hapless soul-searcher) and careless banter about sensitive subjects (gay men, abused women, addiction) which make for, as promised before the show, "easy laughs."  These laughs come easy because the territory is familiar.  We understand stereotypes, so we know how to respond to them.  We all know how to laugh at the people who lose their glasses. But should we?  Such familiar territory, through constant use (and sometimes abuse), can become tired and worn and, yes, potentially offensive.

Just as we have come to accept that what we once called "picking on a kid" amounts to bullying that can have lifelong consequences, we as a society (if I can presume that much unity on the subject) are coming to articulate at least one thing which challenges a stereotype depicted in the play: that women's  bodies (or anyone's body for that matter) are not to be objectified, in other words to be reduced to inanimate things as opposed to a thinking beings.   Granted, this happens all the time in marketing and public entertainment.  So, why should it not be acceptable on our Spring Valley stage?  Well, we do not control the national media, but a small community theatre can control what it puts out there for public consumption.  When we know that body image and early sexualization are two big issues plaguing young people today, we can choose material that breaks into new territory by questioning stereotypes that damage integrity or by just not playing into them at all.

Now, I am not claiming moral high ground here.  As a theatre maker and producer, I know how hard it can be to choose material that is not only broadly appealing (entertaining!) but also timely and relevant, especially when people "just want to have a good time."  In directing “Pirates of Penzance” last year, I had a number of moral dilemmas with the outdated material.  We tried to address these in playful ways, cross-casting with gender, having characters openly question the text.  Some solutions worked better than others. I am sure I failed to redeem “Pirates” from the trenches of the 19th century on all counts.

Comedy may be a funny thing, but even more so it's a tricky thing.  It depends on common ground, on everybody understanding the joke.  And this can be time-, place- and culture-dependent.  Because we in the United States share less time together than when more of our work was community-bound, finding common ground has become more challenging.  So, we fall back on "easy," ubiquitous, market-driven stereotypes for laughs. 

But here's the thing, Brave Community Theatre 's audience is on common ground: Spring Valley.  And BCT is doing a good job of bringing us together. In the future, though, I would like to see them be brave enough to trust that this common ground is strong enough to break down damaging stereotypes and still make us laugh.


Eva Barr