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Frequently Asked Questions
Q & A #2
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1. Why, with your obvious grasp on tragedy, did you decide to write works of comedy?
A slightly pretentious answer might be to say I didn’t choose comedy, comedy chose me.
I’m not usually funny in person (unless I’ve gotten very, very relaxed with a person). I do think my parents and extended family all had senses of humor.
And I think my early theatre experiences of seeing musical comedies (which my mother loved) sort of primed me for thinking comedically. Abe Burrows and Frank Loesser’s “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” (which won the Pulitzer Prize, an unusual thing for a musical) was written and designed in a cartoon-ish style, and made fun of the business world. They sold “wickets”, whatever they were. The main character rose to the top out of sheer manipulation. The main executives went ga-ga over gorgeous secretaries, etc. It was lively and fun (and Robert Morse was great in it), and I think it influenced me a lot.
There was a lot of sadness in my family so theoretically I could also have written sad, sad dramas… but I just wasn’t drawn to it. I like to laugh. And even though shy, I have a very pronounced loud laugh. (I have a friend, a funny writer, whose mother would always shush him when he laughed at a play or movie and would say disapprovingly, “Hey, you can enjoy something without being silly about it.” I recently read that Jay Leno had just such a mother. I didn’t though. My mother had a bubbling sense of humor and liked to laugh and make people laugh.
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2. Who are some of the major comedic influences in your life?
I grew up in the 50s and 60s, graduated high school in ‘67, during the Vietnam years. In the 50s there weren’t 100 cable channels, they were about 5 TV channels. So "I Love Lucy” (which captivated the nation back then) was an influence. Screwball comedies of the 30s were an influence… I didn’t watch cartoons (I found them dull), but I watched Million Dollar Movie, a NYC TV station (which we got in New Jersey as well) which ran Hollywood movies 7 days a week, the same movie for all 7 days; then they’d change. You know how children love to re-watch things? So I re-watched many of these movies (not 7 times, but maybe 3)… the movies were classic comedies from the 30s like “The Awful Truth” (a comedy about divorce with Irene Dunne and Cary Grant) or “Bringing Up Baby” (a very funny farce with Grant and Katharine Hepburn); or later on, I saw several of the wonderful Preston Sturges comedies. And the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rodgers movies, some of which had funny scripts.
Then musical comedy influenced me. And the books to those usually were comic… even something as commercial as “Damn Yankees” about the baseball player selling his soul to the devil had some first-rate comic writing and construction in it.
Then in high school I started to read lots of plays… Joe Orton was an influence. Arthur Kopit’s “Oh Dad Poor Dad Mama’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feeling So Sad” (which is really a Tennessee Williams parody, kind of) struck me as fun and funny. I’m often said to be influenced by Ionesco… in truth, I only knew “The Bald Soprano,” which I did think was funny. (Oh, and later I did read “Rhinoceros,” where the man turning into one was certainly a coup de theatre. If that’s the correct spelling of that phrase.) And I was influenced by Edward Albee’s “The American Dream,” which came from that brief period when he wrote in the Theatre of the Absurd style. “American Dream” was very much influenced by Ionesco, so I was by default too. Also I realized I was influenced by the very name, “Theatre of the Absurd.” I also loved “Alice in Wonderland” the book, certainly a kind of absurdist work. And James Thurber. And “Winnie the Pooh” (the characters of Eeyore and Owl are actually quite funny).
3. Do you agree with the theory that most laughter is inspired by the misfortune of "others"? If so, why?
I don’t agree with this theory AT ALL. I laugh a lot, and experientially I never feel like, “Oh ha ha, look at that poor dope, he’s suffering, ha ha, isn’t that funny.” “Oh he got hit on his head, ha ha ha, lucky me, it happened to him.”
I’m very suspicious of theories. I tend to hate any sentence that starts “all comedy contains the element of [blank] in it.” It’s one reason I started to be a bad English major at Harvard; and knew that if I didn’t get into Yale School of Drama to study playwriting (which wasn’t taught theoretically, luckily, back then at least), I didn’t want to go to graduate school in English lit; I found it hard to live in that theoretical realm all the time. (Sorry – and here you are writing a term paper. I think writing about things and analyzing them are fine and interesting; I just hate theories.)
I wonder where that theory (the misfortune of others one) came from. It may have been triggered by silent film comedy, which, without words, was often purely visual; and often was about physical falls and pies in the face, etc. etc. I’ve never loved slapstick, and have felt guilty (sort of) for not liking Charlie Chaplin as well as conventional wisdom tells me I should.
But even something like Chaplin’s scene in “Modern Times” where’s he’s a worker on an assembly line, and he has to repeat his gesture of tightening screws so many times that when he stops doing it, his body can’t stop doing the gesture even on his lunch break – even in this example I don’t think it’s his misfortune that is what’s funny.
Instead I think it’s the cleverness of the idea – he takes the thought that people on an assembly line have a hard and boring job, doing the same thing over and over, and he basically says: “look, it’s so bad, their bodies can’t stop doing it.” Then Chaplin’s skill in continuing to do the gesture adds to making you laugh. And it actually makes a point: assembly lines in modern life (modern times) are inhuman and bad for people. It’s actually a humanitarian point, it’s not a “ha ha, look at him suffer, isn’t that funny” point. (In my view at least.)
A similar comic set-up is Lucy and Ethel in the famous chocolate assembly line episode.
The assembly line goes pretty fast, and they are supposed to wrap the chocolates quickly and put them back on the assembly line. First time out they succeed pretty well, though to make it work out, Lucy eats a few of the chocolates to cover the fact she can’t quite do them all on time. The foreman is impressed (not having her seen her eat them), and the speed of the assembly line is accelerated – past how anyone could do it. Lucy and Ethel react to this by continuing to try to do it – an un-doable task – and they end up putting chocolates in their blouses, in their hats, and in their puffed up cheeks.
Now I guess you could argue that it’s their misfortune we’re laughing at – but I feel it’s their nutty invention, and Lucy’s idea that somehow this will work. I mean the logical response – in the real world – would be to say, This is too fast, I can’t do it. In the comic world of I Love Lucy (where Lucy is always trying to make things work out against odds), Lucy’s instincts tell her to keep going and stuff the chocolates every which way. So it’s her impractical but inventive reaction to her predicament that strikes me as funny, I think; not that it can be looked at as misfortune.
Final example. The classic comedy “Some Like It Hot.” Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon witness a gangland killing in 1920’s Chicago. (Is the killing of the men funny? No.) They’re seen by the killers and have to get out of town. They’re musicians and the only job available for their particular instruments is in all girl band. In this crisis, they decide to dress as women and get this job, which will take them on a train to Florida.
Cut to them dressed as women. Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon look funny as women (as men often do); they are uncomfortable in the high heel shoes (an old joke, but funny). And when they get to the bosses of the band and are asked their names, they had a pre-existing plan that Joe (Tony Curtis) would be Josephine and Jerry (Jack Lemmon) would be Geraldine – obvious, “normal” choices. But when asked his/her name, Lemmon says with a little glint in his eye and an irresistible impulse toward improvisation, “Daphne.”
The recurring comedy in Lemmon’s character is in the different, somewhat surprising ways he gets into masquerading as a woman. His impulse to say “Daphne” came from some strange inner voice that thought, “hmmm, I think I look more like a Daphne.” Is that about his misfortune? Not remotely. It’s something odder, and funnier, having to do with the quirks of human nature and character. And there are many other examples like that in the movie.
So no I don’t agree with that theory.
4. What's the funniest thing you have ever experienced?
I don’t seem to have an answer. Sorry.
5. Are you a naturally funny person or did your sense of humor evolve with time?
In person I’m not naturally funny. I’m actually kind of shy. When I wrote my early plays (in junior high school), I was surprised at how many lines got laughs. I wasn’t aware the lines were even that funny initially… sometimes it would be a character saying something true in a blunt fashion – and the bluntness would be funny. Or sometimes it would be an eccentric thought, and that would get a laugh. (By the way, the choice of words and rhythm is also part of what’s funny in some humor – certainly in Noel Coward plays, for example. And in my plays, there are often times a line will get a laugh if said exactly as written; while if the actor paraphrases the line or changes it slightly, it won’t get a laugh.)
There’s kind of the cliché of funny people sometimes being very serious; and I think in some ways I fit that. Though most of the time I’m not tortured, and I don’t try to be tortured.
6. Where do the ideas for your plays come from? Are they based on events you have experienced?
Early in my career – and my early plays were very dark, and very peculiar – I would meet audience members after who would say, “You’re not what I expected! You’re nothing like your plays.”
I always knew they meant that some of my plays “felt” as if the author probably was a madman, hyper and nutty and overwhelming, sort of like Robin Williams on caffeine.
But my demeanor has always been quiet and usually polite, and I don’t dominate a room in any way. I’m a bit withdrawn, and I listen a lot.
So I was personally relieved that people didn’t think I “looked” like my plays. (This was especially true of my early plays, the more surreal ones, like “Nature and Purpose of the Universe,” “’dentity Crisis”, especially the very crazy “Titanic”. I would understand the assumption that the author of those plays would look and act like a madman.)
And as I got better known, and newspaper interviewers would ask where my plays came from, I had trouble answering.
As I got older, it got more and more clear to me that, as I indicated above, my plays came from a fairly dark world view; and that this world view was created, unsurprisingly, by the family dynamics I grew up in.
I was an only child; and had a very close relationship to my mother. I was less close to my father, since he and my mother fought so much about his drinking. Though I always thought him a nice man, actually; and I could tell that both of my parents cared for me and liked me, which is bottom line what you need. My father did have a drinking problem; but he also had a gentle spirit to him, and was the only one in the family who could ever be diplomatic. My mother had a fiery temper, though not with me; she was also very nurturing; and both my parents had senses of humor.
My mother sometimes ended up fighting with her siblings, and at different times that fighting upset and affected me as much as the fighting between my parents. And my mother’s mother took sides in the fighting, which brought the sibling rivalry to constant boiling points. And the issues that got fought about never got resolved, they just got stirred up and served again, like some poisonous cocktail.
So the fighting that went on between my parents and sometimes in the extended family was very hard to be around. And people were often mean to one another, perhaps not realizing how mean, but when the “Irish temper was flaring” usually not caring how it landed. (I can feel it in myself when I get so angry I want to lash out, knowing full well it will only make the issue worse. When I’m feeling adult, I don’t express the upset until the flush of anger has gone.)
Strangely, rarely was anyone mean to me. I was just this quiet bystander, watching other people be harsh with one another; or watch them address a problem by banging their heads against the wall, over and over and over.
My world view actually improved in my early 30s, when I experienced the adult freedom not to repeat the patterns I saw. For instance, an early director I worked with a few times was talented, but also illogical, unfair and prone to temper tantrums. And I realized – I don’t have to keep working with him. I could move on to some other director, who’s talented, but calm. And that’s what I did.
Though I also have a tendency to give up on problems maybe too fast – I can’t always tell if I’m running the other way to avoid conflict, or if I’m being wise. And that confusion comes from seeing my mother try and try and try to change my father. Tenacity’s good; but it can also be crazy.
It wasn’t just fighting. The people I grew up around were also complex and interesting, and I found the extended family – of many aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents – to be very intricate and interesting in how they interacted. And I find, in retrospect, that I took all this behavior in, lived with it, suffered through some of it when it would turn hurricane-like, forgot about it, and then suddenly it would come charging out of me in the form of a nutty comedy. And these comedies were not like my family in any clear ways, but were usually like them in psychologically disguised ways. And disguised by me unconsciously, I didn’t know I was doing it.
Well, that’s kind of a long answer. The short one is: I was very affected by the people I grew up around – good things, bad things, odd things. And I wrote from that.
7. Has laughter ever helped you through a tough time?
I’m going to give a long, complicated answer.
From age 7 to 13 (when my parents separated), I lived in a house of constant tensions.
My mother was in such a state of constant fury about my father’s drinking (which he denied was a problem) that every day revolved around: would they fight? And I was an only child in a small-ish house, and it’s very hard to be present when two people are screaming at one another.
From an early age, I was also my mother’s confidant (which meant we were close, and also meant I was in an inappropriately adult position for a child); and I would urge her not to verbally attack him if he was drunk or semi-drunk. Left alone, he’d just read the paper. And she would agree, and then as soon as he came in with a bit of haze in his eyes from drink, the Irish temper in her could not be tamed, and she would start in “at” him – and nag him non-stop anywhere from 20 minutes to 2 hours until he would finally explode into shouting back. And this happened constantly. And when it didn’t happen, I worried it would happen.
When they finally separated when I was 13, I was incredibly relieved; and I “counseled” my mother not to take him back (as he wanted to come back). I “got” after 10 years that he could not change and that my mother could not stop trying to change him. That being the case, as with a dog and a cat fighting, it felt better to separate them.
Anyway, much of family life was a constant strain for me. And even when life was calm, I lived in tension – and hypervigilance – wondering when the next fight would be.
When I went to college, I went through a deep depression for most of my time there.
From this background, I had developed a very dark world view. And going home sometimes was like getting injections of toxins from this family system. So in college I had trouble getting out of bed in the morning – for real for two years.
Therapy at college ultimately helped a lot, and I snapped out of my depression senior year, and regained my ambition and also playfulness. But I guess I never lost an undercurrent of "darkness."
But still aiming to answer your question: after I had “The Marriage of Bette and Boo” produced in NYC (1985) – the play of mine that deals with my parents and the stillbirths they suffered through, and the alcoholism – I met some people who were going to Adult Children of Alcoholics, a kind of off-shoot of AA and Alanon. (Note: my parents were no longer around to see the see the play, by the way; though my mother, to my surprise and relief, had liked an early version of it.)
In my childhood my mother herself eventually went to Alanon, and it helped her a fair amount – she finally got that you can’t change another person, the alcoholic will seek sobriety if and when he or she ever gets to that place themselves, you can’t nag or push them to it. And it was after that (her finding Alanon), my parents separated.
And so all those years later, in 1985-86, with a friend I started to go to Adult Children of Alcoholics. This group was formed by people who grew up in alcoholic families and who discovered that even though they were seemingly functional, they had internalized various beliefs and behaviors which were formed in their years growing up in alcoholic families; and that these almost unconscious beliefs and behaviors formed back then were impinging on their present day lives, and causing troubles.
Anyway, these meetings were very intense… people spoke one at a time (as in AA), sharing their thoughts of what was going on in their lives. And many of them reconnected with the feelings of anger and hurt they had from their childhoods. But it eventually helped them to figure out when upset in the present was being “contaminated” by upset from the past. So the “shares” in these meetings were sometimes incredibly intense.
(I once went to one on Christmas Eve, and the people were so upset by their awful memories of past Christmases, that it was almost like “rock n roll” suffering, it was visceral and over the top. And by the way, going to these meetings inspired me to write the Woman in “Laughing Wild” – her intensity and her lack of logic sometimes.)
The healthy part of this program (Adult Children) was the getting in touch with the buried feelings; and also analyzing how patterns from the alcoholic families were still affecting one.
The unhealthy part (I saw after about two years) is that some people in this program kind of fell in love with their pain, and didn’t actually want to get better; and so you’d hear them with the same complaints and the same level of anger months and years later. No progress.
At that point, I decided to go to Alanon, even though I didn’t really have any active alcoholics in my life.
Alanon is for spouses or relatives of alcoholics, and teaches you to focus on yourself. You can change your own behavior; you can’t change other people’s behavior.
Alanon was also a less volatile atmosphere than was Adult Children of A, and being an older organization, had more of a commitment to getting better (and made use of the AA 12 steps, though adapted for non-alcoholics).
Anyway, inside these meetings, you would often hear a story from some woman (it was usually a woman) who was in some ghastly relationship with an alcoholic man. And she would tell a long history of he promised this, then he pushed me the down the stairs, then he seemed better but he got drunk and drove the car off the road and it broke my nose, then he passed out and the cigarette burned the living room down, and then… etc. etc. And sometimes these stories would be sad and awful.
But sometimes the details of these stories would accumulate in the room as we all listened, and all of a sudden the enormity of the foolish and hopeless behavior would hit everybody at the same time – and we would all laugh, including the person whose story it was.
And what was that laughter? It was laughter of recognition and clarity – the litany of awful things happening suddenly “added up” for everyone in the room as too much – obviously the woman speaking needed to get out of this relationship, it wasn’t working, she had obviously stayed in it way too long cause she’d been too close to it.
This laughter wasn’t AT the woman. Indeed the woman would be laughing too – it was an across-the-board, shared laughter caused by suddenly seeing the ridiculousness of the stuck behavior all at once, all at the same.
It was a kind of healing laughter, a relieving laughter. You also suddenly felt a sense of perspective at how crazy it all was. The woman had started her story stuck in the details; but the overview suddenly hit her, and laughter occurred.
It’s strange. If the extremes in her situation didn’t add up in story telling terms just in the right way… it might not be funny.
It was something about the specific accumulation of detail, said aloud in a live room.
And I think that my plays sometimes have that kind of humor in them. Sometimes the extremity of suffering, or the extremity of bad behavior, is so extreme, that you see and feel the overview, and it’s awful and it’s funny.
So in answer to your question thousands of paragraphs ago – I think that the "Alanon kind of humor" I sometimes found in discussing my family history was helpful to me, it helped me figure out how to put the family suffering in perspective, see it from a distance for what it was, what the patterns were. And it really isn't laughing "at." It's laughing "because," I think.
8. When someone approaches you for tips about writing or performing comedy, what if anything do you tell them?
Play the comedy for real. Exaggerated acting (like in Mel Brooks movies, which I enjoy) is fun, but it wears out its welcome and it never achieves that mixture I like of comedy and seriousness underneath. A lot of comic acting comes from playing the stakes for real, and with great intensity. Jack Lemmon deciding his name was Daphne acted it with a true psychology underneath… he was a man who suddenly a little bit liked the play acting he was doing, and decided for real he would prefer Daphne as his name. Additionally, he had a “lightness” to his playing, which communicated technically a “permission to laugh.” But his core was psychologically truthful. (I have seen some humorless people play comedy for real, but it’s not funny because it’s too real, it’s too strenuous, they’re trying too hard, and they don’t have that little touch of giving permission to laugh. In terms of giving permission, that’s a strange undercurrent in a performance; and for someone who doesn’t know how to do it, I don’t think I know how to teach it. But I know it when I see it. And I think I have it on stage.)
9. Out of all your works which is your favorite and why?
“The Marriage of Bette and Boo” because it’s psychologically so close to me. I’m proud to have done something constructive with the unhappy parts of my childhood.
10. Why in your opinion has tragedy taken precedence over comedy both historically and presently? It just seems to me that comedy is an infinitely harder task and yet tragedy has all the prestige. I don't get it.
It is frustrating. I can love touching works. I love “Streetcar Named Desire,” which is predominantly tragic (though written with some humor too).
But I think that audiences and critics who dismiss comedies are being a bit pretentious. Cause if you either are made to cry or to suffer, sometimes people think “oh, I’ve had a profound experience.”
1959 was the year of “Some Like It Hot”; it wasn’t even nominated for Best Picture, which went to the heavy-handed, endlessly long Biblical drama, “Ben Hur”. (I vaguely liked “Ben Hur” as a child; but as an adult, I find it kind of unwatchable.) Another nominee was “On the Beach,” about the end of the world after nuclear fall out; a worthy, grim topic, but not really a wonderful picture, but it sure felt Important. A good nominee was “Anatomy of a Murder,” a complicated (and long) trial drama that was kind of cynical and seems modern still today.
But in terms of movies I cherish from that year, “Some Like It Hot” and “North by Northwest” (a Hitchcock suspense with lots of wry humor) are way out in front. And they are both on those AFI “best 100 movie” lists, while those three serious nominated films are not. But “Some Like It Hot” and “North By Northwest” were not taken “seriously” or valued as highly back on their first release in 1959 because they were comic.
11. Can you explain some of your writing process from inspiration to performance/publication?
12. What makes an actor funny?
13. Who in your opinion is the funniest performer in the public eye?
14. What does laughter mean to you?
15. What inspires you?
Some of the above questions I’ve already answered. And some I don’t have the energy for right now.
A kind of wrap-up:
I like the mixture of comedy and seriousness in a work. At college, I remember seeing Feydeau farces and Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. Both were fun, but both tended to go on for about 3 hours. And I’d find after about an hour and three-quarters, I would have had enough of both… they remained in the same tone, on and on; and the comic cartoonish of both started to fatigue me… I wanted some sort of real feeling somewhere.
Then I recall seeing on TV Maggie Smith and Robert Stephens in a stage version of “Much Ado About Nothing.” Maggie Smith is a verbal wizard, and so her Beatrice was funny, as expected. However, somewhere in the play she read a series of lines suddenly with great sadness (about life and suffering), and she did it with all psychological sincerity and depth of feeling, and I suddenly felt riveted. The comedy reverberated for me.
And in another Maggie Smith film, “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,” she was hilarious playing the teacher’s pretensions and odd quirky thoughts…. Yet two thirds through, upset with an argument with her ex-lover the art teacher, she shows her girl students slides from her trip abroad, and in the speech that accompanies it, she reveals this enormous “longing” for love and for personal connection that is very moving, very mysterious. The movie is mostly a comedy, but one with real elements of sadness in it too; and with repercussions – the nutty things Miss Brodie does have consequences, bad ones, for both herself and some of her students.
Well, that’s all for now. I’ve exhausted myself.
Chris Durang Sometime in 2002