The Real World, Theater Edition: Some Unstructured Thoughts on Comedy

Barbara Jwanouskos contemplates comedy.

Stuart Bousel wasn’t lying when he wrote in the Theater Around the Bay piece two weeks ago (taking over for me in my moment of personal crisis) that lately, it’s been a bit rough. The events of the summer – particularly August – and now bleeding into September coupled with the very real survival pressures of trying to live in the Bay Area could make anyone lose a little hope. A day hasn’t gone by when I haven’t had to make some very hefty, your-life-could-go-either-way decision that ultimately turns my body into a sea of nausea.

EVERY DAY FEELS LIKE DYING.

EVERY DAY FEELS LIKE DYING.

The long and the short of it is, I need some laughter and hope in my life. I need some comedy.

Let us remember that comedy need not be simply a script with a bunch of jokes or silly or nonsensical or formulaic. Writing a well-written, satisfying comedy is actually just as difficult as writing a well-written, satisfying drama. I like to think of the experience of seeing a play like going to a party where you know very few people. Your job, as the playwright, is more akin to thee hostess with the mostess. Not only are you trying to keep people reasonably entertained by refreshments, finger foods, and mood music, but you’re also making sure that you’ve set people up to enjoy themselves with aspects of the space or the other strangers at the party. There are so many elements that any one on its own could really be striking and fun, but the experience overall is what I care about most of all.

A couple years ago, I decided to submit a proposal to write a one-act play to the San Francisco Olympians Festival. I asked for the chance to write a comedy about Hera, the Greek goddess of marriage, who was sick and tired of Zeus’ infidelities and decided to get back at him by impregnating a mortal who was just as douchy as her husband. So, began Hera, The Pregnant Man Play. I’d never written a straight-up comedy before, which was my whole reason for proposing it. I like to venture outside of what I feel familiar with into scary and unsettling territory. And, really, if you think about it, that tends to be the structure of most comedies. Someone had a certain way of living and then something changed and made it so that the person needed to change their ways. There’s a huge learning curve as the person is trying to figure out some sense of order, and then perhaps they are able to figure out a new way of life.

Artwork by Emmalee Carroll.

Artwork by Emmalee Carroll.

Hera, The Pregnant Man Play had flaws, sure, like most plays still in their early formation stage, but I knew that the point I wanted to get to was a realization that the characters had that we need to expand our perspective and cultural mores beyond the idea that a man must be this and a woman must be that and a parent must be this and a marriage must be that. I wanted to present a new kind of society at the end of the play – one of inclusivity where we look at the way we connect to other people on this planet and say who cares that this kind of relationship or passion or love that I have doesn’t fit into whatever “norm” I’m being sold.

I should go back to structure for a second and say that I don’t mean to reduce this down to a Hero’s Journey type of equation, but I guess, I agree with Northrop Frye, who says that the movement of comedy is usually a movement from one kind of society to another. That’s what fascinates and delights me about seeing a comedy and writing a comedy. Sure, I feel a satisfying twinge of joy when someone laughs at my jokes, one-liners, or awkward situational humor, but that’s all gravy. The real meat and potatoes comes from the experience I have as an audience member watching a character or characters push the boundaries, struggle against authority and generally rabble-rouse their way towards a life that’s much more livable.

And what could be better, in times of stress, anger, violence and destruction to build a new, better society? I think that’s why Everyone I Know Is Broken-Hearted and why I choose to move forward with fierce hopefulness. It’s been said before, but to me, a comedy inspires a chance to begin again, for rebirth, growth, and transcendence. While we would love to put it off as irrational, it’s exactly that element of illogical that is a part of life. Sometimes things do have a way of working themselves out, if not forever, at least for the moment. The stories of those moments are absolutely in necessary as we try our best to fight our way through life.

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4 comments on “The Real World, Theater Edition: Some Unstructured Thoughts on Comedy

  1. Richard A. Steele says:

    One of the reasons comedy provides the inspiration toward reinvention, new beginnings, and “fierce hopefulness” is that comedy is the art of confronting the agonies of life with humor (dark or otherwise) as a healing balm, which is often the ultimate defiant mindset against that which hurts, injures, and causes us to question everything about ourselves. That, I believe, is why Edmund Kean left this world purportedly saying, “Dying is easy; comedy is hard.” The author of a recent entry on this website stated that after the loss of our beloved Robin Williams, she felt that nothing could ever be funny again, and I knew what she meant; yet Robin himself would admonish us to continue the levity and laughter, because the demons choke on it and flee. It is ridiculously easy to be hilarious when everything is going one’s way, yet to do so when life proverbially blindsides one with a shattering blow—that is powerful creative stuff.

  2. miltonpat says:

    Nicely written. The laughter response is so much more than “that’s funny.” It can be “I’m uncomfortable,” “I recognize myself,” “I am despairing but can’t think of anything else to do,” and more. I am going to look into Frye…thanks.

    “With comedy I can search for the profound.” ~Dario Fo

    • bjwany says:

      Hey, no problem. Glad you enjoyed it! And I can’t tell you how many times I’ve laughed out of discomfort. I remember in a past staged reading feeling down on myself for not doing my playwriting job when folks laughed at a part of my play I didn’t intend to be funny at all. A very astute director told me not to lose heart because sometimes people’s laughter isn’t because they think something is funny or are enjoying themselves, but a response to feeling uncomfortable with an aspect of the play or the subject matter, etc. And that I HAD in fact done my job.

      And, yes, to Frye! I gotta go back and re-read some of the other essays myself! Great stuff.

      Love that Fo quote!

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