The Five: Comic Influences

Anthony R. Miller checks in with the five sources of his comic inspiration.

Hey you guys, so I realize September was comedy month, and now were just starting to wade into October, a month dedicated to the darkness. I promise you, you’re gonna hear a lot from me about horror and being spooky later this months. SHAMELESS PLUG: GO SEE TERROR-RAMA. But there was no way I was gonna miss out on giving my thoughts on one of the most important things in the world to me, that lady named comedy. To me, comedy is a beautiful, necessary and challenging art form full of possibilities. So here are the top 5 influences on me as a writer, more specifically a comedy writer.

The State

This MTV sketch comedy show from the 90’s was and still is one of the funniest things ever. It was a show that just didn’t mock convention, it attacked it. The influence for me was exposing me to a brand of comedy I like to call smart/dumb. Sure the jokes were juvenile and silly, but they were really clever. You can see their innate understanding of not just comedy but theatre and performance. There were grammar jokes, Shakespeare jokes, and even Pink Floyd jokes. There was an irreverent shamelessness to their writing and delivery that shows like Saturday Night Live hasn’t done in decades because unlike SNL, The State was never concerned with being cool or hip, just funny. They were genuine smart-asses. They were comedy whores. Sadly, only a couple dozen episodes exist, but you can watch them all on Hulu. After it’s cancellation, they went on to do projects like Reno 911, Viva Variety, Stella and of course, Wet Hot American Summer . I WANNA DIP MY BALLS IN IT!

Airplane!

Funniest movie ever period. Nothing really sums up what I believe to be perfect camp like this movie. You’d be hard pressed to find a better display of People doing and saying ridiculous things with a straight face a painfully sincere delivery. Not to mention the brilliant layering of the jokes, jokes happening in the background, jokes you didn’t even know were jokes until the 4th re-watching. To me, this is the gold standard of camp, often times we see people winking at the audience and hamming it up for laughs. But it takes true genius to say something funny not because it was funny but because that’s just what that character would say, because it’s who they were. Camp requires a certain naiveté to come across right, because the characters don’t know they’re being funny, that’s what makes it funny. So instead of reading Susan Sontag’s very clinical, yawn inducing (seriously how does she make comedy sound so dull?) dissection of camp, just watch Airplane! It’s way more fun.

Vampire Lesbians of Sodom by Charles Busch

A true light bulb moment for me was reading this play, five pages in; I knew I had finally found a kindred spirit. While I love Christopher Durang and Neil Simon and The Man Who Came to Dinner ( A dream project of mine, seriously, it’s the King Lear of Comedy). Nothing combined camp, sketch comedy and homage (not parody) like this play. It’s my comedic compass; the play that made me realize what I wanted to write was possible. Not to mention, it creates a clear line between homage and parody. In parody, you make fun of something, but when you pay homage to something you are embracing both the good and bad qualities of something you love. But this one-act play is just the tip of the iceberg; Busch’s body of work is funny, insightful and critical. So not only did it show me the kind of theatre I wanted to write was possible, it showed me where I could go from there.

No Cure for Cancer-Denis Leary

Acerbic, mean spirted, cynical and soul bearing are just a few words I use to describe Denis Leary’s breakout stand up special/one-man show. Every word of Leary’s comic tour-de-force was written from a place of incredible pain and fear. While in Europe, his wife gave premature birth to their son Jack. Because of the complications, they couldn’t leave. So Denis stayed and proceeded to write a piece of comedy that shaped the dark, critical side of my comedy writing. It’s so much more than couple funny songs and smoking jokes, He explores the death of his father, the pressure he feels to create a better world for his son, and the realization that no matter how depressed and overwhelmed we feel sometimes, you gotta shut the fuck up and go to work. This is the comedy that gave me a backbone, a desire to push forward. It has a perfect blend of sincerity, social criticism and toughness in the face of pain. He’s not just being funny, he’s getting shit off his chest. Also, I still use his “Whiney douchebag” voice, just watch it, better yet, buy the book version.

Commedia Dell Arte

Oh those goofy Italians, they sure were funny. But not just because they invented improv, not just because while the British were still putting wigs on 12 year old boys to play girls, the Italians were the first to put women on stage, or that they were the first pay actors, or even create a health care system for their actors. No, it is the invention of slapstick, a brand of comedy based on one basic premise, hitting people is funny. Whether you love low-brow comedy or dry high minded British humor or acerbic wit, you have Commedia Dell Arte to thank. Let’s break this down shall we? Commedia troupes started with basic pre-written scenarios that are built upon by big exaggerated performances and determining their actions on basic archetypes that we still see today. Sit coms, sketch comedy, improv, and physical comedy all owe their existence to Commedia. Oh, did I mention they were the first to show that women could be funny?

Anthony R. Miller is a writer, Director, Producer and a man who loves to sell theatre tickets. His show, TERROR-RAMA opens October 17th.

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One comment on “The Five: Comic Influences

  1. Ahhhhhh yeaaaaahhhh… I always love finding other fans of THE STATE. Whether it’s through singing “Porcupine Racetrack” or hearing someone say “I’m ouuuutta heeeeere”. I will always argue that it’s the unappreciated sketch masterpiece of our generation.

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