Edgy Comedy: Its Good for You
January 28th, 1986. The day of the Challenger Disaster. The first long-form Harold improv team, Baron’s Barracudas has a show at the Cross Currents bar. A few of the performers consider cancelling the performance. In steps Del Close, one of improv comedy’s founding fathers. Those who are worried about the somber mood inform Del of their opinions.
He scoffs and says, “Precisely the night for comedy!"
He goes up in front of the audience and begins his monologue.
“When you were children, how many of you had little CO2 rockets?"Stunned silence. “How many of you got bored after a while with CO2 rockets?"A few of them raise their hands and the chuckles and smiles begin to appear.“And how many of you people, when you got bored, taped a grasshopper, or another living thing to the CO2 rocket?"The initial awkwardness has given way to grinning laughter. The crowd has been warmed up on the day of a national tragedy. (The Funniest One in the Room, Kim Howard Johnson, 2008)
What are controversy and tragedy’s place in comedy? Is Woody Allen right when he says, “Comedy equals tragedy plus time"? Is the time part of that equation even necessary?
The answers to those questions all lie with two words: commitment and reality. Whether it’s comedy centered on race, mental disability, sexual anatomy, religion, or national tragedy, you must go for the joke 100% and you must acknowledge the reality of the situation.
Having myself been involved with improv and sketch comedy for a while, I have seen countless half-assed attempts to be edgy or controversial. Men and women who have run out of things to say notice that their audiences have run out of patience. So the performers bring up vaginas, or abortion, or 9/11 as quick one liners. It wouldn’t be so bad if at this point, their teammates went into full support mode. Typically, however, they will “edit" the scene by beginning a new one right away after getting a chuckle mixed in with a resounding groan.
The performer who uttered the controversial line usually had no intention of going for it 100%. In turn, his or her team had no desire to support the idea 100%.
But even if you go all out for a joke, it doesn’t mean it will work. Gross out comedies like those by the Wayans Brothers or the Date Movie guys go for the joke above and beyond the call of duty. Throw as many disgusting things at the screen in succession until one hits then quickly back away and move on. However, the jokes don’t hold up on a second viewing. The reason being, they often do not admit the reality of the situation.
A white guy trying to fit in with a bunch of black guys by spouting “gangster talk" can be punctuated by one of the black guys saying “is that what you really think of us?" or “dude, you’re white, and dated." A horribly inappropriate street vendor selling replicas of the 9/11 buildings with a plane sticking out of them should encounter a customer whose husband died in the attacks. The reality is the key to make the joke hit home.
Perhaps the comedy equals tragedy plus time doesn’t quite hold up. Here is my formula.
Comedy > Tragedy + Reality
That is to say, there is a chance of a big payoff (comedy), and there is a chance it will bomb (less than comedy). But if you are hell bent on utilizing controversy in your work, you must use reality to give it the full effect.
It’s Good For You!
It’s Good For You! is a sketch comedy show currently running at the Gorilla Tango Theatre in Chicago, IL. An ensemble cast takes on propaganda from rap music to high school popularity. The show is notable for being the only work of comedy I’ve ever seen to feature a school shooting.
Admittedly, the director/co-writer/cast member Jim Burchill is a weird guy. That being said there is a lot of potential for power in this uneven but thought provoking show.
It’s Good For You! takes on race, homelessness, pop music, sex education, peer pressure, the police, overmedication, and the aftermath of a local and national tragedy.
Does it fit the “Comedy > Tragedy + Reality" formula? Sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t. A brilliant metaphor about the character of the shooter gets in its own way toward the end. The show meanders with its comedy a bit in the middle, losing some of the reality that makes it so strong in the beginning and end.
When it pushes the envelope the most, however, it shines by “going for it" full force.
Kudos to Johna Winters as the voice of reason, Carrie Bain for her scene with a Kanye West puppet, and Ryan McChesney who is saddled with a tough part and who pulls it off pretty well.
It’s Good For You! runs till March 12th on Thursday nights at the Gorilla Tango Theatre at 1919 N. Milwaukee Ave. in Chicago, IL. Visit this page for ticket information.
If you want to be edgy or controversial you can’t apologize or go half-assed with it. You must believe in the comedy you are spouting and fully commit. The story of Del Close’s full commitment has lasted nearly 25 years. How long will yours last?
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