Why Forced Comedy Doesn’t Work

There are several things that I dislike about film, television and theater. Poop jokes and fart jokes are at the top of that list because I can’t think of anything more sophomoric in nature. But with that same grouping is forced comedy.

You’re probably sitting there wondering what I mean by this. For the purposes of this discussion, I mean, the playing up of a joke for laughs or the insertion of a line in the script to try to get laughs.

There are some exceptions to this definition. Both productions of Rocky Horror Show that I’ve seen at Theatre Cedar Rapids have had improved lines, usually by the narrator, but they were delivered in a rather natural way. Rocky Horror Show is also filled with moments of breaking the fourth wall, which can make these ad-libs a bit forgivable.

But I was thinking about this as I was eating at IHOP with my mother last night (I ate french toast at 5 PM, because I am that awesome). The main reason why I hate farces is because so much of the humor is forced in the script. You have so many of the elements to create the zaniness that initiates laughter (mistaken identities, multiple doors, etc.). So much of it feels unnatural and sadly, too many actors in productions of farces I’ve seen feel this need to ham it up for laughs.

I have been accused hating comedies in the past. This is not true and it is not just because, as I like to point out, my favorite musical, Company, states in it’s full title that it is a musical comedy. I fell in love with The Producers when I was eleven and have learned humorous life lessons from Avenue Q. The soundtrack for Curtains never ceases to amuse me.

But my appreciation for comedies extends beyond musical comedies. For a long time, I’ve loved the plays of Neil Simon for a very simple reason: there is a realistic side to them. The situation in his well-known Odd Couple is one that there is a slight chance of happening. There is a natural humor to the shows, because most people don’t force jokes in real life.

This might also be why I don’t enjoy school theater. Teenagers feel this overwhelming desire to make people laugh. All too often, this can kill a show because the script wasn’t written that way. I attended a school play earlier this year where the actors were playing it up for laughs so much, that I didn’t laugh that much. The one time I did laugh it was at a line about reviewing a show before seeing it, to which I laughed heartily. This was because the actor delivering the line said it as if it was a common practice for the character. However, I ended up being the only person laughing at this line and received glares from several audience members.

But whenever the actors tried to force laughter from audience members, the show felt rehearsed and stale. Theater should feel fresh and new, as if the events are something occurring for the first time in the life of the characters.

Which is a huge problem with so many productions of farces I’ve seen. A certain door is supposed to open and hit that character at a certain point. That bra is supposed to flung across the stage and hit a certain character in the face at that moment. And the sexual innuendo? Let’s play it up to the point it’s not even innuendo.

But I have an even larger beef with improv and ad libing. I once auditioned to do improv for my speech team, and the two individuals I was paired with were trying so hard to make the coach laugh, that they were drowning out me playing a frantic wife who’s husband had just had her arm cut off by a serial killer clown. I turned to the two and, in character, told them to shut up so my husband wouldn’t die. Improv is used for kicks and those doing improv try to do it for laughs. Some do it rather skillfully (in Cedar Falls, the Half-Masted 3.2 group is rather good at this), but too many go belly up like a man slipping on a banana peel.

And as for ad libing? If you think that you should add a line not in the script for kicks, don’t. It can kill the show simply because it doesn’t fit. Like a poop joke in a dark comedy from the 1940s. And it may be glaringly obvious even to those not familiar with the work, eventually killing the experience to all in the audience. It can also drag out the show, whether stage or film, because people have to keep working with your shtick. And even on the screen, it can seem obvious that an individual is adding lines simply for laughs (see: Horton Hears a Who).

I would like to think that perhaps people in comedies would learn that by just saying things naturally, not emphasizing the punch line, they would be funnier. But, it sadly seems as though the use of telling a story that happens to be humorous is dying, just like the laughter in the theaters and living rooms.

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