The Funny Thing About Comedy
“The moment is the only thing you own. It’s the only thing you can directly control in some way.” — The Tao of Improv
You don’t have to be a news junkie to know that, in America at least, life has recently gotten interesting. “May you live in interesting times” isn’t a motivational speech. It’s a curse.
When times get this interesting (I’m using the word as a massive euphemism…please don’t think I don’t know that), it can become hard to find humor in anything at all. How can you bounce around on a stage and make a crowd of tense, upset people laugh — particularly when you are one of them yourself?
Are there now topics that are off limits? Can you make references to current events, politics or personalities? What can you make fun of? And, when you make fun of it, will anyone laugh? Will you?
I don’t know the answers to these questions. I’m caught up in the times we live in, too. There are some things I do know (although I don’t know if they are relevant or helpful).
One thing I know is that, during the Holocaust, Jews found ways to make jokes about their situation and their oppressors. Comic operas, humorous songs (as well as serious works of art) were written and sometimes performed by inmates in concentration camps. (I know this, because, back in the 90’s I was commissioned to translate a number of these pieces and turn them into a musical — lyrics, story, everything.) There is even a German term — flusterwitze, which literally means “whispered jokes” — that categorizes humor that cannot be spoken loudly because it addresses taboo subjects.
I also know that, during the nightly bombing of London during WWII, British theaters and music halls remained open, even as bombs dropped in the surrounding neighborhood. Patrons attended shows, as did actors, musicians, dancers…. The phenomenon was know as the “Spirit of the Blitz.”
I guess what I’m saying is that, in many ways, comedic improv is made for times of adversity or uncertainty. It can be used to distract (actors and audiences), to inform, to poke fun, to speak truth to power, to encourage debate, to get things off one’s chest, or to impose a sense of normalcy.
It doesn’t matter why you perform it. I think the trick is to summon up a little bit of the Spirit of the Blitz and do what needs to be done. Improv is perfect for bad times. That’s the funny thing about comedy.