Comedy is often seen as an easy option, as somehow less worthy, less important, than ‘serious’ drama. You can see it if you look at the Best Picture winners at the Oscars, you need to go back to 2012 and The Artist before you get to a film that makes you laugh, and even that masterpiece is more tragi-comic than a laugh-a-minute romp. I can remember being told at drama school to resist turning an improvisation toward comedy and being exhorted to ‘work harder’ for the truth. I’m sorry, but without hard work and an understanding of the truth you’re not getting comedy. If comedy was easy, that crashing bore at the party would be getting bigger laughs.
At New Old Friends we are not immune to this way of thinking. One of our stock sayings is that we don’t have any lofty aims, we simply want to make as many people laugh as possible. But, actually, we should be valuing that goal more. Creating laughter is as close to magic as there is; I say or do something over here, and over there it produces an involuntary physical reaction in you and, hopefully, everyone else in the room? That sounds an awful lot like how spells work to me.
Now, when I say we need to value it more that isn’t to say we currently take the task lightly. We work incredibly hard to try and achieve that moment of release for our audiences. Just this week we spent easily an hour debating, rehearsing, and tweaking the exact moment of when a door closed on stage. Is it funnier if it comes on the line, before or after the line, in unison with another performer opening their door, or in cannon? We settled on the (tricky to achieve) no look unison close/open, but we won’t know if it is the right decision until an audience tells us so.
It is the same with the script. Heather (my wife who I run the company with and is always the first to read/hear any scripts) & I will go back and forth over whether there are enough gags in any given scene. Are the jokes strong enough? Do they serve or detract from the story/the character? Sometimes we’ll question if there might be too many potential laughs, are we giving the audience enough time to enjoy the individual moments or does the unrelenting pace create the dreaded audience who sit, smiling and nodding, thoroughly enjoying themselves but silently so they don’t miss anything.
It is a delicate balance and one which requires you to shelve as much of your ego as you possibly can. There is a particular gag I’ve been trying to work into four consecutive New Old Friends shows, it works in my head and on the page, but we just can’t seem to unlock it in the rehearsal room or in front of an audience, and so it gets cut and I try and shoe-horn it in to the next show!
The pandemic has seen theatre-makers respond and react in incredibly resourceful and inventive ways (We ourselves produced a three series of original narrative audio comedies which we released as a podcast; Comedy Whodunnits For Your Ears. There are two more series later this year.), many of which I hope find a place in our industry for a long time, but in some quarters there is a sense that now we are welcoming audiences back into our spaces we need to be addressing the big themes and questions. We should be using our platforms to inform national debate. I think all of that is vital and important, but I think it is equally important that we balance that with providing pure escapist entertainment. The sort of entertainment only live, in-person theatre can provide. Which for us means a group of four actors playing multiple characters and working their socks off (actually socks are one of few items of clothing we don’t ask our casts to switch out during the myriad quick changes) in the pursuit of laughter.
There is science behind it too. Laughing as part of a group, as opposed to on your own in front of a Netflix special, releases great swathes of hormones that make us feel good and engender feelings of community and kinship. Granted, the same effect can be achieved by mass chanting, but gathering large crowds and chanting en-masse has a slightly chequered history it’s fair to say. Not that comedy doesn’t. There is still plenty of comedy circulating that is cruel and divisive, which again is something we take very seriously at New Old Friends.
We are always trying to interrogate where our laughs are coming from, not because we are fearful of ‘cancel
culture’ but because we want to create joy and togetherness for our entire audience not just the majority. We give a lot of thought as to where and how we are generating laughter, who or what is the butt of the joke, and we do our best to ensure it is never cruel. We might get that judgement wrong, but we won’t know until it is in front of an audience and we see how they react. If we have we’ll be certain to change it.
That is a fairly good rule of thumb for all that we do: the audience is the final arbiter. We work incredibly hard to make our shows and to create the best environment for laughter to flourish, but in the end it is out of our hands. Some nights a bit which has been slaying for weeks just doesn’t land with that particular audience that particular night, and the reverse is also true sometimes a hitherto innocuous line produces peals of glorious guffaws. It keeps it fresh for the cast and every time it happens we learns a little something new which we can take back and work harder at on the next show.
It is a privilege to earn a living making people laugh, but it’s a serious business too.