So What's Funny?

Photo of Sherry Kramer
photograph by Kenny Braun

The veteran actor lies on his deathbed, gasping his last breaths. A sympathetic friend at his side observes that dying must be hard. The actor's eyes widen and fix on the speaker. "Dying is easy," he croaks. "Comedy is hard."

Ba-da-boom! Ba-da-bing!

The anecdote is well-known in the theatre, especially among those who have played comedy. While not everyone can agree on the source -- the saying has been attributed to Edmund Gwenn, among others, but it may also be pure fabrication -- virtually everyone agrees with the sentiment. Making audiences laugh is serious business. The choice of word, its placement in a line, rhythm, timing, attitude when delivering it -- all come into play when concocting comedy and must be calibrated precisely to elicit the desired response: laughter. Put the right word in the wrong place, deliver the line with too knowing a grin on your puss, slam the door a fraction of a second early or late, and instead or raucous guffaws you'll be listening to dead air.

Clearly, there is an art to comedy, but are there tricks of the trade, too? Secrets that ensure laughs no matter the occasion? We figured if anyone might know, it would be Sherry Kramer. Kramer's play The Wall of Water -- opening this week at the B. Iden Payne Theatre on the UT campus -- is a modern farce and one of those rarities of theatrical comedy: the play that reads funny. Kramer's tale of young singles in a Manhattan apartment and the havoc that results from mistaken identities is so inspired in its language, in its characterization, in its satirical take on modern medicine and New York and romance, that just playing the scenes out in your head is funny.

Austin has been fortunate to have Kramer in residence of late. The eminent writer -- whose plays include David's Redhaired Death, What a Man Weighs, Things That Break, The Ruling Passion, and, co-written with Ann Haskell, Napoleon's China -- served as visiting associate professor at the Michener Center for Writers last semester and is teaching Undergraduate Playwriting and Form and Structure in the UT Department of Theatre & Dance this semester. She brings to the classroom not only her considerable knowledge of drama and dramatic structure but an uncommon wit. The Chronicle sought her expertise on the craft of comedy.

Austin Chronicle:As a writer, when you're creating something that's supposed to be funny, how do you know when you've got it? Are you shooting for something or just letting the play create itself?

Sherry Kramer: You don't know whether it will be funny to other people. And because I believe that plays are self-organizing systems, at a certain point the river carries you. When I wrote The Wall of Water, mostly what I was doing was just sitting there laughing. I was having a great time. I just sat there and I wrote anything that came to mind. In the beginning, I just sat down and amused myself.

AC:What were you writing that was funny to you?

SK: Some of the political nature of the play was to me very funny. To me, the play is about issues of anger and madness and the way that women are afraid to show anger. And what happens when one does. [Laughs] It was also funny to me to take an insane character and have her be healed not by being treated as a sick person but by being treated as a well person. That wasn't so much funny ha-ha as it was ironic.

AC:But the play has a lot of funny ha-ha, in the wayit treats people living in New York, the obsessiveness of single people searching out partners, the particular hell of living with somebody that you're not compatible with ....

SK: I guess my main target if I had one -- and there usually is a target for farce -- was the medical profession. Three of the characters are doctors, and one is a psychotherapeutic nurse. That's four members of the medical profession out of a cast of eight. And actually, everyone but the insane person and the deeply depressed person intersects very deeply with a member of the medical profession.

There are people who talk about the situation being the thing which creates the drama. I tend to say that it's more the desires of the characters. Certainly, the situation is very strong -- and very funny. I mean, it's the biggest apartment for the least money in the world. And I actually did live in such a place, and I actually had three roommates. And the rest .... [Laughs]

AC:Were you drawing on this for this play?

SK: I'm afraid I was.

AC: So you were amusing yourself?

SK: Yes, but the artistic director came in every other day. We met and he read and he laughed and said, "Good. Keep going."

AC: So in this case you had somebody who was supporting your sense of humor. Did you ever anticipate what an audience's reaction was going to be?

SK: You don't know until you've been through it several times, then you see what the patterns are. With this play, the first read-through is always hysterical. Then, as the play gets closer and closer to being up on its feet, it starts falling apart. Which can be really terrifying for everyone concerned, because suddenly things which were really funny at the read-through are not funny at all. The thing is, farce is a machine, and it's a relentless machine. Any farce is. Once the machine is functioning, then it starts to get its humor back. You'll see all of a sudden this 10 minutes will work. Then 20 minutes will work in that one pocket of the play. Then, five minutes over here, and then ... until it all comes together.

So, no, you don't know at all. The biggest laugh in the show is not one I would ever have imagined would be the biggest laugh. It was a total surprise.

AC: Have you figured out why it's the biggest laugh now that you've seen the pattern?

SK: Not completely. I do know that oftentimes your biggest laugh doesn't have anything to do with how funny a line is. It could be a release laugh. I once started a eulogy at a memorial service for a friend and got one of the biggest laughs of my performance career only because the playwright who'd spoken before me was totally terrifying and so dark and so scary. So when I got up there, people were desperate to laugh. With this play, there aren't big dark moments, there are little ones, so it's possible this may be a relief laugh line, and it's funny in an aftermath of that moment.

I don't know. Sometimes you watch the play, and you think you've got it figured out. "Oh, that's why that laugh is happening." Then you see another production of it and the laugh doesn't happen there ever. It's not a science ... not a science yet.

One problem with this play -- and it's an enormous problem -- is that there isn't time for the audience to laugh. Which sounds incredibly arrogant, but you set up a system of rhythms, where the audience is given permission to laugh, and unfortunately because you hop around and scenes don't end on buttons necessarily...

AC:Buttons being comedy lingo...

SK: ... Lingo for the -- ba-da, ba-da -- punchline of a scene, the way it lands. So you get out of the normal rhythm of laughter permission and outside that rhythm is dangerous territory. It's fatiguing, and the audience will stop laughing. So -- setting myself up for what's wrong with my play was so stupid! -- one of the challenges for Gina Kaufmann, who's directing the UT production, is how to pace the show properly. It's a good solid two hours, and we have to pace it so that it doesn't drag but we still set up the correct rhythm and timing for the laughter. Because otherwise the audience will stop laughing.

It's interesting, we were talking about a scene in class -- a student had done a parody of Titanic, and a few people had said, "Oh, it's really funny," but this one student said, "It's so good to have everybody laugh together." That's an excellent point. That's one of the reasons they put laughtracks on sitcoms. It's this really human need we have to laugh together. We also like to cry together, but that's trickier; there's something more private about crying, and we're not happy about it. We're very pleased to be laughing together. David Hume, that Scottish philosopher ... [Laughs]

AC: I knew we were going to get around to him!

SK: His whole basis for arguing that we did not need religious laws or external laws to govern us was based on what he called the Law of Sympathy, i.e., that people think and feel alike, and we know what is good and bad, and we know how we should behave with each other. And his proof of the Law of Sympathy, the example that he gives, is an audience in the theatre. He said, "They laugh and cry at the same moment. They do it as one. Their hearts are in concert with each other." So when we laugh in the theatre at the same time, it's fabulous because it means we know each other. So when you have a play which lets you laugh together, it's great. You're Neil Simon. I mean, he's not my favorite playwright by a long shot, but the fact is he does give that to people, and it's a wonderful gift.

During my first experience with The Wall of Water at Yale Rep, I would go and sit outside the sound booth. So you're looking down on a house of, I don't know, 700 people, and when they started laughing -- in the second act, in particular, when the joke is really happening -- you would see waves. You would see people moving in their seats, moving back and forth with laughter. You'd also see those little pockets where people looked like someone had their genitals in a vise and was screwing them, but basically you'd see these waves of laughter. And that is the most addicting thing in the world. It's extremely hard to get over that. People say, "How do you deal with your bad experiences, the unfortunate experiences in theatre?" I go, "No problem." You can get over a bad experience in the theatre. You can never get over the good ones. They gotcha.

AC:Did the experience of writing this play fulfill any kind of ambition for you to write an all-out comedy?

SK: It had never occurred to me that it would not be possible. It had also never occurred to me that it would be desirable. I never thought about just trying to make people laugh for two hours. Generally, I find -- and I find this over and over with the playwrights that I teach, and I've been teaching for a long time here and there -- that whenever you find someone who's really funny, they don't want to write funny. Almost never. And what's interesting about that is the reason they don't want to write funny is they really do have something to say, and that's the reason they're funny. They have this urge to do something profound, so they get used to thinking of funny as Neil Simon. But what really makes something funny is the fact that it's true, so someone who doesn't have anything to say is not going to be very funny. They may write really good skits. They may do certain kinds of comedy well. But generally, their humor will be skit humor.

You know, they teach you this rule that you have to go through your play and take out the seven funniest lines because they stand out, they draw attention to themselves. That's not true in all cases. It may be true if you have a lot of lines that are funny by themselves, that can be lifted and are just as funny. But much of the humor in The Wall of Water by and large cannot stand by itself. It's only funny in the moment of the play.

AC:Was writing a farce any more terrifying than doing another sort of comedy?

SK: Not really. This play just wrote itself.

AC:When I think of farce, I think of it as having to be so carefully constructed. The house of cards has to be tall enough that when it falls, the enormity of it makes us laugh.

SK: Problems in Act Two are always problems in Act One. So when you've built it well, you're not going to have a problem. Now, The Wall of Water ... It's hard to write a farce with these particular thematic concerns, but that was the deal. That's what I wanted to do, so I can't say, "It was hard to write it." You just hope you've done your work right from the first moment. There were moments when the play could have gone into other directions. The play started to get bigger and bigger and bigger. I started to throw in some more characters, make it wilder. But a farce accelerates not because it's wilder but because you have the pile-up of results. At a certain point, it's all result. The exposition stops, you stop piling the dominos, and the dominos start going over. So by the time you're scared, it's too late. It's either all there or it isn't.

I'd like to write something really, really funny again. It's hard, though. You start off to write something really funny and then you get sort of sidetracked. I haven't sat down and tried to write something funny since The Wall of Water.

AC:Comedy is never unpopular in one sense, because we always have access to comedies of the past. Somebody's always reviving comedies by Shakespeare or Neil Simon, pulling from anywhere in the history of the theatre. But in another sense, there are periods in which new comedy flourishes and periods when it doesn't, and it seems to me we're in a period when there isn't a lot of comedy being generated in the theatre. Is that your sense?

SK: We're in a very issue-oriented time right now, and the problem is that there's only so much air for comedy. High-concept entertainment pieces like The Taffetas and Forever Plaid -- enjoyable evenings in the theatre that are not really plays -- have been taking up a lot of the air, the slots, the space. Also, there are certain kinds of comedy in which we're no longer interested. We're not interested in Noel Coward plays. Who's writing the Noel Coward type of plays? Well, they're on television. Rich people living lives of indolence and abandonment ... all those things are happening on television. So now there's this onus on the theatre to be either really funny or serious. Now, that's a gross generalization. I don't really think about it too much. I know that it gets harder and harder and harder to say a true funny thing because it's immediately co-opted. Things happens so quickly. And what's happening in Washington is so absurd, you can't top it. How could you do anything funnier than that?

AC:This is what supposedly caused Tom Lehrer to stop writing all his delicious little satirical songs. Around 1970, he felt that he couldn't write anything as funny as what was going on in the world.

SK: With all writers, you have to have a place to stand. You have to have a point of view. It's not that you're in opposition to one thing or another, but a lot of what humor draws on is a status quo to rail against. There's no status quo. One of the engines that drives The Wall of Water is my anger against the medical profession and their treatment of the mentally ill. Well, in Minneapolis, in the second production of this play, there was a huge letter-writing campaign of outrage for my making fun of the mentally ill written by mental health-care providers. What's so ironic about that is that I don't make fun of the mentally ill; I make fun of the people who take care of the mentally ill. Which may be just as unfair, but that wasn't the target. Now, what target hasn't already been hit? Making fun of psychiatrists, there was a lot of that in the Eighties. Who bothers now? It's redundant. Which is not to say that my play's dated. [Laughs]

AC:There are so many targets that have been hit. And there are so many more avenues for entertainment than we've ever had before, which is part of what makes it harder and harder to develop something that seems fresh or that seems to be taking on an aspect of life that we haven't already seen addressed a hundred times in other media.

SK: It's not that we're complete junkies for the new, because someone said the definition of original and unique is just true. If something is true, it is original and unique. So theoretically, you can have as many plays about a subject as you want. I mean, look at the Holocaust. It seems inexhaustible, and it didn't used to be this way. It used to be that if a film would come out or a play had been done about a subject and you wrote something about the same thing, it would be "Well, forget that." That's not true anymore. So that's good. On the other hand, the search for the authentic experience seems harder. It seems harder to find the thing which has the moment which connects you to humanity in that special way. It's easier to get jaded because you do often feel like you've seen it all before.

What makes something funny is two things: the surprise -- it's always a surprise, and the engine of the joke is the surprise -- and then the recognition, which comes down to truth. What you recognize is, "Oh, it's true, that's what makes it recognizable." When you're young, everything is a surprise. Which is another reason it is harder to make us laugh now. We've already seen it. It's like a metaphor decays and becomes a cliché, and a truth that we've already recognized loses its power to surprise us and it loses its power to be funny.

AC:What is it that's made this such a serious age?

SK: I don't know. You know, we no longer have a functioning government, we've figured that out, and we no longer have a functioning religion, or at least a religious sense, in this country. I think that theatre is by nature a deeply religious art form, so because we have a non-functional religion -- we have the Religious Right, but the strongest religious people are also the greatest repressers; this should not be news to anyone -- we want someone to have a point of view that's going to make some coherence out of things. So we get the politically correct play, the this-is-supposed-to-uplift-you-and-show-you-the-right-way-to-live play, the lesson play. We're looking for solace or comfort in someone telling us how to believe and how that belief will affect our behavior, someone to tell us what's right and what's wrong. We don't like to admit this. The Sixties were all about nobody having to tell us, which was really just straight out of David Hume. "Nobody has to tell us. Our human hearts will tell us. We are human beings and we know how to behave." And, unfortunately, we don't. So we look to plays for courage now, more than ever. We look to movies for that. What do you think hero worship is all about? "This guy is brave. I can be brave, too. I'm like him. I'm connected in some tiny way." We're desperate for that now. We have no faith at all in any of the heroes we used to have. What are we gonna do?

AC:Send John Glenn back into space.

SK: [Laughs] Poor old man. We've just opened the drain and let everything flow out. It's really hard to make theatre art, I feel, for a large section of the community. That's what you want. Why make it for your friends? Some people want to. My work, unfortunately, is more for other artists than it is for the wide population, in most cases. But David's Redhaired Death: That was a grieving ritual. That play had a job. It had work in the world. And at its best, it's still not a play that's 100% play, or 90% play. At its best, it's about a 75% play. About 25% of the audience will just go, "I don't get that play at all." But another 25% will get that play and need that play deeply. And the other 50% will be in the middle, and they'll have an experience and to varying degrees they'll get something from the play. But for the right 25%, they'll need that and it will be there for them, and that's what a work of art at its best seeks to be. A connector.

AC:Do you get any sense of what we want from comedy these days?

SK: A lot of the best stuff you're going to see these days is the outsider stuff, because when you have something to be in opposition to or to make fun of, when you have that tension of the out and the in, that always works.

AC:Somebody like Chris Rock?

SK: I'm trying to think of who just cracks me up. Steve Martin was never that [the outsider]. Roseanne always was. Saturday Night Live -- 90% of that was, depending on the cast. Dan Aykroyd, yes; Chevy Chase, no. But those are strong personalities. A lot of political humor. The Simpsons. The most brilliant show on television, and it's almost all political humor. It's absolutely brilliant and it has tremendous legs. As you get flatter and flatter characters in a situation, they tend to stand for something, a stereotype. You get the issue of that. The point is that it's always funny when man rails against the gods. Or tragic. [Laughs]

AC:It's one or the other.

SK: It's one or the other. We do a lot of that. But we're in a sort of god-free period. We're down to the corporation or the dollar for our gods.

AC:In your capacity in academia, do you see many young writers being interested in comedy? Are they interested in developing a sense of comedy?

SK: Well, they are. The undergraduates are. In a class of 17, the majority is ... Nobody is interested in being funny as an end. By and large, they're interested in being funny as a means to an end. Using it as a strategy. That's probably the way that I approach it, too. It's not considered noble just to make people laugh. It should be, but it's not.

AC:They should see Sullivan's Travels.

SK: I love Sullivan's Travels! But that has a hu-u-u-ge message.

AC:Yes, it does, but it also says that making people laugh is an end in itself. There are lives out there -- maybe every life -- in need of that kind of release, and even if it's in the form of a cartoon cat and mouse battling each other, if it gives us that release, it has value.

SK: Yes. But part of the problem is to be funny and yet not debase humanity. Neil Simon never does, and that's his other great gift. I can't believe I'm going on about Neil Simon! He loves his characters. He never has to rob them of their humanity. He never makes fun of his characters, and that's hard to do. The other thing about humor, since we're going on about the great worth of humor, is that supposedly if you laugh 100 times -- big laughs -- you'll lose weight. It's an aerobic activity. [Laughs] So I want the posters for The Wall of Water to say, "Come to The Wall of Water and lose weight."

AC:I'm surprised they never worked that into the ad campaign for There's Something About Mary. "Laugh yourself silly and lose weight."

SK: But it takes 100 times, and they have to be big laughs. And I always lose count.

AC:You gotta figure, if you're remembering to count, you're probably not laughing hard enough.

SK: Exactly.

AC:Do you encourage your students that show promise writing comedy?

SK: Oh, yes! It's a gift. You know, Tallulah Bankhead said, "Making someone cry is easy. An onion can make you cry. Show me the vegetable that can make you laugh."

AC: Ba-da boom!

SK: Ba-da boom! [Laughs] It's hard. It's really hard. It's a great gift. You know, in every family there's usually a comedian, and that family member is valued and gets by with murder, as every sibling who's not the family comedian will tell you. There will be secret resentment against the comedian because the kid will be able to get by with murder because he or she will make the parents laugh. The serious, good child will be over in the corner muttering, "I hate you. I hate you." I was the funny child. I was the designated comedian in my family, and my sister hated me for it. I can remember one day when I said something that was really funny and when my parents came home, she said it to them and no one laughed. It's a matter of timing. It's also a matter of expectation -- they didn't think she was funny so they didn't laugh at her. But we grow up treasuring someone who makes us laugh. We see what they get by with. We know that it's a valuable commodity. And someone who's really funny is going to be able to charm, enchant, deliver easier than someone who can make you cry just because of that private nature. Also we never feel manipulated when someone makes us laugh. We often feel manipulated when someone makes us cry.

AC:We're grateful for the laughter.

SK: But we sometimes feel violated by the crying, like, "You weren't supposed to touch me there."

AC: "And I'm not sure you got there honestly."

SK: We never really worry about a dishonest laugh because we've laughed.

AC:Even when the vehicle for the laughter is something that we feel might be improper.

SK: We've still laughed. And we can't take that back.

The Wall of Water runs March 5-12 in the B. Iden Payne Theatre, UT campus. Call 471-1444 for info.

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Sherry Kramer, The Wall Of Water, Comedy, Farce, Modern Farce, Playwriting, Dramatic Structure, University Of Texas Department Of Theatre & Dance, Michener Center For Writers

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