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Monday, December 10, 2012

4 Seconds

Apparently, that's the secret.  That's what you need to know.  That's it.  That's all.

I don't know why it offended me the way it did.  I don't know why I was taken aback, soured, instantly priggish and resentful and almost insulted.  But I was.  I'm like that sometimes. 

I was at a rehearsal for a Gilbert & Sullivan roadshow.  I hate doing roadshows.  To me, they're like a pimple that becomes infected and then results in the immediate amputation of the affected body part.  Roadshows start out small, innocuous and barely problematic.  "Oh, it's just this and that and it'll be thus and so and then it'll be over."  And then it turns into more songs than you were comfortable with, songs you've never done before, then all of a sudden there's costumes and props and blocking and -gasp!- CHOREOGRAPHY.

(I don't do choreography.  Because it involves feet.  I do not have feet.  I have ankles, attached to biscuit-tins)

And then they tell you where the roadshow is.  It's in some godassfucked place you've never heard of and it's for a bunch of elderly people who'll be watching you while peeing in their pants, and not because they find Gilbert's searing humor funny.  They can't hear it anyway. 

And I know all this, but I agree to do roadshows because, well, I love G&S and I'd do it on the equator or inside a toilet bowl and because, you know, I'm an idiot. 

So, I'm at this rehearsal last night and a colleague of mine leans into me and proffers a tidbit of G&S trivia/advice after I'd just sung a patter song.  I guess I immediately got my back up because I don't like it very much when fellow performers give advice.  That's why we have directors, so other performers don't fillet each other in the dressing room.  Anyway, he was trying to be helpful, and I like him, so I suffered through the following well-meaning anecdote.

"You know, Kenneth Sandford said that in this moment onstage that he shared with Katisha in 'The Mikado' that if he waited four seconds before responding after Katisha said, 'My face is plain' with his line 'It is' that he got the most laughs.  So you should really wait four seconds before doing your bit in the 'Little List' song."

And I smiled politely and said that I would try it.  And I won't. 

I guess I just don't understand.  I guess I'm still a petulant, truculent, pain-in-the-ass boy who bristled at the Theatre Chair's suggestion that I go get an MFA in playwriting all those years ago.  ("Why should I do that?  Can't I write plays now?")  Don't give me advice, even if I love and respect you.  Your breath shall be wasted, I promise.  And don't tell me cute stories about world-renowned operetta stars, because I hate them-- the stories and the people-- because I will never ever come close to them, whether I wait four seconds or not.

Mediocrities everywhere: I absolve you.  I absolve you, all.

I suppose what annoyed me most was that, to me, comedy is so much more than that-- it's so much more than math.  Four seconds or three or six.  That's not comedy.  That's counting.  And I don't care if you're Kenneth Sandford or not but, if you're standing up there on stage going "1 Mississippi, 2 Mississippi" or whatever English people say when they're counting, you're not acting.  You're not in the moment.  You're not up there having a conversation with Katisha and regarding her face.  Likewise, comedy cannot be distilled that way-- it's cheap and it's false and it's crude.  It negates all the other work that a performer does-- what about the slight cock of the head, the crook of the neck, the barely observable lift of the left eyebrow?  The thinning of the lip.  The blunted smile, the sideways glance.  Inflection, nuance, tone-- there is so much more.  It's timing, not time. 

I can't explain it.  I can do it-- sometimes-- and sometimes I can't.  Some nights a moment gets a laugh and some nights the same moment doesn't.  Maybe it works and maybe it doesn't.  And what defines a moment "working"-- five people out there cackling hysterically for six seconds or a quarter of the audience tittering while others sit with a satisfied, knowing grin?  And others, still in the dark.

Maybe I'm reading too much into it.  Maybe I take comedy too seriously.  Maybe it's just a quaint anecdote tucked away in a G&S bible, oft repeated by the minions and the minyans.  And maybe I'm just jealous.  Because nobody is ever going to quote a passage from this blog to anybody else as an example of what one should think or say or do about comedy. 

No, I'm definitely jealous.

I suppose I'll grow up one day-- maturing, they call it-- and I'll forget what I know because I use it so infrequently, and I'll turn to the tomes to read about what others who came before me knew, and I'll quote their quaintness to young and lithe performers who will be my age now.  And I'll forget to trim my nosehairs, too, because that's the way these things go. 

1 Mississippi.  2.

Sometimes I'm sure I know what funny is-- I can make my wife laugh after nearly ten years.  I can make strangers laugh-- old friends who know the innuendo before I do, and newish ones, too, who are just figuring out my stilted, self-effacing delivery.  Sometimes the humor's Jewish, sometimes it's vulgar, sometimes it's in rhyme while I'm prancing around like the English prat I wish I could be and be paid for it.  Sometimes it's an accident. 

My face is plain.  And I want to ride the bike myself like a big boy.  Look, ma.  No hands.  Look at me go.

I know I'll never be as funny as Kenneth Sandford, or John Reed, or Martyn Green or George Grossmith-- and I guess I don't want to.  Because I don't listen to my elders, or yours.  I don't have four seconds these days anyway.

3 Mississippi.


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