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Amy Freed on what's funny and how to get there

Someone once said that dying is easy, comedy is hard. As her new play, 'You, Nero,' is set to premiere at South Coast Rep, the writer talks about what it takes.

January 04, 2009|Amy Freed

I never set out to write comic plays. My themes as a writer are usually serious, even though the delivery is not. I'm often asked about this, which forces me to think about why I write in this way and what comedy is and how it works on me. Each time I do this, it's with some caution: A writer's voice is like a fingerprint of the mind, conscious and unconscious -- and it's dangerous to know too clearly what makes you tick. But when I sneak a peek between my fingers at my own process and voice, this much I see.

I wrote my first play, "Still Warm," standing up at the cash register in the hotel bar where I was working as a waitress. After some pretty crushing years, it was becoming clear to me that my talents were too frail and my courage too limited to ever fulfill my dreams of being an actress. And time was running out. The first image of the first play I ever wrote was that of a woman in Hell crawling out of an overturned car where she'd just drowned in 6 inches of muddy water. She could get out of Hell if only she could renounce her ambition.

My play was about the newscaster Jessica Savitch, of course, not me. Although the piece was incredibly flawed, wild and ugly, it was alive. Painful, sure. But because it was born of a need to expose -- and because exposure is bringing darkness to light -- it had a macabre exuberance to it, and was, in its weird way, celebratory. Comedy always moves toward the light, even when a character might be moving into the dark.

In comedy, we deal with the unmanageable person within -- the posturing ego, the inner crazy person, the howling child, the monster. When you write comedy, you must surrender your grandiosity and your aspiration to be thought important and beautiful, even though every person on the face of the Earth wants to be exactly that.

In my latest play, "You, Nero," which deals with the effect Nero had on the theater scene in ancient Rome, I wrote a speech for the Ghost of Agrippina, the emperor's mother. It was modeled on the great death speeches in Shakespeare. I wanted it to have the flavor of Gertrude's description of Ophelia's death in "Hamlet." The speech is satire, of course, but how I worked on it! It took me days. The phrasing at times brought a thrill and a flush of pride. I cherished it. I studied similar speeches, listened to the assonance, the matching sounds, the changes in meter, and I learned from them. I chose my words with as much elegance and precision as I am capable of. And now, undercut by a key phrase or two, they will become a source of comedy in the play, delivered by an actor who is blessed by the Ridiculous Muse.

My point is, the nature of the investment in comedy is as whole-hearted and emotionally sincere, up to the final tweak of consciousness, as in high art or tragedy.

This is equally true for comic performance and production. When a stage comedy is playing really well, the performers and the audience go into a kind of altered state. There's a sense that nothing can go wrong. Huge choices are not too much, and tiny choices explode the house into sheer delight. Everything seems to communicate, and a willing suspension of disbelief allows us to buy anything. At the same time, no false goods are being sold to us. Good faith on both sides of the footlights abounds. It's fantastic to watch how an audience hangs on each thought of gifted farceurs and seems to read their intentions and inner life even in the way they draw breath. . . .

But getting to that point of seeming effortlessness takes days and days of precision work. Previews are full of strange mysteries: Why did they laugh there? What was funny about that? Why didn't they laugh there? That should be funny.

Sometimes the answers are simple: They didn't laugh because they could see only one of the actor's eyes, and they need to see both. (That in itself is a mystery: For some reason, it's hard to land a laugh in profile.)

At other times, the line might not be funny (my fault) or it might be funny but not in a way that earns spontaneous laughs (also my fault). There's a variety of absurdity, for example, that works well on the page and in the rehearsal room but that flops on stage.

At still other times, the missing laugh has to do with the actor's delivery, which brings up a slew of intricate, maddening, fascinating questions about pacing, pausing, pointing by gesture after the key word, or sometimes before the word, more rarely on the word. The problem might be physical. An actor might diffuse a laugh by moving on the line -- or diffuse another actor's laugh by moving on the line, or stepping on it. Some actors even do that on purpose, to deny a laugh to a colleague. Those actors, thankfully, are the exception.

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