When you actually think about it, most things that are funny are not really. Funny business involves heightened degrees of chaos, pain, humiliation and lots of other things which are not funny at all. Punch hitting Judy is funny—and it's also domestic violence. Man slips on banana peel is funny—and very likely an expensive hospital bill. Yosemite Sam sticking his head in a cannon that Bugs Bunny fires is funny. Wily Coyote plunging repeatedly to his death is funny. And so on. Two thirds of the way through The Lying Kind, our new show at THEATREWORKS, one of the constables turns to his partner and says, "This is like some kind of nightmare." And for them it is. In less than a half an hour of trying to tactfully deliver some tragic news, things have gone from very bad to much worse. There's a mad old lady haunting the house. There's an old man with a bad heart who could go any second. There's a vicar stuffed in the closet, and one of the policemen has just killed a dog. It's like some kind of nightmare. For them. For us it's a dream come true. It's a farce. The worse it gets for them, the better it gets for us. That's the way it goes in comedy.
I don't mean to say that audiences are sadistic, though perhaps they are. Studies (do we ever need them?) have shown that comedy is one of the most bonding experiences a community can have. We relax together, we share, something is triggered in the hippocampus, 15 facial muscles are activated, along with the zygomatic major muscle: we laugh. And usually all this instant activity is at someone else's expense. Of course we usually know that everyone is going to be all right in the end—mostly. Even so, laughter is often one of the most transgressive and transformational experiences we have. Laughter can go almost anywhere, especially where it has no business going. The day after the space shuttle tragically exploded, I saw a message etched in the paint in a men's room at the university which said, "Challenger, we will never forget you." The next day in the same place, someone had written below, "Uh, what was Challenger anyway?" It was awful. And it was funny.
Just as the unthinkably horrible can become funny, so the fabulously funny can be horrific. Years ago I went to a London matinee of Noises Off. It's just possibly the funniest play written in the last 50 years, and this revival had a first rate cast. But mysteriously, something went wrong. Was it the small house, the hot theatre, or just an off night? I don't know. Noises Off is about a theatre company performing a mediocre English farce called Nothing On, and its three acts show the cast in progressive stages of disintegration, each of which is funnier than its predecessor. But this afternoon each act took the audience further into a surreal world which somehow wasn't funny at all. In the end people were staggering around the stage and we all felt liked we'd been trapped in hell. More like a nightmare, really. I had a chance to mention this to the playwright on a later occasion, and he said he thought farce was just next door to the existential absurd, just as our orderly lives are only a step away from chaos. It's the chance every comedian takes.
Years ago at a family gathering, I made a rather tactless joke which I shall not repeat here. It got a few laughs around the fireplace, but my daughter in law said, 'MURRAY, THAT''S NOT FUNNY!" Immediately I said, YES IT IS TOO FUNNY!, knowing that if it wasn't funny it had to be dreadful and offensive. And so it proved. The result was a small rift that lasted a decade. I had not known of a nerve my bon mot struck. Again, a few months ago, I found a wonderful actor in Denver to play the part of Balthasar in The Lying Kind. He was available and he loved the scene he read from. But two days later he turned me down when I offerred him the role. He had read the whole play, and learned that its villain is a woman who is zealous in pursuit of pedophiles. "But it's funny!" I said—"and it's not making fun of sexual abuse. It's making fun of self righteous vigilantes." He agreed, but then told me his grandaughter had recently been abused, and he was spending some time taking care of her. It wasn't so funny anymore, certainly not for him.
Let's let Shakespeare have the last word on this—he's good at that. In the final scene of Love's Labour's Lost, one of his witty women explains it all to a merry lord whose latest joke has fallen flat: "A jest's prosperity lies in the ear/ Of him that hears it, never in the tongue/Of him that makes it." True enough, as I once learned to my regret.
So perhaps I should say if you have recent and traumatic experiences with pedophiles or the death of children you might not find this play to your liking. Otherwise, I think you'd just as soon come along and see The Lying Kind. The cast is brilliant. It's one enormous disaster in a little room in England, compounding by the second. It's quite awful, really. But I believe its jests will prosper in your ears—and eyes. It's very funny.