Tag Archives: satire

The Show Must Go On

The day after September 11, 2001, I had class at the Second City Conservatory. I sat in Donny’s Skybox with my classmates and we all talked about what the hell had just happened. We were too stunned to function.

After a tragedy, it’s difficult to think about comedy. Performers, just like everyone else, need time to grieve and process the unthinkable. I am thankful that our teacher, Michael Gellman, allowed us to blow off the lesson plan to talk about our shared grief and pain and anger and feelings of helplessness.

As our class time neared an end, we realized we were facing a monumental task. That weekend, we were set to perform an improv show. How could we be funny after we’d all had the wind knocked out of us? Should we cancel the show?

Silence fell over the room as we searched each other’s eyes for the answer.

“Fuck it,” Gellman said, “We’re satirists.”

The show must go on.

This week, America elected a president whose values run contrary to what many of us hold dear. Comedians are there to champion the little guy, to “punch up” and speak truth to power. Donald Trump’s victory feels like watching the end of “Karate Kid,” except with the climactic crane kick going wide right. Then Johnny punches Daniel-san in the dick, grabs Elisabeth Shue by the pussy and deports Mr. Miyagi. The rich asshole won.

After the shock came the fear. Our gay and black and Jewish friends were terrified. Latinos and Muslims worried about deportation or worse. In the year 2016, actual Americans spray-painted racial slurs, shouted misogyny and wrote homophobic letters to their neighbors. In schools and on playgrounds, hate speech drove minority children to tears. To be fair, some anti-Trump protesters have also behaved horribly. It was like when they turned off the containment grid at the end of “Ghostbusters” and all the cooped-up demons flew out. Every pent-up awful thought was suddenly set free by the election of a man who captured the White House by being an unapologetic hate goblin. “If he can do it and become the president, I can do it and claim power, too!”

The sketch team I’m directing expressed wariness about performing their show less than 48 hours after we’d all taken the greatest political gut-punch of our lives.

Fuck it. We’re satirists. 

The show must go on. 

So they performed and people laughed. For 55 minutes, the warm darkness embraced the audience and the team stood bravely under the lights and shared their art. An ad-libbed Trump reference didn’t land. Still too soon, I suppose.

Being funny is incredibly hard. It’s even harder when your heart is breaking. All across this country, comedians are fighting through fear and carving a path through anger to find that nugget of humor that will make everything feel better again. It will happen in time.

Mark Twain once said, “Against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand.” That’s our job: to load up our quiver with razor-tipped arrows and to take direct aim at oppression and hate and bigotry. When evil is on the march, mockery scatters the parade. So take those feelings and pour them out into videos and scripts and sketches and improvised scenes. Help your fellow Americans find a way to laugh at the thing that scares them. Comedy heals and there is a great sickness in the land.

There has never been an easier target. He’s old and white and rich. His hair looks like wheat-flavored cotton candy. He uses Tang as a facial scrub. He thinks dangling his neckties eight inches below his belt line will somehow compensate for his micropenis. His male heirs look like sentient JC Penney catalogs from 1987. His wife, God bless her, has to fuck this monstrosity until the CIA can decipher her Morse code blinks for help. His hands are so tiny, he’ll need an assist from Mike Pence just to get enough leverage to fully depress the buttons on his phone. We get to tee off on this asshole for four years while he drives the country off a cliff.

The time for mourning has passed. The time for comedy has arrived. Lend your voice to the crusade. Make fun of what you fear. Help your fellow Americans heal. And for the love of God, VOTE, even when the presidency isn’t up for grabs.

Fuck it. We’re satirists. 

The show must go on. 

If you’d like to learn directly from me, I’m teaching Level One at Chicago’s Under the Gun Theater starting in December. Register here. Save $25 by enrolling before November 14 with the code “early.”

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Comedy is a Trojan Horse

For the last few months, I’ve been coaching a team through the process of generating a ton of sketch material.  While most capable comic minds can come up with a funny premise for a scene, that alone doesn’t always provide enough material.

Before we proceed, it’s important to highlight this quote from the late, great Roger Ebert: “It’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it is about it.”

That is to say Boogie Nights isn’t about porn stars, it’s about how all of us (even porn stars) can form a surrogate family.  E.T. isn’t about an alien, it’s about a longing to connect.  Citizen Kane isn’t about a newspaper baron, it’s about how adult pursuits are often just a poor substitute for the joys we had as children.

To create a scene that resonates, you need to speak to a larger issue.  Take Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks.  On the surface, it’s just a scene about a guy who walks funny.  But the context of the scene tells the larger story.  It’s really about the absurdity of government interference and regulation.

Of course, there can be straight absurdist comedy, as in Python’s Fish Slapping Dance, but that lasts 15 seconds.  It’s merely a palate cleanser.

Being odd for the sake of being odd does have a place in comedy, but to build a sketch show, it’s probably wise to use that as a spice and not the whole meal.

One of the players I coach wrote a scene about a girl who travels back in time and is eating lunch with other girls in 1985.  While the ’85 girls talk about how much they love Bill Cosby and Michael Jackson, the 2015 girl has to wrestle with whether to tell the truth about the 2015 reputations of the then-universally-beloved stars.

The first draft of this scene had the girl from the present spilling those stars’ secrets to the girls of the past.  Predictably, the ’85 girls refused to believe it.  But what are we saying about this situation?

The second draft of the scene focused on how the present-day girl was ostracized for what she said.  The ’85 girls hurled insults at her and forced her to sit at another lunch table.  Now we’ve got something.  The scene forces us to question which beloved stars of today could become tarnished in 30 years.  And we can feel sympathy for the character who says something unpopular and suffers the consequences, even though she’s right.

As artists, it’s our job to reflect the world around us.  As comic performers, we get to hide that reflection inside a Trojan horse of laughter.  Truly great comedy can change the world.

Take these two similar Key and Peele scenes…

The first is pure silliness.  I would argue the second is the stronger scene.  The idea that African-Americans sometimes have unique/unusual names is nothing new.  It doesn’t take a comic genius to point that out.  What’s great about the second scene is that it takes the same mechanism (mocking a group of people for their names) and flips it backward.  Yes, white people, that is how it must feel to have someone react strangely to your name.  This scene may make you think twice before mocking someone’s name in the future.  That’s comic genius.

When constructing a scene, select an observation about the world (e.g. the public school system is broken, wage inequality is a serious problem, racism isn’t going away).  Then decide what you want to say about it.  Then devise an unexpected way to make that point.  Getting back to Ebert’s observation, how are you going to convince the audience of your point?

When Jonathan Swift wanted to draw attention to Irish poverty, he wrote A Modest Proposal, wherein he advocated rich people should eat Irish babies.  Just imagine being a rich person 1729 and reading that suggestion.  “Eat Irish babies?  I would never!  Irish babies are people and they deserve to be taken care of.”  That quickly, your attitude goes from ignorance to caring.  And that’s the power of a well-constructed satirical idea.

Got an improv/sketch question?  E-mail me at boilingpointimprov[at]gmail.com