Editor's Note: As the 2016-17 theater season begins, we like to reflect on the past year's season. To be inspired by the best.
Getting laughs is easy. Being funny is hard.
Walk out on stage and make a fart sound. You’ll get a laugh. Then say, “pee-pee poopy pants.” Pee-pee poopy pants. Pee-pee poopy pants. Pee-pee poopy pants! Easy.
The skilled performer, of course, doesn’t need hilarious dialogue to get laughs. The skilled performer can take words that aren’t funny, but make them sound funny by giving them the cadence of a punchline. And people will laugh. They’ll laugh more, the more they’ve paid for their tickets. They’re invested, you see, in convincing themselves that they’ve made good use of their entertainment dollar, and what better sign of enjoyment is there than a laugh? But their laughter doesn’t mean it’s funny.
Getting laughs is defensive. Being funny is vulnerable.
The actors getting laughs are protecting themselves. Often, they’re using laughs to distance themselves from the characters they play. “This character is so dumb,” they say to the audience. “Look at how foolish this character is. I’m not like that at all, of course. Let’s all laugh at these losers.”
The truly funny actor is putting something real and human and potentially dangerous about themselves on the line. “This is part of me I’m showing you. What do you think?”
Getting laughs obscures. Being funny reveals.
The actors getting laughs use their funny voices, funny faces, funny pauses, and they get laughs. But the laughs often serve to cover up the fact that there’s no real character there, nothing genuinely human. Instead of a character, they present us with a series of bits.
The truly funny actor is always revealing more about who this character is, what the story is, what these relationships are. They strive and yearn and hope and feel.
Getting laughs is transitory. Being funny is eternal.
Shakespeare! Am I right, people? He was both deeply funny and adept at getting laughs. 400 years later, his characters and the situations they find themselves in remain gloriously funny. But the jokes can get pretty tiresome. Did that dude ever hear a cuckold joke he didn’t love?
Getting laughs is predictable. Being funny surprises.
Because getting laughs is often not actually funny, it depends on signifiers to let the audience know when to laugh - the funny sounds and funny faces that we’ve seen and heard and laughed at a thousand times before.
The genuinely funny actor is being human and humans are constantly surprising.
Wendy Lehr is funny.
If you saw her in Glensheen at History Theater, you know what I mean.
She plays a number of roles in Glensheen and many of them are “old lady” roles. These days, Ms. Lehr plays a lot of “old lady” roles. Most recently, she was the kindly aunt in The Heiress and the eccentric Russian countess in You Can’t Take It with You, both at the Jungle Theater. Like those characters, her old ladies in Glensheen are each beautiful drawn, each one distinct, and each one a pleasure to watch.
But old lady roles don’t often give the actor a chance to let it rip. Fortunately, two characters in Glensheen give Ms. Lehr a chance to do just that.
The first isn’t an old lady at all. He’s a hotshot lawyer who, for legal reasons, is in no way meant to represent Ron Meshbesher. He struts and preens and dances around the stage, commanding our attention and compelling our admiration, whether or not it’s deserved. He’s hilarious.
The other is an old lady, the nurse who was murdered along with Elisabeth Congdon. As the nurse, Ms. Lehr comes out and sings a simple little song. It’s not funny at all. And that’s when you see how good Ms. Lehr really is. Because she plays human beings – flawed, weak, ridiculous human beings, like all of us – you see that viewed one way, we are all hilarious. But shift the focus ever so slightly and we are all tragic.
With the actors who simply get laughs, you can very nearly hear the gears grinding when they decide to be serious. They put on their dramatic voices and their dramatic faces and it’s all pretty embarrassing. With a genuinely funny actor like Ms. Lehr, the switch is effortless. The characters all come from the same place. In some cases it has you involuntarily pitching forward in your seat, laughing until the tears run down your cheek. In another case, the tears run down your cheek because your heart is breaking.
I know I’m being a jerk about getting laughs.
Getting laughs is a real skill. Sometimes, getting laughs is what’s called for and if you’re not getting laughs, you’re not doing it right. The actor who gets laughs and the actor who is genuinely funny both know how to get laughs, but with the latter there’s always something else going on – a story is being told, a character is being revealed.
Here in the Twin Cities, we are fortunate to have a lot of very funny actors on stages big and small. And if they sometimes err on the side of just getting laughs, what’s the harm? I know from my own experience how easy it is to get seduced by the siren song of laughter. Laughs provide immediate, gratifying reassurance. And we actors are all pretty beat up, frightened and desperate for approval. A laugh makes everything all right for the moment.
But it’s not all right. The difference between getting laughs and being funny is exactly – probably not exactly – exactly like the difference between sounding patriotic and genuinely loving your country. A major candidate for President of the United States is skilled at putting together words that sound patriotic: Let’s make America great again! But the impulse behind those words is not patriotic at all. It is, instead, anti-American, anti-democratic, anti-civilization.
That’s one reason why I was so thankful to see Wendy Lehr in Glensheen. Her performance was a warning and a lesson and an inspiration. A reminder that being funny is hard, but worthwhile, and, in its way, important. We all need to be more like Wendy Lehr. Civilization hangs in the balance.