Recently a metaphor for stage comedy came to my mind. Comedy as food.
There are many items I find good to eat. (Not always good FOR me, but I digress.) However, mixing one item that tastes good, with another item that tastes good, does not always produce an appealing product.
I like chocolate bars. I also like cheeseburgers. But a melted chocolate bar on a cheeseburger is not at all appealing. Might even make one gag to try it. That is because the two products clash. They are very distinct flavors that may complement other things, but not each other.
The same is true with comedy.
There are of course, all kinds of comedy, for all kinds of people. Highbrow, lowbrow. Subtle, and in your face. Farce. Slapstick. Dark humor. The point is made. Comedy styles can be mixed together in a book, joke, or production. The mixture only works, however, if the components compliment each other. Just as not all food goes together, neither does all comedy.
People often proceed as though “comedy” were an umbrella term. Such people reason that is a play is a comedy, any gag or line delivery that would be funny in and of itself would blend well into the play’s tone. Like our favorite foods, however, there is a recipe to comedy. While an actor/director should be creative, there must be a framework that should be followed. Rules for combining certain gags need to be implemented. The most important of these rules, is that contrasting styles should not be placed together.
To continue the food analogy further, suppose you have the perfect fudge brownie. Then let’s say you dump the freshest, most high quality black pepper on top of it. Two high quality, popular products are combined, but neither is enhanced by the other. The pepper, good in its own right, overpowers the brownie, and nobody wins.
In short, you end up with a mess. And you will end up with the same thing if you assume all comedy is the same.
Take a high concept dark comedy piece, full of biting wit and razor sharp dialogue. (Say, the Lion in Winter). If someone, for extra laughs, were to have one of the characters enter, and fart loudly, it would ruin things. Some would of course laugh, because taken by itself many people find that funny. But adding it to the wrong show will take away from the entire piece. Just as the pepper over powers the brownie.
This fatal mistake of “laughs at all costs, whenever you can get them” is made on all levels. Directors and actors alike. When it fails, or when the audience is not the mood to dole out sympathy laughs, it is an excruciating thing to observe.
Perhaps the obesity epidemic has its counterpart on stage. A “laugh gluttony”, to coin a phrase. All sorts of gags, lines, facial expression, gesticulations, and the like employed by everyone on the stage all the time, in order to squeeze forth laughs that might not otherwise belong. Ignoring the recipe. And just like with food, in comedy, if you try too do too much too quickly, everything and everyone just ends up getting burned. But whether its food or comic theatre, the only thing that happens when people ignore the recipe and crank the heat up too far, is everything getting burned.