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Plays That Go Wrong in the Night

Farce, slapstick, whatever; it seems to be tolerated on Broadway more that celebrated.

The Play That Goes Wrong

Now in New York and London. One review noted it was similar to Michael Frayn's "Noises Off" except without all the explanation why any of this was happening.

Farce, slapstick, whatever; it seems to be tolerated on Broadway more than celebrated. Though the audience enjoys it.

"One Man, Two Guvnors"

Non-profit theaters in small towns seem to be the least tolerant of farce, on the theory that if you're suffering for your art the least the audience can do is suffer right along with you. I once had a producer of serious non-profit theater apologize to me because his next production was "really funny, but that's all it is."

Patrick Barlow knew how to take a non-funny script for Hitchcock's "The 39 Steps" and make it funny simply(?) by changing the staging. Nothing at all simple about it. That was a redirect to throw you off.

Larry Shue was a popular farceur in the 80s, but his plays are relegated to regional theater these days -- maybe they don't hold up, I haven't checked lately.

Here's Daniel Gonzalez in a scene from Shue's "The Foreigner" where a shy man is terrified of speaking to strangers so he pretends to be unfamiliar with the language. (It's weirder without an audience reacting.)

Tragedy + Time = Comedy + More Time + Culture Awareness = Still Funny?

That's the main problem with comedy: Like any other art, it's based on our shared understanding of humanity, but unlike hate, fear, or love, comedy has a more ephemeral connection to our shared idea of what's funny, which fluxes with what we know of the culture and of tragedy. That's the problem with Chaplin these days: The common assumption is that his films aren't as popular because they're too sentimental, but they're really no more sentimental that most modern things on our screens. The real problem is that a lot of his jokes are based on embarrassment, and 21st century Americans are increasingly hard to embarrass. Take this scene from "The Gold Rush" (1921). After parachute pants and "The Bachelor" and Donald Trump, would we even notice if someone's pants came loose while he was dancing?

The Off-The-Cuff Conundrum

The other development that causes a headache for the modern, underappreciated farceur is the ubiquity of modern improv. Imagine if the wits of the Paris Salons in prior centuries had been wired for sound. Imagine if all those late-night party You-Had-To-Be-There moments when You-Wish-You-Had-Recorded-It had really been recorded. Between cat videos on YouTube and brilliant improv readily available on stage, radio, and podcasts, the idea of a carefully crafted slapstick show requires the visual elements to be really funny. Because, for a purely dialogue-driven routine, it's hard to get funnier than a high-wire, low-budget routine developed off the cuff, such as this one from the Wits Radio Hour in 2012 with Paul F. Tompkins, Aimee Mann, and John Moe:

And now, a trailer for Larry Shue's funny farce "The Nerd" presented here as an example of how hard it is to find good clips of "The Nerd" that give any indication of how funny the thing really can be.