Tag Archives: role-type violations

Humor from Role-Type Violations

[The recent success of Britain’s Mischief Theater Company in stage and video productions around the world is a reassuring reminder that the norms of comedy are alive and well.  As this essay suggests, comedy often flows from simple violations of what an audience might expect. It can be funny to see someone gleefully ransack the minor social conventions the rest of us are so careful to observe.]

There are many theories of comedy, and no shortage of academics and philosophers who have weighed in. As the cliché goes, it’s a serious subject. My favorite theory of humor in  dramatic settings proposes that our impulse to laugh flows from observing settings where individual actions violate normative expectations. We watch a play or film. The character that an actor is playing seems to be a recognizable type, perhaps a businessperson, a young suitor or a priest.  Comedy is often born in these surroundings when earnest characters fail to enact social scripts they have supposedly mastered.  That’s the premise of Mischief Theater’s The Play that Goes Wrong (2012), where crack actors portray members of an amateur troop that bungles a story that is supposed to be serious.

In traditional comedies the actions usually can’t be dire or cruel. But when a puffed up socialite gliding through a hotel lobby slips on a banana peel, that’s funny.  If the same thing happens to a child, not so much. The humor lies in the punctured dignity of the socialite’s pratfall.  It reminds us of the distance between who someone aspires to be and the mortal that they are, and it’s the essence of farce.

This is the set-up facing an earnest and tuxedoed Henry Fonda in Preston Sturges’ The Lady Eve (1949).  He has dressed to be the perfect suitor for a shrewd young woman he wants to impress. The setting of a party is the right place to make the impression. But he just can’t quite pull it off.

Sometimes its words rather than behaviors that can be the source of violated expectations.  When Rowan Atkinson’s Father Gerald tries to perform his first nuptials in Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994) it becomes clear that the nervous priest has come up short in finding for the familiar language needed to help the equally jittery groom:

Another variation on the mismatch between a scene action  is to introduce into familiar surroundings a character who is physically or temperamentally out of place. Charlie Chaplin continually put his scruffy Tramp in reasonably affluent settings that emphasized the pathos of a kind little man facing a much tougher world. The contrast was greatest when he costars where beautiful women such as Virginia Cherrill in City Lights (1931) and Paulette Goddard in Modern Times (1936). The effect of his efforts to romance them is both funny and sentimental.

Groucho Marx and Robin Williams created types defined more by their manic times. The often brilliant stream-of-consciousness riffs of Williams were at least echoes to the wisecracks and double-entendres that poured out of Groucho. In both cases there is comic power in characters who could leave the occupants in a well-ordered room looking like they just survived a tornado.

And, of course, that’s the point.  Comedy may seem to be only a source of passing amusement. But it is also a form of discourse that reminds us of how much social life relies on prescribed rules of conduct.

red bar

Going Solo

                          Leonard Bernstein

There must be nothing quite so daunting as standing in the wings, alone and ready to face high expectations.

All of us have experienced what it’s like to be the main event. The stakes can be small, as in a presentation to a class.  Or they can get quite large, if hundreds or potentially thousands are interested in what you have to say or sing.

We should reserve special appreciation to performers who are essentially solo acts, carrying the weight of an anticipated event on the strength of their singular effort. Among other challenges, there must be nothing quite so daunting as being a singer, standing in the wings, ready to perform songs that everyone thinks they already know. Pyrotechnics and backup singers can help bale out a weak pop performer. But most audiences are sophisticated enough to detect the difference between the real deal and a performance that seems less than authentically live.


Producer John McClure had clearly not counted on the slow humiliation of Carreras

The opening of West Side Story a few days ago in New York reminded me of a lonely moment for a performer singing the same show in 1984.  The  Spanish opera star Jose Carreras was in RCA’s New York studios with other singers and an orchestra recording Leonard Bernstein’s score of the musical for the prestigious Deutsche Gramophone label.  Of course no one less than the composer himself was on hand to conduct.  Bernstein had never had the chance to lead a cast through the music of his  show.

The label apparently thought that it would be a nice touch to make a video of some of the studio work as the tracks were carefully laid down.  But producer John McClure had clearly not counted on the slow humiliation of Carreras trying to sing Something’s Coming as the teenage Tony. Carreras simply couldn’t get the tricky rhythm woven throughout the score, one that was second nature to Bernstein. Sitting in the control room, McClure takes his own lumps from the maestro.

Take after take is botched and increasingly registered on the face of a frustrated Bernstein. Not only was Carreras’ diction alien and too formal for the Hell’s Kitchen character, but his execution of the dotted-note rhythms was blocky rather than the “hip.” Classical orchestras and singers generally have a hard time performing the looser and more improvisational style of American pop and jazz.  And this was surely Bernstein’s version of jazz.

People looking at the clip on YouTube at the bottom of this piece will find a singer from a different cultural and musical heritage whose ear was apparently never trained to hear generic syncopation that dominated American music when Bernstein wrote his score. It wasn’t that the music was supposed to swing. But it needed a kind of breathless spontaneity that was nonetheless in perfect time.  Had Carreras grown up listening to Mel Torme or Sammy Davis Jr., he probably would have been fine.

The program that aired on PBS raised the ire of many who thought Bernstein was being purposefully difficult.  I don’t see that.  But we do see what happens when a label and conductor miscast a piece in order to have a big name to splash on their album cover.

Carreras has gone on to have an impressive career in the operatic realm he has so easily mastered.