The 46th Super Bowl was in Indianapolis for the first time this whole past week. The game itself is happening as I write this on Sunday night, but I confess I don’t care much about that. However, some of the people that I’ve written about here on Indy Theatre Habit over the years will be performing with Madonna in her halftime show. THAT makes me wish I still had TV in my home. And many, MANY more of my fellow Hoosiers worked hard to make sure that everyone involved with the Super Bowl – from fans to players to owners to media and more – had a fun, safe, rewarding time all week, starting last weekend. I admire the heck out of all of them.
So I’m going to resist the urge that sometimes comes over me to make fun of professional sports and tell you instead that I’ve been thinking a lot about humor in general.
What makes a show funny?
Last Sunday I saw two very funny shows: “Current Economic Conditions” (written by Don Zolidis and directed by Bryan Fonseca, runs through February 12, 2012 at the Phoenix Theatre) and “Debbie Does Dallas: the Musical” (book by Susan L. Schwartz, music composed by Andrew Sherman with additional lyrics by Tom Kitt and Jonathan Callicut, directed by Andrew Ranck, music/vocal directed by Roger Smith, ran through last night at Theatre on the Square.)
Because I saw them on the same day, I was struck by the fact that they each made me laugh often and hard, yet they were very different from each other.
“Current Economic Conditions”
In “Current Economic Conditions,” a 26-year-old woman named Lily (Maria Souza-Eglen) loses her publishing job in Brooklyn and has to move back in with her parents in upstate New York (I think it was) while she looks for another job.
Her childhood room is unchanged and so is her parents’ (Charles Goad and Jen Alexander) perception of her as an adolescent. There are all kinds of things related to these two facts that made me laugh because I could relate to Lily’s outrage. Jim and Elaine set a curfew, for example, and threaten to “ground” her. Please.
But Lily hasn’t grown up as much as she thinks, either. Yes, she was street smart enough to handle living in Brooklyn and her parents really should not wait up for her any more when she goes out at night. But she spent her money on tattoos instead of paying off the cash advances on her credit card and now she expects her parents to pay it off. Stuff like this made me laugh because I could relate to her parents’ outrage.
These are only a few examples.
So…one reason it is easy to relax and laugh often during this play is that no one is the “bad guy” here. The playwright makes gentle fun of both generations and you can relate on some level to everyone, including Lily’s new boyfriend, Charles (John Goodson), a sweet cutie who is also living at home with his folks while he looks for a job. No one in this story is completely mature or completely immature. No one is a stereotype or a one-joke character.
I also laughed because the playwright pokes fun equally at different generations in the workplace. Lily spends time at her job at the beginning of the play writing about her boredom on Facebook instead of taking the initiative to get the training she needs to do her job well, but her boss (Cindy Phillips) is an HR nightmare waiting to happen, too.
Another thing that makes the script funny is that two of the cast (Cindy Phillips and Bill Simmons) play multiple roles. I laughed until I hurt at Bill Simmons’ portrayal of Lily’s fantasy boss, for example. He is a cross between the dashing hero in a bodice-ripper romance novel and a self-esteem guru. Oh, my, I am laughing again, remembering.
All six members of the cast are hilarious: so very, very funny in their timing, delivery, movements, and more. Sunday was my second time to see this production. I laughed just as much or even a little bit more the second time.
I loved “Current Economic Conditions.” It made me laugh because it was smart, fair, compassionate, insightful, sexy…
So why did “Debbie Does Dallas: the Musical” make me laugh?
“Debbie Does Dallas: the Musical”
This piece (yes, I’m using that word…let the double-entendres begin!) is based on the famous 1970s porn film. The stage musical is not exactly pornographic in that nobody takes off all of their clothes and you don’t actually see people having sex, but it did make me blush while I laughed.
It is about a high school cheerleader, Debbie (Emily Bohannon), that wants more than anything to become a cheerleader for the Dallas Cowboys professional football team but she doesn’t have the money to travel to the try-outs. She and her frenemies on the high school cheerleading team (Andrea Heiden, Linda Heiden, Maria Meschi, and Betsy A. Norton) discover that they can earn money by going to more and more sexual bases (yes, I’m mixing sports metaphors) with men (Carl Cooper, Ryan Dunn, and Rich Tunnell) who will gratefully pay them big wads of cash for it. To stiffen the plot a bit, Debbie has never gone all the way with her boyfriend, Rick (Zachary Joyce), but he wants to, real bad. One of the other cheerleaders, Lisa (Maria Meschi), wants to take advantage of this conflict.
I almost didn’t go see this show because I was afraid it would be stupid-funny and therefore embarrassing-funny rather than truly funny. Fortunately, though, it was funny in a way that made me laugh honestly and often, in an engaged way.
I think the secret of this show’s success is that it pokes fun at pornography in a way that doesn’t make audience members feel ashamed of being curious about porn or ashamed of enjoying whatever pornography they may have enjoyed in real life. But nor is it deeply reflective or politically correct. The cheerleaders are all “good girls,” whatever that means, but showers are meant to be shared in this show and candles are meant to do more than one thing.
I also think the humor in this show works because it taps into a kind of nostalgia, at least for people my age and older. The show is set in 1978. The pre-show music and slides made me wonder whatever happened to my high school boyfriend. The show itself reminded me that:
In 1979, when I was a college freshman, some guys in one of the dorms got permission to show the X-rated movie “Deep Throat” and charge admission to raise money for some worthy cause. The guys sent away for the movie and rented a projector. In the middle of the movie the lights came on and the audience had to wait while someone changed one huge metal reel of film for another.
This was before the Internet, before personal computers of any kind, so I and most undergrads I knew had seen very little porn before we arrived on campus. I went to see “Deep Throat” with a group of people from my dorm. I don’t think any of us enjoyed “Deep Throat” as a movie all that much, but we felt sophisticated and collegiate, going to see it. Some of us were very quiet on the walk back while others tried to discuss “the film” seriously as a work of art and/or in terms of its feminist implications.
I think “Debbie Does Dallas: the Musical” pokes subtle, affectionate fun at that pre-Internet innocence and earnestness. Or something.
Anyway, I enjoyed “Debbie Does Dallas: the Musical” very much, even though I had never seen anything like it on stage.
My only real disappointment with this show was that there wasn’t more singing and dancing. For a “musical,” there are relatively few songs. What singing there was in this production was lovely. I enjoyed Erin Cohenour’s choreography, too, but wish I could have seen more of it.
In the End
Who was it that said a comedic film has a harder time winning an Academy Award than a drama because everyone feels the same about loss and heartache but humor is unique to each person? (Whoever said it, I’m sure he or she said it more eloquently!)
In the end, I guess I don’t want to over-analyze why a show makes me laugh, I just want to laugh. “Current Economic Conditions” and “Debbie Does Dallas: the Musical” both did that for me.
‘See you at the theatres…
Hope Baugh – www.IndyTheatreHabit.com
Oh! P.S. – By the time I finished writing this post, the Super Bowl was over, too. Congratulations to the Giants for winning the first Super Bowl game held in Indianapolis. Congratulations even more to everyone involved with Madonna’s half-time show. I saw it on YouTube not long after it was performed this evening. How exciting and wonderful! Good job, Madonna! Good job, local talent!
(Photo above is of Maria Souza-Eglen and John Goodson in “Current Economic Conditions.” It was taken by Zach Rosing and provided to me by the Phoenix Theatre.)