I was fortunate enough to be a performer for The Second City in my hometown of Detroit for two years. Whenever someone in the cast said something particularly memorable – a flub, an inspired line of improv, a comment on a drunk in the audience – we’d scrawl it on the wall of our dressing room with a magic marker. One quote I’ll always remember is “We are the highest form of the lowest art.”
The kind of comedy I’ve always been attracted to – sketch, improv, farce – has its basis in street performing, not in the kind of theatre that concerns itself with the indecisiveness of melancholy Danish Princes and Greek heroes who sleep with their mothers. Our forebears had to get laughs – fast and often – in order to get paid, at best, or not be driven out of town, at worst.
Still, knowing all that, it can be easy to undervalue comedy. God knows Hollywood does. They rake in wheelbarrows full of cash from comedies every year. But will they give them an award? Nope. So whenever you sit down to write comedy, you have to clear that first mental hurdle: Does it matter? Shouldn’t I be writing something “important” that will bring down tyrants, lift up the downtrodden, and be so syllabus-worthy that it will live on to bore high school students who haven’t even been born yet?
Occasionally, when I wasn’t in a scene in a Second City revue, I’d go backstage and peek out through a gap in the set or a hole in the curtain. (Yes, all theatre curtains have holes. Producers hate spending money on curtains.) And I had the opportunity to watch members of the audience laugh at one of my castmates. The best kind were the involuntary belly laughs, people throwing their heads back, mouths wide open, literally roaring with laughter. I’d imagine that guy in the suit had come to the show from a job he hated where the boss had just chewed him out for not meeting his numbers. Maybe the lady on the aisle had gotten bad news about her mom earlier in the week and was overwhelmed by the choices she’d need to face. Maybe that couple in the back were having their first date night out in a year. And, even if it was just for a couple hours, we’d helped them forget their troubles, put things in perspective, and lower their blood pressure.
Does comedy matter? Hell yeah it does.