Comedy

Comedy is booming

Character and Comedy

I believe, that in drama, the revealing of character and what it is that moves the listener to laughter have much in common. I first came to the conclusion, that the best audio comedy takes the form of a gradual recognition on the part of the listener, when I produced a series of autobiographical comedies by the probation officer and journalist, Geoffrey Parkinson. These are the most appealing and compassionate kinds of comedy, in which the subject laughs at himself. My favourite scene is when as a teenager he joins a youth club and wants to attract a girl:
Geoffrey Parkinson
Laurence Olivier
Merle Oberon
Heathcliffe at Cathy's deathbed
GEOFFREY: Around that time, I’d just read Emily Bronte’s ‘Wurthering Heights’. I also went to see Laurence Olivier as Heathcliffe and Merle Oberon as Cathy in the film at the local Odeon. What a film that was and what an effect it was to have.

EXCERPT FROM THE FILM’S ORIGINAL SOUND-TRACK: WITH LAURENCE OLIVIER AS HEATHCLIFFE AND MERLE OBERON AS CATHY

HEATHCLIFFE: Why isn’t there the smell of heather in your hair?
CATHY: Oh, Heathcliffe, why won’t you let me come near you? You’re not dirty and horrible as they all think. You’re full of pain. I can make you happy. Let me try. You won’t regret it. I’ll be your slave. I can bring life back to you.
HEATHCLIFFE: Why are your eyes always empty?

TAKE THE FILM SOUND-TRACK BACK BEHIND GEOFFREY’S NARRATION AND GRADUALLY LOSE IT.

GEOFFREY: (NARRATING) Sitting in the front stalls and absorbing all the high drama, an idea occurred to me. Now although I didn’t feel I stood a dog’s chance of attracting any girls on my own merits, it seemed possible, just possible, that if I could present myself to them as an imitation of Heathcliffe, even as an imitation of Laurence Olivier, I might possibly make some sort of headway. At nights in my bedroom I tried, not very successfully, to imitate his beautiful, carefully delineated voice.

SCENE: GEOFFREY’S BEDROOM.

GEOFFREY: (ALOUD) Your hair smells of the heather, Cathy. No. Your hair! – (BUT HIS VOICE TURNS INTO A SQUAWK) Your hair – (STILL NOT CONVINCED) Oh blast! (PAUSE) Your hair smells…. that’s better. Your hair smells of the heather.

(NARRATING) When I tried the Heathcliffe touch with the dumpy little blonde girl at the youth club, the result was slightly embarrassing.

SCENE: YOUTH CLUB

GEOFFREY: (OLIVIER IMITATION) Can I get you a cup of coffee, Mary?
MARY: I don’t mind.
GEOFFREY: You like coffee, Mary?
MARY: Are you feeling all right?
GEOFFREY: Feeling all right, Mary?
MARY: Have you got a cold or something?
GEOFFREY: No. Why?
MARY: You sound different.
The humour has a slow burn to it. It only occasionally makes us laugh out loud, but it keeps a grin on our faces. It is based on recognition. Perhaps you, dear reader, can imagine yourself or others being in a similar situation.

Situation Comedy

Alick Rowe

As you read and listen to the scene imagine your own pictures. They may be quite different and more vivid and colourful than the images below.

King Wenceslas at his window. Picture by William Stobbs
King Wenceslas and his page
deep snow
Poor man gathering winter fuel by Jessie M. King
Saint Agnes of Bohemia
Saint Agnes tending the sick
Kohl's Fountain, Prague
Horse Fountain, Teplice, North Bohemia
Fountain in Marienbad
Forth they went together
Brightly shone the moon
Noise machine
Pyrenean Mountain Dog
The Non-conforming Non-conformist could be said to be a comedy of character. There are some excellent radio comedies, where it is the situation even more than the characters that make us chortle. One such is Crisp and Even Brightly by Alick Rowe (although the characters too are hilarious at times). The play purports to be the true story of Good King Wenceslas. It won the Sony Comedy Award and ten years later, Miles Kington, one of the judges, still chortled at the memory of it. It points out the many absurdities and anomalies within the Christmas carol of Good King Wenceslas. I often use the following scene from the play, as an exercise when I am working with students on radio acting. It provides an explanation as to how the carol came to be composed.

(SCENE 11. KITCHEN. FX: A LOUD HAND BELL TOLLS. A SMALL CROWD GATHERS, CHATTING LOUDLY.)

LUDMILLA (QUEEN MOTHER):

(SHOUTING ABOVE THE DIN) Is everybody here and will somebody have that bell silenced? Is everybody here?

(FX: MASSIVE BANGING OF SAUCEPAN WITH SPOON)

CRONE:

Quiet. A bit of quiet in my kitchen.

(SILENCE)

CRONE:

I should think so.

LUDMILLA:

Thank you Crone. Vlad? Good. Otto and Sigmund. Spy? Good. Listen. We have a crisis. Listen. The king is nowhere to be found and there is a page missing.

CRONE:

Isn’t that just typical?

LUDMILLA:

What?

CRONE:

Always the same; just when it gets exciting. Just as you get to the best bit of the book. Just when you are get to know –

LUDMILLA:

(Over-riding) We are here to discover where he may have gone and what must be done; remembering of course that security is notoriously lax during the Christmas period and that Slavnik agents are known to be at hand. Speak.

(THIS SECTION SHOULD MOVE VERY FAST)

OTTO:

We saw him, Lady, up at his window.

SIGMUND:

This evening, early on.

LUDMILLA:

What were the conditions?

OTTO:

Snow lying, Lady.

SIGMUND:

Levelled and honed by the wind and the frost.

OTTO:

Terrible frost, Lady.

SIGMUND:

Cruel.

LUDMILLA:

Suspicious circumstances?

SIGMUND:

A poor man, Lady, hanging about.

OTTO:

Said he was looking for wood.

SIGMUND:

Then the King called down for young Mark. That’s his page..

CRONE:

Mark the page? Nasty habit.

LUDMILLA:

Thank you, Crone.

OTTO:

Only the boy was down with us, you see, Lady.

HARRY THE SPY:

That’s right. If you remember up he came to the room, while we were there. After we’d gone the King ordered him to the window and pointed out this so-called-though-now-infinitely- suspicious poor man..

CRONE:

Oh, no. ‘Peasant’ he said he was..

SIGMUND:

Who said who aid who was?

CRONE:

The boy said the King said the poor man was..

VLADIMIR:

Certainly, Lady Ludmilla, it was upon the basis that the poor man was a positive peasant that I calculated the relevant provisions.

HARRY:

Anyway, the King asked the boy who this poor man or peasant was and where he was from, what sort of house he had.

LUDMILLA:

But how do you know all this?

HAARY:

Listened through the key hole. That’s my job. I’m a spy.

OTTO:

The pageboy – he’d be able to give all this information because he’d heard us question the man.

SIGMUND:

Yes. Lives just over three miles away.

OTTO:

Foot of the forest.

SIGMUND:

Just follow the fence.

OTTO:

Along to St. Agnes fountain.

EVERYBODY:

Where?

LUDMILLA:

Anyway.

VLADIMIR:

Anyway – flesh, wine and logs were required: pine logs.

CRONE:

They were going to deliver it all and be back in time for dinner..

OTTO:

Wait a minute –

SIGMUND:

The walking woodpile?

OTTO:

Right.

SIGMUND:

We saw them leave the palace, Lady. Just when the blizzard was starting up..

LUDMILA:

So what we have so far is this:

(THE BREAK-NECK PACE SLOWS DOWN NOW. AS THE NARRATIVE IS TOLD IN THE PALACE, THE MUSIC OF THE CAROL SHOULD CREEP IN BEHIND THE WORDS)

LUDMILA:

Good King Wenceslas looked out, on the feast of Stephen, when the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even. Brightly shone the moon that night – though the frost was cruel – when a poor man came in sight, gathering winter fuel.’

CRONE:

Fuel?

VLADIMIR:

Fuel.

HARRY:

‘Hither page and stand by me, if thou knowest its telling: yonder peasant who is he? Where and what his dwelling?’

OTTO:

‘Sire, he lives a good legue hence’

SIGMUND:

‘Underneath the mountain Hard against the forest fence’

OTTO:

‘By St.Agnes fountain.’

CRONE:

Where?

VLADIMIR:

‘Bring me flesh and bring me wine. Bring me pine-logs hither. Thou and I shall see him dine e’er we dine together.’

OTTO:

‘Page –

SIGMUND:

‘And Monarch –

OTTO :

Forth they went;

OTTO/SIGMUND:

‘Forth they went together

ALL:

‘Through the rude wind’s wild lament

(STOP MUSIC)

LUDMILLA:

‘And the bitter weather’. Yes I see. Guards!

OTTO/SIGMUND:

Yes, Lady?

LUDMILLA:

Spy?

HARRY:

Yes, Lady?

LUDMILLA:

After them. We shall await further reports. (PAUSE) Who was carrying this several hundred-weight of fatuous good will?

OTTO:

The boy.

LUDMILLA:

As I thought. And who was leading the way?

SIGMUND:

The King.

LUDMILLA:

Precisely. They won’t have gone far. Away this moment.

CRONE:

Does this mean you want dinner held up?

LUDMILLA:

Well since there will be nobody to eat it ..

CRONE:

Eight thirty, he said.you know what he’s like; and it’s eight fifteen now.

LUDMILLA:

Go.

CRONE:

More than my job’s worth to be late.

LUDMILLA:

For God’s sake, go!

VLADIMIR:

I obey, lady. But first a change of disguise. No more the everyday acoutrements of a palace lackey, instead –

(AMAZING SOUND EFFECTS OF WHOOSHING, WHIRLY GIGS, CREAKING AND BELLS)

VLADIMIR:

A giant Pyrenean Mountain dog. Woof! Woof!

Alick Rowe demonstrates an impressive ability to keep the jokes and the invention pouring out page after page. On the day the play was broadcast, a friend driving on a motorway told me how many other drivers he had seen, roaring with laughter, and thus he knew they too were listening.

A Straight Face

Keeping a straight face means trying to keep an expressionless or solemn face while saying something very funny. This will be true for the actor playing Don Quixote in chapter 30. Cervantes was a master of irony. Irony is defined as the expression of one’s meaning by using language that signifies the opposite, typically for humorous effect.

I am reminded of the Englishman who got into a heated argument with an Australian immigration officer. Eventually the officer got really angry and asked, “Do you have a criminal record? The Englishman replied, “No, I am awfully sorry. I didn’t know that was any any longer necessary.” Of course to get the point of the irony you need to know that many of Australia’s early settlers were convicts.

Indeed a sense of irony and humour will greatly vary from one country and culture to another. Often irony may be understood, while on the other hand laughter is nearly always understood and infectious. I have often said to actors if you keep a smile on your face while talking, even on audio without being seen, a sense of fun will be communicated.

A Fun Audio Acting Exercise

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