When I was just starting out as an actor, I worked props on a production of Blythe Spirit, with a dinner theatre company on Long Island. It was good experience, working backstage. One I think all young actors should have. Props, lights, sound, costumes, stage manager. Something behind the scenes. It creates an appreciation for the entire crew, an understanding of what is involved in their jobs, and how important it is to treat every aspect of production with respect.
Paying attention to rehearsals, watching the director work with the cast, can also give a young actor a chance to learn valuable things about theatre, vicariously. When the spotlight is on someone else, it’s easier to absorb the lessons, without ego getting in the way.
One of those lessons, which I’ve had to learn over and again many times, is how to let go of a good joke that just isn’t working. This is not as easy as it sounds. Especially if the line is yours. Actors, and directors, and writers, can get attached to a really good line, a really clever joke, and refuse to let it go, no matter how few people in the audience get it.
“Mais ou sont les neiges d’antan?”
The line belongs to Madame Arcati. This is Noel Coward we are talking about here. The playwright. So naturally, the script is going to be clever and witty and full of high brow references that might not translate to a modern audience. This line is one of those, and the director decided to cut it.
As a lowly prop person, I had absolutely no say in the matter, but I was heartbroken, because I got the joke. It’s a good joke. The kind of good joke that is made all the funnier by the realization that you get it, when most other people do not.
It’s a reference to a French poem. Literally translated, it means “But where are the snows of yesteryear?” It’s not about nostalgia, though. It’s about the notion that the problems we face now, the worries we carry, will be forgotten one day.
I only knew this poem because I studied French in school, but my argument for keeping the line, an argument I kept to myself, was that even if the audience did not catch the reference, the line still gave the actress something worthwhile. Madame Arcati is a colorful character, the sort of woman who would quote things in French.
The actress did not argue, and it stayed cut. The general consensus seemed to be that most people do not speak French, so the line was not necessary. Lines get cut all the time, and it probably was the right decision, but I still felt it was a shame.
When I was directing a wacky production of Tartuffe, there were plenty of jokes that I added that did not work with any consistency, but which I decided to keep in, nevertheless. The show was not my most successful, artistically. I chose to interpret the script in a broad, physical style, crammed full of schtick and sight gags and plenty of audience interaction. Much like clowning.
It was the kind of show that could go really well if the audience was game, but would fail miserably if they were not. Most of the performances failed. It didn’t help that the actors in the cast were more than a little scared of what I was asking them to do. It’s not easy to get actors to play moments the way you know you could play them yourself, when those actors are not clowns, do not have the same background in physical comedy or improvisation, and do not particularly trust your judgment.
There were many moments when I should have just cut what wasn’t working, but since I was the director, and since I came up with many of those ideas, I was not willing to let go.
For example, at one point I added a Jesus joke. Just the sort of thing I find very funny. During a bit of schtick, the Tartuffe character carried a long wooden staff like a cross, and I had an actor in the sidelines crow three times. This actor thought I was nuts, and was genuinely surprised on opening night when he got a big laugh.
I was not surprised. However, the laugh was not consistent. Some nights the joke worked, some nights it did not. If I wasn’t so intent on proving that I knew what was funny, I would have just cut the bit.
Years later, I was playing Pyramus in a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and finally did cut an ad-libbed joke that I had written. One that I thought was absolutely brilliant, and still do, but which no one ever got.
For those who do not know the show, Pyramus and Thisbe is a play within the play. It is also one of the funniest things in the entire Shakespeare Folio. The basic joke is that the play is bad. Ridiculously bad. Hysterically, comedically, preposterously bad. The actors are bad, the script is bad, the props are bad, the whole thing is so terribly bad that the audience is in tears from laughing.
Over the years, it has generated bits of physical schtick that every actor learns. Plenty of inside actory type jokes. Lots of comedy between the lines. The actors are usually trying their best not to break character and burst out laughing themselves. Done well, it can bring down the house.
When Thisbe enters to find Pyramus has killed himself (several times,) she has the line,
This is a cue for the actor playing Pyramus to sit up and start speaking. She covers his mouth and pushes him back down, since he is supposed to be dead. To give you an idea of the broadness of the humor, in Pyramus’ death scene, his last line is,
“DIE, DIE, DIE, DIE, DIE!”
He stabs himself with a fake sword, but when I played the role, I saved that for the last “DIE!” For each of the others, I mimed a different death. Drank poison. “DIE!” Poured gun powder into a musket, used the damper, fired a shot straight up in the air, then caught the bullet in my chest when it came back down. “DIE!” Placed a crown of thorns on my head and struck a cruxifixction pose (Jesus again.) “DIE!” Then I picked up the wooden sword and placed the blade nonchalantly under one arm. “DIE!”
When Thisbe entered and I heard my cue, I sat up and said, “Rosabelle, believe!”
Not a single person laughed. Not even once. No one in the audience. None of the actors. No matter how I delivered it, no one got the joke.
Harry Houdini was obsessed with finding out if there was life after death. One of his advertising slogans was, “Not even eternity can hold Houdini.” It was a clever slogan, because he seemed to cheat death so many times. Being locked in a safe and thrown into a frozen river, only to escape.
For years after he died, his wife went to psychics, mediums, trans channelers, hoping to be contacted by her husband. They had agreed on a message that he would try to send from the other side. If she was given that message by a psychic, she would know that he had indeed survived death.
“Rosabelle, believe.” Houdini’s wife was named Rosabelle. That was the message.
It was also my very funny joke that no one ever got. Which raised the question, how good a joke is it, if I am the only one laughing? In comedy, we tend to cling desperately to our individual bits, but sometimes it’s important to look at the bigger picture and realize we are only meant to be serving the play. Not every joke works. Not every joke is important.
So I cut the line, and found something else for Pyramus to speak.