When I was a kid, I broke a VHS. It was Fawlty Towers, and I had watched and re-watched a particular scene so much, the tape wore itself down to nothing.
It was the fire-drill scene, in which Fawlty is battling not only with the hotel guests, but also with his wife on the telephone, as he tries to explain that the burglar alarm is not, in fact, the planned fire alarm.
I couldn’t work out how something could possibly be so funny.
I’ve been obsessed with the science of what makes something funny since I can remember, and performing in Peter Pan Goes Wrong’s Australian and New Zealand tour, gives me the opportunity to play scientist, and conduct little comedy experiments eight times a week.
Two years ago, I was lucky enough to perform in London’s Mischief Theatre Company’s first smash hit, The Play That Goes Wrong. This year, just as the bruises finally subsided, I signed on to their second slapstick epic, Peter Pan Goes Wrong.
Mischief Theatre’s rise has been meteoric. The Play That Goes Wrong started upstairs in a pub in London in 2013, playing to an audience of a dozen or so. Six years later, it’s a behemoth. The Play That Goes Wrong has been seen on every continent on earth (except Antarctica), bagged the Olivier Award for Best New Comedy, is about to celebrate its fifth anniversary on the West End and in just the last few weeks, has just recouped its $4m dollar capitalisation on Broadway.
Throw in a UK tour, an American tour, and a couple of other hit shows, and Mischief has become the youngest company of writers to ever have three shows playing simultaneously on the West End.
So what makes these shows about the fictional Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society trying to stage a play, so popular? And what is it like to perform in them? Perhaps we should separate it into context and content.
Firstly, the context. Along with the Mischief juggernauts, there has been a feast of farce on stages around the country in the last two years. From Declan Greene’s The Homosexuals, or Faggots and Nakkiah Lui’s Black is the New White, to Melbourne Theatre Company’s offering of the holy grail of modern farce, Noises Off, they have been popping up all over the place. Why the resurgence?
In part, it’s the theatre holding up the mirror, as it has always done.
In 15th century France, short 15 minute comic padding pieces would be inserted between longer, more serious plays to lighten the mood. Coined ‘farce’, from the French word meaning ‘stuffing’ or ‘padding’, these short pieces would provide a welcome respite from the dense, courtly bores.
Does this mirror our times? In between constant stories of disgusting abuses of power, global warming and the horrific plight of refugees, do we need a bit of ‘farce’ to help reset and pad out the drudgery? Is it a release to sit in a room full of strangers and share some joy together, however briefly?
Add to that the fact that farce is happening in our newsfeed constantly.
We find ourselves particularly spoiled for choice with our political clowns at the moment. Setting aside the auguste in the White House, who hasn’t been flabbergasted by Pauline Hanson or Sarah Huckabee Sanders semantic flip-flopping?
To them, just like Basil Fawlty, it is everyone else who is the fool. Huckabee Sanders, the hotel manager of the world; the world’s press, the stupid hotel guests who just don’t understand. Or Bob Katter, conflating somehow, the same sex marriage plebiscite with crocodile attacks in the North Queensland, in an about turn reminiscent of Fawlty Towers’ permanently sloshed Major.
Our pollies even surprise us every now and then with their physical comedy prowess. Who can forget Sean Spicer, Homer Simpson-ing into the White House foliage when he, as press secretary, hid from the world’s press … in a bush. Or the image of Michaelia Cash’s legs sneaking out of Parliament House, hiding behind a trusty office whiteboard.
And finally, for the best example of comic timing in its most natural form, do yourself a favour and YouTube the train-wreck that was the entrance of the Republican presidential candidates to their 2016 debate.
The most common refrain after all of these instances is, “you couldn’t write this stuff,” but it turns out, you can. And people are. And audiences are eating it up. We hear all the time we live in a post-satire world. Is it possible that farce is its surrogate, keeping satire’s seat warm, while we navigate this unusual time?
So what have I learned while performing in my makeshift 800 seat comedy laboratories during these tours of Peter Pan Goes Wrong and The Play That Goes Wrong? What is it that makes something funny?
To be honest, I still have no idea. And I love that I don’t. However, my hypothesis begins with these four things: energy, focus, specificity and rhythm. The elusive and unbelievably delicate balance between those four things is, I believe, the essence of comedy, and more specifically, farce.
I’ve found that the most important of these four pillars is rhythm. Quite often in farce, the lines themselves aren’t particularly funny, but it’s the rhythm that makes it so. That may sound simple, but it is, in fact, quite the opposite.
From on stage, Peter Pan Goes Wrong feels like a song that goes for an hour and 50 minutes, and one note sharp or flat means one of two things – actual death (seriously, there are any number of things that can crush an actor if a mark isn’t hit) or, even worse, the death of a joke. A misplaced breath or an ill-timed eye-dart can mean the difference between a round of applause or a stony silence. It really is that fragile. It is endlessly fascinating just how discerning the audience’s collective comedy brain is.
Obviously, the secret formula of what makes something funny is one that I can never fully know. It’s always just out of reach, and that’s the thrill of it all. But it appears to me that rhythm is precisely the reason that Mischief’s shows are on every continent, why they’ve recently opened Russia and Korea. It is because of their minutely-honed sense of rhythm. Someone getting hit in the head isn’t always funny, but someone getting hit in the head at precisely the right time? Hilarious, in any language.
One of the simplest rules of clowning, is finding a difficult solution to a simple problem, especially in the face of an external pressure. We see it all the time in life: the shopper with their arms piled high with groceries because they thought they didn’t need a basket; the first date keeping the too-hot arancini ball in their mouth to save their dignity.
As humans, we constantly choose pain over embarrassment. But the other part of that rule is this: it’s only funny if it’s not funny to the clown. When was the last time you saw Huckabee Sanders crack a smile? It’s the deep-seated, raging human fear of our loss of dignity that makes a clown so irresistibly funny.
People ask me what it’s like to perform in these extreme slapstick farces.
It’s exhausting. It’s all-consuming. It’s a never-ending parade of bruises, physio appointments, and a stack of incident report forms to rival War and Peace. We are one pulled muscle away from filling a bath backstage with Dencorub.
After the show, friends and colleagues will ask, “what’s the trick there?”
The answer is, there isn’t one. Everything that falls is heavy and everything that moves is fast, as we try and keep up with one of the fastest revolving stages ever used, ending up on the floor, exhausted and breathless. No acting required.
Our director for Peter Pan Goes Wrong, Adam Meggido, gave us a wonderful note during rehearsals: “always recover with more energy”.
While not only sage advice for life, it has proven to be a farce golden rule for me. Fawlty doesn’t tire of explaining the fire-drill, he gets more worked up, the less he is understood, and the rhythm of that is break-neck. There isn’t an ounce of silence in the whole six minute fire-drill scene that I watched over and over.
It’s this hamster wheel (or in our case, revolve) of mayhem, that these characters are on. It’s their never ending hope that makes a clown funny. Just like the elusive, never ending search for this quicksilver thing called comedy. The clowns of the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society are just hoping for the show to go well, and as it turns out, so are we.
So come and add some silly ‘stuffing’ to your life and watch these clowns march doggedly on, after all isn’t that what we are all doing? Just trying to get through life, falling over as little as possible?