Saturday, April 21, 2012

Looking Back (part 3)

The dictionary defines burlesque as “a parody, an imitation of a serious work of art or literature for comic effect.” Sitting in the darkened auditorium of the Empire Theatre, I had absolutely no idea what that meant, but I was about to find out, and it would change my life.

The first three Acts – to say the least – had been disappointing. During the last ten minutes Roger had left twice, first to go to the bathroom and then to buy popcorn. Bill kept pointing to his watch and whispering that 180 miles was a long way to drive home late at night when we both had to work in the morning …

For the past three years I had been working weekends as a clerk in the local A&P  Grocery store. For the past year and a half I had also been employed in a regional semi-professional theatre, acting my heart out on Friday and Saturday nights (with party afterwards) and then cutting up frozen chickens in the morning with a complexion as green and wilted as last week’s lettuce (me, not the chickens. With no heads, they had no complexions. On more than one occasion I would have gladly given them mine.) In other words, driving 180 miles didn’t bother me at all. I was accustomed to pain and suffering.

The next act on the program was a comedy sketch, about a man checking himself into a clinic because he was having trouble sleeping. Of course, instead of peace and quiet, he was confronted by the most outlandish collection of noisemaking characters I had ever seen in my life. At first I was mildly interested, and then fascinated. Here was a style of broad comedy I had never seen in my life. As young and inexperienced as I was, I sat there, literally transfixed, marveling at the perfect timing, the interweaving subtexts, and the mature subtlety contained in farce carried to extremes. While others in the audience laughed, I studied.

Later in life I would have the same admiration and respect bordering on awe for the finesse of Charlie Chaplin, Laurel & Hardy, Abbott & Costello, the Marx Brothers, later Benny Hill, Monty Python, Ernie Kovacs, Red Skelton, Lucille Ball, Jim Henson, Dick Van Dyke, and the varying casts of SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE – each different, each unique, yet all cut from the same comedy broadcloth.

At various times over the years I have tried to find the motivating factors behind decisions I have made – why do I write and direct plays, for example. Most of the time my explorations are in murky waters. I simply have no positive insights. My appreciation of comedy, however – what it is and what it should look like - is crystal clear. My love of absurd parody started the night three boys snuck in to a seedy theatre in Indiana to watch (for all the wrong reasons) a dying art form.

Post Script.
Thirty years later I reviewed a production of THIS WAS BURLESQUE that was playing for a short period of time in town. The show was glitzy, slick, professional, and as devoid of subtlety as was possibly for a show to get. I was bored, and so were the bulk of those in attendance. Except … in the middle of the house was a group of perhaps 30 men, all seated together, all at least 80 years old. They hooted and hollered and were so obviously having a good time that they cheered up everyone else.  I studied these men for a long time, and then it occurred to me they were seeing burlesque the way they remembered it.

And then, so was I.


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