Dying is easy, comedy is hard.
The axiom is old and appropriate for the Guild Theatre’s new play, Neil Simon’s Laughter on the 23rd Floor, a story about a team of comedy writers working a 1950s variety show.
But does the adage refer to the impeccable timing required for great comedy or another difficulty inherent in the television business?
Simon based his play, first produced in 1993, on his experience in the writers’ room of Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows.
Simon worked alongside young writers — now comedy legends — like Woody Allen, Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner.
The one-liners and zingers flow naturally from the writers in Laughter, but they realize comedy is hard for an entirely different reason, said director Stephen Drover in a recent interview.
“What’s happening during the play was all this racket with the communist finger-pointing and the blacklist and don’t-say-anything-you’re not-supposed-to,” said Drover.
“There’s a climate of fear that ultimately asks everyone in the play to ask who they can trust.”
Problems arise when Max Prince, the eccentric star of the weekly show that mixes slapstick and cerebral humour, and his writers are asked dumb down their show for an expanding audience.
And in the background, the communist witch-hunt headed by Senator Joseph McCarthy has Max and his writers flirting with self-censorship.
The parallels from the ‘50s run straight through to the present day, said Drover.
“We’re experiencing the same thing to day with terrorism and the Patriot Act and, though it happening more in the States, it’s starting to bleed north,” he said.
“What happens when this fear invades the workplace and a circle of friends?”
Comedy, said Drover, has been used as a way into serious issues and a tool for telling the truth since the age of kings and queens and court jesters.
“The fool in the medieval ages would make jokes about the king and laugh, but he was the only one who could point at the king and say, ‘You’re an idiot,’” said Drover.
“That’s why some of the best commentary and political satire is on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report — it’s shrouded in a joke, but they can still say things.”
Vancouver-based Drover took acting at Newfoundland’s Memorial University and earned his directing MFA at the University of British Columbia.
He is the co-founder and artistic director of Vancouver’s Pound of Flesh Theatre, which produces alternative versions of classical plays.
Known for his inventive adaptations of Shakespeare, it’s no surprise Drover’s favourite scene in Laughter is when the writers riff on Marlon Brando’s performance of Julius Caesar.
“I do mostly Shakespeare so it was nice to make fun of Shakespeare,” said Drover.
“The spoof is interrupted by a fight, a bit of a chase scene and it’s really funny.”
The ensemble cast of nine actors, most whom appear on stage all at once for the play, impressed Drover with their commitment and professionalism.
Guild artistic director Eric Epstein fills the role of Max Prince and Ian Parker plays Simon’s alter-ego Lucas Brickman. Local comedian Anthony Trombetta is head writer Val Skotsky.
Hitting the right notes in comedy can be challenging for people not used to the genre, said Drover.
“We’re all learning about what comedic timing is all about,” said Drover.
“The number-one thing in comedy is timing and pacing. It’s the difference between delivering the punch line two second later or one-and-a-half seconds later. It can be the difference between getting a laugh and not.”
When the play is written like a series of one-liners, rhythm, just like music, is integral to successfully pulling it off, said Drover.
“Tragedy is more hinged on emotion and comedy is very technical feat,” said Drover.
“Comedy is a hard, hard thing to do. We get more jaded and we need to keep upping the ante. You have to be one step ahead of the audience. It’s harder than I gave it credit for.”
But the actors were up to challenge, said Drover.
The standard of work at the Guild is higher than most amateur community theatres, and not just because it’s one of the few to have its own building, he said.
“It has a body of work it can grow on and has a large support network,” said Drover.
“There’s a standard of work the Guild is known for.”
The play opened Thursday night at the Guild in Porter Creek.
It runs Wednesday through Saturday until December 8 and starts at 8 p.m.
Tickets are available at the Arts Underground for $18/$15 on Wednesday and Thursday, $20/$18 on Friday and Saturday.