Thursday, October 31, 2019

"Comedy Tonight"

Which I am practicing on the piano.  Come back in a year.  I may have it by then.

Summer of 1962.

A friend named “Chuckie” and I are visiting New York, catching the latest Broadway shows.

We have procured Saturday matinee tickets to the musical we most wanted to see, Little Me, starring Syd Caesar (playing seven parts.)  Now we need something for Saturday night.  Knowing nothing about it, we select A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.

As it turned out, this obscure – to us – show was not only better than Little Me, it was one of my most exhilarating experiences in the theater of all time.

And to think, that show almost closed in out of town.

After two dispiriting tryouts (in New Haven and Washington) there were thoughts of terminating production.  As co-writer Larry Gelbart ruefully remarked,

“The audience laughed at the show but they didn’t like it.”

The struggling Forum’s venerable director, George Abbott, often summoned to savingly “doctor” ailing productions, advised – probably equally ruefully:

“They need to bring in George Abbott.”

Since Abbott was already there, the producers sent for director Jerome Robbins – West Side Story and later, Fiddler on the Roof.  (Who’d “named names” at the “Un-American Activities” hearing, confirming the show biz dictum:  “He’s unwelcome until we need him.”)

Assessing the difficulties, Robbins suggested that the audience would laugh and like the show if there was an “Opening Number” clearly signaling what they were in for –  a bawdy (for that era), low comedy, vaudevillian-style romp. 

By the way, it just occurred to me, Robbins provided a similar suggestion for the then floundering Fiddler on the Roof, whose team then devised the clarifying “Tradition.” 

(Proving, you have one great idea – you’re a genius!)


With the “Comedy Tonight” opening sequence, Stephen Sondheim composed the quintessential; “It’s a comedy!” indicator.  Forum proceeded to triumph on Broadway, garnering numerous Tonys, and running almost a thousand performances.

All because the show told the audience what it was.

Is there a comparable counterpart to that story in television?

Yeah, the signaling “Laugh Track.”

And we hate it.

The “Laugh Track” is prerecorded laughter added to shows where laughter is not naturally forthcoming.  They call it “Sweetening.”  Though they might easily call it,

“Write funnier!”

During the 70’s, CBS required the classic sitcom M*A*S*H to append a “Laugh Track”, causing the nagging difficulty of determining who exactly was laughing.  (It is hard to believe the surrounding Koreans would appreciate the intricate wordplay.) 

Still, who knows?  (Watch me, tentatively easing toward “The Opposite Side.”)

Today’s comedies filmed with no audience appear without a signaling “Laugh Track.”

Is it possible that’s why they appear to feel less funny?   

I’m just pondering here, but could there, in fact, be a psychological element at play with these new shows?  As in,

“No one’s laughing, so neither will I”?

I know this is blasphemy, but maybe, in revisionist retrospect, M*A*S*H needed a “Laugh Track”, telling the audience at home,

“It’s war.  But it’s funny.”

Color me, “Seriously Confused” on this matter.  (If you happen to have that color.)

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum required the nudging “Comedy Tonight.”

Maybe audiences need help.

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