Pure Research Report - October 2005:


On Comedy by Lois Brown

A Laboratory developed by The White Hags

Nightswiming’s "Pure Research on Comedy" Laboratory was held in Toronto in Glen Morris Studio at the University of Toronto from October 11 to 14, 2005. In attendance at the Pure Research Comedy Laboratory were The White Hags (WH) comedy team, Lois Brown and Elizabeth Pickard, from St. John’s, Newfoundland; dramaturg Brian Quirt of Nightswimming; Nightswimming interns, Andrea Romaldi and Marie Barlizo. Other participants in the laboratory were Nikki Payne and Darryl Dinn. The WH would like to thank Nightswimming and particularly Brian Quirt who was the soul of enlightening calm and incisive inquiry. The WH would also like to acknowledge the support and commitment of the interns, Andrea and Marie. They added invaluable insight and encouragement to the process.

Our Proposal
We proposed to use the tools of improvisation, journaling and taping to experiment with the rules of comedy, specifically with reference to the structure of the joke. We proposed to experiment with the rules as derived by The White Hags from such sources as Bergsons’ famous essay on comedy, Bateson’s description of the comic in his book on his double-bind theory, and the approaches of well-known comedians like Larry David, and Lenny Bruce. We also involved two young, up-and-coming comedians living in Toronto.

Some of the comic devices and structures of particular interest to our investigation were repetition, juxtaposition of opposites, mocking and sarcasm, swearing, and personalizing the story as in "this story happened to me."


Day One
Liz and I brought a plan and some specific research ideas to the laboratory; however, we decided to begin with questions uppermost in our minds. Or maybe Brian asked us what was uppermost in our minds.

Initially, we discussed questions around the following issues:
- internal points of transformation,
- transforming a space
- satisfying a performance
- looking at fear
- bombing

We stated that we wanted to have spontaneity under our control. We prepared questions for Nikki Payne, a Toronto-based stand-up comic, who was attending the laboratory that afternoon.

Nikki said: "Bombing is a part of the process of stand-up comedy." She described an evening when she bombed. Shawn Majumder offered the best advice she’d heard about the audience: "Listen to them." She said in terms of the relationship between you and the audience: "You can’t bomb and the audience be unaware of it. They know you’re bombing. You know you are bombing and so, it’s pointless to pretend you’re not."

We talked about swearing as a default device. We talked about Seinfeld’s rule: finding funny bits that are not bolstered by a "swearing default mechanism." (He appears to have abandoned this rule in his latest touring show.) In Larry David’s show "Curb Your Enthusiasm" Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Larry David talk about how wonderful getting an HBO show would be because they could swear. Swearing, their contention is, makes everything funnier.

Liz’s "Helen" bit, which she performed for the group, tended to prove Larry and Julia right.

Nikki had great mottos:
- Don’t goad the drunk, unless you can take him down
- Your gut will tell you what to do and your gut can be wrong
- Commit to the decision
- Acknowledge what is going on. If you’re dying, you’re dying
- Honesty

- For a heckler: "Yes and…?"
- Tape your sets and look at them, perhaps with someone else who can help you look.

- Emotional fullness: Choose the emotion you’re conveying. You wrote these jokes because you feel something about what you’re saying. Feel passionately.
- Joyful communication: This is your party. The audience members are the guests.
- Spontaneity arises because you are emotionally there. (Think about why you’re here. You want to do it.)
- Be a part of the show – it’s all your show.
- The audience wants to connect and it’s different from theatre, the wall is down.

Nikki said she starts with her funniest material and then arcs down to her stories.
She talked about the risk, persona, spontaneity and the magic space. Nikki said that the comic, faking it or not, is the leader. She leads us through the magic space. She uses visualization to see her performance and own it. If possible, she checks out the venue for the same reason. She discussed her preparation. She talked about the fact that some audiences are not going to get certain material. She discussed shaping material to help audiences have a context for her material.

Brian told us to go see the recently released film "The Aristocrats."

Day Two
Day Two included an interview with Darryl Dinn, an improvisational comedian who works with sketch comedy. We invited Darryl because of his Newfoundland background. He is often in St. John’s and we plan to invite to perform in a future WH burlesque.

His maxim’s were:
- Start big and leave big.
- Pleasure the beast.
- Enjoy yourself.

Darryl talked about some of the problems that he saw in his recent work. He seemed to be in a sort of malaise, because his most recent sketch work seemed too massaged for his taste and he felt it had lost its connection to what excited him. It was too safe. It had lost its essential truth. (Although he didn’t say what that truth was.) We discussed charm, speaking the truth, and not working hard. He said his process was: "Improvise, remember the funny bits, and do it again."

In the afternoon, Liz and I continued to talk about a range of topics. This parallels our creative process but for the first time (perhaps in my life) I wondered how valuable our off-topic discussion is. I think that it’s very valuable for writing in the sense of creating, but a hindrance to refining what we have created, and developing a nuanced performance. Talking seems either to be a discovery (i.e. we can take something one of us said or a story one of us told and use it pretty much verbatim), or to mask a discovery.

From here on in, the laboratory was very intense and full. As I reflect on it I find, not surprisingly, that what I remember best is my experience of the laboratory rather than the events themselves. My report from here on in focuses on my experiences as I recall them and Liz’s experiences as she has recalled them to me. If it is in any chronological order, it is completely by accident.

Liz is developing a puppet made from a pink bra – named Pinky – and is searching for a voice for her. Pinky is an alcoholic, torch-song singing, sexually-driven, smoker.

During the laboratory, it became obvious through my improvisations with Pinky that we had an adversarial relationship of which I was previously unaware. While writing about the laboratory and thinking about it, I realized that the characters of Pinky and myself were a juxtaposition of opposites, but not a juxtaposition I had set out to explore. Perhaps because I was fairly unconscious of how I was approaching Pinky, the improvisations with her were painful; however, I think this adversarial relationship has a lot of comic potential.

Equally as interesting and weird is this idea. I think Pinky might be the externalizing of one of my alter-egos. For instance, I seem to be more like Pinky when Pinky is not around and more up-tight and moralistic when she is. Maybe, the alter-ego itself (whether internalized or externalized) can be a juxtaposition of opposites, and in this sense area for comic exploration. (I think of Peter Sellers.)

Liz showed a videotaped performance of my stand-up material, including "The Bagel" routine. It was a performance at The Ship Inn in St. John’s in which the audience was very small and I felt over-rehearsed and unexcited – two signs of potential, on-stage bombing. After we watched this performance on Liz’s camera, I got on the stage in the Glen Morris Studio and did "The Bagel." Liz and I decided we would tape this. Strangely I found the video camera so intimidating, that I was almost unable to perform due to anxiety. The uncomfortable elements were fortuitous in a sense, because some of the basic roots of my issues were undeniably apparent. (Obviously, not every performance is this bad or I would have given-up long ago.) These are sticking points (I am literally stuck at these points when I encounter them): I had no joy of communication, I was not "on" when I got to the mic, and my emotional fullness was covered or hidden. First, there was my discomfort with the space that I talked about as "arriving late." "When I get to the microphone, I’m still warming up – gauging where I am." From the moment I arrived CS, the joy of communication became less and less joyful. Partly, it’s a result of how difficult it is to get back to a level playing field when you’ve lost it. The sense of failure is hard to drop and the longer you take to drop it – the longer you fail/flop/bomb. Every performer knows this, and we all try to develop methods to deal with it. One of the things that I notice, as I reflect on the laboratory, is that this was one of the first times and may even have been the first time that Liz and I have watched a WH show together.

Liz avidly tapes them, but almost never watches them. I never watch them and obviously, we never watch them together. Liz’s diligence has not been mined for all the help it could provide. It could help me with my issues. It could allow us to look at our material with some objective distance (or enlightened distance), and talk about it. Through talking we can discover and develop mutual theories about what the WH theatre really is and what it can be. And if we watched the play-back together, there would be a reason to try to put some money into better equipment or into taping sound off the board on occasion so we had more accurate records of our performances.

In the laboratory, while performing "The Bagel," it became clear that there are some simple methods for "pissing out the space." Basically stand-ups make do with the resources they encounter at a given venue, and find alternate (from actors) ways of preparing. This was my first block uncovered.

Upon reflection (necessitated by this report), I see the laboratory as essentially Brian’s presence in the room.

The Watcher: His watching. When Brian is in the room, we know exactly what is true and what is not true. The watcher is a catalyst. Without the watcher there is no experiment. Without the watcher, there is exploration, but we are not trying anything out to see if it works – as in an experiment. We can’t, without at least one watcher.

But we can invoke the watcher.

For example, I can use the watcher as a technique for determining how to prepare. I can think about the process, visualize it like Nikki does – as if Brian is there. I can pretend a watcher is there. I invoke/become the watcher myself. I can think about the context of my preparation by seeing (in my mind) a kitchen, for example, in the Ship Inn in St. John’s. I can think about my preparation in a bar with no privacy and acknowledge that. In this way, I can begin to see what I can do in those kinds of venues to prepare.

Nikki talked about standing at the back of the venue and visualizing her entire performance. Other performers have employed this technique; in fact I know this to be a tried and true tool. How did I forget it?

Repetition. I did an improvisation on "repetition is a comic device." Exploring this notion was a part of the WH original proposal to Nightswimming for Pure Research. This idea comes from Bergson’s famous essay on comedy. Brian, Andrea and Marie acted as audience members. They situated themselves in the back of the room, far from the stage area. While performing my bit, I chose to get off the stage and walk down to where they were seated so that I could speak to them directly. I think this walking down would have worked even better if I had recognized walking down was acknowledging my audience and being honest about the situation.

At the time, I hadn’t broken down (analyzed) the nagging idea that I should stay on the stage; this nagging idea prevented me from committing to coming off the stage. An audience knows a performer is disappointed with a small audience. I was not acknowledging this, as Nikki advised us we should. If I acknowledged this and let it motivate me to come off the stage, then coming off the stage could be an honest and necessary event. It could be a threat. It could intimidate. Or it could be intimate: "it’s you and me, baby and we’re gonna see this joke-telling through to the end." It could be something. Doing it helped me see that there’s nothing wrong with getting closer to your audience. (I do wonder how to keep focus in a room where the audience is spread-around if I leave the lit areas. But that’s a good question for us to answer.)

WH works with small audiences. Our audiences are usually small. We could use this as an opportunity to develop material for small audiences. How do you get seven people in a 150-seat venue to laugh? At the beginning of the night? What is the personality of the tiny audience. And so on. Things for us to consider.

Pinochio: Telling the well-known Pinochio joke nine times in a row not only dealt with repetition, but also pulled away a lot of blinders about what joke-telling is. After awhile the need to tell that joke honestly, realizing the story and way the people in that story felt inside the telling was ultimately important to me. The interesting thing was I think the funniest time I told it was my second to last time, not the first when the punch line was fresh and not the last, when you would think that after all that practice, I might have told it best.

A lot of the content in my original material is not geared towards laughter; instead I analyze the joke encouraging audience to separate the laughter from it. During the lab, the realization seemed to come that I had been sucked-in by my own rhetoric. I had begun to believe the comic premise of my material. I had forgotten one of the main ironies of this material is its underlying psychology: I developed the material to rationalize the fact that people sometimes don’t laugh at my jokes and to distance my self from the fact that this hurts me. I am having one over on the audience by telling them not to laugh. As I reflect on telling the Pinochio joke X 4 (Liz X 5), it’s clear that there is an emotional fullness to my original material – that I miss – by playing it in my head.

To me the Pinochio joke X 9 was a revelation because 1) it was fun to compete with and steal from Liz 2) I was listening to Liz tell it as I prepared. I would think about what was working for her and what wasn’t. I would plan to change the joke accordingly. I would review my plan in my head to make sure my plan still supported her way telling of the joke. 3) The best time I told the joke, I got a laugh and the laugh came from really, really getting the emotional liminality in the moment that Jesus says: "Dad." In that moment Jesus is actually renouncing his heavenly father for his earthly one. Jesus is reduced to a little needy baby. A lot of adult people are still searching for their Dad’s with that same childish neediness and if you have that kind of family history or you are empathetic with that experience, you know Jesus is about to sacrifice his adult self for the needs of his inner child. A rebellious, needy child. Transactional analysis, psychoanalysis, common sense, and so on tell us this would be a disastrous decision for Jesus. It is ironic that the son of God is about to make the wrong choice. In fact Jesus does make the wrong choice, but is saved from disaster because he has mistaken Geppetto’s true identity for that of Joseph. This man is not his earthly father Joseph, it is Geppetto. All this makes up the emotional fullness of this joke.

Director Linda Moore calls playing with the emotional fullness of a monologue "resistance." Resistance to the experience of this liminality could also create audience engagement.

Should the audience laugh? The answer seems obvious, but I had lost my way with this one. During the Lab, I did a number of experiments where I made it a rule not to stop till someone laughed. The important revelation is not that an audience will, for the most part, laugh when you want them to, but that one’s relationship with the audience can be very simple, direct and clear. There is an easy path to the audience. See them, where they are seated, who they are, what the current situation is and tell them directly what you have to say. Is this a small audience strategy that the WH should test?

We worked with "The Aristocrats," each telling the joke explored in the movie. Liz told the joke straight-up. I, instead, gave an opinionated synopsis of the movie. Both of us worked with our separate versions of the joke. The exercise forced us to determine what essentially the joke was, so that we could simply jump-off and wing it. Both of us have benefited from this sense of tearing away the curtain between the teller and the joke and absorbing the essential joke – so that it can be all about the performer or the performance – the connection. I think there is more directness in both Hags attack of/approach to the content. In fact, Liz has told me since Pure Research she has no fear when she goes on stage. I haven’t seen her perform since Pure Research yet, but I expect to find her comedy more playful, angrier and more spontaneous. Less coquettish and more ferocious.

We explored repetition, we wrote new material and performed it, we explored swearing. Nick Fraser and Justin Haynes came into our workshop and we went to their improv workshop.

Liz, although a professed hater of improvisation prior to the lab and although unfamiliar with the history of and approaches to improvisation by people like Viola Spolin and Keith Johnstone, (both of who were accessed during the three hours in the evening), is quite talented at it. She has no problem being spontaneously creative. I have studied improvisation and done a lot of work with it as an investigative process and as a form of performance. I stopped performing improv for the same reasons Liz dismisses it: because of the scene and state of it in St. John’s. Just as significant to my improvisation hiatus was the realization that the performance of improvisation was usually limited by (interestingly) the watcher. The improvisations I was involved in at that time became more and more shallow until I gave up. (In this laboratory where we, of course, used improvisation extensively, the watcher was very important to deepening the investigation, perhaps because he (Brian) was also a dramaturg.)

What is the WH philosophy beyond our manifesto?
We have written a manifesto. We have a specific and important vision of what theatre has to be at this time and in this context. Despite that vision, the questions: "What do the WH’s agree on? Disagree on?" reoccurs. Previous to the lab, I felt we must agree. Now, I acknowledge that we don’t. Our approaches are different. We have some essential values in common – they are in our manifesto. We have some essential differences. I found Brian’s final words very appropriate… That all the successful comedy duos that he can think of had success based on their differences. We’re probably not that different compared to other humans, but compared to each other, we are. There’s nothing to fear in exploring our differences and everything to be gained.

The lab was more personally experimental than classically experimental at many points. This is in keeping with a case study approach to experimentation. With case studies or phenomenological investigations (widely accepted approaches to research at this point), the intersubjectivity is possibly the most inspiring aspect of the investigation. Someone reads our report and relates to something we say as true. This intersubjectivity can then lead this person to investigate this truth themselves. This happens to the experimenter – us – as well as the report-reader. This kind of experiment has the ability to transform the experimenter. I guess that’s why case studies and phenomenological approaches are the best experimental approaches in the humanities and arts. I think that when one enters the lab acknowledging that you and your partner (as we did) are a part of the investigation, the reflection on what happened is as significant as the outcomes. It is how we understand the outcomes of our inquiries, how our reflection on these outcomes inspires us that makes the inquiry worthwhile.


We created a number of new bits:
1) Aristocrats
2) Repetition is a comic device
3) Blah-blah-blah. The universal sound…
4) Comedy is evil
5) When you get older you can’t see as well as you used to…
6) Helen at the airport
7) Helen at the airport with swearing
8) The Widers
9) Blow-up mattress

Liz and I are very different people. In many ways we are opposites. I often feel compelled to look for our similarities, but now I think it would be helpful to explore our differences. Our differences are a gold mine of comic scenarios. I think we should allow our differences a platform. This is a scary idea, which means it’s got teeth.

Liz and I do not have the same background in improvisation, although we expressed the same attitudes to it. We both thought it could be a tool for exploring WH relationship, but not during performance.

Lois renewed her commitment to her material as funny.

Liz’s commitment to videotaping the WH performances is underused as a tool for analysis and making the WH funnier, more skillful and more daring.

Pinky is a part of the WH family.

Analyzing the physical set-up, the gaps in the line-up and the nature of our audience has more significance for our work, but we have not given it due attention in the past. We write quickly and prolifically. We can focus on other issues without any degradation of the WH as a venue for new material and of our writing habits.

Audiences prefer to laugh when at a comedy show.

A comic must be fearless. Transformation is key to comedy – the transformation starts within. Fear is transformed… Even in the case of having heard the material before, the audience has a momentary amnesia if emotionally engaged in joyful communication. Pinnochio X 9 was evidence of this.

PART THREE – New Directions
Laboratories, especially in the social sciences often have outcomes that demand recommendations. I think there are some recommendations that come out of my reflection on the WH Pure Research. I am calling these recommendations, ‘new directions’ – but they’re not always new – sometimes they are more like hitting the refresh button.

1. Invite Brian to spend a day in workshop with us during the 2006 Magnetic North Festival in St. John’s: we can explore our differences through improvisation and discussion or small audience strategies.
2. Spend a coffee talking about improv.
3. Develop some good habits for analyzing WH performances, material, relationship, audience, and venue.
4. Watch the videotapes together as a habit.
5. Develop a program of exploration in areas other than writing or creating material.
6. Explore the nature of the small audience.



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