Actor Vs. Comedian: Rambling, Uneven Thoughts
A little while ago, a Milwaukee theatre professional asked me what I thought of the Milwaukee Rep’s production of Jeffrey Hatcher's treatment of The Government Inspector. I said pretty much what I’d said in my previous blog on the topic. The individual I was talking to agreed with me to an extent, but felt that any production of a comedy like Hatcher's really needs comedians. As I understand it, the argument goes (and I could be completely wrong about this) that the Rep actors are all very good and very professional, but being a compelling, professional actor doesn’t necessarily mean that you can deliver a punch line.
I’m tempted to agree with this to an extent . . . Jeffrey Hatcher’s The Government Inspector has some pretty simple, unsophistocated jokes that really need a stand-up comic’s sense of timing . . . otherwise they end up losing their impact. Of course ,a cast almost entirely consisting of Rep resident actors is bound to miss some of these and a Milwaukee Rep production isn't going to go looking for sketch and improv actors for this type of show. There is a rather large volume of stand-up and sketch comics in Milwaukee. And it’s relatively rare when someone well-known in the stand-up/sketch/improv scene can crossover to more traditional theatre work. Recent notables include Doug Jarecki (of The Show who did a really impressive job in In Tandem’s All The Great Books recently) and Nick Firer (of Meanwhile, who managed a really impressive cross over into a straight drama with an appearance in Pink Banana’s Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me just a few months ago.)
And then I got to thinking about the cast of the Government Inspecor. . . largely Rep resident actors . . . many of whom I’ve seen do really great comedy over the years. Each one of them has a distinctly different sense of humor, though . . . it’s not like the resident acting company would necessarily work well as a sketch comedy group . . . but they’ve all got their individual styles. And occasionally there’s a production that places one or two of them in the right comedic role. But having considered it, I think anyone crazy enough to end up regularly doing stage work already has a substantial and substantially odd sense of humor. Any of them could do decent comedy given the right role. The image that keeps coming into my head is that of a Shakespearian actor practicing a golf swing with a broadsword backstage. That’s the kind of behavior. . . the kind of skewed sense of humor that seems natural for a stage actor. It’s weird. It’s just a matter of pairing that unique sense of humor up with the right script.
I remember having a really fun conversation with Christopher Tarjan and John McGivern about a recent Next Act production of Irma Vep . . . Afterwards, I was really looking forward to the show. When I finally saw it, I walked away from it a bit disappointed. Vep is a phenomenally fun and funny show with some really obscure references, but I preferred the unique sense of humor Tarjan and McGivern had as it showed through in the conversation . . . and it’s something that wasn’t quite found in the script of Vep. Tarjan and McGivern had a far more interesting sense of humor for me offstage than they did when competently delivering te script of Vep. Next month, the two of them will be showing up in Bunk Bed Brothers and if luck holds out, I'll be able to hang out with them before the show, but I begin to wonder if it’s not going to be the exact same situation. . .
Actors more grounded in theatre than improv don’t often have the luxury of ending up being cast in a show that fits with their particular sense of humor. I get the feeling actors often end up in productions of scripts not nearly as funny as they are. A sketch or improv comic is usually closer to the writing process for anything he or she appears in, which I would imagine usually means that sketch/improv comics end up having the luxury of performing stuff a lot more in sync with their particular sense of humor. And perhaps that’s the real reason why people like Jarecki and Firer are so rare--It takes a special kind of person to be able to deliver material that may not fit into thier particular voice and make it sound both natural AND dynamic. Jarecki, Firer and a number of others over the years have managed to do that.