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The Bawdy Bard: Why Inappropriate Humor Matters

Last night, while watching the Aiken County Playhouse’s rendition of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, I realized something important about fiction, more specifically comedy: dirty humor is a must.

Many people shake their heads at sexual humor, seemingly meant only to stimulate the minds of sick teenage boys (me). I mean, American Reunion has been released, a beg-play at making more money off the original franchise. Of course, there have been umpteen direct-to-DVD sequels, but apparently the series is successful enough to continue producing movies. Why?

I will say it out right- dirty humor is hilarious. Sure, it is immature and pointless and plebeian and sometimes sickening, but always funny.  Butter, a cow Halloween costume, and a game of truth-or-dare add up to nothing less than hilarious in my mind. Oh, why cannot directors and even writers use adult humor. The Woody Allen kind, the cold, ironic humor. Sure, I think that is quite funny too, but not always laugh-out-loud funny. Refer to a sex organ through a balloon animal and yes, I will howl like a hyena.

Shakespeare is likely one of my favorite bawdy comics. When he begins making jokes about sex, he gets down and dirty, and he’s not

afraid to refer to some of the most taboo subjects of his time. What Shakespeare does really well which some contemporary dirty movies is use subtlety to tell these dirty jokes. He’ll will refer to sex via hilarious puns and innuendos. Have we lost the art of subtlety? It’s not funny to simple call oral sex oral sex. But if you refer to a “the winds that Mother Nature even could blow,” that is dead funny in a Victorian England sort of way.

What fails at these references: see any American Pie spin0ff, horror movie featuring killer fish and topless girls, or National Lampoon straight-to-DVD film.

Compare the following.

Shakespeare Sonnet 125:

The sea, all water, yet receives rain still,
And in abundance addeth to his store;
So thou, being rich in ‘Will,’ add to thy ‘Will’
One will of mine, to make thy large will more.

 

In this passage, the word “Will” takes on the double meaning of ambition as well as “phallus.”

Now, consider the movie American Pie where the entire joke IS sex. You cannot allow sex itself to be funny. Look viewers, there is sex happening on the screen between two teenagers! And look, a naked midget!

It just does not work. I appreciate those movies for their raunchiness, but dirty does not ultimately equate funny. Dirty and smartly stylized equates to funny.

The question we must consider… is WHY we appreciate dirty humor. Shakespeare included it in his plays for the lower class. In one play (say, Hamlet), the bard explores the woes of love, life, and revenge and also makes jokes about virginity, whore-dom, and Ophelia’s breasts. This is why I love Shakespeare. He can be both hilarious and serious within the span of a single monologue. So, when I see a very serious movie that applies very dirty humor, I think “Yes. This great.”

Humor must be had in any great work of literature or film, I believe. It is what allows us to connect at a more visceral level to what’s going on. Laughing makes our bellies shake, our voices boom out. Which offers a nice balance to contemplating the movie’s more intellectual themes.

So, remember, next time you pop open a cold one and get ready to watch a dirty movie dealing primarily with sex, that this experience was made possible and popular by the dirty mind of William Shakespeare. He’s a dude’s dude.

Stage, Lights, and Eyeliner

This is what feels good. When you dance onto stage, spinning. Bow deeply holding hands before the curtain falls one last time. This is what feels good. Shaking hands, nodding heads. You’re beaming. You’ve done it and done well. This is what feels good.

For the past two weeks, I’ve been consumed by a play at the local theatre. Spending a lot of time rehearsing late into the night. Somehow, that’s worth it once an audience sits in the seats, laughing and applauding. Suddenly, the antics make sense. Suddenly, your character comes alive. Tonight is the opening night of the Youth Wing production of You Can’t Take It With You.

It’s a comedy set in the 1930’s that calls for a lot of fireworks and cardigans, hints of communism, but mostly love. Here’s an actually decent synopsis:

At first the Sycamores seem mad, but it is not long before you realize that if they are mad, then the rest of the world is madder. In contrast to these delightful people are the unhappy Kirbys. Tony, the attractive young son of the Kirbys, falls in love with Alice Sycamore and brings his parents to dine at the Sycamore house on the wrong evening. The shock sustained by Mr. and Mrs. Kirby, who are invited to eat cheap food, shows Alice that marriage with Tony is out of the question. The Sycamores find it hard to understand Alice’s view. Tony knows the Sycamores live the right way with love and care for each other, while his own family is the one that’s crazy. In the end, Mr. Kirby is converted to the happy madness of the Sycamores after he happens in during a visit by the ex-Grand Duchess of Russia, Olga Katrina, who is currently earning her living as a waitress.

Acting is strange, but much like watching a show. You escape into a world entirely not your own, escape your life. You visit with people, meet them, and follow their stories. As an actor, you do that and more. We do not simply escape by watching, but by doing. We slip into a new skin. Zipping up our backs like reptiles shedding in reverse. We’re becoming new people. Our lives become null. I stand in costume and enter the stage. The lights blind me for a moment and then, I’m not Derek Berry.

It’s a strange bit of ecstasy. In the days leading up to the first performance, it feels arduous. You’re tired of your character, annoyed with the contrivance of the plot. On opening night, though, this becomes so simple. To act becomes effortless. Not at all acting. Just being. Only being another person, not you.

Even if your microphone messes up, spitting static signals into the air. Even if you have to wear lipstick and eyeliner, which is pretty damn hard to apply. Did you know eyeliner goes on the inside of your eye? It’s like poking your eye out with a Sharpie! Even if things go wrong, there’s a spirit. An atmosphere that propels a good show to become great.

You can feel it when it comes. This is what feels good. Last night, during the Grand Dress (the final rehearsal before opening night, where a small audience is admitted), we could feel it. A trembling in your bones. A sudden rush of blood to your head. The stage becomes very real, the lights not so distracting, the eyeliner somewhat attractive.

I’m not sure I can quite describe the sensation too well. But it doesn’t matter what character, what role, in what setting. You feel something come alive. And that makes everything leading up to the opening night ultimately worth it.

What I Learned From Acting: How to Make Characters People

If you ever want to learn how to make a character become a real, fleshed-out person, audition for a play. Become a character.

A few weeks ago, I auditioned for The Crucible on the spur of the moment and learned the following day that I had been cast as Giles

This is what I'm SUPPOSED to look like. Handsome, eh?

Corey, a combative 87-year-old man whose wife is arrested as a witch. He storms the courts in an attempt to save her life.

Never having acted in a play before, there was much to learn. But what I really wanted to figure out was how to make a character come to life. Set in Puritan times, we could not convey the characters as modern people, yet had to be relate-able to modern people. This created an interesting conflict.

Who is Giles Corey?

In the script, he’s almost daft, certainly crazy. I was an old man, yet I was 17. How could I act older, appear older? What might I think differently, being much, much older?

But what does he care about? BECOMING a character forces you to ask more questions. Therefore, even a minor character in a story has great internal conflicts. Giles is fiercely loyal and for that reason, dies by the end of the play. Yet he is frightened by death, angered by those who permit innocents to die.

When writing a novel, use some of these same questions to help make your characters more real. If it works for actors, it works for writers too.

1.) Understand the many facets of your character

Even if your character does something horrendous, perhaps he or she does it for a good reason. Even “evil” characters have qausi-good intentions at times. At one point during the play, I lunged at another man, screaming, “I’ll cut your throat, Putman! I’ll kill you yet!” While seemingly a deadly promise, consider that I scream this line at the man who just damned me to die. It’s understandable.

In your story, make sure to understand everything your character does and make sure it’s “in character.” Even if you don’t reveal these reasons in your story, you need to know them to keep your character consistent.

2.) Know your relationships

If you’re character is a cruel guy, maybe he’s not cruel to everyone. Nice people are not nice to everyone. Know how each character feels for the others. Are they jealous or respectful or resentful? Especially if characters are relation, figure out their family dynamic. Again, there’s no need to overtly explain this, but it’s safe to know how each character might react.

3.) Know what your character owns

This may sound weird, but it’s important to know what a character owns. His clothes. His possessions. Does he have a wallet or a money clip? Does he wear bowler caps or cowboy hats? What do these things say about him?

Know what sort of car he or she drives. Know how your character might decorate his or her bedroom/apartment. Know whether or not your character owns pets. Again, you don’t need to describe all of this, but know it.

One great trick I learned is to pick a single object of great importance to your character. Make the character own the possession. Whatever it is, this is distinctly this character’s possession. In The Crucible, Giles walks with a cane. The cane became a very important part of my character. I could use it in so many different ways to help show my emotion.

I might shake it at someone because I’m angry. I might rub the top nervously. I might spin it in my hands.

All of these visual cues can be translated into a story to represent what your character is feeling. After a number of times, the reader will understands that, “Giles stroked the cane, spinning it in his fingers” means “Giles was nervous.”

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These are all the pieces of advice I have at the moment, but take them into consideration to help your characters breathe. We justfinished the first weekend of performances. The last 3 start on this Friday. I have learned so much from acting in this play and will definitely blog about it later on in the week, because the people I’ve met are amazing. It has taught me a lot about character development and a lot about people.

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