Or Skit Happens
I was always joining writing groups to present my little comedy skits. I usually got good reactions from them. After presenting a sketch in a group called Pen-to-Stage (known more for one act and full-length plays), one of the actresses approached me and mentioned that she was working with a comedy troupe. She felt they really needed some strong material and was wondering if she could show some of my stuff to the troupe. Of course. As it turned out, the troupe did like my material and was curious to meet me and see what else I had. Okay, it was in New Jersey, but my writing had impressed someone outside my little circle of co-writers. I headed out to Montclair, NJ...
The troupe, called “Style Without Substance” was made up of an amazing group of actors (at this time they had like 12 people involved) under the artistic direction of Tom Gilpin, who ran acting classes for the theater. To get his group stage time, he came up with the idea of putting on a comedy revue during those “between” times when the repertory theater was dark. They actually got to stage something every few weeks. And it being the 1980s, the comedy boom was in full swing and the troupe was looking to ride that wave.
I met Gilpin and his group and was welcomed by them. After reviewing the material, they chose one of my sketches for their show. Then another. Before I knew it, I was writing original material for them. It was pretty remarkable. I could write a sketch with actors in mind and see it up on its feet within days. I was driving out to Montclair weekly, to be part of the group, to see rehearsals, and to see the shows. It was an amazing space, a full-fledged playhouse built out of a former bank building. Generally, they were surrounded by the sets for whatever production was going up or coming down, which they sometimes got to utilize. It really made the show seems more epic.
After the show, we stayed around, we all wanted feedback from her. She critiqued our comedy revue. Overall, she was underwhelmed. This was not the most pleasant experience for an arrogant young comedy writer, many of whom I knew. Her advice extended beyond acting skills or writing ability to the medium of the comedy revue in general. The trouble, she felt, was that the show was just a series of sketches that rose or fell on each individual bit. She said we needed a through-line to carry the momentum of the show.
“Pish-posh,” thought I. “Saturday Night Live” didn't have that. “Laugh-In” didn't have that. Neither did “Sonny & Cher” or "Pink Lady and Jeff!" A show of comedy skits was just that by its very nature. Nothing you could do about it. Silly, silly woman.
But once that idea was expressed, it couldn’t be un-expressed. It certainly wasn’t something I considered consciously. We had a show to do! New material to write! Actors to rehearse! And yet...
Not long after, I was at one of the rehearsals (I’m not quite sure why I was there but I loved being included) and something just came together. The rehearsal period was winding down, and people were leaving. Some of us stayed and we were goofing around. The actors started riffing about bad audition experiences, trying to top each other. Some very funny things coming up. I’m even jumping in (and I'd never auditioned) but I'm throwing some jokes out, tagging their little stories. Oh, how we laughed and laughed. It was funny. Funny enough to use? I wound up taking ideas from that bull session, and turned it into a sketch about a series of actors auditioning at a local, low-rent dinner theater. It was funny stuff and I had written characters and bits specifically for the actors in the group. There were a lot of actors at the time, so I really worked to put it all together. It worked well but it wasn't a true sketch, it took the form of a series of black out gags. It was here we realized that the bit was flexible enough that we could set up the premise, the opening of the sketch, early in the show and then scatter the other auditions throughout the rest of the evening turning it into a running gag. We’d all certainly seen that before.
We did a sketch or two, then the stage went dark. A lone spotlight hit center stage. And off-stage voice began to welcome the actors who answered the ad in the Penny Saver for their upcoming production of "Fiddler on the Roof." Three actors came out in succession, each hitting their mark under the spotlight and each had a really bad audition piece. We'd black out after the last one and the show would continue. A few sketches later, the stage was set again for auditions. And repeat.
After the show finished, I was amazed by what we had done. Granted, these running gags weren't a “dynamic through-line,” per se, but it did work enough as one. It gave the show cohesion and momentum which carried you through the revue.
It was simple to set up. We could do as many as we wanted or as few, based on the actual logistics of which actor was up or not and what scene had to be set next.
Dukakis was right. Smart lady. And I like to think I was smart enough to recognize what a savvy piece of advice it was because we always made sure we had a through-line through all future shows.