(up)Staged promo photo for 519 May 2024 issue (l-r Micheal Potter, Joey Ouellette, Fay Lynn) photo credit Kieran Potter - OPTION 2 copyWhat do you find funny? People like to say “comedy is subjective” as though that provides some kind of information, but it doesn’t. There are obviously clear limits to what people can find funny without being labelled as deviant or evil. No matter how subjective you think comedy is, you’re probably going to raise an eyebrow at somebody who finds genocide hilarious. So, we know that even what counts as comedy has boundaries, that the category of things that fall under that label isn’t limitless, as it would be if comedy were purely subjective in the way that people suggest. Let’s not talk about genocide. You don’t find it funny. I don’t find it funny. Anyone who does isn’t part of this conversation.

But within the many styles and approaches and stories that fit under the label of comedy there’s still an awful lot of choice and an awful lot of room for subjectivity. And maybe the kinds of things we find funny can tell us something about ourselves if we pay close attention.

 

When Fay Lynn, Joey Ouellette, and I were writing the first drafts of (up)Staged – a comedy series that will begin filming this summer in Windsor – way back in the summer of 2021, which feels like 30-years ago now, I found myself reflecting a lot on what I found funny and why. I really love the films of Christopher Guest, which were my personal starting point when we began working on (up)Staged. What Guest and his talented troupe of regulars (and equally talented guest stars) create are stories driven by characters with extremely passionate interests, passionate almost to the point of obsession, interests that drive nearly every choice they make and inevitably lead to conflicts with people who have different passions. But more often they lead to conflicts with people who have the same kind of passion – it’s just that they approach that passion in a different way, or with a different set of beliefs and expectations related to it. In Waiting for Guffman Corky (played by Guest) seems passionately devoted to theatre, in particular his local community theatre. . . even though he feels like it’s too small for him, that he’s destined for something greater. What the audience realizes as the movie progresses, though I don’t think Corky ever does, is that he only believes he’s passionate about theatre. What he’s really passionate about is himself and his own potential. Admitting this would mean he’d be forced to confront parts of himself that he’d rather not see so he convinces himself that theatre is his passion. The problem is most of the actors he’s working with on their community theatre production are actually passionate about theatre, and about their town, and, sure, about their own potential too. So, when Corky’s ego threatens to derail everything, his cast is bewildered because, like Corky, it’s hard for them to admit what Corky really cares about. As with all of Guest’s greatest movies – For Your Consideration, Best in Show, A Mighty Wind – the comedy is ultimately grounded in the bizarre consequences of being a human being amongst other human beings, including the awkwardness of navigating tricky social situations, the frustrating necessity of having to work with people who don’t see things the exact same way you do because they have their own perspectives, and the unavoidable dance of trying to get extremely different personalities, often bizarre personalities, to cooperate in pursuit of a common goal. Now, I’ve described all of this in the least funny way possible because my special talent is sucking the comedy out of anything through detached analysis. I’m not a funny person. This is why it’s always best for me to play the straight man in any comedy. But I surround myself with funny people so sometimes I can pass as one of them.

One of my favourite characters is David Brent (played by Ricky Gervais) in the original UK version of The Office. Gervais, who created and oversaw and wrote much of the series, is an absolute master of wringing comedy out of extraordinarily awkward and cringy moments created by ridiculous people who take themselves far, far too seriously. The particular genius of his David Brent character is that on some level he knows he’s ridiculous. He knows other people see him as a joke, that they don’t take him nearly as seriously as he takes himself, and that he tends to make people uncomfortable. He knows these things – but he doesn’t know what to do with the information. So, he overcompensates and creates traps for himself and in nearly every circumstance makes his situation (and the situation of people around him) worse. . . because he doesn’t want to be who he is and doesn’t want other people to know who he is. A well-intentioned person with no social skills whatsoever. The other characters in The Office are really superfluous because there’s so much comedy to be mined just from the character of David Brent. But obviously Brent becomes even funnier when he’s in scenes with people who aren’t at all like him, each of whom reacts to him in a way unique to their own personality – and their reactions lead to even further complications that lead Brent to even worse spirals of self-sabotage.

A pattern develops. Arrested Development, for example, is funny to me because the straight man, Michael (played by Jason Bateman), is supposedly the smart and level-headed person in a family of utter lunatics, whose job it is to keep things from falling apart day after day. But he only seems like the level-headed one in comparison to his family – he’s an absolute mess of a human being who makes every problem he tries to solve worse. Like David Brent, he knows at some level that he’s an awkward and self-destructive mess, but if he were to admit this to himself, he wouldn’t be able to get out of bed in the morning. So, every day he gets up, puts on his “sane person” mask and tries to steer a ship driven by people rowing in several directions at once. And take Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm. What makes him unique compared to other characters I’ve mentioned is that he’s fully aware of how socially awkward he is, sometimes revels in it, and that knowledge does him no good whatsoever. He makes a mess of his life constantly. He alienates his friends and family. He gets himself fired from one gig after another. Every time he says or does anything there’s a good chance it’ll create an enormous problem he can’t solve. But he accepts this and just keeps on being himself. There’s something very refreshing about that character that makes him intensely hilarious to someone like me.

So, the upshot I suppose is that I find flawed human beings behaving awkwardly in awkward situations funny. Some of these human beings are more “realistic” than others. Some are completely ludicrous. But what they have in common is that they don’t set out to make people cringe or to make them feel uncomfortable or offended or desperately wishing they were anywhere else. These effects are just a natural consequence of who these characters are and how they interact with the world. I think many people, even most people, are either like this or believe they are. Maybe that’s nonsense and my belief just reveals more about me than anything else – because I am, despite my intentions and attempts at personal development, an awkward person who accidentally makes people feel uncomfortable when all I really want to do is make people feel welcome and comfortable and accepted. So, if I were watching myself in a TV show I’d probably be laughing a lot at what I think and do. It’s less funny when you’re living it – as I’m sure some other people can attest – but I still end up laughing at myself quite a lot. . . at least once the shame and humiliation wear off.

Although all three of us who wrote (up)Staged have different senses of humour and different personalities and different preferences, we all share an interest in comedy that’s rooted in imperfect human beings creating and dealing with awkwardness. So, the foundation of most of the humour in (up)Staged, beneath all the absurdity and gags and prat falls and wordplay and exaggeration, is basically the uncomfortable hilarity of being a flawed human being. Even people with far fewer flaws than we have can probably relate to this, right? We all have our moments. You find yourself in a situation that you’ve accidentally created and now you have to find a way out of it without making things worse. But it seems everything you do makes things worse. Other people intervene, trying to help, but their efforts also make things worse. Eventually you reach a point where either you somehow solve a problem, or more often you just have to accept the problem you’ve created or become distracted by the next problem. Sometimes things will resolve themselves over time without you – sometimes your absence is what resolves the problem – and sometimes the problem works out in the end because it wasn’t really that big a problem to begin with, you just thought it was, and eventually saner minds prevail.

(up)Staged begins with the core production team of the fictional Post Productions taking stock of the financial fallout from their most recent play, which made a profit in the single digits, while preparing to begin pre-production work on their next play. This next play is a big one that they’ve been planning for a long time. A year before they’d managed a real coup: they were able to hire the greatest living playwright in Canada, Wright Lloyd-Jones (played by Ouellette) to write an unofficial and unauthorized sequel/reboot of Peter Shaffer’s classic play Equus. This new play, cleverly titled Twoquus, is now due. The team – which includes creative director Fay (played by Fay Lynn), managing director Michael (played by Michael K. Potter), outreach director Gordie (played by John Strahl), set designer Bruce (played by Jamie Taylor), and lighting designer Liam (played by Luke Boughner) – eagerly awaits the arrival of Wright Lloyd-Jones and his script, which he’s supposed to have sent already. Auditions are tomorrow and they still haven’t seen the script so they’re a little tense. But mostly they’re excited to see what the great playwright has created. The team had also managed to hire a well-known director, Nicole Jonasson (played by Meaghen Quinn), to come to Windsor to direct Twoquus, but she’s been delayed in Toronto. When Lloyd-Jones finally arrives, it’s clear that the production, at its very first meeting, its very first day, is already in serious trouble. All he’s brought with him are a few random pages of text and a crayon drawing of a bird cage. You might not think that events could go downhill when you start at the nadir, but they do.

By the time auditions are held the next day, the team has just enough pages to give actors something to audition with, but they still don’t know what the actual story is going to be. Bruce has no idea what he’s supposed to be working on because, despite what some might think, crayon drawings don’t provide much to work with. The auditions themselves are a motley crew of absolutely bizarre and unique personalities – some of them bizarre and talented, some of them just bizarre. Eventually, a cast is chosen, including ornithophobic young actor Myrtle (played by Maggie Marchenkowsky), disaster-prone Kendra (played by Rebecca S. Mickle), nervous and vomit-prone Barry (played by Jun Wuyan), agent-turned-involuntary-actor Annie (played by Shayla Hudson), homeless drifter Dirk (played by James Stone), confused elderly acting vet Henry (played by Lionel Walsh), intimidatingly confident dancer Danica (played by Courtesy Lebert-Dean), and mysteriously intense enigma Thomas Torgus (played by Boris Gatackic). As rehearsals begin, it becomes clear immediately that Jonasson may not have been the best choice of director. She’s worked with nearly every theatre company in Ontario. . . once. The producers probably should have thought about what that meant. But despite interpersonal troubles between cast members, clashes with the director, a widespread inability to hop and flutter like birds, an actor quitting mid-way through rehearsal, and costume mishaps, the cast begins to bond with each other, as casts often do. They begin to coalesce as a team. They may be a team that’s rehearsing a play none of them understands and the playwright hasn’t finished writing, but a team nonetheless.

(up)Staged promo photo for 519 May 2024 issue (l-r Micheal Potter, Joey Ouellette, Fay Lynn) photo credit Kieran Potter - OPTION 1 copyKieran Potter

While all this is happening, the producers, set designer, and costumer Karen (played by Karen Kilbride) have to deal with an apparently endless series of unfortunate events, many of which threaten to derail the production while others just threaten to derail their lives. Gordie, who’s working as a producer for the first time, feels completely in over his head and honestly has no idea what’s expected of him – and since Fay and Michael are busy trying to put out countless fires, they seem to expect that he’ll just figure it out on his own. While he struggles with his self-doubts, he ends up in a complicated relationship with local influencer Fo Faber (played by Daniela Piccinin), who seems to like him but might value him more as potential content for her social media than for his potential as a love interest, whatever that potential may be. Gordie ends up being tasked with solving problems he’s never been trained to solve, problems he didn’t know existed until they were thrown into his lap, such as charming local theatre critics into agreeing to review the play when it opens, dealing with stringent pro-bird protestors, and mediating disputes between actors.

It would be one thing if these harried but dedicated artists simply had to deal with and solve the rapid-fire problems that pop into their lives on a daily basis privately. Unfortunately, Fay and Michael have agreed to let a documentary crew film the entire process of creating Twoquus in a desperate bid to drum up awareness (and hopefully business) in the shaky post-covid economy that’s the result of people becoming used to staying home for entertainment for two-and-a-half years. Now every misstep and foible, every terrible decision and accident, is being filmed for public viewing. What the documentary crew ends up putting together from all this footage filmed over a nearly three-month period is (up)Staged, the eight-episode comedy series you’ll be able to watch if our Kickstarter campaign is successful. The team is ready: 44 actors, 9 to 11 production team/crew members, and a smattering of behind-the-scenes artists. Some of these people have been working quietly on (up)Staged for quite some time. Others are ready to start filming scenes in June. The missing piece? We need the citizens on Windsor-Essex to invest in their artists, their crazy local arts scene, and thus their community. Even if you have just a few dollars to spare, you can be part of making (up)Staged happen. You can make sure all of these artists are paid to bring this story to life for your entertainment, to make you laugh, to make you care about these ridiculous people, and to help see Windsor-Essex the way we see it – as a place of immense creativity, talent, and potential. I hope you’ll visit our website (www.upstagedseries.com), contribute to our Kickstarter, and encourage your friends and family to do the same. Every dollar donated is a dollar that circulates in our economy and benefits every one of us.

Passionate, sincere, and awkward people who take themselves seriously – maybe too seriously – making mistakes while trying to solve problems that may be insoluble, all the while trying to be the best people they can be given their many, many limitations. That’s what (up)Staged is about. If you find comedy in people like this, if you are a person like this, or you just know people like this, then (up)Staged is exactly the comedy series you need in your life. Let’s make it happen.

 

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