Take My Life, Puh-leeze! This Is No Laughing Matter

Comedians, now in a terrific revival by the New Group with Jim Dale leading what must surely be the best ensemble in town, isn’t really about comedy. If we don’t see that, Comedians is sunk (and so are we). At heart-and it has lots of it-Trevor Griffiths’ drama from working-class 1970’s England is as much about comedy as The Tempest is about stormy weather.

True, there are several aspiring comedians in it-among them, two Irishmen, a noncomformist Welshman and a Jew. (For good measure in this rainbow coalition of bad taste, a Pakistani will join them belatedly to tell a wonderful joke.) There’s also an entire second act that’s like a terrifyingly bad night out at the Comedy Store. And there’s a fair amount of talk about the mysterious nature of comedy itself. Or, as a renowned Liverpudlian comedian-an intellectual of humor-once asked me in all seriousness, “Why do we laugh? I mean, why doesn’t your nose light up instead?”

Now, when it comes to high-flown comedy theorists-Bergson and Freud, among them-I’m tempted to side with the masterly British comic of the music hall, Ken (Doddy) Dodd, who said the trouble with Freud is that he never played the Glasgow Empire on a Saturday night.

Theories of comedy are all very well-until the comedian goes out there and risks his neck in front of the firing squad. On the other hand, Comedians is within the great English tradition that takes the music hall as a metaphor for England. Its antecedent is John Osborne’s seminal 1957 The Entertainer, whose desperate, seedy old comic, Archie Rice, is the stand-in for crumbling, postcolonial England. “Don’t clap too hard,” goes Archie’s famous line. “It’s a very old building.” Archie will be given the hook. His number is up, like the dying music hall, like England. Archie has no role to play any more.

Joan Littlewood’s 1963 Oh! What a Lovely War, a brilliant satire of England’s lust for glorious death in World War I, used the Edwardian music hall and its sentimental songs to stage the carnage of war as a Pierrot show. Peter Nichols also used music-hall routines as a metaphor in two of his plays, no less: the male nurse dispensing ironic therapy in his 1969 The National Health, and the amateur army entertainers on tour in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War in his 1977 Privates on Parade.

In the last moments of Comedians, the retired comic Eddie Waters (Jim Dale)-who quit his successful career when he visited the death camps during World War II-poses the question whether laughter is possible after Auschwitz. In Peter Barnes’ 1978 Laughter!, the near-surrealist playwright pushed the music-hall metaphor to its outer limits with tap-dancing entertainers in the gas chambers: “Sing! Everybody sing!”

The equivalent American tradition, incidentally, is the less-barbed showbiz metaphor in backstage musicals. America-or the world-is seen and glamorized as razzle-dazzle-’em showbiz: Chicago, A Chorus Line and The Producers, with its ultimate line from Adolf Elizabeth Hitler, “The thing you gotta know is / Ev’rything is showbiz.”

Comedians is set in a depressing schoolroom in Manchester, Mecca of the North of England. The playwright was born in Manchester (and, coincidentally, so was I). I can say with some authority that everything about Scott Elliott’s production is uncannily, scarily authentic down to the quality of its rain, which pisses down in Manchester as surely as darkest day follows darkest night. In one of the funniest lines of the evening, the London talent scout Bert (played by the excellent David McCallum) enters soaking wet with the comment, “I’ll never understand why they don’t run boats to Manchester.”

The first thing we see are the charming words scrawled on the classroom chalkboard: “Fuck off nobhole.” Home again! The message is closely related to the Mancunian expression “Shut your piehole.” Or, indeed, “Shut your cakehole.” Manchester folk tend to say what’s on their mind. They do not dissemble. The place breeds comedians, though not as many as nearby Liverpool, where it’s said you have to be a comedian to live there.

A night class in comedy is being given by the old pro, Eddie, for his aspiring no-hopers. By day, they’re milkmen, dockers, builders, van drivers. Later that night, they’ll go off to audition their acts at the local bingo hall for the scout, an ex-comic himself, a second-rater among the damned.

The scout represents the status quo-call it hard, compromised, commercial reality. “We’re servants, that’s all,” he advises the group when he first meets them. “They demand, we supply. Any good comedian can lead an audience by the nose. But only in the direction they’re going. And that direction is, quite simply, escape. We’re not missionaries, we’re suppliers of laughter. I’d like you to remember that.”

But their teacher, Eddie, is a subversive in his humane way. “We work through laughter, not for it … ,” he drums into the group. “A real comedian-that’s a daring man. He dares to see what his listeners shy away from, fear to express …. A joke releases the tension, says the unsayable, any joke pretty well. But a true joke, a comedian’s joke, has to do more than release tension, it has to liberate the will and the desire, it has to change the situation.”

Trevor Griffiths is a socialist dramatist who’d like to change the situation-society-and his dramas encourage debate between opposites. In that sense, Comedians is also rooted in the state-of-the-nation play that goes back to Shaw. The idealist who’s for enlightened change, versus the crassness of the survivor who’s for giving the people what they want, are embodied a bit too obviously by the two protagonists. But that sweaty, squirm-inducing second-act audition is remarkable and excruciating, as each wannabe comic comes out and dies before us.

They are already dead. In panic, they abandon everything they’ve been taught-returning to the usual rock-bottom coarseness and racist jokes to stand a chance of success. And they’re brilliantly performed by the ensemble: James Beecher’s chronically unfunny stage Irishman; Allan Corduner’s embarrassing professional Jew; the squabbling ventriloquist act of Max Baker and Jamie Harris; the manic portrait of desperation in David Lansbury’s Belfast boy with the frilly shirt.

There’s a kind of hopeless, heroic, suicidal nobility in the second-rate comic who comes out to risk our certain derision. Was there ever a breed more foolishly courageous? “Let me know where you’re appearing tomorrow night,” went Archie Rice’s famous farewell line to us, “and I’ll come and see you.” It’s the parting shot and challenge of all those who have ever held themselves up onstage to public approval, acclaim and judgment-and been found wanting. Could you, out there, do better? Could we?

There’s a renegade in the Comedians audition, Gethin, the punkish radical who rejects all current systems. Played by Raul Esparza, who’s rapidly becoming one of our best risk-taking actors, Gethin’s contribution is like the political agit-prop theater of a thuggish clown. He literally draws blood from a larger-than-life-size dummy. The silent, condescending middle-class dummies are his audience. The audience is us.

Gethin’s ugly truth and protest in class war isn’t comedy. He has no future, unless the system collapses to the discordant strains of the Red flag. And yet he bases his act on a description of a performance by an Edwardian clown and comic genius named Grock. He read about it in a book that Eddie gave him. I jumped at mention of Grock’s name.

He was the teacher and guru of my favorite music-hall artist, Max Wall, said to be the greatest clown England ever produced. (He was Scots, actually.) The point is, Max Wall presented himself as a spectacle of human disaster, and the darker his spirit, the funnier he became. Max believed-like Mr. Griffith’s punk Gethin, like their mentor Grock-that life isn’t funny. Perhaps it’s why we laugh.

You should see Comedians if you can. Anything with Jim Dale in it is good news, although the star still looks a wee bit too boyish for a battered, old-time comic. I saw the original production at the National Theatre in the 70’s with Jimmy Jewell as Eddie. He was the other half of a faded comedy team named Jewell and Warris. He looked miserable and lined like W.H. Auden, wearing that traditional emblem of the old comic, a jaunty trilby. But I learn with pleasure that when Jim Dale was 17, he was, in fact, the youngest professional comedian to have worked in British music hall. No greater testing ground in humiliation ever existed; no wonder he’s so good.

Take My Life, Puh-leeze! This Is No Laughing Matter