The Ultimate Guide to Theatrical Comedy in 8 Steps

Hedgerow Theatre and adapter/director/actor Matt Tallman have come together to create the Barrymore Recommended comedy adventure The Prisoner of Zenda based on Anthony Hope’s classic tale and the musings of The 39 Steps and Bullshot Crummond. The show ahs been hailed as “heartfelt” and as “fun” as it is “adventurous.” Therefore, we wanted to share the top 14 things we kept in mind while creating this show:

1.Solid Source Material

  • Anthony Hope’s novel has been adapted for decades. The story gave birth to its own genre, and is a favorite of classic Hollywood. Even Futurama adapted an episode based around the story named The Prisoner of Benda. Like every theatre in America doing Hamlet and even the bard taking the story of the Prince of Denmark and putting his spin on it, you must start with a solid base.

2. Exaggeration

  • From the book “Comedy Writing Secrets,” exaggeration is a key component of comedy. “How does realism relate to exaggeration? As we accept poetic license, let’s accept a humor license that grants permission to expand on realistic themes with soaring imagination and unabashed metaphors…” Think Eddie Izzard bits or Robin Williams summing up golf. If you want to have fun with a classic tale, such as Bulldog Drummond, then roll up your sleeves and let the energy fly.

3. Emotion

  • This is straight from the horses mouth. Director and adaptor Matt Tallman was blown away by the heart of Hope’s novel. In fact, more important to him than the comedy was the story and the catharsis of the characters.  “There’s comedy, there’s fun, there’s memorable characters, but I was sold by the deeper human story that ran through the show…At the end of the day, having an emotional impact was key for me, “ said Tallman, “Zenda is different from other plays in its genre by virtue of the depth of the emotional life in it, which was inherent in the source material.  When we did a table read of my third draft and Jared Reed, Hedgerow’s  Producing  Artistic Director, was in tears at the end, I thought that was a good sign.”

4. Surprise!

  • From “Comedy Writing Secrets” a sourcebook for screenwriting comedy, “…surprise (is) one of the primary reasons why people laugh. It’s no wonder then that it’s also one of the primary building blocks for a successful joke…comedy is mentally pulling the rug out from under each person in your audience. First, you have to get them to stand on it. You have to fool them, because if they see you preparing to tug on the rug, they’ll move.”

5. Don’t Get Stuck to Your First Idea

  • Tallman wrote the Zenda with this thought in mind, “It’s better to fix than to create.” This simple thought gave Tallman the freedom to imrpovise and adapt the story to the people in the room. Many of the jokes and bits were suited to the actors, such as Allison Bloechl and Mark Swift. The novel was a starting point and Tallman’s adaptation was a base, after the first draft it was, “Let’s throw it on the wall and see if it sticks.”

6. Keep Your Audience Guessing

  • The idea of misdirection, a concept used by all writers who make readers believe they
    are going down one path and then lead them astray. In comedy, the setup of a joke provides direction and the punch line provides misdirection, which is why it goes at the end. Look for the illogical and keep playing with your ideas.

7. Find Something Worth Repeating

  • When an audience laughs, stay in the moment. We want to feel that feeling. We want to laugh, like this, more. Therefore, when you find a joke, repeat it. Stand-up comedians use callbacks all the time. Old vaudeville and Shakespeare jokes thrive on the rule of three. Comedy comes in 3’s, but also 5’s and 7’s. If you find a joke that works, use it, use it, use it.

8. Expose Yourself

  • Theatre is about vulnerability. We want to sympathize with the character. Classic characters such as Harlequinno, the classic Commedia troupe that serves as the basis for Bugs Bunny, work because we relate to them. The character is not some untouchable wit that has irony as armor, but a human who has flaws and problems., In Zenda, the problems are epic in scale: kingdoms, villains, and yes, love. The more we relate to the characters on stage the more we sympathize with their needs and wants, and once the audience sympathizes with your hero or heroine then you can they are ready to laugh.