This week and next, William Breden tells us all about funny business.
Part 1: Why did the chicken change her name?
For the last couple of weeks (prior to the ominous death clock last week, I mean), James has held forth about the music in Nando’s, and how it evolved and why it does what it does. That’s fine, music is generally held to be of at least moderate importance in a musical after all. Whatever.
This week, I thought I’d focus on humour in Nando’s, how it’s evolved as the play developed and what purpose it serves.
A good example is a joke that was present from the first draft, back in April, and has remained until now, our tenth draft:
Hello! Hello and welcome. You both look swell, just swell. My name is Sally Chicken.
(She pauses to allow a reaction from the couple)
All Nando’s employees must change their names to Chicken when they join.
Ha! I’m only joking. HAAAA! Could you imagine?
It’s not Sally, it’s Fenugreek.
Now, that’s not a particularly complex joke, but it helps achieve a few things. Firstly, it introduces the character of Fenugreek and establishes that a) she’s got a silly name and b) she has a somewhat idiosyncratic syntax. This helps the play in that it immediately sets up contrast between her and the rather straight Melvin and Caroline, and in this contrast we can begin to find absurdity, drama and humour. All from a small exchange of silly lines. Neat, huh?
But there’s a little problem with being too smug about the above, namely that the punchline, the ‘Fenugreek’ , isn’t actually particularly amusing. I liked it at the time, I thought it was a funny word and appropriate and so hoped it would fit but on hearing it rehearsed and then performed it fell flat. It wasn’t funny. I wasn’t funny. Disaster. So how do we try to make something that we thought was funny funnier?
This is how the line appears in the current draft:
Ha! I’m only joking. Could you imagine?
CAROLINE (Still giggling)
Of course it’s not Sally, it’s Rubber.
So it’s the same exact joke but the payoff is better, clearer, more logical. Logic is important in humour, and you can subvert it but if you want a silly chicken name then by Colonel Sanders you’d better go with a rubber chicken, which has been a stalwart of comedy since at least the Pythons.
The new version of the joke was performed and I had a number of people after the event come to me and tell me they liked it (which was nice) and one person come to me and tell me they liked everything except the name change (which I also welcomed, critical feedback is vital). So not everyone will laugh, hopefully more people will than won’t, but even if they don’t it still serves an important role in establishing tone.
So, jokes are funny (sometimes, to some people) but that isn’t always their most important role.
Next week I’ll talk a bit more about how humour affects the tone of Nando’s, and also talk about swearing.