Damn the Brits. Or, to be more specific, damn the Cambridge Footlights, a sketchy comedy group from across the pond who, in case you missed it (WTF?!), knocked everyone’s socks off at the Off Broadway Theater Tuesday night with their 2010 international tour show, “Good For You.”
I hate to say it, but it was funny. Really British, yes, but also really, truly, undeniably funny — maybe even bordering on ingenious at times, if we’re being completely honest about it. In fact, as someone who likes to think he knows at least a bit about comedy (I’m the director of the Fifth Humour, a sketch group that started at Yale in the late ’80s or early ’90s), the word “bested” floated uneasily through my mind once or twice throughout the course of the performance.
True, the troupe performed some pieces with premises that seemed a little tired — a spoof of “inspirational teacher” movies and a short, recurring “wise janitor” sketch come to mind — but they easily compensated for any knocks against them in that department with Chad Slazenger, the absurd founder and spokesman of “Innoventers,” a one-man consultancy firm who knows nothing about business but (presumably) everything about presentation. And don’t even get me started on the “Birds” sketch. It was probably the funniest thing in the whole show, and there was not a single point at which I had even a remote understanding of what it was about.
To be fair, however, these guys are working with a history. Footlights started over 120 years ago as a two-man, one-night comedy performance, but the group has since been a stepping stone for some of the most recognizable names in entertainment, including Graham Chapman, John Cleese (Monty Python), Hugh Laurie (“House”) and Emma Thompson (“Love Actually”). It was also graced by the presence of Douglas Adams, who would go on to write the much-revered “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” series.
As far as I can tell, we don’t really have that kind of star factory here. Granted, it might just be statistics (Footlights ostensibly has had an 100 year head start), but I think it’s cultural, too. Of course, it would be silly to say that there isn’t a vibrant comedy scene at Yale, but the attitude toward comedy is notably different. Rather than the kind of pre-professional intensity exhibited by a group like Footlights, there is the sense that comedians here aren’t in it for the long haul. As a group director myself, I can testify to the fact that we take our laughs seriously. Sketch groups workshop sketches until they work, and improv troupes engage in weekly rehearsal and regular critique. The difference in my mind is that the audience tends to think that we must, to a certain extent, be kidding.
What struck me about Footlights, then, was what appeared to be a respectful adherence to a comedic historical tradition, characters that were imbued with a specific brand of exuberant, campy, irreverent sillimaness that reminded me not only of Monty Python, but also of their radio predecessor, the Goonies. There’s a sense of continuity there that I feel we don’t have in the States. Of course, that doesn’t mean that I don’t think there’s a specifically American brand of comedy — there definitely is, even if it’s hard to pigeonhole precisely: that kind of self-deprecating crassness that runs the tonal spectrum from the “loud idiot” style of Will Ferrell to the “cerebral deadpan” feel of Bill Murray. The difference is in the way that sense of humor changes. American comedy seems mutable (like a TV) to me, while Footlights demonstrated a decidedly British confidence which may or may not be a remnant of their imperial past in the idea that this, this is the proper way to do things. American comedy, by contrast, may be defined by an equally powerful stereotype — namely, that we’re a bunch of brash cowboys who don’t really know what we’re doing but are going to shoot first and ask questions later, whilst drinking shaken and not stirred martinis.
But it would be sour apples to chalk Footlights’ successes up to some vague anthropological theory of comedy. Their material was brilliant. At times, it brought out the commonalities in our sensibilities (particularly in a sketch in which the President’s security codename turns out to be “cockweasel”), but it mostly just made me a tad wistful that, despite our support on campus, we don’t have quite the legitimacy that they do. At least I could take some comfort in knowing that if they won the battle, at least we won the war. (Deal with it — 1776 bitchez!)