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Comedy and the Art of Dancing Backwards

April 7th, 2007 · 3 Comments · Blogroll, Blogs, Comedy, Culture, Doctor Who, Film, Journal, Kids in the Hall, Meta, Neo-Futurists, Science Fiction, The Partly Dave Show, TV

Kevin McDonaldMy old friend AKMA (from the Billy-Bragg email list back in the 90s) has a short but insightful post up about the etiquette of responding to a straight line when it’s offered. It reminds me of why I used to enjoy talking to him online so much. Go read it. The last time I exchanged emails with AKMA was probably a couple of years ago (and I’m pretty sure I was the one who dropped the conversational ball, thanks to an inbox that’s more like the swamp Man-Thing crawled out of than a place to communicate with friends) — but at least I’ve got AKMA on my blogroll now.

One of the things I like about his post is that it surfaces an interesting truth: Despite the competitive nature of comedy as an industry and many comedians as people, true comedy (at least the kind with more than one person on stage) depends more on cooperation than competition. And that’s true whether you’re the person offering the straight line, or the person who gets to supply the punch line.

Spend much time performing comedy on stage, especially in any ad-lib or improv format, and you quickly begin to admire the teammates who are best at extending an oar to a fellow player who’s floundering, or amplifying and adding to a colleague’s ideas in a way that enriches what’s taking place rather than stealing focus. And that may be a matter of offering the perfect set-up for someone else; it may be a matter of gracefully recognizing that set-up when it’s been handed to you; or it may be simply a matter of reacting to what someone else is doing in a way that magnifies the impact of it.

It’s the essential art of quiet heroism. And those who master it may not always be the audience’s favorite, but behind the scenes they’re recognized as the MVPs that everyone wants to work with.

Here’s an example of what I mean:

Kevin McDonald from The Kids in the Hall is one of those guys, I think. When you watch the show, he isn’t always the one who draws your attention as the funniest or most talented performer. But watch the behind-the-scenes tour documentary Same Guys, New Dresses, and see if you don’t come away feeling like he’s the glue that holds the group together (to the extent that it does hold together).

You see the way the rest of the guys love him, how he plays peacemaker, soothes ruffled feathers, brings creative adversaries back to the negotiating table. And then you start to notice how he shines as as a partner in a duo scene, how particularly good he is when he dons drag to play the wife or the girlfriend role — generally, in fact, better in those moments than when he’s doing a solo bit. And it seems no coincidence that a group of male performers who are famous for the skill with which they play female characters would have the sense to prize a colleague with those gifts.

In a yang-driven culture, we don’t always recognize the power of yin, but those who can wield it gracefully (and of course there isn’t really any other way) come out not on top, but in the true center of things, valued by those around them not for star power but because they supply the energy that stars depend on.

Not to turn everything into a discussion of the new Doctor Who (I admit it, I have an illness) but I’m convinced a big part of what made the first two seasons so successful was Billie Piper’s masterful and deeply generous performance as the Doctor’s companion Rose. Some of her most effective scenes are when she’s simply reacting, responding, showing us the magic of the Doctor as seen through her eyes. You feel his charisma most when Rose is sharing the scene with him, reflecting his own energy back at him and transforming it into something greater in the process.

I wonder if there isn’t a tendency for women to be better at doing this than men sometimes, because our culture so often demands that women be lunar rather than solar — reflecting others’ light rather than radiating their own. Which is of course a variation of the idea that Ginger Rogers was more talented than Fred Astaire because she had to do everything he did, only backwards and in high heels.

Of the Neo-Futurists of my generation, Scott Hermes and Diana Slickman are good examples of performers who have this gift in spades. They’re fully capable of making their own very funny jokes — but they’re also brilliant at taking a joke you’ve just made and adding to it or extending it, not in a way that grabs the spotlight away but simply underscores and strengthens the joke itself. (Just one of the many reasons I book them for The Partly Dave Show every chance I get.)

I admire this partly because I don’t think it’s something I’m naturally very good at myself, and I’m trying to get better at it. I often have trouble splitting my focus when I perform — one of the reasons I don’t do improv very often — and sometimes I’m guilty of focusing so intently on what I’m trying to do that I don’t give back enough to the others around me. It’s good to think these things through, and realize that once you start recognizing the importance of cooperation, collaboration, and other yin functions, it isn’t hard to find examples of people who do those things well; you just have to focus your attention differently.


3 Comments so far ↓

  • Aaron

    I always thought Kevin MacDonald was underrated. And yes, he was at his best when he dragged it up to play the exasperated wife/girlfriend. They were all great at that, actually, but Kevin did the weary, cynical wife brilliantly. And he really shone in “Brain Candy.” He had the least comedic part, but made the most of it. He was such a great flawed hero, you couldn’t help but pull for him.

    I don’t find a lot of the newer comedians that funny. With a few exceptions, they seem to be full of pseudo-cynical poseurs who try clumsily to wield sarcasm and just come off like little kids playing dress-up in their parents’ clothes, with messy lipstick and fake pearls hanging down to their knees. And every line is followed by “I’m just sayin’.” (Yeah, and we’re just sleepin’.) Maybe it’s because they all try too hard to take the whole scene, instead of giving back and taking in turn, as you say…

    Ew, God I got old fast! It happened overnight in 2004.

  • Dan Telfer

    Wow, what an awesome essay. Thanks Dave!

  • Diane Stojentin


    I love reading what you write, because in these days where I don’t frequently bump into you at the same time, I get to feel like you’re right here.