Wednesday, January 14, 2009

A Delayed Thank-You

In the summers, I used to go to a day-camp at a local theater company. The day involved rotating between seven or eight teachers who each focused on a different theatrical skill. Improv. Juggling. Singing. Commedia.

We loved most of our teachers with genuine affection, but there was one whose class we dreaded, and that was Tony, the Comedy teacher. I know it's a stereotype that all comedians are depressed or mean or awful people in their day-to-day lives, but Tony was frankly sadistic. I didn't think he was all that funny, either: his class consisted of variations on two gags which he found endlessly, inexplicably hilarious. One was the word "D'oh!" said a la Homer Simpson (this was the mid-90s, after all), and the other was "Acting! Thank you!" from Jon Lovitz' tenure as the Master Thespian on SNL. (We were too young to know SNL, though, which explains why Tony and our parents found this amusing while we were merely bemused.)

The "Acting! Thank you!" bit involves intoning those words in an orotund manner, while sweeping your arm up in the air on "Acting!" and bringing it down to bow deeply on the "Thank you!" I suppose when you see a bunch of little kids doing it in unison, it's good for a laugh. But we never understood the importance that Tony placed on it.

And furthermore--this is what I mean about his sadistic side--most of the time, Tony was all "Acting" and no "Thank you." In other words, we would, as a group, shout "Acting!" while raising our right arms. But then, Tony wouldn't allow us to say "Thank you!" and finish the phrase. Instead, we had to stand there, our arms in the air in fourth position porte de bras...and stand, and stand, not moving a muscle, until Tony released us.

If you moved, Tony would yell at you, and if you squirmed too much, he'd make you do it for longer. Sometimes he'd turn it into a competition among us (not that there was any real prize). Your arm would ache until it felt like it would fall off, or else seem to grow heavier as though its weight could crush you to the ground. He could make us stand like statues with our arms raised for eight, nine, ten minutes.

We were eight, nine, ten years old.

Tony never explained the point of this exercise to us, which made me furious: "This is supposed to be comedy class! But it's not funny!" To this day I'm not sure what the point of it was, but at least now I can speculate. "Dying is easy, comedy is hard," right? Comedians need to have utter control over their bodies and their minds. They need the patience to practice something endlessly since that is the only way it will appear to be effortless. Physical comedians need to be inured to the pain that comes from pratfalls. If Tony had explained this, would it have made it any better? Possibly. Still, we were just children and had no concept of devotion to Thalia the Muse.

But why am I thinking about Tony now, all these years later?

Because my new commute on the ever-crowded N-Judah involves standing pressed up against a crowd of people and grabbing the a bar above my head, hanging on for stability's sake for eight, nine, ten minutes. If I'm lucky, there's enough room in the car for me to switch arms occasionally, or even to hold a book in my other hand and try to read. But sometimes there isn't.

So, all right, Tony, I concede: your class, though I never would have believed it at the time, actually ended up teaching me a valuable skill.

But it still isn't funny.

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