Oct 24

French & Saunders Tear up the Comedy Rulebook!

I saw British comedy duo French & Saunders on Wednesday night at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane. They’re currently doing their Final Farewell show part of a tour of the same name. For those of you who don’t know they’ve decided to hang up their “comedy gloves” after 30 years.  At over two hours (incl. interval) they were certainly not in danger of running out of material when they did their encore.

And yes I witnessed them take the comedy rulebook and tear it limb from limb and throw the pieces on to a metaphorical bonfire. Okay, if you’re bit confused I’ll tell you exactly what they did…

…But before I do let me tell you why love French & Saunders.

The thing I love about French & Saunders is that they come across as having an absolute joy in their performances. Not matter whether they’re doing the exaggerated versions of themselves  – where they bicker of their individual successes and how they’re going to write the show – or whether they’re playing any one of their many characters their is always the joy behind the eyes.

They always have a sense of play in what they’re doing. Late French actor, director and teacher Jacques LeCoq used the expression Le Jeu. It was part of the foundation of LeCoq’s conception of acting; one that uses playfulness and improvisation. There are obvious overlaps with the word “play” and “player” and also between child’s play and drama. He defined it as follows:

“when, aware of the theatrical dimension, the actor can shape an improvisation for spectators, using rhythm, tempo, space, form.” The Moving Body

This sense of play and obvious joy in their performances, I believe, is one of the reasons why they’ve endured for so long. There’s no real maliciousness there. They poke fun and can deliver cutting bon mots, but they’re is still, dare a say, a niceness to what they’re doing.

That doesn’t mean to say that when you convey a sense of play in your performances you’re not malicious. Witness the performances of Sacha Baron Cohen, who trained with LeCoq, to see that a playful performance doesn’t have to be nice.

I think we can all learn from them when we deliver our speeches or our comedy. Many times we’re too focused on getting our message across or what they audience is going to take away, that we often forget to enjoy ourselves. Once we’re secure in what we’re doing we should try to re-discover the joy in what we’re doing.

Right, let me clear up how they tore up the comedy rulebook…

For those of you who have read my earliest post on secret comedy writing techniques (you have read it before haven’t you? If not have a quick butchers at it now) they perform a doctor sketch displaying some warped logic of not too dissimilar to vaudeville with exchanges like:

Saunders: There’s a form to fill out for a medical. I’ll whip through this quickly: Legs?
French: yes.
S: head?
F: yes
S: bones?
F: yes

Now, I don’t remember it exactly but the line when something like this…

Saunders asks “have you ever had that thing where you start a sentence and it turns into complete rubbish? tomato.” which got a huge laugh. Here’s the version from their TV show but with the line in question missing.

I found myself laughing really hard. Then momentarily afterwards I thought about Neil Simon, “tomato isn’t funny”, but somehow it was. Comedy writing teachers everywhere teach how words with a “K” sound in them are funny.

Now it’s the frog killing moment

On the whole, in my experience, this seems to be true. Except in this sketch. I suspect that it worked because it was so incongruous and random. Therefore, it was unexpected and so we laughed.

Dave Barry has used a similar technique in “Dave Barry: Talks Back” by using the word weasel as seen in examples such as “Not funny: Richard Nixon wearing a necktie. Funny: Richard Nixon wearing a neck weasel”. Not a “K” sound to be found anywhere.

Now think about this for your own use of humour. Can you confidently find ways to bend the rules or even tear up the rulebook like French & Saunders? Do you know the rules well enough in the first place to be able to define what it is that you’rte doing? Or are you still leaving it all to chance?

I think that if you’re using humour in speeches or presentations you should at least be able to understand the tools that you’re using so when your humour isn’t working you know how to fix it!

Quick story: The Theatre Royal Drury Lane in London’s covent garden is the fourth Theatre Royal to stand on that site with the original dating back to Restoration times of 1663. When it was re-built in 1812 after burning down, for some reason they accidentally built it backwards! The entrance was originally on Drury Lane, hence the name. Now it stands on Catherine Street. But I guess Theatre Royal Catherine Street doesn’t have the same ring to it!?

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