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Friday, July 22, 2011

The Niche

I just finished reading a how to increase the sales of ebooks book and it turns out one of the most important keys to success for an author is finding her niche, her specific audience, her target market. And that's just what I intend to do for my memoir called Mirror Talk about a Catholic girlhood and working in theatre. Without revealing too much about myself, my target market is older Catholic women inordinately fond of vodka, dark chocolate, cats, and movies without gunfire. I certainly don't intend to deliberately exclude young non-Catholic women, men of any age, and sullen scotch drinkers from my readership but I do want to be realistic about who will buy my book.

The how to book also says instead of trying to widen one's target group, an author should narrow it down, appeal to a smaller group, one she has a great deal in common with, as this actually increases her chances of sales. Going along with this thinking, my target audience would now become older Catholic women inordinately fond of vodka, dark chocolate, cats, movies without gunfire, poetry, and men with curly hair. And if I can just get these women to put the vodka tonic and box of chocolates down for a minute and click on this link Kindle "Mirror Talk" to buy the book, my cat Byron and I can go back to watching "Pride and Prejudice."

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Byron and Bugs Bunny

I woke up this morning thinking more about humor. I suppose this is Part II of "What's So Funny," only it's "Why do some things stay funny?" Chaplin's swallowing the whistle scene in his 1931 comedy "City Lights" is hilarious now - eighty years later. I grew up watching the Looney Tunes super star with the Brooklyn accent, Bugs Bunny, and when it comes to comedy, I too am asking, "What's up doc?" Although the wise-cracking, carrot-chomping Bugs never stole my heart, I remember him and his cartoon cronies Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Elmer Fudd, Sylvester, and Tweety Bird. Tweety did steal my child heart - something about the little canary with the big eyes who was occasionally a meanie but always a smartie I liked.

To go from the ridiculous rabbit to sublime wit, I reread Byron's long poem called "The Vision of Judgment" satirizing Robert Southey's poem "Vision of Judgment" and Southey's turncoat politics. But it wasn't the political satire I remembered after decades, it was the two devastatingly attractive angelic aristocrats, Saint Michael and Satan; Saint Peter's keys being rusty because it had been so long since they were used to open the gates of heaven; and, the over-burdened recording angel who keeps track of mankind's sins, needing additional support staff to stay current with the workload. I suspect comedy that lasts, really lasts, is about the human condition not a political environment. I also suspect satire, especially political satire, doesn't last as long as pure comedy because political agendas are often short-lived. 

Shakespeare addresses the human condition and politics with ease, wit, and ineffable skill. Vain and pompous Malvolio is remembered not because of his politics but because he is comical. "Bedazzled," the 1967 comedy written by and starring Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, is hilarious now not because of the swipes it takes at British politics but because it is the age old story of the lovable schlemiel fumbling at love. The satire in Tina Fey's television show "30 Rock," is incisive and funny but its large dose of politics limits its longevity. Comedy and satire are sometimes sidekicks but they are two different things. It seems to me comedy accepts human frailties but satire ridicules them. And in comedy, the guy is slipping on a banana peel not a Republican or Democratic ticket.

A television comedy that is totally original and funny is "Raising Hope" created by Greg Garcia. It's about struggle, survival, love, fear, and hope - ye 'ole human condition. It does not suggest who we ought to vote for in the coming political election. I find some of it offensive -- ridiculing the great grandmother's dementia -- but most of the humor is splendid. Splendid seems like an odd word applied to a sit-com about a cynical cleaning woman, her not terribly bright handyman husband, and their naive son who had a one-night stand with a serial-killer that resulted in the birth of his daughter named Hope. Without any political banners, this show has plenty to say about social justice and the lack of it. And maybe that's its secret, social relevance with a touch so light it's hardly noticeable but definitely there.

I think one of the reasons I'm diving into all this what makes something funny and what keeps it so is that right now I'm turning a one-one-act comedy of mine into a full-length play. I imagine if I could master the mysteries of a screenplay format, I'd be turning into a screenplay. I wrote a serious full-length play that is chuck full of social justice concerns but my comedy hasn't an ounce of politics and, after writing this blog post, I'm starting to think that's okay.

Friday, July 1, 2011

What's So Funny?

In a movie trailer for "Bad Teacher," a beautiful and talented American actress throws a basketball at a boy's groin. In a recent remake of  the movie "Arthur," a respected English actress says to the actor playing her son Arthur, "Wash your winky." A television commercial has two women eating yogurt and trashing marriage. In another TV ad, a man sitting behind the wheel of a new minivan in a car dealership, makes a crack about the van being so good it almost makes you want to have children; young children play and shout in the background and the man, sneering slightly, repeats "Almost." In these failed attempts at humor there is a strong element of mean-spiritedness, notably toward children. I am not talking about satire. Satire needs to be unkind. Moliere pokes fun at hypocrites unkindly and hilariously. Insinuating an automobile is more rewarding than parenthood isn't satire; it is a mean and rather vapid comment.

A former television comic amasses a fortune by cranking out movies apparently targeted to twelve year olds crazy about bodily function jokes. Proving greed is not limited to corporate executives, extremely gifted actors opt for yet another comic book movie franchise. Apparently, it really is "all about the money." If only it were about the craft -- whether writing or acting -- once again. A television commercial from years ago that was funny had an elderly woman in a fast food restaurant open her hamburger bun, look inside and ask, "Where's the beef?" In today's comedy, where is the wit? Where are the sight gags? Where are the puns?

Comedy is more difficult than tragedy as it is easier to be weepy than witty. But what makes a book, a play, or a movie funny? Why are fart jokes in "The Canterbury Tales" and "Blazing Saddles" so funny and so un-funny in contemporary sausage factory cinema? Why are Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, the Three Stooges, the Marx brothers, Peter Sellers, Steve Martin, and Woody Allen always funny? What's so funny about them?

In her wonderful book "The Craft of Comedy," the late English comedienne Athene Seyler reveals three elements of comedy -- opposites, exaggeration, and surprise. Recall Oscar and Felix in Neil Simon's "The Odd Couple;" the song "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" during the crucifixion scene in Monty Python's "Life of Brian;" Woody Allen's character in "Sleeper" cryogenically preserved for two hundred years, along with his horn rimmed glasses -- in Reynolds Wrap; and, any scene in the 1938 classic comedy "Bringing Up Baby." I don't want to sound like Deuteronomy in the musical "Cats," always pining for the old days, especially since "the old days" aren't even mine, they belong to my parents. But you only have to watch the old comedies of filmmakers Ernst Lubitsch and Preston Sturges to see what we are missing in the new ones. Paraphrasing H.L. Mencken's "One horse-laugh is worth ten thousand syllogisms," one horse laugh is worth ten thousand mean-spirited and failed attempts at humor.