There’s an old techie joke — did I just lose half of you? — about a pair of balloonists who are caught in some bad weather and have to make an emergency landing somewhere in Washington state. Fortunately, they are able to touch down safely in a wide field. Completely disoriented and not knowing their precise location, the pair spot an engineer and call out to him: “Hey, where are we?” to which the engineer replies: “You are in a large field.” From this, the balloonists immediately know they are in Redmond, WA, where Microsoft is headquartered because, just like all Microsoft online support, the engineer’s response was 100% accurate and yet totally useless.
This past weekend I attended the opening of Under My Skin. I’m not a critic by any stretch of the imagination, but here is my one line review:
You wanna laugh? You like old-school sitcoms? Then go see Under My Skin.
Short, sweet, twitterable. A bit lacking in the details department, however.
That’s why, despite this era of 140-character messages that make even sound-bites seem long, there is room for the venerable old-school play reviews. There were many reviews that came out on this show’s opening night. Several of them, in fact, savaged Under My Skin something fierce. I won’t name any names — okay, I’ll name one: Charles McNulty of the LA Times — but trust me when I say that these critics who didn’t like this show really, really, really didn’t like it. Really. As in sticking-needles-in-your-eyes-while-having-an-advanced-case-of-gonorrhea-during-a-bout-of-bowel-rumbling-food-poisoning-and-losing-your-hemorrhoid-donut didn’t like it.
Oh, these bad notices are ferocious, the type that give some a sense of schadenfreude (which loosely translates from the German: what Apple fans feel when seeing Microsoft online support). Collectively there were 2353 words spilled in this action, some 14550 characters — including spaces — which is about the equivalent of 100x the length of my poor man’s one-tweet-long review.
However, not one of these bad reviews — not one — mentioned this simple, verifiable (I was there!) fact:
The audience laughed. Loud. In unison. Often.
When I go to experience a comedy that’s supposed to be a comedy (we aren’t talking an Ed Wood production here), I expect to laugh. Not titter. Not hiss. Not squeak. But laugh – loud and long and clear. If I do, end of the story. Everything else is gravy.
You see, truth be told, comedy is tougher than it looks. You want to move people emotionally? It’s pretty easy. Kick a small puppy. Tell them a story about a 5-year-old with cancer. Remind them that Donald Trump is still on television weekly.
But make’em laugh?
Who knows why something is funny? My Uncle claims to love old British comedy. I thought he meant Monty Python. He was talking about Benny Hill.
In comedy some jokes die and others kill — comedy really is a life-and-death business! — so it’s impressive when you can get a 522-seat theater audience to laugh. And why did the majority of the audience laugh throughout the evening? I dunno. Yes, it’s true: the comedic timing of Under My Skin‘s script is much like an old-school sitcom. Why would that surprise anyone? Writers Robert Sternin & Prudence Fraser have helmed Who’s the Boss? and The Nanny (among other things). They know sitcom schtick (he says nervously worrying that some critic will object to a standard Borscht Belt Yiddish word being used for possible comic effect). The press releases surrounding Under My Skin emphasize this sitcom background — it’s a selling point. Walking into this production and being shocked — shocked! — by this style of humor is like going to a George Lucas film and being surprised when a character says “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”
Personally, I think the exquisite acting had a lot to do with selling the comedy — the ensemble cast was stellar. And, funnily enough, even the critics who brutalized this production pretty much agreed on that point.
In the end, everyone is entitled to their opinion — how do you think economists keep their jobs? — and it’s certainly valuable to have seasoned theater-goers espouse theirs. Nevertheless, if a critic is surrounded by a bunch of laughter, he might think about letting his readers know this important fact, especially if he isn’t finding anything funny himself. He might well heed the advice of an American humorist, Mark Twain:
The public is the only critic whose opinion is worth anything at all.
(I’m not sure why they call Mark Twain a humorist, I see nothing funny in that quote. The quote is 100% accurate but, maybe, useless in this context. Does this qualify me to develop Microsoft online support? Talk to balloonists? Or, perhaps, write theater reviews?)
Originally published September 25, 2012 in Bitter Lemons.