John Houseman Theater Studio Too
June 15 – July 7, 2004
Did you know that the word “laugh” is onomatopoetic – it comes from a Germanic root where “gh” is pronounced like a guttural laugh? Did you know that the sound of laughter is unaccented and universal? Did you know that all mammals laugh – but amoebas don’t? If these tidbits of humorology tickle your intellectual palate, you’ll enjoy Comedy 101, a two person show staged as a demonstration lecture on the nature of comedy. The two people in question are Mitch and Jennifer Hogue: the father/daughter team who co-created and perform the show. Mitch plays Frank Ridkins, an uptight comedy professor; Jennifer plays Ms. Nomer (a pun, get it?), his sexy, smart ass teaching assistant and student.
There’s lots to learn (Comedy 101 comes with a glossary of terms, a lecture syllabus, and a bibliography) and some imaginative, amusing moments. Most successful are the sight gags with costumes and props.Ms. Nomer demonstrates the physiology of laughter by donning an apron painted to resemble the musculature of the human torso.She opens the apron to reveal her internal organs and “breathes” by squeezing a set of lungs made of balloons. To show us how intense laughter makes us lose bladder control, she “pees” by squirting water from a plastic tube.
Audience interaction is also fun, especially when we laugh on cue or pretend to be angry, fearful, happy, or sad to demonstrate Prof. Ridkin’s thesis that laughter, like other emotional displays, is a behavior, not a feeling.Ms. Nomer, a clever mimic, fakes a wide variety of laughs and reminds us (in case we haven’t seen When Harry Met Sally) that women can also fake orgasms.
Hogue Jr. also acts as a rebellious footnote to Hogue Sr.’s academic pontificating. When he cites statistical findings that men tend to initiate humor and women laugh more, she snips that women have more to laugh at. When he remarks that men place more personal ads, she quips, “That’s because they’re more desperate.”When he offers riddles as an example of humor, she asks, “How many professors does it take to screw in a light bulb?None. They’re too busy screwing their students.”
Increasing irritated, Prof Ridkin, threatens to flunk his “bonehead” assistant, gives her high voltage electric shocks (supposedly to induce smiles), tickles her into catatonic laughter and, when she pratfalls to the floor, steps over her prone body.Ms. Nomer, bouncing back from this “comic” abuse like Bugs Bunny, becomes increasingly lewd (demonstrating that humans and dogs share not only laughter but also a sexual position), and (when he notes that imbibing alcohol increases the laughter response), she gets staggeringly drunk.
Ms. Nomer’s remarks about fake orgasms, men’s personal ads, professors who screw their students, plus classroom sexual antics and drunkenness seem odd, to say the least, in a graduate student bucking for an “A.”Prof. Ridkin’s contemptuous, even sadistic behavior also seems implausible. In fact, the professor-student antagonism seems based less on real characters and motivations than on a desire to infuse information with dramatic conflict. The antagonism between male vs. female, age vs. youth, intellect vs. feeling, repression vs. sexuality, authority vs. subordinate, control vs. intoxication is personified by the Prof. Ridkin vs. Ms. Nomer.Each trait lines up neatly with a related trait, with no individual quirks or deviations.The characters remain stereotypes without surprise, vulnerability, or the ability to grow.Prof. Ridkin and Ms. Nomer would have been more human and funnier had they stepped out of their age/gender/professional roles and revealed unexpected, hidden idiosyncrasies.
For example, Ms. Nomer’s drunkenness is unfunny – she’s already uninhibited, so getting drunk is just one more example of her looseness.Intoxication is more humorous when it’s unintentional or unpredictable. The Vitameatavegamin scene in I Love Lucy is funny because Lucy, who is auditioning for a television commercial, doesn’t know that her vitamin syrup contains alcohol, and unwittingly loses control.Comedy 101 would have been funnier if either the stodgy professor got accidentally drunk while trying to control the class or if Ms. Nomer, (who early in the show strips off a lab coat to reveal a provocative dress), were a dowdy, inhibited woman who cuts loose after a few drinks (like Miss Gooch, the repressed secretary in Mame).
In an effort to touch on all aspects of laughter, Comedy 101 sometimes skims the surface and missteps, substituting wisecracks for wisdom.Professor Hogue mentions the famous case of Norman Cousins, who cured himself from life-threatening illness with heavy doses of laughter. Ms. Nomer undermines Cousins’ achievement by sniping “He died of a heart attack.”Well, that’s true, but the heart attack came several years later and was related to stress and overwork, not the laughter cure.
What might have been more enlightening is the true story behind the creation of Comedy 101. In the program notes, Jennifer Hogue says that she “has had the time of her life working with her father, Mitch Hogue in developing Comedy 101.”It would have been endearing to see a bit more of that complex, creative, unconventional, and funny relationship onstage.