Andrew Snowdon

Archive for May, 2012|Monthly archive page

On Grisly Humour

In crime, humour, Ottawa on Wednesday 30 May 2012 at 8:55

So somebody sent a human foot through the mail to the Conservative Party of Canada’s headquarters on Albert Street in Ottawa, and police later found a human hand still in transit in the postal system.  Montréal police found a torso.

While investigators gear up to play a grisly game of Sesame Street Mix and Match, Twitter and certain sectors of the print media have taken to rather macabre humour.  Most of it consists of puns, and I wish someone had taken the trouble to Storify it (or hope that someone has?).  Because it’s fascinating.

But is it funny?  There’s a foot and a hand and they came from someone.  They didn’t grow in a vat.  Someone is likely (at this writing) dead, or at least maimed, and that can’t possibly be funny, can it?

Well, it certainly seems to be, to some people.  Or at least it’s fuel for comedy.  But for how long?  How far is too far?*  Leaving aside the hocus-pocus of “coping mechanisms” and such efforts to analyze, and thereby desiccate, human glee and mirth, when does the ha-ha run out?

I found this gem excerpted from J. Berg Esenwein’s Writing for the Magazines, in Writing for the Photoplay, which he co-wrote with Arthur Leeds.  I think it is germane to the discussion:

“Good sense is at once the basis of and the limit to all humor. He who lacks a fine perception of ‘the difference between what things are and what they ought to be,’ as the always-to-be-quoted Hazlitt expressed it, can never write humor. All the way through we shall find that mirth is a matter of relationships, of shift, of rigidity trying to be flexible, of something shocked into something else.

“Let us think of a circle on which four points have been marked:

circle diagram

“Beginning with a serious idea, we may swiftly step from point to point until we return to the serious, with only slight variations from the original conception. Take the perennial comedy-theme of the impish collar, and visualize the scenes:

“1. A man starts to button his collar. Nothing is less comical, as long as the operation proceeds normally.

“2. But the button is too large and his efforts begin to exasperate him, with the result that his expression and movements become incongruous. We see, and laugh—though he does not.

“3. He begins to hop around in a mad attempt to button the unbuttonable, and soon rips off the collar, addressing it in unparliamentary language. He is ludicrous, ridiculous, absurd.

“4. In his rage he violently kicks a pet dog that comes wagging up to him. Our laughter subsides, for the fellow is more contemptible than amusing—a deeper feeling has been born in us.

“5. The little dog limps off with a broken leg—we are no longer amused, we are indignant. What is more, not only have we gotten back to the serious, but there is no amusement left in any of the previous scenes.

“Still applying the test of the extent of the variation from the normal as shown in the effects, we conclude that serious consequences kill humor. The mere idea of such consequences, when we know that in the circumstances they are really impossible, may convulse us with merriment, as when we see a comedian jab a long finger into the mouth of his teammate and the latter chews it savagely. In real life this might sicken us with disgust—I say ‘might,’ because we can easily conceive of such a situation’s exciting laughter if the victim were well deserving of the punishment. It is human for us to laugh when the biter is bit; indeed, variations on this theme are endless in humorous writing.

Sympathy also kills humor. The moment we begin to pity the victim of a joke—for humor has much to do with victims—our laughter dies away. Therefore the subject of the joke must not be one for whose distress we feel strong sympathy. The thing that happens to a fop is quite different in effect from that which affects a sweet old lady. True, we often laugh at those—or at those ideas—with whom or with which we are in sympathy, but in such an instance the ludicrous for the moment overwhelms our sympathy—and sometimes even destroys it.”

(Ha ha, those poor fops.  They certainly got the short end of the stick at the beginning of the twentieth century.)

Given the dual tests of “serious consequences” and “sympathy,” I would advance that no capacity for humour remains once we know whose parts they are.

Or was it never funny in the first place because the parts had always belonged to someone?

What do you think?


* Measured in feet, of course. And this is a footnote.

The Tao of Theatre: SubDevision and The Extremely Short Play Festival

In art, Ottawa, theatre on Friday 11 May 2012 at 13:40

So tonight I’m going to see King Lear at the NAC. I’m pretty excited; ever since the season launch when it was announced, it’s been on my mind. I want to see it; I want to see what transposing it to an Aboriginal context adds to (or takes away from) this timeless classic.

But I don’t think it’s the most exciting thing going on theatrically in Ottawa right now.

Actually, there isn’t a most exciting thing going on theatrically in Ottawa right now.

There are two.

Taoists will be unsurprised.


Another show I was waiting for since it was announced was New Theatre of Ottawa‘s Extremely Short Play Festival. It’s hard not to get excited about something when (NTO artistic director) John Koensgen is talking about it; his eyes genuinely light up whenever he talks about a project he believes in. I even briefly considered submitting an extremely short play (defined here as under ten minutes in length) myself; I quickly discovered what a challenge the short form really is when you’re not just writing a one-gag sketch. I wondered what level of quality the submissions would have.

Now, I didn’t get out to see this until the second week, which I sort of regret since it far exceeded my expectations both as to the quality of the writing and the quality of the production itself. There were plays from known A-list playwrights like Pierre Brault and Lawrence Aronovitch (whose Late made me both glad I had abandoned one particular piece I was working on and eager to pick it up and rework it), as well as those known primarily for other genres of writing or acting, Dan O’Meara (yes, of Ottawa’s celebrated Manx Pub) and Geoff McBride, and emerging writers (Jessica E. Anderson, Kelley Tish Baker, Andrea Connell, Adam Pierre, Tina Prud’homme and Kevin and James Smith) with considerable potential. Then, the actors interpreting the work were top-notch: Kristina Watt’s effortless versatility, Brian Stewart’s arresting stage presence, Kate Hurman’s comic grace, and Adam Pierre’s freshness and energy infused the characters and situations with life. I was impressed with the lighting, the sound, and John Koensgen’s direction. I was also glad that on the soggy, stormy night on which I went, the house was well over half-full.

So there is hope for traditional playwriting; there are established writers who continually turn out interesting work, there’s a wave of new writers cutting their teeth, and Ottawa is the place they all come home.

Then, there’s the other kind of theatre: that writ not in a chair, but wrought from thin air.


Just down the street (Daly Avenue) from NTO’s home at Arts Court Theatre is a church at the corner of Cumberland that Ottawa theatre faithful will recognize as Mi Casa Theatre’s near-regular off-the-beaten-track venue, St. Paul’s Eastern United Church.

Usually Mi Casa rents out the basement, and puts on a show or throws a party (the distinction is debatable). This time, not only Mi Casa but seven other theatre companies are spread throughout the church—the basement, yes, but also the kitchen, the wheelchair elevator, the sanctuary chapel with its majestic pipe organ and towering stained-glass windows that face the setting sun, and a few nooks and crannies besides.

The event is called subDevision. It’s a crime that tickets are only $20, and a sheer act of treason that it’s only on for three nights, one of which is now in the past.

SubDevision is not a typo, but a clever portmanteau: the venue is subdivided into multiple performance areas, and the works are all devised works, created collaboratively within and inspired by the space. The event itself was inspired by Vancouver’s HiVE co-creation space, and its genesis took place in the same fertile ground that gave us the undercurrents Festival two years ago: a Backyard BBQ attended by the Ottawa theatre community’s core creative elite.

Site-specific devised theatre isn’t an entirely foreign concept to Ottawa, although so far it’s been on a smaller scale. Six: At Home, for example, was wildly successful at the 2010 Ottawa Fringe Festival, despite being located at Laurier House—a long, hot summer’s trek away from the main venues. It’s no surprise that several of the performer/creators who were involved in that production are also members of companies taking part in subDevision.

From a logistical perspective (i.e. how to see which show when) subDevision is a bit confusing at first glance. The performers seem to have been given pretty much free rein with their timing, so not everything fits neatly into a schedule grid. Some shows take eight minutes, some take thirteen, some take twenty, one takes eleven, but they let one person in every eight minutes—and then things start selling out. Then, of the two shows in the sanctuary, one is only before dark and the other only afterward. So there’s a little arithmetic and planning involved; even more than at the Fringe, and with greater urgency.

Attendees can pick and choose performances, and there’s an incredible variety on offer. From women in slips adoring the sun from atop church pews, to a multilingual acrobatic wake, to intimate cocktails in an elevator, to revolutionary yoga, to physically philosophical comedy on the steps outside… the whole defies description (rather, I don’t want to give any of it away) and must be experienced. [Visitorium has done us all the favour of staying up until three in the morning to write his useful take on subDevision. Give it a go.]

There is some overlap between the performance spaces, giving a dreamlike quality to the experience: as you are led up a staircase by a robed figure holding a lantern, you are implored by performers splayed on the steps to join the party in the other room. At times, however, sounds from an adjacent performance intrude on the one you are in (the Bluesfest effect).

When I spoke with the organizers last week, they mentioned with pride the skill-sharing sessions that have been a part of the subDevision creative process, where the members of the different companies share their methods and tactics for overcoming blocks in collaborative creation. There’s definitely been some creative cross-pollination as a result; I noticed May Can Theatre, perhaps unwittingly, use a technique that I recognized from both The Missoula Oblongata’s The Daughter of the Father of Time Motion Study and Mi Casa Theatre’s Live from the Belly of a Whale. I don’t think it goes as far as being derivative, and it’s not a cliché—yet. It does serve to highlight the way in which a particular aesthetic or set of techniques develops organically in such an environment.

Analysis aside, it’s a bloody party.


There are, as always, theatre productions going on—there’s Lear, and there’s Death and the Maiden at the Gladstone Theatre, and next week the Great Canadian Theatre Company will wrap up its season with Circle Mirror Transformation. There are others. They’re each a worthwhile night out. And none of them would exist without some combination of the two kinds of creative process showcased by the Extremely Short Play Festival and subDevision.

Anyway, you don’t have much time left to see them, and you ought to. Theatre, like life itself, is evanescent. The best and most satisfying art often has the shortest shelf life of all.