Satire, vaudeville and ‘Nothing to Laugh About’

The most recent revision of the annual comedy series “Nothing to Laugh About” by Signature Productions provided another very good opportunity to do a further study of comedy theatre in Guyana. These sequences of decline and ascendancy, trends and developments, studies of the audience and audience response, and even of tradition, continue to be of infinite dynamism and interest.

What was found from looking at this most recent production is that trends in comedy on the Guyanese stage are still subject to minor fluctuations but have largely settled down. There were some alterations in the show itself that illustrate the relevance of traditions in comedy in the Caribbean, while attention to the audience response revealed a very interesting little factor in the differences in demographics and styles in what was happening on the other side of town at the Theatre Guild.

“Nothing to Laugh About 11” was produced and directed by Maria Benschop at the National Cultural Centre (NCC) and initially ran for four nights. It was brought back by popular demand last weekend and the number of solid sold out houses help to tell the story that has unfolded about trends and the audience. Comedy has been the choice of the popular audiences across the Caribbean for many decades, but a number of other interesting factors became evident here. In Guyana, the popular audience that cuts across classes and includes a large number of working people has chosen the brand of comedy offered by “Nothing to Laugh About”. Only that broad-based audience provides the numbers to fill the NCC; and from recent observations, today, only “Nothing to Laugh About” and “Uncensored” can comfortably expect to sell out the NCC.  “Uncensored” is produced and directed by Lyndon Jones but, incidentally, Jones and Benschop belong to the same team/company. 

The National Drama Company’s recent production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest did demonstrate the capacity for sold-out shows, but that was a secondary school audience and has to be seen in a different category. The “Link Show” of the recent past, directed and produced by Ron Robinson and Gem Madhoo, still holds the record for attendance and runs (number of nights). But there are some fine differences in audience composition, and today it is the type of comedy offered by Benschop that is most popular. What is more, the kinds of changes noticed in Benschop’s  programme reveal a significant shift in form and an interesting link with traditions.

The formal shift has not radicalised the brand of the show but is important in the assessment of what the production has to offer. It in fact, potentially, lifts the quality a bit, or has the capacity to do so. Satire is now included. For many years the chosen theatre of this production has been farce and slapstick with a good deal of camp. Here, it has been in noble company, since farce and slapstick have held a dominant position in the popular roots theatre of Jamaica commanding the stage for decades. Clearly this kind of low farce is attractive to audiences since it has been drawing them out since the beginning of “Nothing to Laugh” about 11 years ago. That has remained consistent over all that time. The technical proficiency, dramatic and performance quality and the skills in writing have all moved a long way up from where they were then to something professional and efficient, but the emphasis on laughter evoked by the most immediate and direct hilarity of action has been a constant.    

The elongated skit “Queen of Kings” is a good example of this theatre. It has been an audience favourite for quite a while with the capacity to evoke uproarious laughter at the very appearance on stage of the various characters who need not say anything. Their mere entry, costume and make-up, carried off by the style of acting, are designed to delight the audience. The dialogue that is added to these acts is characterised by multiple one-liners and punch-lines in prolonged humour. But the scenes created are mostly driven by spectacle. What you see to the greatest extent is responsible for the very lavish entertainment provided in skits of this nature.

Camp is a form of low farce/slapstick that is very much a part of such scenes and another favourite of the audience. It is highlighted by spectacle as well, since it is ostentatious and characterised by exaggerated acting. A known cliché that is often used is that the actors “ham it up”. But this is a more specialised type of exaggerated acting often seen in Guyana in the stereotypical behaviour of male cross-dressing, a welcomed amusement on the local stage. 

This transvestite spectacle important to camp is best performed by Kirwyn ‘Sir’ Mars whose appearance is normally eagerly awaited by the audience. He is known for this brand of performance in this show, but generally in his many other appearances, even in dramatic plays.  As a stand-up comedian it is his niche which is called into service in “Nothing to Laugh About”.  Some comedians have a short stint during the show where they fill in while set or costumes are being changed. Mars reveled in camp when he carried out that role.

The emphasis on jokes was another ploy in this show to keep the audience happy, as indeed, to get them in the auditorium in the first place. Many skits were designed for this as in “Backstabber” for instance. Other examples included “Marriage Proposal” or “First Couple” as well as “Credit and Radica” where two stand-up comedians do a virtual duet. The flow of jokes carried that performance in addition to the other usual strategies of stand-up comedians. The presentation of jokes was another element that characterised the “Queen of Kings”. Although the dramatis personae of that skit were supposed to be known politicians and officials of government, there were more general jokes and fun-poking than take-off and lampoon of a satirical nature.

This featuring of stand-up comedians not only added to the show’s humour and public appeal but is a significant return to an old tradition. We have already said that stand-up comedy is one of the things that can command a large audience and can fill the NCC today. But what might not be widely recognised is that it recalls an old practice that used to be popular around the Caribbean, perhaps until the 1960s: the vaudeville shows. Vaudeville has a long and noble history and tradition in the West Indies including Guyana. Many legendary performers and personalities, including Louise Bennett and Habib Khan, had their origins in those shows. 

Vaudeville included variety shows and talent searches, which formed a very rich tradition throughout the first half of the twentieth century and lasted up to the 1960s – perhaps even the early 1970s in the “Christmas Morning Concerts” in Jamaica. Many stand-up comedians gained employment there. “Nothing to Laugh About” is therefore rekindling that tradition, even if most likely, the solo comedians were only there to fill gaps in the show while the set was changed. 

The production also included a “Cabaret Medley” led by Kwasi Edmondson which also harked back to the same tradition. The cabaret is a similar kind of show and theatre popular in Europe and America from the 19th Century. This merged into other known traditions such as the Music Halls of England and what was known as the Burlesque in the USA. 

Yet it also accounted for the other tradition that is now a part of “Nothing to Laugh About” and represented a significant shift in its offerings. This was the element of satire. Where the show in the recent past had developed a tendency to political partisanship, it was prepared to take on satirical content and intentions in many skits. This is worth mentioning because political partisanship is inimical to satire. Additionally, satire is not just jokes or humour in dramatic pieces. It is the higher art of social commentary with a view to bringing about change.

The “Cabaret Medley” is an attempt at satirising social issues and folly in national life (the lyrics performed better than they look on the page). Other skits also laughed at errant behaviour and attended to social concerns, like “Police Report”, “The Royal Wedding” and “Husslings”. 

This development was not surprising because for a funny show to exist for such a long time it can develop a social context and become influenced by its environment. As “Nothing to Laugh About” grew in strength it took different incidents, personalities and events from the society and developed more competent ways of turning them into material to entertain its audience. These shifts have contributed to the show’s overwhelming and persistent popularity.

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