Thursday, April 29, 2010

Comedy Set-Ups: The Audition Scene

OR... Please leave your name at the desk, we'll call you if something comes up...

A comedy technique popular in recent years is the audition.

Its beginnings seemed harmless enough. The Marx Brothers did one in their breakthrough show, the 1924 revue I'll Say She Is!, which they would film in the early '30s for a Paramount promotional film:

The Three Stooges used the idea several times in their shorts, and there was a funny version in the 1976 Saturday Night Live episode hosted by Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. Cook played a theatre director who visits a prison (to stage an all-inmate production of... Gigi!) Various convicts (played by the then little-known Not Ready For Prime Time Players) try out for the show. Clearly, the audition device was very convenient when you had a group of comedians -- it allowed you to let them do their things without requiring a lot of exposition.

But there had been a more significant version of the bit in 1968, in Mel Brooks' The Producers.

In 1931, all people did was laugh with the Marx Brothers and the crazy antics they pull on the producer. But by 1968, audiences were expected to laugh at the auditioners, and voyeuristically enjoy their humiliation. It may be no coincidence that 1968 also saw the premiere of the first mockumentary, Pat Paulsen For President.

These two forms, the audition and the mockumentary, would eventually become closely linked. In 1979 Albert Brooks did an audition scene in Real Life. Not surprisingly Brooks, who specialized in being an ironist rather than simply a comedian -- many of his standup bits were commentaries on comedy itself, and he even wrote a self-help parody for Esquire called "The Albert Brooks School For Comedians" -- chose to emphasize his own "weirdness", and let the audience identify with the "normal" people on the committee
judging him.

In the nineties, when the audition would be become a fixture in the mockumentaries of Christopher Guest, the mockumentary form itself became more and more popular. It's easy to make and cheap to produce, so certain filmmakers liked it as well. Coming to prominence at the same time was something called "reality television", where viewers get to voyeuristicaly enjoy the humiliation of people being judged by a committee. Networks loved "reality", since It's easy to make and cheap to pro-- you get the idea.

This link had already been established in 1979, as Brooks' (Albert, that is) Real Life was a parody of the famous PBS series An American Family (yes, voyeurism and humiliation started on Public TV. So that's where my pledge money is going).

The cheerleading film BRING IT ON popularized the audition scene most recently. One wannabe cheerleader after another doing their failed attempt to make the squad. Easy set-up and provides a context to introduce a parade of colorful characters.

It was spoofed later in the underrated film NOT ANOTHER TEEN MOVIE:

Take that set-up -- a number of colorful characters parade by in quick cuts -- and put it in a new setting and you've got the speed dating scene from 40 YEAR OLD VIRGIN. (Written by Judd Apatow and Steve Carell.) Shows the formula can be used in other situations and generate big laughs.

Just another weapon in your comedy arsenal: The Audition.

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