Give Me My Props

Oh. Oh-ho. Oh-ho-ho.

Yeah. I'm going to do it. Why? Same reason as I like to route (root? rewt?) for the team that has the least chance of winning. I love the downtrodden.

In my last entry, I admitted it would be tantamount to readership suicide to post an entry on prop comedy. Since then, I haven't stopped thinking about doing just that. I also, in that entry, said murderous clowns are an entry unto themselves, but I thought we could all use a break from my current clown obsession.

I have a friend whose email address used to begin with "killgallagher@". (Hi Dave [Youmans].) I always thought this was a bit excessive, though memorable enough. (I can hardly throw stones; for years and year my email was "sukeu@", and for years and years people pronounced it as various forms of "sucky" [it's soo-kay-yoo {I digress}].) Yet there I found myself, Gallagher-bashing with righteous vehemence in my last entry. It reminded me of Friend Kate's feelings about trade-marking. She finds it unjust that anyone can claim a name, and that it inevitably infringes and goes on to claim ownership of the idea behind the name, at least in people's minds. I resent, abhor and resent some more this so-called "Gallagher" because he's taken a perfectly legitimate -- nay, occasionally sublime -- form of theatre and made himself and his simple, gratuitous form of it synonamous.

Same goes for Carrot Top.

My feeling is that, putting it very generally, prop comedy these days suffers from a pursuit of the punchline. Take, for example, coitus. Or, in the common parlance, "bumpin' uglies." Oh sure, you can simply chase the payoff. It's a short trip with an obvious reward, and somehow sometimes seems more guaranteed, if such a thing can be in life. But is it really what it's all about? Haven't we all had better experiences when we take our time, appreciate the moments and -- dare we say it -- the relationship involved? Even in a single night's adventure, there is a relationship. Ignore it at your own peril.

I admit: The comparison is a little unnecessary. I'm just a sucker for a good simile. My point is, prop comedy suffers from short attention span (of the performer as much as the audience) and a lack of development. A prop may occasionally be good for a one-liner sort of joke, and in this instance we term it a "sight gag" mor eoften than not. But real, good prop comedy, to my taste, is best explored in terms of relationships.

  • The straight man. In many instances, this is the default for prop comedy. After all, as much as you may get upset, the hairbrush will remain vigilantly a hairbrush. The funny thing is that, like a good straight man, a prop says more to the audience the less it does. It's key that the performer adhere to one of the most basic rules of good scenework: to make the scene partner look good. It's just that in this case, the scene partner is a supposedly inanimate object.
  • The first love. There's a lot of mileage to be gotten out of approaching a prop as though it were something you've never, ever seen before. The stages of exploration tend to mirror a person's first notice of the opposite (or rather, the sexually attractive) sex. A whole range of emotions become involved here. While it may not be explicitly "falling in love," neither are a lot of love stories. Hate the thing, but hate it with curiosity, or inescapability. A common gag from this scenario is to use an object whose use is obvious to the audience, and determine another use for it altogether.
  • The His-Girl-Friday. One object becomes useful in a variety of ways, conventional and unconventional. The trick here is to maintain a relationship with the prop. It's not enough to use a turkey baster to funnel oil, beat a gong and baste a turkey; this has to inspire gratitude or amazement or something changing in the performer. Otherwise, it quickly degenerates into Gallagherism. This relationship has the benefit of incoporating higher and higher stakes, as it is founded on need or necessity.
  • The family member. Sometimes an object is so much a part of you that it pains you to be apart from it, much less see it suffer in any way. You may get frustrated with it, call it no good, etc., but the moment anyone else does you're there to say, "Hey! You can't talk to her like that!" This is a very familiar prop, usually worn on the person in some way. You know it like no one else does. Establish this relationship firmly enough, and you have one of the greatest toppers of your prop-comedy career: giving your prop away.
  • The nemesis. For those more inclined toward positive relationships, this can also manifest as a sort of the worthy adversary, or even the buddy-cop, so long as there's plenty of head-butting. The relationship here is one of enmity, of occasional hatred and much strategy. The prop is against you at every turn, it's doing it on purpose, yet it is somehow allowed to continue to exist. Often times, this interplay requires a lot of technical trickery on the performer's part, engineering ways to be "attacked" by the object. However, it can be very simple, too. Refusing to move can be a confounding adversarial technique.
  • The boss. It may at first be difficult to imagine an inanimate object as having higher status than a performer, but in all of these relationships status should be shifting as events unfold. A prop can be "the boss" if it's extremely valuable or a symbol of authority, like a crown, or simply if the performer recognizes that this prop has wants that must be fulfilled. In this relationship, the prop has the ability to punish or praise the performer, these actions being a matter of interpretation on the performer's part.
  • The servant. Not quite as rich a terrain here, as objects are generally considered to be servants to us all anyway. There are, however, interesting facets of relationship to be explored when one considers the "clever servant" archetype, or the ways in which one tries to master people, as opposed to props.

And, of course, relationships change over time. These are not categories to singly adhere to, but forms to specify something more organic and unpredictable.

It may seem silly to some to create these sorts of relationships with objects. It occasionally seems that way to me, too, until I observe that these relationships already exist off-stage. Have you never seen a coworker assault his or her unruly stapler, or an older gentleman who caresses his cane as he sits? Theatre, in the all-encompassing sense, comes down to people coming together to have a good natter, and other people coming to watch it happen. Good prop comedy is not an exagerration of our relationships with objects, but an exploration of our relationship to our environment. Good prop comedy is funny, true, and by different turns often frightening or melancholy. It should be fascinating.

And we shouldn't have to explode a watermellon to do it.