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27.3.16

Top 10 Comedies Of All Time (stage)

The theater is our first love.  We began our career there at the tender age of 12, and though we have ranged far and wide in other media, it has always been and will always be our home.

For that reason, we thought we'd devote one of our Top 10 lists to the Grande Dame of the arts, the Theatre.  In searching all the other Top 10 lists out there, we saw film and TV picked to the bone, but a search of Top 10 lists for the stage were virtually non-existant.  We have found ample explorations of books.  Even a few have bothered to look beyond the 20th century (as if everything of consequence has only recently been invented).

Ever on the cutting edge, we here on the Far Side are going everyone else one better.  Our list will explore comedy from ancient times until today, and offer up our most favorite picks for a great laugh in a live performance.  Cuz ain't no one what don't need no kul-cher.

Some conditions on our choices: no musicals (so A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is right out), it has to be written as comedies - not just funny because they are so dated, and they have to be funny to modern audiences, meaning the humor doesn't rely on contemporary pop culture.  Also, no Neil Simon.  Finally, the play should be revived enough so that someone has a good chance of seeing it on stage, whether it's a high school drama department or a West End theater troupe.  We will list them in chronological order, since it's nearly impossible to rank shows that have been classics for centuries.

So, without further ado, the Far Side List of Top 10 Comedies of All Time (stage)!
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1) Lysistrata (411 BC) - Aristophanes was somewhat of a revolutionary in ancient Greek theater.  He modified traditional staging conventions that still have a profound effect on how shows are done today.  Even more, he challenged the social mores of Athens and ridiculed his society for issues that still resonate.  In this classic, the title character is determined to put an end to the Peloponnesian War.  She hatches a plan and convinces the women of Greece to withhold sex from the men until the war ends.  Naturally, the plan goes awry and ends up starting a Battle of the Sexes.  Even though the play is 2,400 years old, modern audiences will laugh not only at the action of the play, but also at their own society.  The subjects of gender roles and male dominance are still very much part of the culture, and are still used in satire and comedy.  Watch university drama departments for the occasional revival of this fine show.

2) Bacchides (~200 BC) - Mistaken identity, prostitutes, scheming servants, bribery and extortion: must be a British comedy.  But NO!  This is the work of the famous Roman playwright Plautus, who basically Latinized older Greek plays, but we won't hold that against him, since Woody Allen Americanized many great comedies from Greek and Roman sources.  This selection is one of the best examples of themes and plots that were very popular in ancient Rome.  Two young Romans fall in love with two prostitute sisters who both have the same name, Bacchis.  Naturally, they engage in subterfuge and extortion to get the money to buy the girls' freedom, but the name confusion creates all kinds of chaos.  Hard to find this one produced today, but A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the forum should give you an idea of what this masterpiece of comedy is like.

3) Much Ado About Nothing (1598) - Those who love Shakespeare all have their favorites, and this happens to be ours.  Even the title is a pun on "noting" (gossip) and "nothing," which sound similar if you have a midlands British accent.  Like a game of Telephone gone mad, rumors swirl out of control, with people falling in love or rejecting each other based on misunderstandings.  A huge effort is undertaken by the characters to set things right, with the obvious comedic situations creating mayhem along the way.  This show has it all: slapstick, manners, situations, and even a dash of blackness.  There are some decent film renditions of this king of Shakespearean comedies, but if you happen to get a chance to see the Royal Shakespeare production, drop everything and get tickets.

4) Tartuffe (1664) - The Restoration Period and the end of Puritanism was obviously a fertile time for comedy.  This is considered by many to be Jean Baptiste Moliére's best comedy, as well as being an inspiration for our next selection.  Moliére was one of the most influential playwrights of the time and actors still scratch and claw to get a role in his shows.  In what is nearly a comedic foreshadowing of Gregoryi Rasputin 300 years later in Russia, the title character is a grifter and a fraud posing as a holy man.  He gets a husband and wife so far under his spell that the husband decides to marry off his daughter to Tartuffe.  No one else is fooled, though, and set up a series of complex traps to expose Tartuffe for the immoral scum that he is.  Naturally, this creates a number of comedic situations, and when done well, leaves audiences in tears of laughter.  Most of the really good laughs come from watching Tartuffe squirm his way out of various uncomfortable predicaments.  Like most enduring plays of this period, the comedy only thinly veils more profound social commentary with a healthy dose of satire.  This play enjoys regular revivals and may be easier to catch than some of the other titles on this list.

5) The Country Wife (1675) - The French theater was the guide for restoring the art form in London, and ridiculing Puritanism was a major theme. William Wycherley's bawdy play is both satirical and a fine situation comedy.  Written as a reaction to the long years without entertainment of any kind, this play lets it all hang out in a way that can still shock modern audiences.  The lead character Horner, wanting to play the field in London's upper crust, spreads a rumor that he was injured in the war, leaving him impotent.  Naturally, the husbands relax their guard and allow the wives to be around him without supervision.  In the meantime, an innocent young wife (the title character) moves to London and soon finds the atmosphere 'stimulating,' while attracting intense interest from Horner.  The play is fast-paced and stuffed full of double entendre (the "china" bit is hysterical).  It is also written in natural language, rather than the somewhat stuffy and stilted style of the contemporary French theater.  This show never fails to get an audience howling with laughter, and is well worth keeping an eye open for a local production.

6) The Importance of Being Earnest, a Trivial Comedy for Serious People (1895) - The laughs start with the title pun, and don't end until the final curtain, with piles of farce and satire heaped in between.  This ditty also has some of the best one-liners ever written (Every man should have a hobby!).  Oscar Wilde is the undisputed king of Victorian theater, and his double entendre are subtly layered.  His witticisms stab at the heart of stuffy society, while making us laugh at the wounds.  This play is so memorable that you will take up "Bunburying" as a diversion!  This show enjoys frequent revivals and has some very fine film adaptations if you can't make it to the theater.  This show is also notable for setting off a series of real-life events that led to Wilde being jailed for homosexuality.

7) Pygmalion (1913) - G. Bernard Shaw's (he hated the name George) most famous play, adapted as the musical My Fair Lady, is itself an adaptation of a mid-19th century play, which was an adaptation of a Greek myth about a man (Pygmalion) who seeks to create the perfect woman from a statue and is rewarded by the gods with the statue coming to life.  Here, though, the myth is lightened up into a comedy about a professor (Higgins) who thinks he can take a Cockney flowergirl and turn her into the cream of society, thus showing the upper crust that they are nothing special.  Of course, the woman's Cockney upbringing leaks out at the most inappropriate times creating all sorts of havoc among the gentile classes.  The biggest surprise, though, is Higgins' unexpected love for his creation.  Like all great comedies, this play operates on multiple levels, providing social commentary on classism and women's suffrage, as well as good belly-laughs.  This one is hard to find in the theater, since most productions default to the musical version, but well worth keeping an evening at the theater if you find it.

8) Waiting for Godot (1949) - Samuel Beckett's masterpiece is considered one of the greatest plays of the 20th century and won a Pulitzer the year it opened.  If this is all you know when you walk into a production of the play, then you are in trouble.  This absurdist comedy is one of those experiences where you are not sure what you just went through, and equally unsure if you want to go through it again to try to figure it out.  The entire show consists of two men standing at a cross-roads waiting for the title character who never shows up - and they talk a lot.  What you will find is that it causes you to look at yourself and laugh at the absurd things you find important in your life and the energy we expend to attain things that don't exist.  It's not one of those guffaw-type shows; it's very cerebral.  If you get the chance to see a quality production of the play, you should not pass it up.

9) The Birthday Party (1958) - And speaking of absurdist comedy, Harold Pinter's romp is another one of those weird mind-screws that's kind of like watching a building implode and then laughing because part of it collapses the wrong way and causes collateral damage.  In an unknown place at an unknown time, an unknown pianist prepares to celebrate his birthday at an unknown boarding house.  Two mysterious strangers arrive and turn the party into anything but the quiet marking off of another year.  Even the critics don't know how to classify this one (some say farce, others comedy of menace), and in fact Pinter's career nearly ended over it, until he was rescued by a critic.  Mark one up for the critics, because this play has gone on to an illustrious career.

10) Noises Off! (1982) - Michael Frayn's famous farce is not only popular with audiences, it is one of the most fun shows to work on behind the scenes, as well, probably because it is so true.  What makes this show unique is that it is a farce within a farce.  Act I has the audience watching a rather funny comedy with plenty of laughs in its own right.  But, Act II turns the stage around, and now the audience is watching the exact same show, but from behind.  Not only is the show being performed a farce, but the show we are watching is a farce about the farce, showing the farcical nature of the theater in the first place.  It's all barely controlled chaos!  This show never fails to leave the audience gasping for breath.  With lightning timing and rapid fire action, this is probably one of the funniest shows of all time.  It depends heavily on the abilities of the cast and director to pull it off, but the result is an experience where both the audience and the cast feel the joy.

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And so, dear reader, there you have it.  Once again, the Far Side has brought you something no one has bothered to do.  And don't forget, most of these playwrights have other works that easily belong on this list, but then it would be a Top 47 list, and that just doesn't sound right.

In today's theater, where special effects and light shows dazzle, while cotton-candy stories melt in our mouths and leave us with big dentist bills, we forget that there is nearly 3,000 years' worth of great entertainment just begging to be rediscovered.  The next time you reach for the Netflix selector, why not check local theaters for something a little more visceral - live actors on a real stage working in synchronization with highly-trained technicians to entertain and amaze.  Who knows?  You might even catch tomorrow's movie stars in their early career, before they get all full of themselves.

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