Comedy Unit for Drama

This article outlines a comedy unit or semester-length course suitable for Year 9/10 Drama students (14-15 year-olds).

This course comprises four types of comedy:

An optional additional type of comedy could easily be added to the existing four:

Using the main four forms of comedy listed above, three types of skills are required in the development of work:

  • improvising
  • writing student play scripts
  • interpreting published play scripts

Presentations will consist of two types:

  • solo performance
  • ensemble performance
the-three-stooges

Slapstick
Slapstick is a form of low comedy and is largely physical in nature. Characters can slip on items on the ground, trip over low-lying props, walk into into unseen objects, accidentally run into characters, be hit by moving objects held by other performers, and sit on chairs removed beneath them for another purpose. Slapstick’s origins lie in the Commedia dell’Arte and its humour centres on its physicality and violence. When characters get hurt on stage in a slapstick routine, the audience laughs. There is little skill needed in the script writing, but the plots can often involve a complex web of events. Slapstick characters, however, should be kept simple, stereotyped and even caricatured for comic effect. Research on slapstick is easy. YouTube key scenes from the films of The Marx Bros, The Three Stooges and Laurel and Hardy. Then get students to come up with their own contemporary examples of slapstick characters, television shows and films.

Farce
Farce is a form of comedy that has ridiculous plots and preposterous events at its core. Some farces are a mix of characters that rightly belong in the drama, and others who do not. In the 1970s television show Fawlty Towers, the maid Polly is a hardworking and responsible employee of the seaside hotel. Sybil on the other hand, is competent at her job as part owner and manager, but her flaw is her laziness. Sybil’s husband Basil (John Cleese) is the last person one would expect to run a hotel! By all accounts he does not belong in the drama. Basil is the Commedia dell’Arte character Panatalone – a master with servants (employees), but he is incompetent at most of his duties. Manuel is the Commedia dell’arte character Arlecchino. His character is highly physical, yet completely useless succeeding at the simplest of tasks (a body character). If all the characters in Fawlty Towers were incompetent, the comedy would not be fully realised. It is the contrast between competent and incompetent characters that creates the comedy. At the end of the day, Fawlty Towers is pure farce, with elements of slapstick thrown in for good measure. One only has to show their students The Germans episode to appreciate the comedy of Fawlty Towers. Some episodes of Monty Python’s Flying Circus are also great for students understanding farce, but expect to get very mixed reactions from your cohort as the comedy of Monty Python is often polarising.

In my comedy unit, I join slapstick and farce together into one performance task. These two forms of comedy are complementary, so they work well together in Drama class. The best way to create a drama that incorporates elements of slapstick and farce is to get students to create their drama via rehearsed improvisation.

I usually start with:

  • a couple of theory articles on slapstick and farce
  • a range of YouTube clips of key scenes from relevant practitioners/artists
  • a workshop exploring the physicality of the character types
  • a student brainstorming session exploring possible
    • setting/s
    • plot/s
    • props (objects)
    • character/s (types)
  • student skits of slapstick and farce routines in a location given by the teacher

The main performance task is simple. In groups of five, students create a 5-10 minute drama that incorporates elements of both slapstick and farce. They base their drama around one or more settings and this drives the plot line and character types. For example:

  • hairdressing salon
  • multi-storey construction site
  • a funeral
  • surgery
  • shopping centre

All of these locations consist of stereotypical, recognisable characters, involve obvious props to help in the slapstick and demand regular routines that can go disastrously wrong, enabling the farce.

arlecchino

Commedia dell’Arte
The second topic in this comedy course is the historical form Commedia dell’Arte. Although these plays were traditionally improvised using detailed scenarios (scene descriptions), I find this way of studying Commedia is better suited to a senior class with the time, knowledge, maturity and patience to create their own dialogue from numerous descriptive scenarios. So for this task, I show students the various Commedia dell’Arte character names, view images of a range of historical Commedia characters, and watch a series of quick instructional Commedia dell’Arte videos on YouTube from the National Theatre, London. More information of character types and funny two-hander scripts for the classroom can be sourced from John Rudlin’s Commedia dell’Arte: An Actor’s Handbook. I then use three ready-made Commedia scripts from Barry Grantham’s text Commedia Plays: Scenarios – Scripts – Lazzi as the assessment task. From this book I  use the scripts Pantalone Goes A Woo-ing, The Haunting of Pantaloon and The False Turk. These short plays are about 10-15 minutes duration with casts of approximately 4-7 performers. They include lazzi (improvised stage business) with explanations that can be incorporated into the plays. I prefer to modernise the plays with a contemporary setting (like most Shakespearean plays are performed professionally) and get students to develop their own lazzi, which students tend to find more fun. I also don’t use the traditional Commedia masks in this task. Although I teach my students all aspects of Commedia dell’Arte, from zanni to lazzi and everything in between, I have broken several key Commedia rules in this task – we use published scripts instead of improvising the dialogue from scenarios, we do not use masks and we modernise the settings. But the character types and plot lines of traditional Commedia dell’Arte are still evident and students find this task engaging and lots of fun. I also get a practitioner specialising in Commedia dell’arte in to the school to run a workshop and present a performance for my students. In the workshop the students can see the elements of Commedia broken down, while the performance allows students to see a Commedia play in action as they develop their own short play in Drama class.

Satire
The final topic in this comedy unit is adapted from a task in Matthew Clausen’s wonderful book Centre Stage. Students choose a current celebrity in society and satirise them in performance. From rock stars to prime ministers, students should choose a celebrity or well-known figure that would be well-suited to being mocked. Along the way, I teach students about parody and caricature, as elements of these forms of comedy naturally creep their way in to this task. Students write their own two-minute solo performance of a well-known figure in a typical setting for this person. It is best to avoid characters in films or television shows, but instead satirise the actor playing them. Students perform their solo twice. The first performance is an accurate imitation of their celebrity. The aim here is to imitate the voice, movement, facial expressions, gesture and energy of their character by researching them first on YouTube and then recording their observations. The next lesson, students receive teacher feedback from their first performance. The second performance uses the same script as the first, but the way in which the celebrity is performed is now exaggerated for comic effect and, hopefully, satire is born. All of a sudden voices are heavily accented, walks are exaggerated, and simple gestures now become very obvious. Occasionally changes are made to the original costume, with padding now accentuating a celebrity’s large bottom, stomach or breasts. Most students enjoy this task, partly because in choosing their own celebrity, they own it. Nevertheless, some students find this satirical solo performance a somewhat daunting experience, probably dependent on their skills and confidence. One thing is for certain though, the old adage it is easier to die in a Greek tragedy than pull off comedy successfully, definitely rings true.

Assessment
Typical criteria for tasks in this comedy unit may involve assessing a student’s:

  • voice (accent, tone, pitch, pace, projection, diction)
  • movement (rhythm, timing, blocking)
  • facial expression
  • gesture
  • focus (concentration, memorisation of positioning on stage, text and actions)
  • stagecraft (costume, props, make-up)
  • energy
  • actor-audience relationship

Time allocation for each task in this comedy course will depend on contact time and lesson length.

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6 Responses

  1. Tamara says:

    Do you have any additional resources you can share in teaching this. I am doing it soon in term 2 and it is not my area.

  2. Andrew says:

    I have been searching for ideas as I am new to teaching this subject at middle school. Thanks for the ideas Justin.

  3. Rick Paul Poole says:

    This is great stuff as always, thank you! Any chance you might be planning a follow up on Tragedy (or at least different types of Dramatic presentation?)

  4. Lara Stockdale says:

    Thanks, this is fantastic.
    I do a unit of slapstick with my year 8s as an introduction to drama. We start looking at mime and movement and my theory is to get them to think about how they use their bodies to communicate. I have been amused to see how many of them (now in year 9) still use some of the ‘fake fighting’ strategies we used in their performances.
    I have been thinking of introducing comedy to my year 9s in term four and thought I would even try to get them started with ideas around storytelling and build from this into their own stand up routines. Any thoughts?
    Lara

    • Lara, I think your idea of starting with storytelling and moving into stand-up comedy at Year 9 is a great idea! I have often thought of adding stand-up to the existing comedy course in this post, but have struggled to work out exactly how? You’ve got the answer! Storytelling > stand-up seems a logical approach as stand-up is often about the comedian’s personal life experiences. Seems to make sense with VCE Drama Unit 1 also, as solo and/or ensemble work in this unit should use “stimulus material that reflects personal, cultural and/or community experiences and stories” (VCAA, Drama Study Design 2014-2018). A stand-up solo in Unit 1 Drama – there’s a thought. Thanks for your ideas.

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