Annie Baker: Laughing at the Laugh
Carly Mensch: Here’s my first question, prompted by the title of this column: “IN DIALOGUE.” I think it’s funny when playwrights talk about theater being this “dialogue” between the play and the audience, as if the audience is actually allowed to participate. I almost think it’s something we playwrights tell ourselves to feel better about trapping people in the dark with no food or bathroom breaks. I’ve always thought of theater more in a gift-giving sense. How do you feel about all this?
Annie Baker: You know, I definitely used to think of putting on a play as more of a “gift-giving” than a “dialogue.” But then I encountered Playwrights Horizons’ over-65 subscriber base for the first time and that changed everything. Those Sunday matinees during early previews of my play Circle Mirror Transformation had so much audience participation. There’d be a pause and some old man would shout: “WHO WRITES THIS STUFF??!!” Near the end of the play the character of Marty (played by Didi O’Connell) has a line that goes: “Okay, you guys. Next week is our last class.” And inevitably some old geezer would bark: “THANK GAWD.”
At first I was totally horrified. I felt disrespected, violated, etc. And then I kind of started loving it. It was a dialogue! It really was. Sometimes fights broke out. At one matinee we had a class of NYU students and also the entire population of some senior center. Most of the old people hated the play. They hated it so much and they were talking about how much they hated it while it was happening. Eventually the NYU students started yelling at them. A girl stood up and shrieked: “If you don’t like the play then just LEAVE!” I was cowering in the back row the whole time, humiliated but also a little thrilled.
Okay, so back to play-as-dialogue: I think people say that so much because theater is such a crazy live medium. I mean, you could leap out of your seat and tear off your shirt and start beating your chest like a gorilla in front of the movie screen at a Loews Cineplex (and don’t think I haven’t considered it), but the movie would keep going on behind you. It wouldn’t really be a destructive or super-creative act. And with theater, I always, always, as an audience member, want to leap onstage and fuck things up. Just get up there and start talking to the actors. I fantasize about running up onstage and peeing on someone’s foot. It would be so amazing. It would change the play. How would they deal with me? How could I incorporate myself into the play until the authorities arrived to take me away? Honestly, it’s amazing that more people don’t actually do that. But that’s why theater is so crazy and electric—we’re all sitting there in the dark, and this story is unfolding in front of us, and if we wanted to we could get up there and fuck everything up but we don’t. We just breathe and sigh and laugh (and occasionally shout “WHO WRITES THIS STUFF??!!). And actors really do coast on audience reactions, particularly laughter—they kind of ride it like a wave. That’s so interesting to me, when that happens. And it’s all a kind of dialogue.
I think it’s also one of the reasons I like putting really long silences into my plays. Crazy stuff happens during silences at the theater. The audience suddenly becomes aware of itself, and a little weirded out and uncomfortable, and maybe someone coughs and whispers, but if the silence goes on long enough eventually people adjust to it and get kind of comfortable and zen and find their own way back into the reality of the play. And that moment—when an entire audience is relaxed and breathless together in a silence, when time slows down and then starts to speed up again—is very magical to me.
Here’s a question for you, Mensch. I’m partly asking you this because I think you’re a funny person and a funny playwright, but also because you’re writing for a comedic TV show right now in Los Angeles. Do you have a comedy manifesto? I used to be really against talking about why things are funny—talking about what’s funny and isn’t is an incredibly humorless thing to do—but lately I’ve been feeling like people should be able to articulate that more. So many times I read a review that says “this play was hysterical!” and then I go and watch the whole thing stone-faced. And when I do laugh at the theater no one else is laughing. So I want to know what makes you laugh, Mensch. Tell me what makes you laugh.
Mensch: So, whenever actors try to play the jokes in my plays, going for the comedy in the language (things like calling hands “vein-popping man-paws!” instead of just plain hands), it never works. The material feels flat and inauthentic and the lines don’t register to the audience as funny. But whenever an actor plays my stuff more realistically—going for emotional truth and ignoring the words—the comedy comes out of unexpected moments. So humor is connected to truth, I think. Embracing the inherent absurdity that is being a human being.
Antithetically, I took a linguistics class on discourse analysis in college. I did my final paper (so boring and pretentious!) on humor, which in linguistics terms is called “non-serious” speech. “Non-serious” referring to “non-truth-bearing” as opposed to being unserious or silly. Anyhow, in the land of discourse analysis, a joke is when you break the rules of a speech act. Saying “Hey, I like your tie!” when you really don’t. Sarcasm, for example. You’re lying, and that’s funny.
I also think comedy has a lot to do with reversing people’s expectations. Speaking of expectations, your plays always unfold so organically. I always wonder how you do that. It’s as if you’re writing completely from your subconscious. And yet you create a lot of very deliberate, controlled moments like silences or abrupt scene endings that suggest to me you are very aware of what it’s like to be an audience member while you’re writing. Are you thinking about things like that? Maybe this is one of those annoying “What’s your process?” questions.
Baker: So just quickly touching back on the subject of comedy and laughter before we move on: when I was in school I wrote a long super-pretentious paper on laughter and comedy! The paper was on Beckett’s Watt and why I thought it was a) the funniest novel of all time and b) also a kind of treatise on laughter itself. At one point in Watt a character says:
The bitter laugh laughs at that which is not good, it is the ethical laugh. The hollow laugh laughs at that which is not true, it is the intellectual laugh.But the mirthless laugh is the dianoetic laugh, down the snout—Haw!—so. It is the laugh of laughs, the risus purus, the laugh laughing at the laugh, the beholding, the saluting of the highest joke, in a word the laugh that laughs—silence please—at that which is unhappy.
Anyway, I just went crazy over this quote. I won’t get into all the reasons, but somehow this “laugh laughing at the laugh” described to me what exactly I think is so great about Beckett. I also became obsessed with this idea of the “highest joke,” which for me was the gap between reality and language, or the simultaneous lack thereof. Like the more you try to convey reality through language, the more it becomes clear that there is a reality that language cannot express. But at the same time, language is the only reality we know. And that to me is just this amazingly sweet and comic paradox. And then I realized that pretty much all my favorite comic plays and novels deal in some way with this paradox. The laughter produced by these works is not so much directed towards the characters as directed towards language itself, and its gorgeous artificiality and insufficiency. Most comedies these days just involve ethical and intellectual laughter, and I always find them unsatisfying. I can’t say that I’ve ever achieved the risus purus in my own work, but I am sort of always striving for it in my unhappy little way.
In response to your question about my process, I have no idea what my process is. It’s different with every play. Whenever I decide that I have a process, and then try to apply that process to my next play, it’s always a bust. So I have to redefine it every time I start a new play. The one thing I can say that usually works for me is a super-long period of research and note-taking and intellectual pondering before I start writing a new play. This usually takes about a year. I read a lot of books and take a lot of notes and pose lots of fragmentary philosophical questions in an untitled Word document. And then when I finally start writing the play I try to do it without too much thought or planning, and I try to work with my, yeah, I guess you could call it my unconscious. And then hopefully after a year of research and pondering, my unconscious is chock full of the stuff I want the play to address. And then I just see what happens.
Mensch: Titles are really hard for me. Too much pressure. I love your titles, however. Can you talk about your title, The Aliens?
Baker: That’s so funny. I think my plays have terrible titles. Circle Mirror Transformation and Body Awareness sound like the worst plays of all time. Both of those titles make me think of an underwater musical about women looking at their vaginas or something. You know, I thought The Aliens was a good title until people started saying, “Hey, I’m really looking forward to seeing Alien” or “How’s Aliens going?” and then I realized people think I’ve named my play after a Hollywood movie. I like your titles so much more, Mensch. They’re like Salinger titles. Len, Asleep in Vinyl? That’s the best title ever.
Anyway, “The Aliens” is the name of a Charles Bukowski poem that the characters in the play talk about and love, and also the name of their imaginary band. I was tempted to put a photocopy of that poem in the program, but then decided it would be kind of insufferable. Also, I can’t believe I named a play after a Bukowski poem. It’s horribly ironic for like five different reasons but I don’t think we have enough space left for me to talk about it.
Mensch: Oh no! You’re right, we totally ran out of space. I hope everybody on the planet goes and sees your play The Aliens which is now playing at the Rattlestick. It’s such an elegant piece of writing and insanely funny but also insanely sad and human and weird and I love it.
The Aliens, by Annie Baker, directed by Sam Gold, runs through May 23rd at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater. For tickets and further info, visit www.rattlestick.org.
by Annie Baker
Jasper takes a deep breath and collects himself.
Wow. That was like a crazy head rush slash heart attack.
So she calls me and delivers The Big News or whatever in the most condescending freakish manner possible, and I call her a cunt, which, if you recall, was like the big no-no word in our relationship, and she says “you promised never to call me that again” and I say ARE YOU ACTUALLY LISTENING TO YOURSELF and I hang up.
And then for like five minutes I’m like…
Worst five minutes of my life.
Actually. No. Not the worst five minutes of my life.
What were the worst five minutes of your life?
I remember something Your. Fucking. Mother. Told me. Over dinner.
I remember something Sandy Jano told me. She said it like three years ago. When I crashed on your couch.
I was like talking to her about how I was always like getting kicked out of places and like sleeping on floors or whatever and she was like: this, uh, this in-between state, this being unstable or whatever, if you accept /it—
Oh man. Was she talking about her Gender stuff?
No. No. She was like: the state of just having lost something is like the most enlightened state in the world.
KJ is silent.
And I thought of that last night, and all of a sudden I felt like incredible. I was simultaneously like being stabbed in the heart over and over again with this like devil knife but I also felt euphoric.
And then I sat down and I wrote like twenty pages.
In one night?
And they were like…the book just…it just switched in a totally different direction. He leaves Iowa City! The whole thing was supposed to take place in Iowa City and he leaves! He’s goin’ to California!
CARLY MENSCH is currently a staff writer on Showtime's "Weeds".