One week into rehearsals for the world premiere of Hard Cell, the cast is doing some great work and our sides are all a little sore from laughing. Playwright Brent Askari has been busy polishing the script and tweaking jokes so they land just right, but he also took some time to share with us some thoughts about what makes things funny and where this play came from.
GevaJournal: So, we’re talking about comedy – what makes you laugh? What are some of your favorite comedies? Who are your favorite comedians?
BA: A lot makes me laugh. I tend to laugh more at strange situations and odd behavior more than so called “hard jokes” or one-liners. I don’t tend to like comedies where everybody talks in perfectly crafted witticisms all the time. I laugh more when people act in unexpected ways and have strange quirks or foibles.
Some of my favorite television comedies of all time are “I’m Alan Partridge,” The British version of “The Office,” “The Thick of It,” “The Fast Show,” and “Fawlty Towers.” I’m a bit of a Britcom nerd, I’m afraid – I think because they’re darker than American sitcoms and they aren’t scared of portraying extremely flawed protagonists. “Second City Television” (SCTV) was also a huge influence on me – I just loved all those actors so much and even when I was too young to understand what they were parodying, I just had this sense that “this is really funny”….even if I didn’t get all the jokes.
It’s hard to think of my favorite comic films – there are just too many to list – I’m a big fan of the silent comedians like Keaton, Chaplin, and Lloyd. In my opinion, Dr. Strangelove is probably the greatest filmic comedy of all time. I love that it takes the darkest possible subject – nuclear annihilation – and makes you laugh at the absurdity of it all. And I’ll watch Peter Sellers in anything.
I recently find myself very interested in exploring comedies in other countries and cultures…seeing what makes us laugh that’s universal as opposed to what’s culture-specific.
GJ: You come to writing through performance – did you perform in comedies before you started writing them?
BA: I really started doing more sketch stuff growing up, inspired by SCTV and “Saturday Night Live.” I would also record prank phone calls. I didn’t really act until college, but in high school, my friends and I all wrote a play and performed it in front of the students. It was a very absurd story called Erwin’s Big Day about a kid who thinks he’s going on a Yale interview but is actually being considered by the Cleveland Institute of Shock Therapy. We wrote it for an elective and the teacher asked us never to produce it, so of course we did. We drew a picture of him on the back of the program and claimed the teacher was the producer. He took it in stride and liked the play in the end.
I got involved with acting and improv comedy in college. I was one of the founding members of an improv group called Vertigo-go which still survives at Swarthmore College today.
I still act and am part of an ensemble called Mad Horse Theatre in Portland, Maine – a group that’s been in existence for over thirty years. Right after this production of Hard Cell, I’ll be acting at Portland Stage Company in a play called Half-Light — a brand-new play by novelist and playwright Monica Wood. I’ve recently started getting back into improv comedy after several years, and last summer participated in an interactive theater production that took place all over a small New England town…that was a wild experience.
GJ: What are the challenges/joys of writing comedy?
BA: The joy is definitely when you come up with a funny bit and you can’t wait to get it written. When that happens, that’s a good day. And then those moments where you feel like the characters take over and you’re just taking down dictation as they talk to one another – that’s always a thrill, no matter what genre you’re writing.
I think the challenge for writing comedy is making sure that there’s still a story underneath all the jokes. If it’s just a bunch of one-liners, it’s going to eventually fall flat. There have to be intriguing characters and stakes in a comedy – and the jokes are the icing on the cake.
GJ: Comedy seems to be changing quite a bit as a genre – especially as the field tries to address racism and misogyny, etc. Do you think that your own approach to comedy has shifted?
BA: I don’t think my approach to comedy itself has shifted – things are either funny or they aren’t. I subscribe to the belief that absolutely anything can be made funny and nothing is off-limits…I think a lot of people who work in comedy feel the same way. It all depends on the approach and point of view.
I have, however, in the last several years, felt the desire to tackle more “difficult” subjects through comedy than I ever did in the past. I feel like we need comedy and satire more than ever. Sacha Baron Cohen is somebody that I greatly admire – he’s been fearless in confronting and exposing issues in culture in ways that make your jaw drop. His work can be shocking and provocative and hilarious at the same time. I find that invigorating.
GJ: What is your background?
I’m half-Persian and half-WASP. My parents were Episcopalian and Shiite. Being mixed race has given me a unique perspective. Because I am able to “pass” as white, sometimes people have shared their negative feelings about Muslims and Middle Easterners with me, not knowing that I was of Middle Eastern heritage. As a child growing up in Texas and Virginia during the Iranian revolution and hostage crisis, I would hear people express hateful sentiments, expecting me to agree with their beliefs. Even as an adult, I was acting on a commercial shoot a few years ago when several extras talked openly and at length about how they’d like to kill a bunch of “sand-n*ggers.” I was pretty shocked that they felt no sense of shame or fear of being chastised…it was like “Now that we’re all alone, we can express ourselves honestly, right?” Those kinds of experiences have certainly impacted me and my own political and social consciousness.
GJ: What Led You To Write Hard Cell?
I love comedy and farce and satire. I have written several comic plays before Hard Cell, but none that touched upon my Middle Eastern heritage.
I wanted to come up with a farce where a Middle Eastern character was the protagonist…and I wanted it to provide an opportunity for a Middle Eastern actor to be funny and the hero/lead of the story.
I also like how in certain traditional comedies there was a “trickster figure” – often a servant – who was manipulating situations through deceit and guile. I think of the character of Nick in that vein…using negative stereotypes against any attackers to get what he wants in the predicament he finds himself in. I liked the idea that Nick would not just be a passive victim, that he would have some agency by turning the tables on his attackers. The idea that the protagonist could flip the script excited me and I started writing down ideas for scenes.