Last night, I had the joy of attending Anthony King and Scott Brown’s “Gutenburg! The Musical!”. It was just lovely—clear, specific, and honest choices were made, the physical work from the actors was just stellar, and the music was simply excellent. It was a pleasure to spend 2 hours on the floor for the show, but I can’t neglect to mention the several truly cringe-worthy moments of the play.
Pathetic woman characters. They happen. I get it. Pathetic men characters happen, too, but to see a meek, love-sick and easily manipulated woman embodied by a man just… makes me wary of the choices the authors have made. Was there truly no other way to move the story forward in an entertaining way other than poking fun at a generic, weak and husband-hungry woman?
“Retard” jokes. Joke, really. There was just the one. It was unnecessary and inexcusable. Anthony King and Scott Brown, I would have hoped you’re better than that. You really couldn’t find anything funnier than people with a mental disability? I bet that’s just hilarious from your places of privilege, but it would be a lot less funny if you were the sufferers of your cheap humor.
“I’m not gay,” as a defense. Really? Do you not read the news or watch television or speak to anyone ever? Being queer isn’t a character flaw.
Virgin-shaming. Quality stuff, unless you’re older than about 16 or aware that sex is a personal issue and not up to society’s idea of when a person is “supposed” to start having it.
The show’s self-awareness and irreverence for an important but rarely-noticed moment in history was amazing. The minimalistic design, physical nature of the work, and hilariously unaware characters made it almost clown-like, and it was truly a joy to watch.
But could it have the same impact if it wasn’t at the expense of the disenfranchised?
This summer, I saw La Piara’s production of Guerra: A Clown Play. I… can’t even express exactly how hilarious it was. I’ll give you a number: I laughed-so-hard-I-cried-and-one-of-the-actors-started-looking-at-me-with-concern three different times. The physical work of the actors was the most specific and effective work I’ve ever seen, it spanned across three different languages and had the entire audience buzzing with excitement, and it wasn’t at the expense of any unprivileged person. In fact, the show’s entire message (which hit with incredible force) was to show the horror inflicted by the violence of war.
The point is, talented artists can create theatre that amuses/entertains/delights/engages without doing it at the expense of the people in the world that already suffer the most.
It’s not that those subjects are “sacred” or “off-limits” in any way, but it’s important for an artist to have a deep awareness of the material he’s putting into the world. Those same jokes could be made but, for example, they could be made by a villain—the Monk could have made a “retard joke”, and Gutenberg could have really judged him for that. That could have been a funny moment at the expense of the socially unconscious (and generally inconsiderate), instead of at the expense of the disabled.
The truth is, comedy is hard. It’s incredibly hard to write and to execute. But if you can’t be funny without being mean to people who don’t deserve it, you shouldn’t be trying to be funny at all.
That’s a broad statement, but I’m serious. Anthony King and Scott Brown and all other writers and aspiring writers—you can do better. And if you can’t, go get a day job and make those hilarious jokes to your cubicle co-workers. You shouldn’t be spreading your hate to large audiences.
And to the young and conscious artists that struggle to ensure every moment of their work sends positivity into the world, keep on fighting the good fight.
Ellen, you raise some valid concerns about Gutenberg and subsequent conclusions about comedy, and we can go even deeper with your observations and thoughts. First, we have to consider a crucial component of the show that your post fails to mention: Gutenberg is a satire. The show mocks the tropes, like the offensive ones you mention, that people rest on in musical theatre, specifically Broadway musicals. Gutenberg showcases two well-intentioned, affable idiots who utilize all the aforementioned tired elements in place of any talent or skill. Perhaps the biggest irony in the show is that Bud and Doug, the two main characters, believe they have written an epic tragedy, but their show is laughably terrible. I hesitate to speak on behalf of the authors of the show, so I would argue that Gutenberg works to criticize the structures that sell Broadway shows at the expense of any actual artistry, which in turn, inspires a broader awareness of the mainstream theatre we accept. Thus, the disenfranchised are victims of this musical theatre machine. With that said, your cringe-reaction to Gutenberg may be a part of the exact experience that its authors intended.
Considering you reaction to Gutenberg, I am left to wonder if an audience’s recognition of the form has to be a part of satire’s success? Is a satire still affective if the audience is not aware they are witnessing a satire? I also question the success of Gutenberg when considering the ending, which leaves the audience with a heartfelt harmony. If the audience is left with a warm feeling, does the show justify the terrible jokes at minorities or does it inspire an internal conflict in audience members?