In the early days of late-night network television shows like The Tonight Show with Jack Paar or The Ed Sullivan Show, the appearance or depiction of blacks and Jews was minimal and often limited to stereotypical representations. A new play, What Passes For Comedy, revisits those days to show audiences that not everyone was laughing back then — nor was every type of joke-teller given a chance.
The play, at a cozy, 99-seat, Off-Broadway indie theater (The Chain Theater), is set in the early 1960s. A fictitious late-night TV host reads a joke off of a cue card that accidentally made it into the approved joke list. The bit ends with the use of a derogatory name for Jews. All hell breaks loose and the rest of the show, which takes place over the span of one night, examines how the shows that shaped and entertained America were far from being as sweet as humble pie when it came to how blacks and Jews were treated.
The play, which could have shaved about 20 minutes off of its run-time, leaves the audience with a lot to ponder. Getting to laugh often enough while being treated to behind-the-scenes debates over what is funny and who gets to tell such jokes, theater-goers feel the all-too real and still very relevant issues of racism and anti-Semitism. The all-male cast didn’t even get to tackle sexism or the lack of women in the industry.
Who has a seat at the table is the question posed here. While there was an uproar over a blatant anti-Semitic comment, no one but the show’s lone black writer complains about the subtle racism that takes place in nightly exchanges between the white talk show host and his sidekick band host, a black man accused of being like an Uncle Tom field hand who shucked and jived to the beat of a segregated society — and who subordinately but seemingly happily calls his white colleague “Boss.”
All of the characters played their roles
believably well, though one did forget a few of his lines. The engaging
writing raises key issues about a bygone era that is still, to a degree, reflected
in today’s society.
What Passes for Comedy certainly does its job by leaving audiences
smiling while allowing them to silently seethe underneath the outward
appearance that all is well in the world.
For more information, please see: https://www.chaintheatre.org/what-passes-for-comedy-world-premiere.
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