Fiddlin’ with the Funny: Joke Analysis in Comic Potential

by Nathan Hall

To paraphrase Woody Allen, the sure-fire quickest way to stop being funny is to explain how to be funny. Just as a magician will never write a bestseller revealing what is really up his sleeves, no comedian ever got us rolling in the aisles by dissecting what made us end up on the floor in the first place. Theatre in the Round’s latest production, Comic Potential, attempts the onerous task of simultaneously pulling off a futuristic love story and a treatise on the science of humor, with decidedly mixed results.

St. Olaf College alumnus Brandon Hillard stars as Adam Trainsmith, a naive and idealistic television writer with familial ties to an all-powerful, Robert Murdoch-esque media baron. Set in a barely recognizable England of the future, Trainsmith convinces a troubled soap opera crew with abominably low ratings to start making quality television again. Along the way, Trainsmith accidentally falls in love with a robot and confronts the harsh social stigma attached to man-machine mating.

Adapted from the work of the same title by the recently knighted Hampstead-native Alan Ayckborn, the Brits here dress as if all that remains in the closet is leftovers from fetish balls and Trekkie conventions. The reliance on technology is more ubiquitous than usual, but nothing seems to work no matter how hard you bang on it. Greedy corporations introduce cyborg thespians, known colloquially as Actoids, to break the actor’s union. ZZ Top is mispronounced “Zed Zed Top.” One begins to long for Marty McFly and Doc to appear and save the day.

Comic Potential is akin to attending open mic night at a comedy club: Most of the time it is painful at best, but occasional genius bits pop up from time to time and force you to give the show another chance. John Lilleberg is change-your-pants hilarious in a brief turn as Turkey, a pimp whose inspired threads appear liberated from the 1986 film Labyrinth. As per usual with Briton satires, the implied sex gags and innocent hints at nudity are well familiar to the audience yet we continue to giggle despite ourselves.

It is when the play drifts into ham-handed dialogue and gets too philosophically big for it’s britches that Comic Potential begins to falter dangerously. Failed television director Chandler Tate, played by Mic Weinblatt, at one point whittles down making the funny into two key components: timing and anger. Ayckborn unfortunately struggles with taking his own advice, as his timing gradually becomes impeccable but the characters he has created do not appear to have anything significant to complain about. A penchant for saccharine moralizing and feel-good plot twists threaten to turn the story into what he allegedly parodied in the first place: a ludicrously atrocious soap opera.

Trainsmith’s doomed affair with Jacie Triplethree, a happy-go-lucky Actoid played by Alyssa Cartwright, begs for a more intensive exploration. Much has been written on the uneasy relationship with our mechanical friends but the tale’s conclusion left many unanswered questions about the validity of dating a, well, machine.

Ultimately, the audience forgives the constant references to now dated comedic devices once we decide not to take ourselves or the play seriously. Comedy, for the most part works as escapism and studying that almost seems beside the point.

Comic Potential plays through Nov. 10 at Theatre in the Round, (612) 333-3010.