Writing Craft, Vol. III: Playwrights Jeremiah Albers and Brad McMurran (Part 2)

This is the second and final part of a craft conversation with playwrights Jeremiah Albers, theater critic at AltDaily, and Brad McMurran of The Pushers comedy group.

They have collaborated on Wanderlust, part of the Dog Days Festival at the Generic Theater Down Under Chrysler Hall in Norfolk, Va. It premieres Friday, June 17, at the Generic, 215 St. Pauls Blvd., Norfolk downtown. The run is from June 17-19, 23-26, 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $10. For more information call (757) 441-2160 or visit the Generic’s online reservation Interbot thingy.

This has been edited for length, clarity, and, in cases that should be fairly apparent, language. This part of the talk discusses comedy writing, criticism, playwriting, and stereotypes in comedy. And some links and a video in this post contain adult language and probably are not safe for work.

Additionally, there is some discussion below of a local theater production that was given a negative review by Albers at AltDaily last year. As I mentioned in the recent Belligerent Q&A with Albers and McMurran, the director, Philip Odango, rebuts Albers review in the comments section at that link. There is some back and forth between Albers and Odango. It is lively, to be sure.

The first question, again, is to Albers.

Q: You’ve done theater criticism, and I think it’s been good criticism. This is bias, but sometimes I have an expectation that local theater criticism is a little soft.

Albers: Yes.

Q: I think you’ve said some tough things about friends. Can you talk a little bit about what that process of working as a critic has been?

Albers: When I decided that I wanted to start taking that on, the reason I did it really was we need to create a dialogue about the quality of the theater in this area if the theater in this area is ever going to really matter to this area. Part of doing that is having someone there who is willing to call BS. And it wasn’t easy, and I probably made a lot of enemies, I’m sure.

McMurran: I don’t think you need the word probably.

Albers: Okay. We’ll omit the word probably. I think it’s important. We need a dialogue. I think that whatever happened after that one review I wrote –

Q: Which review?

Albers: Equus.

Q: It was a tough review.

Albers: Yeah, but it was also a tough show to sit through.

McMurran: I never saw the show, but it was the most seething review I ever read.

Q: You reviewed one of the director’s later plays and gave it a much more positive review.

Albers: Yeah. His production of Agnes of God was outstanding. And Philip’s great. I have no beef with Philip. Part of the reason I did that is I think Philip has genuine talent. … Art is an educational process. You never stop growing and you never stop evolving. It’s never done. This work is never done. It’s important to create this dialogue, and, I think, in some ways it has had an impact. You are finding the theaters being a little more careful about the shows that they are choosing. LTN (Little Theater of Norfolk), I have to give them props. Under Brendan Hoyle, this new guy they have as artistic director, the professionalism and quality of that place has gone up a hundred fold. I can’t take credit for that, but I think that dialogue, that little growing pain the local theater community had as a result of that, was how I did (help). … I really do go in there and try to be objective. … It’s not personal. If you don’t want to be a public spectacle, get off the stage.

McMurran: After he’s written these reviews, we’ve got a big target on our head. (Laughs.)

Q: Who is going to review it for AltDaily?

Albers: I don’t know.

Q: Not you?

Albers: No. Not me.

McMurran: That would be awesome.

Albers: I would just be like, “It stinks.” (Laughs.)

Q: Did the process of really having a look at what other people are doing and thinking critically about it … did that help you in the writing process?

Albers: Yes, it helps me in every process. I had a college professor and one of his big mantras we used to laugh at because we were kids and we didn’t really understand, but he used to say, “Theater is important, but bad theater is more important.” And we were like, “Whatever, that play sucked.” … Watching theater, I learn all the time. I see stuff in shows that I know I’ve probably stolen and, you know, taken my own way. Or I’ve seen stuff and said, “Okay, there’s a million things wrong with that. What’s wrong with that? Well the pace is wrong with that. Well, the joke isn’t funny.” … It helps you understand the mechanics of structure and of technique. Because there really is a craft to writing. … There really is a craft to directing plays. It’s not something everyone can do well even though they think that they can. The more you look at things that way the stronger it’s going to make you.

McMurran: I’m just glad we’ve had so many big words.

Q: I saw that Hump N’ New York video. (For The Pushers.)

McMurran: Yes. It’s one everybody goes back to.

Q: Would you talk about how it came about?

McMurran: There was what we call a skeleton. There was one objective – he couldn’t find his girl. Tracy. The fact that he runs the streets of New York on New Year’s Eve, that just was his obstacle. My favorite thing that ended up happening in that video is the girl behind us … that would help us with mikes and stuff, she was from New York. She said she had never seen more New Yorkers smile. I stayed in character (almost) the entire day. I can’t tell you how many people followed us into the subway.

Q: There are a couple of times where there are jokes, but it’s about somebody who can’t get what he wants.

McMurran: Never does.

Q: And he goes to the big city and he’s looking, and there’s all this spectacle, and he compares it to his hometown and then there’s the part I love with Morgan Freeman (or a likeness), where everybody’s crowded around him (or it). Was that just kind of found?

McMurran: It was literally a found moment. And the only thing that came into Hump’s mind that day was the movie Seven where he kept asking “What’s in the box?” (Laughs.)

Q: Which actually, thematically, is a pretty great line.

McMurran: (Laughs.) “What’s in the box?” When I first started chanting it, it was like, what’s this guy in an egg suit and his tighty whiteys doing? But then it began a chant all the way down the street. (Laughs.)

Q: Was (Freeman) whisked away by security?

McMurran: The funny part is I didn’t know it was him. … It was either Morgan Freeman or the best wax museum guy that ever existed.

Q: I remember I saw Hump about five years ago.

Albers: It was the first sketch that came in.

McMurran: It was a mistake. I used to do standup and … the Zoloft commercial. To me I thought it was an egg that would walk into these parties and no one would talk to him. I was like, “Of course they won’t talk to you, you’re a freaking egg.” And he was all about depression. I did this in stand up and had this voice and character. It wasn’t until I got off stage that night that someone said, “You know, those are tears in the Zoloft commercial. That’s not an egg at all.” I’m like, “Oh (numero dos).” (Laughter.)

Q: (Hump) is a really sad character.

McMurran: Absolutely. His father’s very mean to him.

Q: What do you think when you’re writing a sketch where the character is very sad and people are supposed to laugh at it? Or you’re writing a sketch where there’s a dad who wants his son to be gay? … What do you want to happen from that sketch?

McMurran: Well, that’s two different questions. On one end, it can do a lot of things. … (H)e became this underdog that the audience really rooted for, even when they shouldn’t have rooted for him, when Hump would go to some extremes. … As far as your other question … The one thing I learned in the last three years that I did not know when I first started doing comedy is just how when an actor would come in and say, “How do you want me to play this? Comedically or dramatically?” And we’d be like, “Next. I don’t want you at all.” Because there is no difference in how you play it. That’s all in writing. … I think that’s what made that scene funny. I still use the word think because you never know, but as far as having a dad that wants you to be something else, you nailed it. The dad wants you to be something else, it’s just ridiculous in the fact that he wants you to be something that’s not a social norm, necessarily – I don’t want to say being gay is not a social norm. You know, it can be perceived that way.

Albers: Wanting your child to be gay is certainly not a social norm.

Q: Right. Well, that’s interesting. And I’ll try to ask this as artfully as I can. Sketch comedy can be misogynistic. And it can be homophobic sometimes –

McMurran: Well, you guys come to a show. You’re right.

Q: Do you worry about putting out that kind of comedy?

McMurran: Not at all. And I can answer that very … We had every race, creed in this show at one point in time. Homosexual, not homosexual. One thing we believe – we’re in a PC world now. And that there’s nothing more cathartic than being able to go in and laugh at things you’re not supposed to laugh at. I think that actually is, and this is one time I’ll actually get serious about this, is I think that’s such a release.  To be able to go in, you know: “You can’t say that, you can’t do that. Laughing at somebody that falls down is bad, especially if they’re old.” Well what if it does make you laugh? Are we supposed to repress that? I don’t believe we should.

Albers: There will be people who get touchy. There will be people who, when you go there, will get up and walk out of the theater. And, you know, okay, fine. … You can’t please all of the people all the time. You shouldn’t censor yourself for fear of offending.

Q: I guess that’s not what I’m saying. I mean, do you think about what you’re putting out when you’re writing it?

McMurran: Yes.

Albers: Yeah.

Q: I’m not saying that you’re misogynistic … When you talk about that material, I mean, that’s something people might think about.

McMurran: They do. I think it’s a great question if you want to know the truth. You’re hitting on something that’s much deeper than – Really, I actually love the question. There is a line, and when you find it, it’s very dangerous because you have to straddle it, and when you straddle it poorly audiences will tell you.

Albers: And you can do that but it is –

McMurran: You have to do that.

Albers: It is having the taste and the basic decency to not put your toe too far over the line. You’ve got to know where the danger zone is, and how to stay out of it. And you don’t always know that. …

McMurran: After doing 200, 150 shows, however many shows we’ve done over the years, if we have 10, two are going to be flirting with that. If not, in every one there might be one that flirts with that. … I will be a little arrogant here. In the last three years, craft has become a much more important thing, where it’s not just about shock. And I don’t like shock any more. If you want to know the truth, if we get a script or a sketch in that’s scatological or blue … we won’t put it in now where back then we put it in.

Q: I just wonder how do you negotiate that kind of line between being Pushers, and pushing the edge and the envelope, or just going for, “Hey, we just need to have something that at its core is funny and relatable.”

McMurran: I’m more about what I find funny. … If it’s funny, it goes in. If it’s funny and it has a social message, it’s definitely going in. If it’s crossing a line and it’s borderline funny, it still may go in depending upon what the statement is. Sometimes it’s – We’re not a political group, by any means, I think, on paper. But I think behind the scenes if you scratched us you’d find something. I love the question because I can’t honestly give you a full answer.

Albers: You find it as you’re doing it. I mean, really, it’s a trial and error kind of thing, and in sketch comedy you don’t have a lot of time to correct it. In a play, you’ve got five weeks, six weeks, so you know you can tweak this, change that, and maybe that needs to get cut. … You find it through doing it.

Q: Anything I should have asked but didn’t?

McMurran: I want people to come out, see this and honestly give what they feel about it. I know that everybody says that, but – It’s sexy. One thing we haven’t talked about in this is it’s a really sexy show. We have an incredibly sexy cast.

Albers: And we did that on purpose.

McMurran: This is the sexiest cast that has ever been cast in this area.

Albers: I will back you up on that.

Q: Other than the pretend cast I have in my head.

Albers: Exactly. But this is kind of our idea to kind of reinvent the local theater for Hampton Roads rather than the Hampton Roads theater serving itself.

McMurran: Love it.

Albers: Because that’s what it kind of has been for years. … We need to get some new ideas and some new work.

McMurran: Why aren’t there more local writers doing things like this?

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