Situation Comedy.

Last night, while stuck for something to watch on TV, I came across an old Rich Hall DVD. I’ve been a fan of his for some years, whether as himself or in the guise of country musician Otis Lee Crenshaw. This DVD featured both personas. In the Crenshaw part, he performs a couple of template songs using the details of audience members to fill in the blanks.

English: Rich Hall performing live on November...
Rich Hall performing live on November 1, 2007 at Knabrostræde in Copenhagen, Denmark. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Regular readers will know that I encourage every writer to stand up and read their work in front of other people, and one area I like to explore is customising the material to that particular situation. Writers can easily use those same principles of comedy at a reading.

Not too long ago, I saw a poet walk on stage with a rucksack. He started his act, and midway through, he took off the rucksack and walked through the audience, giving out small bars of chocolate to everyone who had performed before him and to anyone involved with organising the event, adding briefly why he considered each individual to be, “awesome.”

The last time I tried a tailored act, I read out a story consisting of six passages from six viewpoints. I placed each passage in an envelope, marked each one with a letter from A to F, and passed a beanbag around the audience. Whenever it was caught by a new person, I asked them to shout out a letter and that would determine the order of the story.

Some acts thrive on audience embarrassment, but that’s not to my taste unless anyone is heckling or generally being difficult. When I threw the beanbag, I made it clear that whoever caught it would not be hauled up on stage or embarrassed in any way. And with regard to the rucksacked poet, who doesn’t like free sugary treats? These two approaches kept the audience on-side, while allowing the performer to customise the reading to that particular location on that particular night.

In fact, even this entry is situation-specific, as the subject would have been totally different if I hadn’t seen that DVD last night. Rich Hall is also responsible for one of the most bizarre situation-specific incidents I’ve seen on stage. At the Edinburgh Fringe a few years ago, he unexpectedly brought Radio 4 stalwart Barry Cryer on stage as a guest vocalist.

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