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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nning. Pushing The End to The Begi

I met a woman last week who reads books in a particular manner. She’ll read the last few pages first, decide if she likes the way it ends, and if so, she’ll then start reading from page one. She added that this method allows her to know if there’s going to be a satisfactory ending before investing time in the main story.

I do accept her argument as logically sound, but there are books where the ending makes very little sense unless you’ve ingested the main text. I’m thinking of an epic novel, such as Moby Dick. Reading the conclusion without knowing the tensions between Captain Ahab and his crew, detailed in the rest of the story, you won’t fully understand why their voyage ended the way it did.

If you ever do tackle Moby Dick, incidentally, you can quite safely skip Herman Melville’s obsessive personal polemics about the whale.

Another problem with this system is that some books paint a picture rather than tell a story. Consider Breakfast at Tiffany’s; the novella, not the film, although the woman in question uses the same method with DVDs. Truman Capote explores the complex relationship between the narrator and Holly Golightly in such a rich manner that there is as much to be gained from the description as the plot.

I do enjoy including some historical context in my entries. Read the prologue of William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet and those 14 lines give away the plot before any of the other actors say a word. Audiences expected to be given the precis at the beginning.

By the 20th century, the position was completely reversed. Agatha Christie understood this when she wrote The Mousetrap, at the end of which she specifically asks the audience to keep the secret. These days, there is still an expectation that endings will be kept under wraps, or clearly marked Spoiler Alertwith the odd exception such as Star Wars or The Sixth Sense, where it seems fair game to give it away. But there are also websites you can consult if you want the full plot.

I’ve created a poll to gauge how many WordPress users agree with my feelings on the matter. If necessary, do expand on your answer in the comments.