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The Green Room: What’s the secret of comedy?

Does the banana-skin scenario hold the key to comedy? Photo: Shutterstock Does the banana-skin scenario hold the key to comedy? Photo: Shutterstock

Meet our panel: We have given our panellists pen-names and used stock images but their biographies reflect their real career details…​​​​​​​​​​

Velma Lee is a 32-year-old actor, comic and improviser

Vivian Lee is 38 and has played leading roles at the National, the RSC and the Royal Court, alongside regular TV appearances

Albert Parker is 60 and has appeared as a regular in soaps, two BAFTA-winning sitcoms, theatre and TV

Peter Quince is a 72-year-old actor working in theatre

Annie Walker is 25. Since graduating from drama school, Annie has worked predominantly in regional theatres and is also a writer and street performer


Velma That’s such a good question. For me, it’s about having a unique perspective built on a solid foundation of truth.

Annie Yes, truth. Playing it from a place of truth, always.

Velma Ken Campbell would always say “silly plus silly equals stupid” and that’s something that I come back to time and again.

Albert Is it… er… now, wait a minute… …timing?


Albert Timing.

Annie This is clearly a chat full of comedians.

Vivian That’s generous.

Peter Surprise. The unexpected is often funny, unless it’s a thriller. Like the slapstick one: man walking along street, camera shows banana skin, man steps over banana skin – and falls down manhole.

Annie I do love a bit of slapstick.

JonPeter, I heard a very similar version as an example of the rule of three. Person slips on banana skin. Slips on banana skin again. Third time: Aha! I am clever – I have avoided this banana skin… slips down manhole.

Annie I love being thrown by a mixture of comedy and tragedy – after I broke up with my boyfriend, I came up with some of the best material I’ve ever written while I was crying and packing my bag…

Comedy has humanity in it – mirror to our actions. I’ve never baked my kids in a pie or killed my uncle, but I have been a pompous git

Velma To do something unexpected, to provoke a laugh, that has to come out of a grounded place for the audience – even if that grounded place is established as an absurd world. Then you need something to subvert it. That’s why a fart at a funeral is funny.

Vivian Funerals are hilarious.

Albert I think comedy has humanity in it. Recognition. A mirror to our actions. I’ve never baked my kids in a pie or killed my uncle, but I have been a pompous git.

Annie I think assessing when the character knows and doesn’t know what is going on and playing with that is useful and fun for an audience to see, if that makes sense.

Peter It’s hard to pin down. I was in a show recently where there was a line on which I got a big laugh. Except occasionally I didn’t. I was never able to work out why.

JonThat’s the wonderful alchemy of it – the stuff that doesn’t make sense. There was one line I had in a show which was a woofer if I said it facing out front and didn’t even get a titter if I addressed it to my scene partner.

Albert Is there any other way to face other than out front?

Annie I find that so interesting. I love dissecting that – it could have been something you said before differently having a knock-on effect or something. Who knows?

Peter Often asking for a laugh kills it. And of course some audiences laugh more than others. One person can get them going – or irritate them into silence.

JonAnnie, have you come across the ‘dissecting a frog’ analogy?

Annie I haven’t. How do I dissect a frog? I’m vegan so please leave out the gory details, if you can.

JonIt’s the idea that analysing a joke is like dissecting a frog. You might find out a load of stuff but when you’re finished, the frog is dead.

Peter If you investigate something too closely to see how it works, you kill it.

JonThat’s much better put.

Albert I like that. I think I’ve seen people kill quite a few frogs in my time.

Peter And they might have lived to be a prince, Albert!

Vivian The genre of comedy has been broadened so much now, leading to the use of terms such as ‘dramedy’. It’s as though people have finally realised that comedy is more a reflection of the truth of existence and humanity, rather than tragedy.

JonI always think that the phrase ‘comedy drama’ came about when someone wrote a sitcom without enough jokes in…

Vivian The category of comedy at the various awards this year has shown that. Not all comedies are sitcoms. And what does slapstick come under?

JonThat’s true about awards. The BBC TV show Mum has been a big success without being gag-heavy in the traditional sense.

Vivian It feels as if there’s only really one definition of tragedy, but that comedy is a larger rainbow of humour in various disguises. Slapstick is more than just a banana skin.

JonA plank, a pane of glass, a bucket of water…

Albert I went to see a mate in a show in town recently that had been billed as very, very funny – a great comedy. But the night we went, there were no laughs at all. At dinner afterwards, she couldn’t understand it.

Peter Athene Seyler wrote a good book called The Craft of Comedy.

Vivian And for all that, I do feel it is denigrated in favour of tragedy.

Albert Comedy is thankfully shorter.

Vivian So, in summation: comedy is whatever tragedy isn’t. It’s shorter. It’s better.

JonAny fool can make someone cry. Make ’em laugh and have them in the pub by 9pm – that’s an achievement.

Jon Dryden Taylor is an actor, writer and editor of The Green Room. If you work in theatre and would like to join in the conversation, email greenroom@thestage.co.uk

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