Monday, July 30, 2012

The Power of Laughter


The Power of Laughter
Or my journey into the world of comedy


I never thought of myself as a comedienne growing up. I’m not the kind of person you want to send out onstage with instructions to “just make ‘em laugh for fifteen minutes.” It’s a really bad idea. The more I try to be funny, the less funny I am. And the more I’m not trying to be funny, the funnier I become. The irony is, some of the work I’m most well known for are comedies. Rule breaking, genre bending comedies. Which I find fascinating considering my rather interesting relationship to comedy in the first place.

Several things contributed to my downright aversion to certain kinds of humor when I was a kid:

 1)    I had what was for me a terrifying experience with a clown when I was about two years old. I was taken by surprised by what was certainly not a professional clown at a friend’s birthday party. His make-up resembled a demonic Jack ‘O Lantern, and I went running to my mom with all the horror of one running from a monster in a nightmare. (Interestingly famed clown Glen “Frosty” Little has warned about the dangers of too shocking, Jack ‘O Lantern esque make up because of its potential to scare children.) From then on, for me, clowns = scary.

 2)    Most of my first comedy experiences were of slapstick comedy. Ringling Brothers, The Three Stooges, Warner Brother’s cartoons, etc. Where as many comics have been greatly inspired by this kind of humor, it had the opposite effect on me. To this day humor that is based on hurting yourself, or someone else, whether it be physical comedy or stand up has never felt funny to me. Laughter at someone’s pain puts me on the brink of tears. I’m sure that’s because, well, lets just say, growing up, having pain inflicted was a very serious, and very unfunny reality.

 3)    There were people I grew up with whom, for various reasons, I did not want to emulate (see #2,) who happened to be very into this particular type of comedy. These same people also showed me what are in reality very funny movies at an age when I was too young to “get the joke.” The most vivid example for me is of being shown The Princess Bride when I was less than two years old. Yes, The Princess Bride is hilarious, and I adore it now. But imagine watching it with all the humor taken out. When you’re that young, you don’t get what the film is parodying, or even referencing. There’s nothing funny about it. So I saw it, literally as a horror film, with giant rats, eels, people killing each other, and the main character having his soul sucked out by a water torture machine, with nothing breaking the tension. I remember the people watching with me laughing hysterically at these horrors, and at me for being so terrified. I was well into college before I was able to watch it again.

Yup, not funny to a two year old…

 4)    I did not like being laughed at. (I know. ????) I have some very brilliant comedian friends who feed on laughter. Growing up, they would do anything to get a laugh. For some reason, I could never really differentiate between someone laughing with me, and laughing at me. And being laughed at (see the end of #2 and #3) was very hurtful to me.

And yet, I was naturally very funny. I knew I wanted to be an actress/writer from basically the moment I was born. I was known for always having witty quips, hysterical commentary, and impeccable comic timing. I started acting professionally as a child. When I was very young I decided to audition for a musical by singing “Little Girls” from Annie complete with (fake) martini glass. I didn’t really get why I was funny doing it, I thought I was doing a very legitimate, dramatic performance. Of course, it was hysterical, mainly because it was so dead on accurate to Carol Burnette’s Ms. Hannigan, and because I wasn’t trying to “act” cute or funny. And because I was, obviously, a “little girl” myself. (I got the part by the way.) But being told I was funny was not a complement to me. I was nervous to do the song, partially because of the laughter, and partially because I’ve never really enjoyed playing the “villain” – even a comic villain (my dream roles included Emily in Our Town, The Baker’s Wife in Into The Woods, the original Little Mermaid, and St. Joan.)

My “comfort zone” as an actress. Unusual, yes. But never the less…

But my dislike of being laughed at was outweighed by my love and desire to inhabit a role. Anyways, it didn’t really matter because in the long run, I didn’t think I was a comedian. I knew people who were much better, and more comfortable with comedy than me. They were funny. They were class clowns. Not me.

But when I got a little older and my wonderful mom was desperately on the search for new things to intrigue my overly precocious mind, I began entering the world of a new kind of humor. My mom and I started reading The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy before bed, only able to get through a couple of paragraphs before we had to put the book away for fear of breaking a rib from laughing so hard. When I was nine I saw The Two Gentlemen of Verona and so fell in love with the “dog” monologue that I promptly presented it for my class at school, complete with props (including a stuffed dog.) I entered the world of black and white movies with Bringing Up Baby. And then, Nouvelle Experience happened.

To me there was still a big difference between “mean” comedy, and “witty” comedy. I might have even broken it into “clowning” and “intellectual humor” (though my definitions of each at the time were not accurate.) Clowns still freaked me out. I lived walking distance from where Cirque du Soleil set up their tent on Santa Monica beach. The first show that I was old enough to see, was Nouvelle Experience. The program said there was a clown named David Shiner in the show. I was not happy.

The show started. Out came a sweet looking man in a grey suit, holding a suitcase. He was lost in the most fantastical world I had ever seen. Like Alice in Wonderland if Alice were a businessman. I watched the show in delight. Then came the clowning section. Out came the same sweet man in the suit. He was the clown? This time he had a movie camera with him. He pulled a few people out of the audience (why didn’t he pick me?!) And proceeded to non-verbally direct them in a silent movie scene.

It was brilliant! And so funny! I knew these people. At least metaphorically. I had made my theatrical debut when I was five, and was an “old pro” by this time. I had seen directors in just such, if not quite as extreme, at least as frustrating a situation. But this was commenting on it. It was about human nature. We were all both the frustrated director, and the confused, but desperate to please actors. I was laughing at myself. We all were.

David Shiner in “Nouvelle Experience”

This was clowning? It didn’t compute. To me, clowning was about laughing at someone else. David Shiner was making me laugh at myself. I was joyously perplexed. Mr. Shiner didn’t have crazy make up. Some, to create a character, but charming, not scary. He didn’t wear a bright costume. He didn’t get beaten up. I started really thinking about what made him funny to me. What was funny (or not), and why? What was the purpose of humor, and how different, or universal do its different forms become when watched by a diverse group of people? I was under ten years old. Through Cirque I also discovered Slava (later of Slava’s Snowshow fame.) Through research I discovered famous silent film actors such as Buster Keaton, and Chaplin. I avidly watched Bill Cosby and Lucille Ball. I learned that these comedians (namely Keaton, Chaplin, and Ball) were often referred to as clowns. I dove into their brilliant work, especially appreciating the narrative drive behind many comic silent films. I was cast in a show that went to London, and there discovered the British Music Hall, and Panto. I attended the Cherubs program in Chicago, and was first exposed to Commedia Del’Arte.

Slava’s Snow Show                   Buster Keaton                 Italian Commedia                         

And then, I saw Bill Irwin: Clown Prince on PBS ( It was a documentary on Bill Irwin, which showcased both his work, and interviews about his craft. You may best know him from Rachel Getting Married, CSI, and his Tony award winning performance in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? on Broadway. Yup, he began his career at Ringling Brother’s Clown College, was a member of the theater group Kraken (where he met and began working with later Regard of Flight costars Doug Skinner and Michael O'Conner) and spearheaded the “New Vaudeville” genre. I had never heard someone talk about comedy with such intelligence and, well, seriousness before. I tracked down a VHS copy of his show Regard of Flight. It changed my life. 

Bill Irwin

It was genius. This was the kind of comedy, heck theater I loved. And it combined elements of everything – witty dialogue, dance, slapstick, and somehow, I loved it all. Most especially because it wasn’t clowning for clowning’s sake. It was a story that used clowning because it was the best means by which to tell that story. It was far more complex than just trying to get a bunch of laughs (not to say that any genre of clowning can be categorized as just trying to get laughs, but simply trying to focus on an important element specifically in Mr. Irwin’s work.)

After Nouvelle Experience my mom gave me a copy of the Ringling Brother’s How To Be A Clown video.

While I still had an aversion to a lot of things about “clowning”, I was now fascinated by elements of it, especially the amount of skill required. Even if I was not personally reduced to hysterics by a certain sketch, I could respect, and appreciate it. I’m an actor, singer, dancer and a writer. I do aerial acrobatics, play the piano, flute, and harp, do stage combat, and surf. I always knew I wanted to incorporate multiple skills into my theatrical career – especially in being a performer and a writer. Ironically, in the “legitimate” theater doing more than one thing, in some circles, is almost frowned upon. (I don’t wish to imply that you don’t need multiple skills to be a “legitimate” performer – but it’s almost impossible to get away with calling yourself, say, a professional dancer and Shakespearian actress.) In clowning, skill diversity is not only celebrated, it’s practically a requirement. It is possible to be, say, a classical pianist, and a clown. Check out Victor Borge.

Clown College is the only training school for performers where students are required to learn as many, if not more skills than performers in musical theater programs (different skills, but numerous none the less.) Part of being a comic is being a creator – of your material, and of your characters. When you’re a musical theater performer, you literally cannot do your art unless someone hires you to fill a previously established role. Even if you’re working on original material, the essence of the role has already been created before any casting takes place. Leonid Yengibarov said: “The clown is an artist who can do everything.” In the 1700’s the most popular clowns were equestrians, and trick horse riders. If you hadn’t been laughing at their antics, you would have been gripping your chair fearing for their life. My friend Joel, a clown, speaks multiple languages, plays several instruments, can do pratfalls, spin plates, and has used all of these skills, and more, in his acts. Clowns are some of the strongest, most coordinated, intelligent people you will ever meet. You try doing that pratfall once, let alone multiple times a day, for years at a time. Sometimes comedy can be easily dismissed as “funny people being silly.” The truth is, it’s an art. It takes a long time, and a high level of skill to create true humor. (Steve Martin’s book “Born Standing Up” documents this beautifully.) Comedy doesn’t win at the Oscars. When it’s done well, it looks easy and spur of the moment. It’s not.

Now, the little girl who was too embarrassed to create a clowning routine for her mom in the living room (even after much encouragement, and much watching of How To Be A Clown, not to mention the fact that I was constantly performing in the living room in other styles), and was so nervous to sing “Little Girls” was suddenly desperate to create comedy, yes, clowning like…Bill Irwin! I even decided, in an attempt to experiment with this “New Vaudevillian” form, to structure my senior thesis at NYU (an original theatrical piece) as an homage to the structure of Regard of Flight, combining it with the theatrical constructs of traditional musical theater. The piece was, in essence, an experimental chamber musical. And it was awesome to create!

I watched every clip of Bill Irwin I could find the second youtube was invented. Literally. And I got to see more of his material, and performances. (He even blended clowning and musical theater in a brilliant Sondehim tribute, performing to “Sooner or Later."

One of the reasons I greatly admire Mr. Irwin in that he uses his “clowning” skills in widely varied styles and genres. For example, things he learned at Clown College – if not kinds of humor, certainly theatrical skills – were used to huge effect in the drama …Virgina Woolf. Great comedians are often great dramatists (look at Robin Williams.) It rarely works the other way around. It’s still my dream to work with Mr. Irwin someday. I would die.

Around this time something kind of awesome happened. I saw Cirque du Soleil’s Kooza (Fun fact: Kooza was directed by David Shiner, the clown I fell in love with in Nouvelle Experience.) Kooza stars the amazing Jason Berrent ( Jason is not a clown. But he is a remarkable performer. In Kooza, he created the role of the diabolically Puck-ish “ring master” The Trickster. I’d never seen such an acrobatic/physical performance where someone could act like that. Unlike physical comedy, this was a completely non-verbal, physical dramatic performance that, though it incorporated many elements of dance, could in no way be considered a “dance piece.” I’d truly never experienced anything like it. As someone who acts and dances – I was enraptured. So, I decided to take a chance, and write him via his website. He wrote a very sweet message back, and we began a dialogue. A few months later he was having auditions for a project he was creating. I went. Long story short, we started working together, and have since become very good friends. Jason is an actor who does dramatically many things clowns do with comedy – namely crossing genres, and using unusual skill sets to tell a story. Jason told me that, in addition to dance and acrobatics, much of his physicality was based on ethnic movement, and even sign language. He created acting “beats” (actions/objectives) for every moment his character was onstage. He is committed, and fearless in his performances. He is not just a performer, he is a creator in the truest sense of the word. And, probably because they share many of these characteristics, some of his closest friends and collaborators happen to be clowns.

                                                  Jason as The Trickster in “Kooza.”           

Jason thought that I would really get on with his friend Joshua Zehner ( – who was one of the clowns who had starred with him in Kooza (Josh and Jason were both creators on the show as well.) Well, hit it off we did. And I was in heaven, as this was the first time I had ever gotten to pick the brain of a professional clown, and I had a million questions. Why was I so turned off by such a specific kind of comedy? Why aren’t there as many females in comedy/clowning as men? Why are certain things funny when men do them, but not women? Josh was full of insights, and even shared with me a wonderful book on the history of clowning (Clowns by John H. Townsen. It’s out of print, but you can find it on that connected a lot of dots for me. I began to understand the origins of comedy. Things that gave modern comedy more meaning when you knew why they had developed the way they did. I learned about the role of clowns in religious ritual – the clowns got the audience laughing so the audience was drawn together in a communal way, and therefore were unified and ready for the seriousness of the ceremony at hand (an idea Josh discusses so eloquently.) The ideas I started exploring, and the questions that began to be answered are too numerous to include here. But, for example, I realized that many comedy “staples” simply weren’t funny when performed by women. Two guys beating each other up, most people would find hysterical. A woman beating up a man, or two women fighting, same thing. But a man beating up a woman (or to be technical: a man being the aggressor in a slapstick routine with a female partner,) not ok. This means a man can always be funny in any slapstick set up. A woman can’t. I was discussing this with my friend Joel (I’ll get to him in a minute) and, when I mentioned the antics of Lucille Ball, he pointed out that, when Lucy was in a slapstick routine, she was dressed in man’s garb. Most notably in the “Slowly I Turn” sketch – a recreation of a famous Three Stooges routine.

And whereas the Three Stooges beat each other up with their fists, Lucy was clobbered with…a balloon.

Josh in “Kooza”

I also started to understand, and want to explore what was inherently funny about me and how I could own that. The truth is, my earnestness, my deeply rooted, sad, “it’s not funny” sentiments could actually be used to hilarious effect. It’s why the character of Ella developed the way she did, and is funny in Forever Deadward. Life is so epic for her that nothing, literally NOTHING is funny. Watching someone like that in the middle of humorous situations where they don’t get the joke is hysterical. It’s hard to play – because you’re the one not having “fun” onstage. You’re in The Trojan Women while everyone else is in a Mel Brooks musical. It’s the straight man, with a twist. But it has a light side too. Getting to be the “normal” one in a world of off the wall characters – i.e. Alice in Wonderland is, well, it’s kind of magical. Joel (again, I’ll get to him in a second) reminded me of the saying: “Comedy is tragedy at a distance.” That little girl who watched in horror as adults laughed at comedy she did not understand or find funny is tragic…and humorous in a way, when you look at it from a distance. It’s inappropriate, ridiculous, and uncomfortable. And those are all things that comedy helps us come to grips with. I had to laugh at the things that caused me heartache. Turns out that’s what other people found funny about me. That, and my analytical, Hermione Granger esque quality – I have an overly intellectual earnestness, in addition to my overly emotional earnestness. (Did you get that from this blog entry? I’m writing a serious, intellectual thesis on comedy. Enough said.) Did having those experiences when I was a kid cause me to become this kind of comedienne? Or is it something that’s always been there? Probably both.

Josh then introduced me to his friend, and fellow brilliant clown Joel Jeske (told you he was coming!) ( Fun fact: Both Josh and Joel are graduates of Ringling Brother's Clown College. Josh recommended I get in touch with Joel (are you keeping track? We now have Jason, Josh, and Joel) when a theater I was working with in NYC was looking for someone to teach clowning (Josh was in L.A.) Well, with Joel my learning continued. I’ve been very fortunate to have him as a friend, and collaborator. And as you can tell from his numerous mentions above, his thoughts have been very inspiring to me. Both he and Josh have worked with Ringling Brothers, and Cirque du Soleil, which to me always represented the polar opposites of comedy, though now I realize their similarities. I know where the Ringling style evolved from, the humor it’s aiming for, and why. I have great respect for it. I admire the way Joel and Josh know themselves so well, and are so utterly fearless with what they do. Perhaps that’s one of the things I admire so much about great comedians. They are fearless. Where as I, though I’ve gotten good at pretending otherwise, and acting fearless even when I don’t feel it, am quite often afraid.

While Joel’s use of physicality is to be lauded, I especially love how he uses language, and various theatrical styles in what he does. And I admire how Josh and Joel are both so much a part of the genre, and style in which they work, and yet, so out of the box. You would think that professional clowns would be silly, and crazy all the time. Yet Joel and Josh are so grounded, sensitive, and intelligent. More so than many dramatic actors I’ve met and worked with.

Joel in two of his numerous incarnations.

After graduating college I was fortunate to begin working with an ensemble of artists who have truly become, not only my go to collaborators, but my family. Several of these people are great comedians, who really couldn’t care less about looking silly. As my trust grew working with them, I began to “test the waters,” following their lead, and learn to fully trust my comic impulses. And guess what? When something I did didn’t work, or fell flat, they couldn’t have cared less. They fell flat sometimes too. But when it worked, it was dynamite. By becoming part of a close knit, trusting community of artists, one of the first times I truly haven’t felt judged in any way, I started to become just as comfortable as they were at following my impulses on stage – and I started allowing myself to do things I would never have felt as comfortable doing before.

I create a good deal of drama, as well as comedy. Drama is still, really, my comfort zone. And sometimes I set out to write a drama, and realize I’ve actually written a comedy (as was the case with my recent off-Broadway show The Death of Emily Webster.) And now, that doesn’t bother me. It’s ok. Because sometimes we can only truly see ourselves, and synthesize pain by laughing at it. Sometimes we need to be reminded of the ridiculousness of humanity both to celebrate it, and to be warned by it. Perhaps one of the things that most interests me about my relationship to comedy is this: while I am an enthusiastic, passionate, driven, creative person who has done crazy things onstage, created lauded comedy, and does things that scare her even though they scare her, I am still, well…scared. I get embarrassed if I have to do something silly, or look stupid. I was teased growing up. I was made to feel stupid sometimes, For real. It’s not a feeling I like to revisit. I don’t like people laughing at me. I practically start shaking if I have to tell a joke. I’m just not good at it. 

And yet, comedy fascinates me. It’s a part of me that was sewn into my very make up. I often wonder, where is the line between making yourself step outside of your comfort zone, and doing something you’re just not equipped to do? The truth is, I don’t think it matters. Who’s to say you’re not equipped to do it? Sometimes it just takes a little more guts and drive for you than for someone else. Maybe I’ll never be that person with a great joke at a party. Maybe that’s ok. But I’ll write a hell of a parody show, tell a hilariously good story, and give you a brilliantly deadpan look, and the reason I can is because I made myself step out of my comfort zone, and learn something new about my art and myself. I decided to just own the qualities that were in me already, but I wasn’t always comfortable with. By laughing at myself, I can kindly encourage others to laugh at themselves. If Bill Irwin, David Shiner, my collaborators, even Josh, and Joel hadn’t allowed themselves to look silly, and act foolishly, I may not have become as comfortable doing so myself. Maybe my comedy preferences boil down to simply personal taste. Maybe I’m just not into The Three Stooges. Or, maybe it’s a bias – something I have to “get over.” Is it enough to know why you don’t find something funny – and understand and appreciate why others do?

I’ve learned that, while I’m still not totally comfortable hearing people laugh at me onstage (though somehow it’s different if people are laughing at something I wrote,) it’s not about a laugh for me, whether positive or negative. It’s about the catharsis of the people watching. The laugh is for all of us. There’s power in laughter – to galvanize, to free, to inspire. There’s power in laughing, not at someone, not for someone, but together. I believe in creating a really good, meaningful story and choosing the form that can best tell it. That’s why I believe that all artists should be, well, multi-artistically lingual. I’ve always considered myself a musical theater girl first and foremost. But I know Shakespeare, drama, clowning, and experimental theater too. I consider Urinetown, and Pippin experimental theater. Godspell is clowning, and drama. Most of Shakespeare’s/Ancient Greek plays are musicals. They are also Commedia, and tragedies. When Forever Deadward (www.foreverdeadward.comwent up, people asked me why musical theater was suddenly becoming so parody-centric. I reminded them that musical theater began as parody- the popular Gaieties for example (a bit later in the history, but good examples none the less,) were the SNL of their day. And I would never have understood that in the way I do without my drive, and passion, despite my fear, to dive into comedy.


If something is out of your comfort zone, if it scares you, embarrasses you, fascinates you, do it. Learn it’s history, find mentors, make yourself pick up a pen, or get onstage, and just experiment. You will learn so much about your art, and yourself. And it will become a tool. I understand comedy immensely from learning what I like and don’t, and why. From doing, and studying. I know now what will most likely be funny in a certain show. I know the rhythm a line should be delivered in to make it as funny as possible, and how that rhythm differs if I’m the one saying it, as opposed to another actor. And I find using those skills to be so much fun. But more importantly, I can now laugh at things that have caused me pain. And I can help others to do so as well. I’m now about to venture into collaborating on my first true clowning project. But it’s my kind of clowning. Using my knowledge of comedy, yes, but also drama, musicals, dance, and everything else. I’m nervous, scared, and still sometimes feel embarrassed in front of my collaborators. But I have embraced my comic spirit. And I want to nurture and care for it. Without it there would have been no Forever Deadward There would be no me.

I’m excited. And I can’t wait.

Insert witty, side splitting, best joke you’ve ever heard here.


Me, performing at the Comix Comedy Club in NYC

Tuesday, July 24, 2012


Hi everyone! I'm Ashley Griffin - I'm a NYC performer and writer, probably most well known as the creator of the recent pop culture phenomenon "Twilight: The Musical." I've worked extensively in most areas of theater, as well as in film and television around the world, and have taught at NYU, the LABA theater, and in many other venues. I've been asked to start a blog to talk about some of the various ideas, difficulties, humorous moments, etc. I've encountered in my ongoing process of artistic creativity and development.

Enjoy! And if there's anything you'd like me to explore, please let me know!