Toby or not Toby?
If asked for an antonym of ‘comic’, one might plump for ‘serious’, but it’s never been obvious to me that each excludes the other. Not only does some comedy concern serious themes, but it can be a serious examination of them, rather than frivolous light relief. The best character and situation comedy usually has a sincerity about it. Not only will the comedians, writers or actors take the characters seriously, but the piece will work only if the audience take them seriously as well. Hancock (the character from perhaps the first recognisable sitcom, not Will Smith’s grungy superhero) is in many ways a ridiculous character, and takes himself too seriously by far, but for the show to work the audience have to empathise with him.
I saw a lovely example of this approach to comedy in the second-last show I caught at the Fringe, Lucky, by the sketch duo Toby. Ostensibly, Lucky is a sketch show about a troupe struggling to put on a sketch show, falling out with each other over creative differences which are really personal, and so on. This is a familiar device, to the point where any troupe using it need to add some sort of spin of their own to make it worth their (and our) while. One easy way to do this is by making the characters in the sketch troupe, the ones struggling to stage the show-within-the-show, as oddball and different from each other as possible.
Toby do this, in that the on-stage characters are very different; they are also sisters (Sarah and Lizzie Daykin), which itself adds a certain frisson to their exchanges. The basic dynamic between the two is relatively simple: Lizzie’s resentment simmers as Sarah hogs sketches and proclaims her greatness to the audience. However, the duo also do something much more interesting: they take these characters very seriously. This is the first sketch show of this sort I’ve seen where the characters struggling to stage the show are written and acted with enough detail and concern to make their plight genuinely poignant. It’s still comedy, mind, but it’s slow-burn stuff, particularly during the numerous pauses and awkward moments between the two. These are employed to wonderful effect in the sketches the two stage, where the relationship between them warps the performances without, for the most part, being referred to. (Lucky is one of the few sketch shows of which it can be truly be said that none of the material would work as well performed on its own.) In the sketch where they play a married couple, Sarah (the wife) browbeats her husband, who for the most part sits silently. Lizzie’s one lengthy speech in this scene, a story told to the unseen waiter, is a lovely little character detail, showing us the character’s predicament without having him or his wife refer to it it. The hugely exaggerated pause while his wife reads the menu is the funniest bit of the sketch, but it is all the funnier for coming from such a finely crafted scenario.
There are probably a dozen other moments in the show like this one, where the characters don’t do or say anything funny but the comedy comes anyway, from who they are, their mannerisms, and the show’s inevitable spiral into disaster. It’s a high-risk strategy, eschewing the basic set-up/punchline structure for something more slanted and tangential, but Toby make it work every time.