Comedy Can Be Murder

by Neil Ross
Ancient Athens. Up-and-coming comic playwright Aristophanes is accused of murdering his leading actor. With only his one-liners, his brilliant slave Jeevus, and the strong arm of the leggy Lysistrata, he must solve the murder, dodge arrows, and produce the first known comic masterpiece -- against the backdrop of an absurd war. Learn more...

I had occasional lapses into Aristophanes amnesia between first embarking on my quest for his plays and finding them. Certainly in my year cramming in theatre, film, television, creative writing, and history at UBC; while writing a comedy in two acts; or whilst doing stand-up at Punchline’s; or sketch comedy with Fromage of Cheese (“whose name means nothing in both official languages”) I should have looked him up.

I finally met Aristophanes in either Vancouver, Winnipeg or Toronto. Normally I do not mix these three cities up – (by the ocean/middle of the country/next to the CN Tower) – but Sally and I were on the move. It was 1979 and we were following a migration summed up by the old joke: “First prize, one week in Toronto. Second prize, two weeks in Toronto.”

It was when I was at Punchline’s that I met Sally, who called herself Jan but her family new her as Janice. I felt like Lenny Bruce meeting Honey Harlow. She was tall and statuesque, kind of like an Amazon princess. But softer.

I decided that Toronto had Second City and Yuk Yuk’s and its where the CBC spent its money. Sally would come along, then go back to Vancouver, take care of some things, then join me in Toronto. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before . . .

For the life of me I cannot remember if it was in the beginning middle or end of our odyssey of train, thumb and thunderstorm outside of Thunder Bay. But I can remember finding the book which is at my elbow today. The Complete Plays of Aristophanes, edited and with an introduction by Moses Hadas. It’s a gold book with a red ribald tapestry underneath the names of the eleven plays.

I’m opening it now and turning to Moses Hadas’ introduction. (I’m hoping to devote a book to each of the plays, or as many of them as I can caper through, but the series overall is dedicated to the introduction.)

Professor Hadas gives us a portrait of Aristophanes and his comic milieu that I found irresistible. His high concepts – a sex strike to stop a war, flying a dung beetle to heave to rescue peace, the original Cloud Cuckooland – cracked me up. The fact that the plays were staged with a tight three man comedy troupe swapping huge cartoon masks, with a 24 member acapella troupe group backing them up and doing group stand up during the intermission, in a theatre cut in the side of the hill, as the playwright delivered scathing denouncement of the War Party was very cool. Viet Nam was very recent.

I was impressed with Athens itself, that it would denote a yearly festival to comedy and that this man could stage big budget musicals and pillory the ruling elected leader to the level that would hardly be tolerated even today. It was 1979 and his anti-war positon still seemed so relevant. Hell, they’d cancelled the Smothers Brothers.

And in Hadas’ introduction like almost all I have read since, the evocation of Groucho Marx. Here it’s very oblique but later introducers would make the connection clearer. Julius Henry Marx in his brash wise cracking, leering, punning anti-establishment, self-contradictions had somehow channeled the Aristophanes character to infuse 20th Century vaudeville, film, radio and television.

I imagined Aristophanes hanging out, doing shtick, kibitzing and spit-balling ideas the way comedians have done for centuries. The way the Marx Brothers did and all the great comedians from Keaton to the Goons whose biographies I gobbled up. The way in a minor, inconsequential, Canadian way I had done backstage at Punchline’s and with the Fromagineers.

I knew someday I wanted to write about that scene. I just didn’t know it would take a murder to get me there.
Oh, and it turned out to be thirty years in Toronto. I wonder whatever happened to Sally?

I wish her well.

Next: Nipping Down to the ePub.