I’ve just returned from a rare 3-day sojourn into the hot, wet & crowded ‘Belly of the Beast’: WDW in July. My purpose was twofold; first, to escort the Fabulous Feeney Family of New Jersey on the occasion of their summer visit… and second, to assess the State of Comedy in our parks.
I have been critical in the past of some of what passes for humor in our Magic Kingdoms. My principle complaint being this: I’m not laughing, nor are most of the people around me. It seems obvious to me that there can be no better way to judge the success of a joke than by the amount of honest laughs it generates… a point that seems to have eluded some of the folks slaving away creatively behind the scenes.
Two shows in particular drew my attention – The Monsters Inc. Laugh Floor and New Fantasyland’s clown troupe, The Giggle Gang.
It should be noted though, before I continue, that I have history-of-sorts with both these productions. I worked on the opening crew of the Laugh Floor and was a ‘friend’ of the Monsters for roughly 2½ years (for more on this, read From Dreamer to Dreamfinder available from Amazon.com) and I still have friends associated with that Tomorrowland attraction.
And I have talented, funny friends – how many I am only now beginning to appreciate – who are members of the Giggle Gang. One or two people even manage to perform in both locations!
For those who may be unfamiliar with these shows:
In the Monsters Inc. Laugh Floor Comedy Club, CGI monsters perform stand-up comedy, collecting the hoped-for laughter to power their city of Monstropolis. It features real-time animation like that found in the Pixar feature films, and the monsters interact with the live human audience throughout the show. Frankly, it’s a technological-and-storytelling miracle.
The Giggle Gang is a troupe of 4 musicians and 3 clowns that perform assorted comic skits on the streets of the new Storybook Circus area of Fantasyland. Do you like clowns? Me, neither.
Wait… Stop. Hold it. That’s not true and it’s not fair; I was being glib and I apologize. I happen to love clowns. Or, more accurately, I love clowns that make me laugh.
Come to think of it, I love anything that’s funny. And by funny I don’t mean stuff that makes me say, “That’s funny!” or that makes me go, “Ba-dum-pum!” after the joke. I mean catch-me-unaware, surprise-me, make-me-forget-my-aching-feet-and-the-cost-of-parking, laugh-out-loud funny. One of these two shows I’m discussing here does this (your mileage may vary). Can you guess which one?
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I was curious to see how the ‘Monsters of Comedy’ had interpolated the new Monsters University backstory into the established show and to see how the old girl was holding up over the long haul. After all, it’s been 6 years since the door to Monstropolis went online and some of the comic bits were created back in its infancy.
I needn’t have worried. The show’s still very funny.
As I’ve stated elsewhere, there were a great many chefs involved in the preparation of the Laugh Floor. Lots of companies, lots of divisions and departments… lots of writers and designers and technicians and consultants and specialists. And smack dab in the middle of all these experts were the comics, the people who knew comedy and audiences and performance and that were (not coincidentally) the low guys on the corporate totem pole. We all had a lot to learn, and everyone contributed to everything.
But it was after all the chefs left the kitchen that the Monsters really started to cook. It fell, finally, to the performers to deliver the laughs… and with their powerful instincts – and a modicum of benign neglect from management – they made the Laugh Floor funny.
They did this by amusing each other. By trying stuff and seeing what worked on the rest of the team, what made THEM laugh. By not settling for smiles from each other, they set a standard that would similarly affect the guests.
And you can hear the result every day in the performances of the monster cast. They’re honestly having fun themselves, and that joy is infectious.
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Meanwhile, in Fantasyland… the Giggle Gang is knocking themselves out to make us laugh. Somewhere behind the scenes there’s a writer/director – or perhaps a team – who reasoned that the new area needed some kind of atmosphere entertainment, and that a clown (or better yet, clowns) would be a good fit.
We had clowns strolling at Six Flags Magic Mountain, but they had a very natural attitude… in fact, they were just guys in clown make-up and costumes who thought funny. And in their low-key, natural manner they didn’t overpower the guests, they were just finding the humor in one-on-one guest contact. They never demanded attention, nor did they ask for laughs or applause; it was up to the guests to find them funny, and so they mostly did. No one was shouting or coming on strong, so no one felt imposed upon or compelled to react in any way they didn’t naturally feel.
I also got to see the great Emmett Kelly work the streets at California’s Pacific Ocean Park, where he silently went about his business, interacting with one child at a time. The result was always funny, and it was always observed at a distance by dozens of people who laughed and took pictures and came away with a cherished memory of a spontaneous comic moment. The result seemed to be inspired by the child’s own actions, since they had been organically turned to comic gold by one of clowning’s grand masters.
The Giggle Gang are accompanied by a 4 piece sax-and-drum clown band that back up everything they do. They are closely followed by the three clown characters who loudly and emphatically gather the crowd and explain the comic premise of the upcoming sketch. They do a lot of explaining; they explain everything. In fact, in researching people’s reactions to T.G.G., the most common question I got was, “Why were they talking?”
I’ve watched multiple videos of each of their comic skits and they all have this one thing in common… an audience that isn’t laughing. They gather around and pay attention, they watch and listen… and, as I’ve mentioned, they dutifully record the shows with their phones and cameras. A handful of people standing front-and-center feel involved and smile encouragingly. But laughs? Not so much.
The show I saw live-and-in-person last week was the one where the plot is drawn from that comic antique, On Top of Spaghetti. That particular performance was moved indoors on account of rain, so we were not standing outside in the direct sunlight; we were indoors in lovely air conditioning where we were probably going to be more receptive to the comic material. Still, most of the crowd just stared.
As the show began I was thrilled to recognize the three performers working that day as three of the most talented performers to work in the Central Florida area. One of them is simply one of the funniest, sweetest guys I’ve ever worked with, and all of them have acres of experience handling every type of live performance from musicals to improv to the classics to… well… the Laugh Floor.
But their instincts for comedy were here sublimated in service to a broad, loud, stereotypical idea of what a clown version of street entertainment should be. Everything was over-the-top, over-choreographed and over-played – approximating the style one might use when performing in an arena (where, incidentally, they’d be working without dialogue). It was off-putting, and a flock of guests thus assaulted has little they can do except watch and wait for something to happen that would merit all this sound and fury.
If any one of these talented performers were turned loose on the Storybook Circus midway to silently and soulfully interact with the guests, there’d be magic. Put them out there with a creative third eye to watch and make notes and in a few days you’d have a book of polished comic bits that would reliably entertain kids and adults alike.
Or rethink the current style and content of the shows, replacing the sturm and drang with honest, reliably human moments that make the writers and performers themselves laugh. Perform for guests and tweak as needed.
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Themed shows are created to reflect stereotypes, to fill preconceived notions of story and place. The Monsters Inc. Laugh Floor fulfills the premise of a sequel to the Pixar movie. The Giggle Gang tries to fulfill the premise of a classic clown troupe.
But, as I mentioned in my ‘Magical Map’ review, a premise is not a show. It’s what you do to make the premise live that makes the show do likewise. The Laugh Floor lives because the cast has the freedom to be real; that’s what makes it fun and funny. The Giggle Gang doesn’t because it’s all manners and posing that its creators feel SHOULD be funny and SHOULD get laughs. The talented cast is left with little chance to breathe life into it, because it has been so stringently written and choreographed.
I love comedy… I enjoy clowns… and I admire the hell out of the performers in the shows I’ve been discussing. And I know that there’s the potential for great comic interaction in the themed environment, because our guests are the medium through which we tell our stories…
And people love and react powerfully to anything that will make them laugh.