Spotlight: Funny Business

George Byron Griffiths

"Not by wrath does one kill, but by laughter," explained famed German stand-up comedian Friedrich Nietzsche. It's a sentiment that would surely resonate with the characters in Funny Business, a musical about comedians in a comedy club that opens this Saturday. Writer and composer Hollye Leven developed the show in Los Angeles; this local production and Midwest premiere stars, among others, Ari Hoptman, Julie Weaver, Michael Battle, and Carson Lee. Reached by phone last week, the courteous Hoptman admits that this undertaking is a departure from his work in independent theater. "It's a bigger show than I've usually been involved with," he says. "There's more of a budget." While Hoptman delineates between "pure" stand-up and his usual work—which he says leans more on sketches, storytelling, and "bad poetry," he is also quick to recognize the existential badlands every comic calls home. "You work a half hour or 45 minutes. If it goes well, you're very happy about it. If it doesn't, you have to wait at least a whole day to redeem yourself." It's not, in other words, a profession that grants its practitioners calm blue waters of the spirit and unbroken serenity. "A lot of [the show] is about the uncertainty that comedians have," Hoptman adds. "The dichotomy between their need to feel sure of themselves onstage and the fact that they feel so unsure of themselves offstage." Luckily for Hoptman fans, the show is structured so that a number of stand-up scenes incorporate the actors' own original material. "My character, Art, has been doing stand-up for a lot of years, but hasn't been successful, and he's a very depressed person. There's another comedian, a black guy, who [has] to do the homeboy routine whenever he does comedy or acting auditions. He can be very successful—if he gives up his individual style." Finally, Hoptman sounds as though performing comedy in a theater setting will provide a certain ease of mind. "In comedy clubs you have a problem," he says. "Certain audience members drink too much and don't really know what's going on. That's really difficult for a comedian because you work really hard on structuring jokes, you hone and prune and so forth. And when they aren't paying attention it's really depressing. In theaters you have far less heckling."

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