ARTicles 2009: David Mamet is a Funny Guy

David Mamet is a comedian. Nonetheless, critics have been surprised that his recent plays—Romance (2005), November (2008), and Keep Your Pantheon (2008)—have been out-and-out raucous comedies. But a closer look at his oeuvre reveals a provocative sense of humor at work from the outset.

“I talked to Jeremy on the phone, and he told me that he discovered that he had a very high level of mercury,” said Mamet on hearing TV star Jeremy Piven would be leaving the 2008 Broadway revival of Speed-the-Plow. “So my understanding is that he is leaving show business to pursue a career as a thermometer.”  David Mamet is a comedian. Nonetheless, critics have been surprised that his recent plays—Romance (2005), November (2008), and Keep Your Pantheon (2008)—have been out-and-out raucous comedies. But a closer look at his oeuvre reveals a provocative sense of humor at work from the outset. Working as a bus boy at Chicago’s legendary Second City Theatre, Mamet discovered how comedy can provoke thought. Second City’s brand of comedy—whip-smart and satirical—made an indelible impression on young Mamet. Bernard Sahlins, co-founder of Second City, instilled the comedy troupe with a strategy that could easily describe David Mamet’s approach: “Work from the top of your intelligence, and let the humor come from the relationships, not the shtick.” The perfect model for a play, Mamet claims, is the dirty joke. In Sexual Perversity in Chicago he proves his theory. Here Mamet examines sexual collisions in swiftly moving scenes that rise to a punch line and cut to the next vignette. Much of the humor comes from comparing she-said, he-said conversations about the opposite sex: JOAN: Men. DEBORAH: Yup. JOAN: They’re all after only one thing. DEBORAH: Yes. I know. JOAN: But it’s never the same thing. Joan’s joke attacks men for being sex-crazed maniacs with wandering eyes, restless hearts, and roaming dicks. Assuming the role of sexual mentor, Joan wises Deb up about the sleaze she’ll meet in singles bars. Joan, by the way, is dolling herself up to go out and pick up a man. Similarly, Bernie teaches Danny how to score: BERNIE: The main thing, Dan... DANNY: Yes? BERNIE: The main thing about broads... DANNY: Yes? BERNIE: Is two things. One: The Way to Get Laid is to Treat ‘Em Like Shit... DANNY: Yeah... BERNIE: ...and Two: Nothing...nothing makes you so attractive to the opposite sex as getting your rocks off on a regular basis. Mamet’s humor in Sexual Perversity is coarse, his irony subtle, his satire pointed. His humor makes us laugh. It also makes us think. Is Joan right? Do women want commitment and men sex without strings? Bernie’s pep talk contradicts Joan. He insists that women feel contempt for nice guys. Flaunt your reputation as a Don Juan, treat a woman badly, and she can’t say no. When Bernie meets Joan in a bar and tries to put the make on her, sparks fly. Although Sexual Perversity raised the hackles of feminists, it neither promotes nor wallows in misogyny; rather, it dissects male myths. “My sex life,” the young playwright mused in 1976, “was ruined by the popular media. It took a lot of getting over….You have to sleep with every woman you see—sheer utter nonsense.” We laugh at Bernie’s lines, but our laughter is uneasy. As with so many of Mamet’s characters, we must step back and evaluate Bernie’s attitude towards “broads.” But we also have to deal with Joan’s attraction to and revulsion from men. Crass language peppers Mamet’s work. He makes no apologies for the “Mamet dammit.” Impeccably timed cursing not only constructs the cadence of Mamet’s dialogue, it also serves a comic purpose. Verbal abuse has left audiences in stitches ever since the Greeks started honoring Dionysus with alcohol and satyr plays. We take pleasure in the humiliation of others, and Mamet’s put-downs provide an irresistible cocktail of vitriol, obscenity, and Schadenfreude. An exchange from Glengarry Glen Ross illustrates this point: Moss comes out of the interrogation. MOSS: Fuckin’ asshole. ROMA: What, they beat you with a rubber bat? MOSS: Cop couldn’t find his dick with two hands and a map. Angered by the police intimidation, Moss strikes back behind the cop’s back by castrating him. In Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, Freud explains that the pleasure of many jokes comes from allowing us to express hostility toward people who have power over us: "Jokes make criticism possible against persons who claim to exercise authority.” The cop has roughed Moss up, and his wisecrack, Freud would say, “represents a rebellion against that authority, a liberation from its pressure.” Romance spotlights Mamet’s penchant for satire. The play deals with touchy subjects—ethnic stereotypes, legal mumbo jumbo, and sexual hanky panky. In a small conference room, a defendant and his defense attorney confer:  DEFENDANT: Oh, Lord, Oh Lord, now I am in I am, truly, truly fucked...You don’t want to lie?…Why did you go to Law School? If you don’t want to ile? …what have I done? I hired a Goy lawyer! It’s like going to a straight hairdresser….You fucken brain-dead, white socks, country club, plaid pants, Campbell’s soup fucken sheigetz Goy. . . . DEFENSE ATTORNEY: . . .you people can’t order a cheese sandwich . . .without mentioning the Holocaust. DEFENDANT: My people do not eat cheese sandwiches. DEFENSE ATTORNEY: . . .It isn’t “kosher” . . .? DEFENDANT: IT ISN’T TASTY. TASTY. YOU MINDLESS NAZI FUCK. It doesn’t taste good, and so we don’t eat it. . . . BAILIFF: You fellas want lunch?…What do you eat?… DEFENDANT: I eat “food.” What do you mean? DEFENSE ATTORNEY: He meant, is there anything you don’t eat? DEFENDANT: …Why do you ask? DEFENSE ATTORNEY: He asked out of politeness, because you’re Jewish. DEFENDANT: How would he know that? DEFENSE ATTORNEY: You’ve been shouting “goy cocksucker” for an hour.  Mamet is fearless as he attacks one PC sacred cow after another. By exaggerating the stereotypes and rubbing our faces in them, he makes us laugh, but he also makes us examine these stereotypes critically. Mamet skewers the legal system with the punch-line of any good lawyer joke: lawyers make an honest living by lying. Later the judge admits to taking bribes as the trial ends with a fistfight and a kiss. Even though Mamet’s plays with their jazz rhythms seem as fresh as tomorrow, his theory of comedy is as old as yesterday. He continues the classical tradition of satire: castigo mores ridendo. Through laughter, the satirist hopes to correct the follies of mankind. Laughter is the best medicine. Mamet ‘s recent plays contain more laughs than ever, but America’s most incendiary playwright has not lost his idealism. David Mamet would like nothing better than to replace hatred with...Romance. Brendan Shea is a first-year dramaturgy student in the A.R.T./MXAT Institute for Advanced Theatre Training at Harvard.

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