What’s a baggy-pants comedian to do when vaudeville gives way to the avant garde? That problem was faced by actual comedy giants as their careers went on the decline: both silent film legend Buster Keaton and cowardly lion Bert Lahr worked with Samuel Beckett in their twilight years. In Philly playwright Bruce Graham’s new play “Funnyman,” which premieres at the Arden this week, the same bewildering fate befalls comedian Chick Sherman in 1959, as the one-time vaudeville favorite prepares to star in a production of “Waiting for Godot.”
“Everybody loves comedy, but nobody really respects it,” Graham says. “Comedy is like the kid’s table. When it’s done right, it looks easy. You don’t see the hours and hours and years spent perfecting it. Nobody ever takes them seriously until they step out of character and do something serious, and suddenly they’re great actors.
“You can trace that up to Jim Carrey, Adam Sandler or Steve Martin — every couple years they do a serious film hoping to get their Oscar.”
Graham knows first-hand just how hard comedy can be. At the age of 16 he began performing stand-up at open mic nights, and formed a duo with comedian Billy Elmer that helped put him through college. He also teaches a class on stand-up at Drexel. He’s since channeled his gifts for humor onto the theatrical stage, with shows like “The Philly Fan” and “Stella and Lou,” while his fascination with outsized personalities found its hometown pinnacle with last year’s acclaimed “Rizzo.”
Chick Sherman combines a bit of both qualities.
“Chick Sherman is a guy who was a star for years on Broadway and in vaudeville, and he doesn’t understand the way Broadway is going. He doesn’t understand ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ or plays like that,” Graham says. “His whole world has changed and he wasn’t the nicest guy in the world to start with, as most comics aren’t, so he’s pretty bitter about it.”
The play is set at a time when America was going through a period of turbulent change in multiple aspects of society; most relevant to Chick, the theater was turning away from lightweight entertainment to serious topical drama, while TV was ushering in an era of canned laughter and at-home entertainment. “We’re on the verge of big changes in the world,” Graham says, “and here’s a guy who still wants to put a seltzer bottle down his pants and wonders why he’s not getting work.”
If you go:
Jan. 14-March 6
Arden Theatre Company
40 N. Second St.