On an annual year's-end basis, 1812 Productions — Philly's sole troupe dedicated to creating theatrical works of comedy and comedic works of theater — cobbles together all the news that's fit for laughs (and some that's not) for its "This Is the Week That Is" live comic-news revue. Like "The Daily Show" with moving parts, musical numbers and astute impersonations of our laughable presidential candidates, its "Election Special" presentation of "This Is the Week That Is" comes right at the start of debate season (Sept. 29 at Plays & Players) and ends the night before Election Day, Nov. 7.
"Now is the time when big things are happening politically and people are engaged and need to laugh," says Jennifer Childs, 1812's co-founder and artistic director. Childs will steer her writers and players — a Murderers' Row of Philly's funniest, including longtime head news writer Don Montrey — along with portraying a mean Hillary Clinton alongside Alex Bechtel's hair-sprayed and Cheetos-orange Donald Trump.
Childs loves John Oliver's Emmy-winning "Last Week Tonight" and "The Daily Show." Still, she's purposely avoiding comedy news television programming during the writing process of "This Is the Week That Is."
"I don't want to be influenced by what they're doing, the jokes they're making," she says. "I find that it limits my creativity somewhat. I become so engaged with what they're doing that I forget that absurd theatricality is a part of what makes 'This Is the Week That Is' so unique and successful. What can we do in the theater that can't be replicated on TV?"
"This Is the Week That Is" doesn't shy from the darkly delicate news cycle by avoiding such as the words "radical Islam." Childs looks back at the old saying about political satire ("You can make fun of the smoke but not the fire") yet admits, at present, that "there is just so much freakin' fire." In those cases, Childs introduces her much-loved South Philly-accented character Patsy as a tool in addressing the most challenging of tragedies. "She speaks in parable and can talk about issues in a way that people feel free to laugh because they're laughing at the way that Patsy approaches the subject."
Working with her head writer (11 years running) Montrey, Childs states that there is a historically based balance to their craft and method to their madness. Along with Montrey being "so damned smart," he comes with "The Daily Show" news-heavy aspects while Childs claims to be "the Carol Burnett part," she laughs.
"I don't write political humor like a television writer," says Childs. "I come at it as a theater artist — much of what I create would not translate on TV. That said, Mort Sahl was my biggest influence. The first year we did this show, we met with both him and Dick Gregory to get schooled on the history of social and political humor. Sahl gave me the best advice: 'Tell the truth. Make it funny.'"
Making the truth funny means that 1812 must be equal opportunity offenders (they have Republicans on their board who make sure both sides get skewered) with no better opportunity to do that skewering than when Childs plays Clinton, and Bechtel — a valued Philly theater vet — tramples Trump.
"I always imagine Hillary as Elaine Stritch," says Childs, thinking of the Broadway great and one-time "30 Rock" actress.
"The thing I tend to focus on in preparing our Trump is to find his energetic and behavioral frequencies, and then play them at an outsized level," claims Bechtel. "In that way, Trump almost becomes a commedia character, or a living cartoon." Rather than imitate or mimic Trump, Bechtel's fully-invested performance explodes The Donald's outlandish character traits without taking them home with the actor. "We tend to wear our characters as lightly as a hat in this show."
Yes, it is a stone-cold bummer that Bechtel must consume a steady diet of Trump's television harangues. "To satirize him you have to listen to him," states Childs. But what if he wins the election?
"Short, snarky answer: Toronto," says Childs. "The longer, more complicated, let's-start-drinking answer: Stay and fight. This is an incredible country, with all of its issues. There are things possible here that are not possible anywhere in the world. I don't want to give that up. No matter who wins, this election has stirred up a lot of division and hatred and ugliness — that's not going away no matter who is in the White House. We all have our work cut out for us."
This Is The Week That Is: The Election Special Sept. 29-Nov. 7 at Plays & Players Theatre, 1714 Delancey St. $28-$42, 215-592-9560, 1812productions.org.