Meet the Playwright: Rich Orloff

Scene from HA!

Mike Smith Rivera, Anne Fizzard, Jarel Davidow, Evan Thompson, and Gerrianne Raphael in a scene from HA! (photo by Gerry Goodstein)

Rich Orloff–who describes himself as “one of the most popular unknown playwrights in the country”–is the prolific writer of dozens of one-act and full-length plays that have in common one important thing: they are very, very funny. On the occasion of the publication of his current triad of comedies, HA! (playing through April 15 at the WorkShop Theatre), I asked Rich to talk a little about funny. Here’s the cyber-conversation:

ME: Rich, you told me you  were amused re-reading the plays in HA! when you proofed them for the site. That made me wonder: do you laugh when you write your plays?

RICH: Of course, I laugh when I write my plays.  I’m my first audience, and if I’m not amused, I don’t assume anybody else will be. But there’s something deeper than that.  I take pride in my sense of craft and in my persistence in revising a play until it is as good as I think I can make it.  But whatever gift I have – that part of my brain that comes up with funny ideas and dialogue, I’m as startled by that as anyone who attends my plays and is startled by how much they’re laughing.  My talent is a joy and wonder to me.  I’m grateful, surprised and delighted every time it emerges.  Often I’m not just laughing, I’m also thinking, “Where did that come from?”

ME: When did you first realize you could write funny material?

RICH: Well, I’ve certainly had the inclination to write funny material since I was a kid.  Growing up in Chicago, I wrote comedic comic strips and stuff that friends and even some teachers enjoyed.  But I figured anyone could write funny; just not many people wanted to.  In college, after the theater department kept rejecting my plays (ha!), I started writing a humor column for the school newspaper.  I became an overnight sensation.  Literally!  I’d introduce myself to people, and they’d thank me for making them laugh. It was about then I began to think that maybe my inclination to write funny was actually matched by the ability to occasionally do so.  And that not everybody had such a gift.

ME: Have there been times when actors found laughs you didn’t know were there?

RICH: Constantly.  Every production includes “sure-fire” moments that end up not working (in that production) and surprise moments that the actors and director discover.  HA! has an inventive director and ensemble of actors, and there are all sorts of moments they’ve discovered to get laughs or to get bigger laughs than I expected.  Even one of the slides gets a laugh nobody was expecting.  Of course, it’s a very talented slide.

ME: Who taught you to write the way you do?

RICH: Some key moments:

  • When I discovered the Marx Brothers in high school (New Year’s Eve, senior year), it was a revelation!  Such brilliant anarchy, such “take-no-prisoners” comedy.  And such brilliant craftsmanship in taking an idea as far as it could go – and further.  I devoured all 13 Marx Brothers films, and it led to a fascination with other film comedians and vaudeville comedy.
  • The spring of my senior year (an important year for my writing development), I attended a performance of the Second City and loved their smart observational satire.  No gags, just keen perceptions about how amusing the human being constantly is.
  • Then in college I saw the film It Happened One Night, and my sense of what comedy could do shifted again.  I loved the quiet scenes, the comedy of nuance.  Satire mixed with compassion.
  • Rounding off the key teachers would be Monty Python (“smart silly” is a delicious combo) and the sitcoms All in the Family and The Mary Tyler Moore Show.  The best sitcoms of that era were wonderful one-act comedies, which knew how far to exaggerate to get laughs without losing recognizable human behavior.  It’s what I strive to do in my plays.  Well, when I’m not just going for anarchic laughs or smart silly.

ME: Who are your idols/heroes?

RICH: Certainly all of my teachers mentioned above.  Beyond that, I have an enormous fondness for almost everyone in the theater.  The cast of HA! includes two Broadway veterans and three others with lots of credits.  None of them is doing this play for the money or even the prestige.  They love what they do; they need to do it.  And they come out on stage, in a theater with only thirty seats, and they give it their all.  They commit to each potentially funny moment, never knowing for sure how that audience will respond, but knowing that if they don’t commit, the plays won’t work.  That takes great courage.  It makes scribbling funny thoughts on a piece of paper look easy.

ME: Finally, is laughter really the best medicine?

RICH: A good hearty laugh is like an orgasm, except that you don’t have to wait as long till you can laugh again.

(January 22, 2013)