Jokes are funny, are they not? That’s the purpose of them, to make the receiver of the joke to laugh, which will make them release endorfins, make themselves feel better, fill their lungs with more oxygen than normal, and so on and so on. There really is nothing wrong with a joke, unless of course it’s a bad joke. Then that’s just not funny at all. The joke teller however may not use jokes to make people feel better, but as a defence mechanism, as a way of dealing with their awkward persona or an awkward situation, to release a moment of tension.
Jokes with their tellers are a complex but curious idea, about which Rachel Mars has made her latest work, The Way You Tell Them. Mixing personal anecdotes about how she came to be a funny woman with reflections on her family history (Jewish, with many family members who were murdered or who committed suicide during the war), Mars deconstructs the workings of jokes and the mechanics of a comedian in this heart-warming and often charmingly funny solo performance piece.
There’s an energy that Mars has when she bounds into a room, an infectious smile and eyes that sparkle. Strip the funny Mars away and the serious version of her is like a retired woman, stoney-faced and in need of humour. Mars uses the juxtaposition to show how people perceive her and her desire to tell jokes, to be the funny woman. This is put together with her family history, and anecdotes about her funny Grandfather to build up a picture of how the various elements of herself are played off against each other. It’s tender and humourous, but incredibly human, and whether or not you are laughing along you understand what Mars is achieving in her work.
Not quite a stand-up show and not quite theatre, the blurring between these two ways of presenting a story makes for a fascinating and personal journey from Mars. There’s a particularly striking moment when a video clip is played of a man telling how his partner and himself entered a drug trial only for ever other patient to die apart from himself because he was too scared to carry on. It’s deeply unsettling, but when played a second time with fart noises in the pauses it becomes wonderfully funny and almost acceptable to realise that in the darkness there can often be the light.
Originally published on A Younger Theatre.