Another Night Before Christmas

Title: Another Night Before Christmas
Theatre: Chanhassen Dinner Theatres
Playing Through: December 31st

Another Night Before Christmas presents itself as a kind of sequel/modernization of A Visit from St. Nicholas, the twist being that the homeowner is a lonely, alienated social worker whose malfunctioning security system has locked her in her apartment with Santa. Oh, and it’s not entirely clear whether Santa is Santa or a mentally unstable burglar.

That’s a freakin’ brilliant premise. Part of the problem is that it’s treated inconsistently. If she’s a competent social worker who truly believes that the man is delusional, she should know better than to indulge him to the degree that she does. One moment she regards him as dangerous, the next they’re laughing and sipping wine together, the next she’s afraid for her life again. I appreciate that it’s a comedy, but I don’t think I’m being excessively pedantic — it bothers me precisely because it undermines the comedy. If there’s no consistent tension, there’s nothing for his schtick to play against.

His schtick consists of — well, not really jokes, per se — mainly stream-of-consciousness impressions and pop-culture references, a la Robin Williams. It’s a style of comedy that is widely loved, but which I personally find needy and off-putting. Moreover, I found that it rendered the character actively unlikeable, to the point that the question of whether he’s Santa or not ceased to be relevant — as he breaks into the terrified girl’s apartment, and she pleads with him while he fires punchlines at her, he either doesn’t know what a frightening situation he’s creating for a single woman living alone, in which case he’s a lunatic, or he doesn’t care, in which case he’s a sociopath. Neither is one that I particularly want to spend two hours with.

And as for the ending, when the stranger is revealed as Santa (which surely can’t count as a spoiler, can it? Was there any doubt that the play would end with him performing some miracle, her abandoning all of her perfectly legitimate complaints about greed and rampant consumerism, and converting to the Sacred Text of Christmas Is Awesome?), I found myself wondering, man — wouldn’t this have been an amazing play if they actually embraced that ambiguity? If they didn’t pursue the most obvious route? If it really did turn out to be a story about love and charity, even at its most difficult?

But then — I think it goes deeper than that. None of the above points are really hugely significant. They’re the usual mental exercise of me trying to figure out why I’m sitting in the audience, surrounded by a packed house of laughing patrons, and wondering why can’t I laugh at this?

Upon reflection, I have a theory — inspired by something that didn’t take place during the performance itself, but immediately beforehand.

Fifteen minutes before the show, the greeter — both charming and charismatic — stood up to give a fairly standard curtain speech. He closed out with a popular street joke, which drew an appreciative ripple of laughter from the audience. I was seeing the show with a friend, who also happens to be a popular stand-up comedian, and watched him wince in something like physical agony. The use of street jokes onstage actively offended him.

Among comedy writers, there’s a myth of “universal comedy” — as if there was some kind of Monty Python-esque “Killer Joke” that, if it could simply be distilled and reproduced, would be equally appreciated by everyone on earth. That’s an utter myth, of course — people are complicated, comedy is complicated, and the intersection between the two is never going to be consistent.

Much of what I find appealing about comedy is surprise — the moment of mutual realization that the audience shares — when they’re shocked or stunned into laughter. I had exactly three points at which I laughed during the show, all of which because they were unexpected.

Back when I was a Renaissance Festival performer, I used to perform immediately following a trio known as the Dew Drop Jugglers. It was an education — since, hearing their act multiple times a day for weeks at a time, I quickly memorized it. And their delivery was exactly the same, without variation, day after day after day. The formula was simple enough that audiences learned the material, too, and took great delight in reciting the routines along with the performers.

And it made me wonder, man. Doing that multiple times a day, for weeks at a time, for years on end — wouldn’t you just kind of want to pierce your ears with a railroad spike? Apparently so, because every now and again, they would try to rewrite their material, introduce new jokes, mix it up a bit.

The audiences hated it. They would not allow them to change. They wanted to see the material they knew, and they wanted to bring their friends back to introduce them to exactly the thing that they’d fallen in love with. They didn’t want a new experience, but to re-experience their initial moment of surprise.

And it occurs to me that, as much as I’m annoyed with tired, obvious, hackneyed jokes — the things that I hate are precisely what constitute their appeal. The audience loves those punchlines because they’re obvious and familiar. It’s the theatrical equivalent of comfort food.

None of which necessarily increases my enjoyment. But I think I can appreciate why it was working for the crowd I was with.

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