The three-man comedy troupe Reduced Shakespeare Company is famous for its zany 90-minute history lessons on Shakespeare, the Bible, Western Civilization, and other small subjects. This month, the company debuts its ninth show, The Complete History of Comedy (abridged), on the intimate stage of Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park’s Thompson Shelterhouse Theatre. A reduced version of the trio—performers, writers, and co-directors Austin Tichenor and Reed Martin—discussed their latest collaboration.
What brings you back to Cincinnati to premiere your new show?
Tichenor: Cincinnati knows who we are, and we know we’ve got a place that’s welcoming and nurturing. The Shelterhouse is a really great space for us because it’s big enough to get enough people in there making a lot of noise, but small enough where it’s just like being in a living room.
Your other shows humorize some pretty dense stuff, but comedy? How do you make funny funnier?
Tichenor: That’s the crux of the challenge. We’ve gotten mileage in the past out of taking large, serious topics and making them short and silly. Comedy is very fun, but comedians take it enormously seriously. We had to channel that.
Martin: It’s a silly topic, and we take it even more seriously. We’re going back to the cave men, to Moliere, to Shakespeare, and making it fun and funny for a modern audience. Turns out, it’s just as much a history of theater as anything.
From cavemen to modern day, all in 90 minutes? That can’t be easy.
Tichenor: That’s the fun part. We get to take all these things that have been huge influences on us both professionally and personally, and do our own versions of it.
Martin: It goes from highbrow to lowbrow. It’s very vaudevillian, smart to stupid, scatological to intellectual. So it’s fun for us and fun for the audience.
How has comedy changed since earlier times?
Martin: People think modern stand-up is so dirty. Have you seen Lysistrata? Read Shakespeare or Mark Twain? One of the lines in the show is: “Plautus, Mark Twain, and Chaucer all wrote fart jokes.” The specifics are different, who’s running the country is different, but things that people joke about are all the same.
In a recent episode of your Reduced Shakespeare Company Podcast, you talk about comedy being underrated. Is it?
Martin: Everybody thinks they can do it. Great comedians make it look easy; that’s part of the task. And great serious actors make it look hard. Whereas everyone thinks, I can tell a joke, it’s not that hard.
Tichenor: Every stage actor has to make it look like it’s happening right now in front of the audience for the very first time. That’s even truer of comedy. Sometimes the jokes only land if they’re happening for the very first time. Tragedy for my money is way overrated. Anyone can make an audience sit quietly for several hours. You want a stage comedy to have the whole audience laughing out loud.
The show explores the question of what makes people laugh. What makes you laugh?
Tichenor: Louis C.K., Chris Rock, and Patton Oswalt come up with insights that nobody thinks about. It’s observational, but it’s profound. I’ll come away going, wow, that was hysterical and I’d never thought about it before.
Martin: I love the Onion, The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, South Park. We were just saying how funny Team America is.
Since you’ve been here before, I have to ask: What’s the funniest thing about Cincinnati?
Tichenor: Kentucky [laughs].
Nov 9–Dec 29 Tickets: $30–$55. Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, (513) 421-3888, cincyplay.com
Originally published in the November 2013 issue.