Philly playwright Bruce Graham on the hardest thing in the world

Playwright Bruce Graham. Photo courtesy of the Arden.

Bruce Graham is a funny man. Interviewing him wasn’t work, but being funny is, and he wishes more people understood that. “Comedy is the hardest thing in the world,” he said. “It’s not respected.”

Graham is. He’s well-known in the Philadelphia theater community. His work has been performed by many companies locally, including Theatre Exile, Philadelphia Theatre Company, Act II Playhouse, People’s Light, as well as off-Broadway. His newest play is FUNNYMAN, opening at the Arden Theatre Company January 14.

Despite the title, it’s not a comedy, but has funny stuff in it, he said. It’s set in 1959 New York and tells the story of an aging vaudevillian comic, “grasping to remain relevant in the ever-changing world of show biz.” He tries to revive his career off-Broadway while dealing with a daughter who’s digging up secrets. Graham’s inspiration for the play was Notes on a Cowardly Lion, a memoir by John Lahr about his father, legendary actor and vaudevillian Bert Lahr.

Don’t need a PhD

Graham used to do comedy (he’s a Woody Allen/George Carlin combo, he said) and wanted to write something about a comedian. He looked for a story for decades: “I wrote it in two weeks, but thought about it for 25 years.”

It’s important that all of his works have something to say, he said, and he always wants audiences to care about the characters. He also likes to leave them with unanswered questions to think about. Graham, who admits he goes out of his way to be politically incorrect, said he doesn’t think when he’s writing, though. The finished products don’t require audiences to think too much either. “You don’t need a PhD to understand one of my plays,” he said. “In fact, you’ll probably like it better if you don’t have one.”

His main goal is to provide a good time. “I’m an entertainer first,” he said. “Forget that art stuff. I’m an old comedian.” The greatest reward he could get: an audience that leaves saying, “Boy, that was entertaining. For two hours, they took me to another world,” he said.

A responsibility to other playwrights

And it’s his world. Graham writes what he’s inspired to. As a prominent Philadelphia playwright, what does he think about the under-representation of female- and minority-focused plays? “If you take the dead or near-dead, like Neil Simon and Edward Albee, out of the regional theater season, minorities and women are not as underrepresented as one thinks,” he said.

Graham doesn’t write specifically to anything except character and story. In one play, he described a character not by race, but by only insisting that the person was “tired.” In other plays, based on the story, a character may have to be female or a minority. And he has rewritten things based on actors’ suggestions — not about race or culture, per se, but more along the lines of “would this character in this situation do or say this?”

As a playwright, he doesn’t feel responsible to help bring more women and minorities to the stage. But as a teacher — he has taught playwriting and film courses at Drexel University for more than 15 years — he feels a great responsibility to help any playwright he can. He especially believes in doing new works and having new play readings. “It’s incredibly important,” he said. “Playwrights learn so much from readings.”

As for seeing FUNNYMAN, he suggested that people do it because “I need the money. I get eight percent.” Actually, he hopes people will see it because of the terrific cast. And while you’re watching, he’ll keep writing, whatever he wants and needs to, whatever has been floating around in his head for years that finally is ready to emerge, for one simple reason: “I’m a storyteller.”

FUNNYMAN ($36-$50) is running on the Arden’s Arcadia stage January 14-March 6, produced in partnership with the Illinois-based Northlight Theatre, which mounted the play in September 2015. 

For Mark Cofta's review of Funnyman, click here.