Theories of comedy

FringeArts presents Jess Conda, Jenn Kidwell, and Mel Krodman’s ‘A Hard Time’

3 minute read
A benign violation? Mel Krodman and Jess Conda in ‘A Hard Time.’ (Photo by Daniel Kontz.)
A benign violation? Mel Krodman and Jess Conda in ‘A Hard Time.’ (Photo by Daniel Kontz.)

In Pig Iron’s ‘A Hard Time,’ the latest performance in the High Pressure Fire Service series at FringeArts, cocreators and stars Jess Conda, Jenn Kidwell, and Mel Krodman explain the “benign violation theory” of humor.

Lucky for us, men have been studying humor, including researchers Caleb Warren and Peter McGraw, building on work by Tom Veatch. Their theory posits that all humor requires three conditions: there must be a violation; the situation in which it occurs must be benign to the person laughing, and these perceptions of wrongness and safety must occur simultaneously.

There’s a pretty good example of the theory in the Hard Time playbill, which quotes Mel Brooks: “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.”

Where’s the line?

The show’s dialogue suggests that humor is a matter of traversing right up to a line of danger, and then backing away. But here’s the question the women onstage at FringeArts pose: who draws the line?

By the time Conda, in a dress-up princess tutu, has selected a male stranger from the audience for a daddy-daughter dance under a disco ball inside a giant vulva, to the strains of “Unchained Melody,” we’re pretty sure we’ve crossed the line, and are wondering how the hell we got so deep.

But we have to dig deep, since the playbill’s “about the show” intro is topped by a quote from Jerry Lewis about why he didn’t like any female comedians: “I think of her as a producing machine that brings babies into the world.”

From fisherman to furries

Anyone who’s interested in exactly what Conda, Kidwell, and Krodman have to say about comedy, gender, or patriarchy should catch this show—if not during this festival, then in the next incarnation of the script, which certainly deserves another run. This ensemble of three delivers one of the most fearlessly sustained and deeply articulated physical performances I’ve ever seen—particularly during a stretch featuring three elderly fishermen whose jokes keep going awry for the tellers. The minutes stretch out onstage with deceptive simplicity, but it’s impossible to look away from the trio’s deeply grounded characterizations.

Playing baseball...and bleeding. Jenn Kidwell in 'A Hard Time.' (Photo by Daniel Kontz.)
Playing baseball...and bleeding. Jenn Kidwell in 'A Hard Time.' (Photo by Daniel Kontz.)

In another segment, with the help of sound designer Justin Hicks (who perfectly underscores the comedy tropes onstage without detracting from the performers), the three fill the space with a riveting vocal patina. Director Dan Rothenberg builds quick, seamless transitions throughout. Costume designer LeVonne Lindsay delivers brilliantly realized layers in every scene, from full-body furry suits to police uniforms to harnesses and feathers, and something else I promise you’ve never seen onstage. Meredith Ries’s cheekily textured set unfolds as the action does.

I love how Kidwell, Krodman, and Conda prove that nudity is sexy, hilarious, challenging, commanding, feral, regal, boisterous, bold, engaging, and imposing—just like comedy, and women.

In the crowd

FringeArts hems its usual large, steeply raked house into an intimate set-up: a cabaret-style space with a chunky proscenium, a few rows of chairs on risers, and more seating around small tables clustered near the stage. There are some larger high-top style chairs in front of the risers, but if I have a quibble with this show, it’s about the seating. Particularly with the material tackling patriarchal tropes, it’d be good to remember that not everyone can fit into chairs that seem better suited to a middle-school classroom than to a theater venue—especially if the house is packed.

What, When, Where

A Hard Time. By Jess Conda, Jenn Kidwell, and Mel Krodman. Directed by Dan Rothenberg. Through May 12, 2019 at FringeArts, 140 N. Columbus Boulevard, Philadelphia. (215) 41301318 or

FringeArts is a wheelchair-accessible venue. For information on all accessibility features, visit here, call the box office, or email [email protected]. There is a private gender-neutral restroom available on the second floor.

Sign up for our newsletter

All of the week's new articles, all in one place. Sign up for the free weekly BSR newsletters, and don't miss a conversation.

Join the Conversation