If Jennifer Childs, 43, traveled back in time, her destination would be vaudeville. The actress, playwright, director, and cofounder of 1812 Productions is a history-of-comedy "nerd" whose holiday shows are Philadelphia classics. Her troupe is named for 1812 Pine St., where Childs lived in 1998 when it began. This holiday's show is a fresh spin on 1812's staple, This Is the Week That Is.
Pint-sized in every way but talent - "Trust me, I know more short jokes than you do" - Childs is a Lutheran pastor's daughter. Raised in Ohio, she adopted Philadelphia as a University of the Arts freshman in 1986. In this edited interview with staff writer Michael Matza, she spoke of the joys and pressure of being funny for a living.
Question: What is funny?
Jennifer Childs: The simple answer is everything is funny. . . . Everyday comedy, for me, is the most complex. I ran into a woman at the gym . . . 80 years old [with] a cane. She said: "Oh, you have to do a physical comedy piece about my hip replacement. It is so hilarious. Look how I have to put on my underwear." And she does this little thing with her cane of picking up her underwear. She could have chosen to see that hip replacement as a documentary on aging . . . but she was like, "No, this is slapstick physical comedy."
Q: Who is funnier, men or women?
Childs: Whoooaaa! Dangerous question! It depends. . . . Some things speak to [a man's or woman's] specific experience. Some are universally funny. . . . Poking people in the eyes [Three Stooges-style] - always funny. This [her elbow slips from the table] - always funny.
In physical comedy, I think often men are funnier because we are more willing to see men like, ass-over-teakettle, butt-in-the-air. When women do it there is always a little bit of, "Oh, is she going to get hurt? That's a little indelicate." When you look at slapstick, Lucille Ball was amazing; people laughed heartily. But heavy-duty physical comedy has in general been the tromping ground of men.
Q: Comedians who connect with audiences say, "I killed." Is comedy aggressive?
Childs: Yes it is. It's an aggressive act. I mean, come on, standing up and saying, "I am going to make you laugh." . . . That is why so few women were involved. It was unladylike. It goes against every rule. You know: "Keep your legs together" - not in comedy. "Keep your voice down" - not in comedy. "If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all" - not in comedy.
Q: The national mood is grim. What works comedically?
Childs: Bipartisan bashing is good, [we have to be] equal-opportunity offenders. . . . People are tired of . . . people saying [divisively] hateful things.
Q: How did you create the new holiday show?
Childs: I write the evergreen pieces before we start rehearsals. I'll say: "OK, I know we are going to do the Republicans as a Dr. Seuss book. . . . And I think I want Newt Gingrich to be the Gingrinch." . . . For me it's about trying to capture the mood of the country.
Q: What develops?
Childs: We start out with the ensemble saying everything is so bad they want to [escape into] a Broadway musical, Oklahoma! But it is about the bankers and the Occupy movement. I do the curtain speech as my favorite character in the world, Patsy.
Q: Tell us about Patsy, your South Philly alter ego.
Childs: Jilline [Ringle], my friend who passed away at 40 [from breast cancer] could do that South Philly accent, and I could not. She taught me. I spent a whole summer learning. . . . We would just riff as [characters] Peg and Patsy, smoking unfiltered Pall Malls and drinking Rock and Rye. . . . I live in South Philly. . . . I am fascinated by [the role of] the wise fool. You could be the most intelligent person in the world, and that Philadelphia accent makes you sound less intelligent. . . . But they are very smart. They've got this great Old World wisdom.
Q: Any fallout from your neighbors?
Childs: Patsy is beloved. . . . She comes from a place of love. It is not mocking or a place of hatred. It comes from a place of deep respect.
Q: Is comedy harder than drama?
Childs: Much harder. . . . Anybody can make you cry. The whole world is trying to make you cry.
Q: Is it more interactive?
Childs: For me, the final character in any comedy is the audience. . . . It's the old adage: If a joke is spoken in the forest, and there's nobody there to hear it, is it funny? You need that person's response, whether silence or laughter.
Q: How are you able to be funny even at times of personal crisis?
Childs: At the end of the day, I am a minister's daughter. My dad says, "Everybody ministers in their own way." For me, comedy is about the audience. . . . I don't have to get a laugh. I have to give people something, and hopefully it will provoke a laugh. . . . The true art, for me, is not making it about myself.