The scene opens with Don sad and forlorn while his friend Cosmo attempts to cheer him up. Soon enough Cosmo has broken into a song and dance number so spectacularly funny, you forgot why Don was even sad in the first place. This scene of course is from “Singing In the Rain”, one of my all-time favorite movies. The song’s name is “Make Them Laugh” and details how a comedic actors job is always to make the audience laugh, despite the storyline, despite the troubles and tribulations of the real world that the movie-goer is coming from. *I strongly encourage the reader to go and watch the scene linked in the footnote right now, before proceeding with this article as I believe it essential to understanding how to create a successful After Dinner Speech.
Done? Alrighty then, let’s begin our analysis. I want you to think for a moment and try to list the aggregate of comedic actions Cosmo used in the video. The ones that come most readily to mind are; personal injury, facial manipulations, environmental props, character controlled props, vocal inflection.
Obviously in the speech and in ADS in particular, the speaker is more limited than Danny Kapke was in the making of this scene. The primary difference is in the ability to use controlled props. The hat, the piano, and the human doll all develop a certain place in the scene that would leave a void if they were omitted. So that leaves the speaker with 4 options, of which the first is least likely to be effective. “But wait!” you’re probably yelling at your screen, “We can’t use environmental props because we are in a different room each round!” While this is true, there are several key items which never change, but we’ll get back to that. For now, let’s refocus on my philosophy of ADS.
Similarly, to Cosmo, I believe that making your audience laugh and keep laughing is one of the greatest callings of any presenter. However, that does not mean that you should shy away from sad or melancholy moments, but rather, that you should use these to your advantage. When watching a firework display, we enjoy the fireworks not for any inherent reason drawn from their colors, but rather as a result of their contrast with the dark night sky. If those same shells were shot into the air on a bright July afternoon, no one would enjoy them. It is in the lulls and juxtaposed moments of blissful darkness that the brilliant flashing red, whites and blues of fireworks obtain their meaning and place. So too, it is with comedy. No judge wants to be bombarded with jokes for 10 minutes, nor do they want to bawl their eyes out for that same period. They want a roller-coaster, not route 66. When writing your script, keep this idea ever present in your mind, that truly unique and memorable comedy, is a balancing act between sobbing and hysteria. To concisely state my philosophy, “Make them laugh, but help them remember why they need to laugh.”
So what does this balance look like? For me, it looked like choosing a difficult topic that is wrapped in personal emotion. By choosing ADHD, I added an inherent level of seriousness to my speech. A level of reality which was unavoidable, unmistakable and strongly relatable. For you, the reader, it may look drastically different, and that is perfectly fine as long as you are using it to your advantage and the enjoyment of the audience. Now back to the fun stuff, props!
There is a frequent mindset in speech and debate that the performance is one solely of rhetoric, tonal inflection and physicality. When coaches mention the physical environment, it is always couched in the terms of blocking and a “Sense of space”. Much like me when hanging out with my best friend and his girlfriend, the physical environment is relegated to a third wheel position.
To pick up where I left off at vowel 517 of this article, there are 10 things which every room will have, a judges table, judges, a timer, an audience, left stage, right stage, front stage, center stage, the back of stage and of course, you. In a perfect world, your use/total number of environmental props ratio would be 1, however, we are not so lucky as outlined in the rules/guidelines for speech and debate. These rules are put in place to help level the playing field and thereby improve competition, but as an alumnus, I think I hold a unique position from which I can verbally attack such an idea, but that is the subject for an entire article of its own. Suffice it to say, there are rules in place which attempt to limit your use of the room as a prop. Your job as a speaker, is to find the loopholes in this rule and exploit them. Creativity is the singular greatest tool in your utility belt when it comes to ADS. The rules clearly state you are not to interact with the audience or the judges, but does it say anything about following your script and “accidently” interacting as a result?
Let me give an example. Say you want to help your elderly judge relate to a part of your story, what better way to do that than to point out that they have to think a bit further back than the alumni judge next to them in order to remember college. Your average judging panel with have a parent, an alumnus and most likely a community or another parent/grandparent as the third judge. You are almost guaranteed an older judge as well as a younger judge. By adding generalized, but still specific lines in your script, you can pull the audience and your judges into the speech, without actually interacting with them. After a particular punchline in my speech, I liked to let my face go deadpan, and very seriously walk towards the person laughing most heartily in the room and proceed to berate them for being so insensitive to a subject as dark as the medicating of children to treat ADHD. They are now cornered in an awkward position in which they are laughing, are being goaded to laugh more, and the best part of it all is that the entire audience is participating via Schadenfreude. This type of gag can be used to enhance the viewers experience, utilize the physical environment of the room and most remarkably, progress the narrative. Instead of snapping back from the deadpan moment of lambasting the chortler, it is more effective to transition into a darker moment, a moment more real and temporal. I used it to emphasize how easily we overlook the side-effects of medicine at the expense of those to whom it is prescribed. It’s a sobering thought, and the exact kind of thought that gives the humor of moments before their clarity.
After Dinner Speech is primarily a category for telling stories, if you are not telling a story of some sort in your speech, you will probably lose. Making people laugh is important, but the reason we find the antics of Cosmo so overwhelmingly enjoyable is in their original purpose. To cheer Don up from the morose reality of his love-life. Every story is a roller-coaster, it’s your job to make sure the audience is buckled in.
*Thanks for reading and remember, “Logic will take you from point A to B, but imagination will take you everywhere.”
Not done analyzing, yet?? AJ Neumann was pretty successful in ADS, he was at Finalist both years it was offered in NCFCA. This past summer he presented his 2015 award winning speech (2 years later- he hadn’t done it since) for a workshop. Be sure to check out AJ Neumann’s After Dinner Speech here.