Comedy, like much that feeds us, is a perishable good. Jokes have a shelf life. Sensibilities change, the incisive becomes obtuse, sometimes Donald Trump becomes president.
Comedians can’t rely on last year’s jokes or last week’s jokes or, in the case of the long- running musical comedy “This Is The Week That Is,” even yesterday’s jokes.
That’s why the writers and performers in 1812 Productions’ annual political news satire — imagine “The Daily Show” and “Weekend Update” meeting the successors to Monty Python — present new material every night, to keep pace with audience members’ news feeds.
“The whole second act of the show is basically centered around a news section; we have a head news writer who sends us new stuff almost every day, based on what’s going on,” said Tom Shotkin, the production stage manager who’s worked on each of the 13 previous iterations of “This is The Week That Is.”
“And, of course, now there’s so much going on, and things change so fast.”
Shotkin’s often contributed writing, and, “in the early days,” acting, to past productions.
“Everyone in the cast writes and anyone can contribute — designers, production, anyone,” he said.
But, for Shotkin, this year’s different; it’s the first time he’ll be officially listed as co-head writer, in addition to production stage manager, in the playbill. A Connecticut native, University of Pennsylvania graduate and now-Ardmore resident, Shotkin shares the role with 1812’s artistic director and the show’s creator, Jennifer Childs.
Shotkin, a young-looking 47 who sports flannels and a patchy beard, is bashful about having attained what might be perceived as a glitzier status.
“This year, I have the technical title of co-head writer,” he said as deferentially as possible.
Shotkin is Jewish (and funny), but this humility doesn’t present as the self-deprecating shtick of past generations’ Jewish comedians.
“Tom’s just a humble, down-to-earth guy,” said Tyler Melchior, 1812’s marketing and public relations director. “When we get into production, he’s the unsung hero who keeps the train on the tracks.”
At rehearsal, “technical” titles notwithstanding, chances are you’ll find Shotkin where he’s been most comfortable for the last 18 seasons — behind the soundboard, maybe quietly conferring with Director Dan O’Neil, giving the business of comedy the seriousness he believes it’s due.
“For the most part, I stay up in the booth and stage-manage,” said Shotkin, who, as the production stage manager for all of 1812’s productions, doesn’t have to worry about continually staking out his next gig, a blessing of stability in the notoriously transient world of professional theatre.
“Unlike actors who are going from audition to audition, I pretty much know that I’m set for the season, which is comforting. I get my health insurance through the union, so yeah … I can never leave. I’m here forever,” he said. “But, no, it’s good. I’ve been with these guys for 17 years, so I must like it here. … At the end of the day, we want to entertain people; it’s not brain surgery.”
Much to the chagrin of his Jewish parents?
“God bless them, they paid to send me to Penn, and maybe they thought, ‘Well, he’ll have a nice job after that’…. But they’ve been great,” Shotkin said. “They’ve been totally supportive. My mom always says ‘As long as you have food to eat and you’re happy.’”
Shotkin assured he’s got plenty of both.
“Since we do all comedy at 1812, each rehearsal process is different, but each one involves a lot of laughs. It’s such a great atmosphere.”
Which isn’t to say comedy isn’t hard. Sometimes it’s really hard. Like right now, Shotkin explained. When every comedian is riffing on Trump nightly, many to great hilarity and effect, there’s bound to be a Trump saturation point.
“It’s pretty low-hanging fruit sometimes to make fun of Trump,” Shotkin said.
“It’s true (that there’s a level of Trump fatigue among comedians). And that’s one of the reasons why, since he was elected, we haven’t had anyone personify him on stage. In the news (segment of the show), we have lots of Trump jokes, but we don’t have anyone a la Alec Baldwin doing an impression … because of the Trump fatigue.”
All performances are held at the Plays and Players Theatre, an old 300-seat theater bursting with historic charm at 1714 Delancey Place, near Rittenhouse Square. Built in 1911, Melchior informs that Plays and Players was the first theater in the country run entirely by women. It is also said to be haunted.
According to Melchior, legend has it that the theater was built by a wealthy man for his mistress, an actress. He didn’t want her traveling to perform, so he built her this theater. Her name was Maude, and she’s said to still haunt the halls. The cast and crew keep a dressing room open for her, as though she were an irascible Elijah, who might one day arrive, not to herald the messiah, but to prepare herself at her vanity for her close-up.
This year’s “This Is The Week That Is” opens Dec. 4 and runs through Jan. 5, with previews beginning Nov. 29.
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