Deadwood Dick (The Masked Rider of the Black Hills) is a rootin’, tootin’ western play that is one of the funniest shows I have ever been in or seen. I’ve done the show three times and always as Wild Bill Hickok. Wild Bill was a hero so good that he was dressed all in white—even his boots and rifle were white, that’s how good he was.
Every western stereotype was in this show. In no particular order you had:
Ned Harris—the Hero
Wild Bill Hickok—his heck-for-leather partner
Miss Lily—the Heroine, a tender prairie blossom
Rose—her resplendent sister
Blackman Redburn—a true villain
Judge Nix—the Hanging Judge, and all the law there is
Calamity Jane—owner of the Man-Trap Saloon
La Paloma—an exotic adventuress
Pong Ping—a Chinese cook
Chet Pussy—a bartender
Sheriff Loveless—who gets his man
Teetotal Tessie—a Temperance Crusader
Piano Annie—who tickles everyone at the Man-Trap
Kidnappings, treasure maps, buried gold, and good vs. evil, all in the same show. Good stuff. Now keep in mind, this is not a subtle comedy. This is a Mel Brooks style western, in the tradition of Blazing Saddles. Nope, not subtle at all.
Deadwood Dick is a play about fart jokes trying to elevate itself into legitimate theater. If performed properly, it succeeds brilliantly. If not, it can be two hours of theater hell. I’ve been in both kinds of productions, so I’d like to see if I can explain the difference between the two, and why one’s funny and one’s not.
Comedy is hard—really, really hard. If you have a good script, the secret to being funny is not to try to be funny. That may sound crazy, but let me give you an example—The Three Stooges. Now, I know women don’t think they’re funny, but I’m trying to make a point here, so bear with me. The reason the Stooges are funny doing the most outrageous and stupid things is because they take it all seriously and play it straight. They don’t have to go for laughs; the laughs are built in. What makes it funny is the fact that they’re deadly serious.
In Deadwood Dick, Ned Harris pulls a gun on Wild Bill and tells him to drop all of his guns. As Wild Bill proceeds to drop seven or eight guns on the floor, Ned finally tells him to open his mouth. When Bill does so, Ned reaches into his mouth, pulls out a tiny gun, and drops it to the floor. When it hits the floor it goes off with the appropriate sound effect. Slowly Ned turns to the audience and says, “Like I figured, armed to the teeth.” If done properly, this is a hilarious moment of silliness. But if Ned goes for a laugh and hams it up, the line fails miserably.
This is why comedy is so difficult, and such a serious business. It’s really no laughing matter. Most actors can’t do comedy because they’re acting. Watch any Mel Brooks movie, or Abbott and Costello or Laurel and Hardy. Costello and Laurel weren’t going for laughs. The things that happened to them were tragic, but also funny. Ask yourself why it is that almost all comedy has an element of tragedy, and how that can possibly be funny.
When you’ve done that, find a good production of Deadwood Dick and enjoy a great night at the theater.