Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Logic of Frustration

In my last post, I used the pattern of human learning to reveal how to structure good improv sketches. However, what I didn't get to, and what I promised I'd explain, was how the same reasoning could be used to improve our everyday lives, and the way we interact with each other. This time, I'm going to focus on the psychology.

As I've alluded to in previous posts, comedy relies on releasing cognitive tension. We laugh in order to signal to each other that some confusing stimulus has revealed itself to be devoid of threat. We don't do this consciously, of course. The signalling happens at a very primal level.(For a clearer, more exact picture of what I mean, I can heartily recommend Inside Jokes, by Hurley, Dennett and Adams.)

What the structure of good comedy sketches therefore reveals is what kinds of patterns of interaction between people generate cognitive tension, and what the exploding of that tension looks like. We can use this knowledge to help us design machines, rituals, and social systems that don't create cognitive tension in the first place.

The first, most important pattern for us to notice in sketches is the power of the number three, which I alluded to in the first post in this sequence. The brain loves things that comes in threes, because three instances is the minimum that the brain needs in order to build a new rule about cause and effect. However, as well as enabling the brain to construct new useful behaviors, the same rule-building architecture in our heads also watches out for patterns of frustration.

Life is full of obstacles. This means that when we go about the process of trying to achieve goals in our lives, whether simple or complex, things will go wrong. We usually don't mind that much because it happens so often. We just adapt and move on.

When we are frustrated twice while trying to achieve the same goal, our brain is put on alert. Our mental focus increases. We apply more resources to the problem. However, when we're frustrated three times in the same activity, our brain knows that applying mental focus wasn't sufficient. We have evidence that the activity we've chosen is either harder than we thought, or that we're being purposefully thwarted. At this point, the brain signals the amygdala, and we receive a squirt of cortisol. The fight or flight response kicks in and we stop being fully rational.

This is why the best sketches focus around an obstructed desire--a protagonist who wants something they're not getting. By empathizing with someone in a state of mounting frustration, we indirectly experience that mental state. This is also why the third strike of obstruction in a good sketch needs to be both different from the preceding ones, and ludicrous. It's vital that rather than getting angry about the contents of the sketch, we see it as ridiculous.

In short, comedy works when we play brinkmanship with the reflex that makes us upset. That's why much of the most powerful comedy is dark. The closer you get to that edge, the more profound the release of tension.

Part of the problem with this reflex is that we've created a world filled with complex systems that we can't control, and which vary wildly in their ease of use. This means that our trigger for frustration is pulled many times per day, and it's the easiest thing in the world for our brains to try to match the pattern of obstruction we experience onto some kind of conscious agent, however imaginary. Whether it's your computer, people on bicycles, people in cars, or the office printer, the effect is the same.

How do we build better social systems, then? By maximizing the number of sequential frustrations a person experiences in trying to achieve any particular goal to two. Whether you're designing roads or software interfaces, you study the usage patterns of the system you're building, and try to make sure that for every two instances where a person may encounter obstruction, there is some other step that is almost guaranteed to go right that follows it, even if that step is unecessary.

While this doesn't apply to every situation in system design, it's an extremely powerful human factor to bear in mind, and it applies far more broadly than might immediately be obvious. Furthermore, by having an awareness of the processes by which we get frustrated, we enable ourselves to overcome anger more easily. Unsurprisingly, improv training can help here. In the next post in this set, I'll talk more about how we can take this understanding and apply it in training and education to improve the lives of the people we interact with every day.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Sketch and Subvertability

Last time, I promised not only to explain how to create the perfect comedy sketch, but also to explain how that knowledge could be used to improve the betterment of mankind, even to the extent of helping us design traffic systems that minimize accidents or avoiding nuclear war. To learn more, read on.

First, let's focus on sketches.

We left off having explored why the brain likes the number three, and why you can't do the same funny thing three times in a scene without changing it and have it still work. What we didn't cover was why the best sketches come in four parts, instead of three.

The answer is, because great sketches have great endings.

You may recall that last time, I proposed that great sketches have the following structure.
1: Surprise
2: Coincidence
3: Pattern.
4: Subversion of pattern.

What people often miss is that the big laughs in a really good sketch don't come right at the end, like the punchline of a joke. They are distributed throughout. We establish a funny, repeating routine early on and then we escalate it, raising the tension the entire time.

However, if a sketch is going to be memorable, it needs to end well rather than just allowing that sense of drama to deflate. This means that at the end of the sketch, you have to find a way to subvert the routine such that it can't persist any further. Ideally, you release the tension in the scene in such a way that it surprises the audience just as much as the material that's come before. In practice, this can be hard to do, but there's usually a way. The easiest approaches are often to look for a way to invert the risks established in the scene, or to reveal some new information that changes the relationship.

Here, then, is a list of sketch components I dwell on when I'm coaching scene-work.

1: Create a character and an environment. Establish the character's opinion about that environment. Try to reveal motivation and vulnerability immediately.

2: Introduce a second character who functions as a foil to the first. Establish a dynamic between the two of them that establishes an obstructed desire for one character as efficiently as possible. The character with the desire is your vehicle for pathos. Your character who obstructs is the vehicle for absurdity.

3: Demonstrate the obstructed desire clearly in a simple pattern of interaction. This can often be done with just two lines of dialog, as counted from the opening of the scene. This can be as simple as:
A: The parrot you sold me is dead, I want to return it.
B: It's not dead, it's resting.
Voila, we have a setting, a motivation, an obstructed desire, and the seeds of lunacy.

4: Repeat the pattern with increased tension. Try to retain as many features of the original interaction as possible, while letting the characters appear to be innovating to try to resolve the conflict.

5: Escalate the tension to the point at which it is transparently absurd by having an interaction that is outside the bounds of normal behavior for your characters. Meanwhile, keep trying to minimize the amount of new content that you add to the scene.

6: Having made the absurdity unmissable, invert the tension in the scene by providing a way out of the situation that the audience isn't expecting. This can be done by revealing an alternative that was hidden from the audience, or by having characters pick a solution that the audience would never choose.

That's it. Spelled out like this, it might seem a little obvious, but it's astonishing how few improv scenes manage to adhere to this level of structure. That's because holding all this in your head while making it up in front of a live audience requires practice. However, it's a tremendously satisfying pattern to have mastered. It provides you with enough solid, funny scenes that you can afford to experiment with quirkier stuff while still having your show still wow audiences.

This pattern for sketches is so robust, in fact, that it appears in a huge number of different contexts, other than those that are simply funny. For instance, it provides the critical underpinnings of the Hero's Journey, the storytelling pattern that gave rise to movies like The Matrix and Star Wars. And, as I alluded to at the opening of this post, it can make the difference diplomacy and violence in confrontation situations, and determine whether a child decides to bother doing their math homework. In the next post of this sequence, I'll explain why.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Comedy and Cognition

Over the last few weeks, I've had the good fortune to be working with the Senseless Bureau, an excellent Oakland-based improv troupe. I've been coaching them on scene-work. Unusually for me, the focus of that coaching has been short-form improv--individual sketches. That process has encouraged me to condense my thinking about what makes great comedy, what it has to do with human cognition, and how we can apply that knowledge elsewhere.

My main conclusion is this: that almost all really strong sketches have the same format, regardless of the humor employed. Furthermore, this structure is a direct consequence of the way that the human mind is wired for learning. I'm also going to propose that understanding the structure of a good sketch can help us build better educational tools, improve computer interface design, and even design road systems that reduce accident fatalities.

What is this magic structure, you may ask, that has so many beneficial effects? It goes like this:
1: Surprise.
2: Coincidence.
3: Pattern.
4: Subversion of pattern.
This probably isn't terribly meaningful in isolation, so let me explain.

The brain, as I've mentioned before, is a prediction machine. We're designed to seek out reliably occurring patterns in the world, and to use them to build the mental models that define our reality. This happens at every level of our cognitive activity, from watching how objects move when we touch them, to anticipating chess moves.

The minimum number of learning instances with a similar outcome that the brain needs to identify a new pattern is three. One new experience is a surprise, but it's hard to know whether any similar experience will happen again. Two experiences is better, but it's still unclear what those experiences have in common. Three experiences allows the brain to rule out noise, and make reliable predictions about future events.

This is not to say that people can't learn from a single experience. We do that all the time. But as you have probably noticed, drawing conclusions from just one or two events is fraught with error. Very often the wrong lesson is learned.

This minimum requirement for new rules manifests in a variety of ways. For instance, in children's stories. Having three instances of something, be it goats, bears, or trips up a beanstalk, is a ubiquitous device, because it feels natural. The same is true in comedy.

As the excellent, and extremely funny Kate Offer once pointed out to me, you can't do the same thing in musical comedy three times. Do something funny once in a song, and the audience will laugh. Do it twice and the audience will love you for it--you've cued up their brains to think they know what's going on. Do it the same way a third time and the funny disappears. This is because by the time you've got to the end of learning experience 2, people are already projecting. To make the third iteration funny, you have to put a twist on your original gag which breaks expectations. If you do that, the audience will love you even more. You've shown them a meaningful pattern, but not the one they were expecting.

So if three iterations is so important, why am I proposing four steps for the perfect sketch? Doesn't 'subversion of pattern' count as step three? And how do we actually use these steps to craft good comedy? Any guesses?

I've probably said enough for one blog post, so I'll have to tell you next time. Meanwhile, all conjectures are welcome.