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.

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