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.

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