Sunday, June 22, 2008

Let the Funny Flow, don't TRY

Here's a pretty basic improv guideline. Don't try to be funny. Of course, there are exceptions, but for the most part trying to be funny results in the following:
  • not being funny
  • making others uncomfortable
  • getting that sick feeling in your stomach
The word "trying" conveys pushing--attempting to push laughs onto people. The idea is "look at me, I'm so clever." The problem with trying to be funny is that other people are aware of what you're "trying" to do, and comedy is best when people don't expect it.

Think about the following people who you KNOW, beyond a shadow of a doubt, are trying to make you laugh:
  • your father/grandfather/old neighbor who loves puns
  • clowns
  • the guy at the office who laughs nervously after everything he says
Most of the time these people aren't funny because you can sense in your gut they're trying to push you to laugh, and they're disappointed if you don't. I lived with a guy once who did the nervous laugh to me every day. It made be uncomfortable because nothing he said was funny. After about 3 weeks, I couldn't fake laughter anymore. Our friendship suffered.

People don't like the sense that they're being pushed or forced into laughter. It makes them uncomfortable.

The best comedy doesn't push people to laugh, but pulls them into a funny situation. Setting up an interesting scene naturally engages people, and then as you're pulling them along, you take them someplace unexpected.... that's where laughter happens.

There's a few basic steps to making this happen:
  • Start with a somewhat believable premise; this allows the audience to think ahead and feel like they know where this is all going
  • Draw people in with interesting characters/scene movement
  • Give the audience something they're not expecting; to upset their expectation that they knew where this was going
This is the whole idea behind sitcoms (situational comedies).
  • Get a situation that lends itself to humor/incongruous characters.
  • Make those characters interact
  • strange things happen; studio audience laughs; people at home laugh
Too often improvisers try to push funny too quickly, avoiding proper set-up, and not allowing the audience to form their own expectations of what will happen next. When things start out trying to be funny, the audience expects bigger and bigger laughs, and usually is disappointed. Their expectations become way too high too quickly, and only references to sex, bodily fluids, and/or cussing can heighten the comedy.

This has to be a reason for so many recent comedy flops. Movie makers don't trust the audience's attention span enough, so they can't set up a good situation that will result in some well-crafted comedy; they make movies that repeat and retell the old flatuation, defecation, and fornication jokes--only making them more disgusting and making them happen more often.

But really, where do you go from there?

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