The Comedy Equation

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What makes people laugh? I believe it can be boiled down to an equation:

Surprise + Believability = Laughter.

The most obvious answer is Surprise. “I didn’t see that coming! Who ever thought he’d do that? Woah! Can you believe that’s how it went down?!” We laugh when we are caught off-guard, our anticipations subverted or paid off in an unexpected way.

But surprise in a vacuum is like watching too many episodes of Family Guy. I can only process random for the sake of being random so long before I check out.

We need the other part of the equation to make truly gut-wrenching comedy—and that’s believability.

In improv, this manifests as the audience truly buying you are who you are say you are. Suspending their disbelief to the point where they buy into your reality and your character’s perspective — who and how he/she is. What makes something believable? Good acting. Holding onto your character and playing your point of view aggressively. Truth in comedy. The weirder or crazier your character or context, the more I instruct performers to ground down into their characters so there is not a smidge of doubt you are indeed that cum-guzzling troll under the bridge who speaks in a French accent and wishes he could find love in his life.

This is also why I believe in The Annoyance Theatre’s philosophy of finding your character’s ‘deal’ at the top of an improv scene. What’s a deal? It’s a contract you make with the audience about how your character is going to exist in the world. It can be described as finding a point of view (“I think…”) or an emotional state (“I feel…”) or an objective (“I need…”) or a desire (“I want…”). These are all equally great ways of describing a strong choice at the top of the scene.

Because whether you like it or not, your audience is writing a story about who and how you are the moment you walk onstage. They are desperate to make meaning out of your actions; after all, watching improv is the most terrifying thing in the world to them. It is the scariest art form as public speaking is the #1 reported fear of the human race, and this is public speaking without the safety net of knowing what you are to say. It is also the only art form where process is presented as product. In other art forms, a finished product is presented: the dance has been choreographed, the play has been written and rehearsed, the canvas of the painting has dried and been framed. Bad improv is the equivalent to strolling into an art gallery full of nervous artists poised over blank easels, waiting for the onlookers to give them a suggestion of what to paint, and then looking over their shoulder to see if what they are painting is landing. So, the audience is always ascribing meaning to your choices. That’s why the first thing you say or do and how you express it is a “deal” — you are creating a contract/promise to the audience that your character will be such-and-such type of person. When improvisers bail on their initial choices (sometimes out of wish to “yes, and” their partner’s choices or the context of the scene), the audience feels confused, even betrayed. They hate you because you didn’t stick to your promise, and it will be hard to get them back on your side. Sometimes they will even hate for the rest of the show, even if you are later committing to your characters, because you broke their initial trust. Imagine if the painters improvising in that art gallery started painting only to crumple up the canvas 15 seconds in when their first brush strokes didn’t elicit a positive response. How frustrating would that be? Note: Bailing on a choice is different than a character organically evolving over time based on what happens in a scene. I’m referring to improvisers arbitrarily changing their deal because they didn’t think it was good enough or working with the scene. It’s a surefire way to kill your improv — and your believability.

And practically speaking, what’s the only thing you actually have control over in the whole wide world of improv? Your state of being — at the top of a scene. So while many improv schools teach walking on from a neutral point of view — to be open to anything — I find myself unable these days to not assume a point of view within three seconds of the scene beginning. I tend to get in my head if I stay in neutral too long, and the longer you wait to make a choice, the more overwhelming it feels to to create one. The improv train starts pulling out of the station the moment the scene begins; the longer you wait to get on-board the harder it is to catch up. So, I start with an emotionally-driven deal at the top of every scene I play.

If you are worried that committing to a personal deal may not work with the context of the scene or your partner’s initial choices, imagine this. If you walk on feeling like you are hyperactive toddler, and someone says, “Mr. President, the Russians are on the phone,” you get to now play the hyperactive toddler-version of a President. If you enter a stage and assume the physicality of a hormone-raging bully, and someone says, “Yes, please, I’d like some thin mints,” then you get to now play the most monstrous girl scout of all time. In both examples, lucky you! You got gifted into an imaginative frame of mind by the luck of unusual context at the top of the scene. So, I always find it empowering to begin with a strong choice and know that I can make my deal work with whatever happens in the scene.

And you can find your deal in your body the moment you take a step onstage. There’s always something there; if you just pay attention to what’s going on inside you for a split-second. Perhaps your right pinky is raised just ever so slightly…ah, of course you are the French Count De Felatio. Susan Messing told a story of how she developed the character of Alice in Co-Ed Prison Sluts: The Musical at The Annoyance simply by improvising with eyes wide open. Her character’s deal was “wide-eyed wonder,” and from that strong choice she aggressively created the content of her scenes in Co-Ed. So, while I think it’s OK to pre-think of a deal before you walk on-stage; you also don’t have to — it is just as easy to slip into the ever present impulses of your body onstage.

So, now you are playing believably. How do you surprise your audience? When talking about creating surprising content, it’s worth it to quickly define the left and right hemispheres of our brain. Disclaimer: This is a little pseudo-science-y these days, but for our purposes in describing our state of mind while improvising, it works for me:

  • Left brain: rational, logical, the excel spreadsheet of your brain who wants to get improv “right” and do it “correctly.”
  • Right brain: goo-goo-ga-ga, baby brain, lizard brain, guttural, pure creativity who just wants to have fun. When I want to show what the sound of the right brain like this, “qwwwwoooooooouhhh!!!” and literally make the motion of throwing a curve ball with my right hand and a sound like I am playing with my dog.

Most of us in this age of information overflow allow our left brains to bully our right into daily submission. This happens onstage even in the act of ‘make-em-ups.’ It’s sad because most of us probably got into improv for the pure joy feeling of spontaneity and creativity that source from our right brains.

Your left brain is a worrier and wants to control the chaos. It wants to play safe, keep you driving in the lane, find “the game of the scene,” and stick to it. Your right brain wants to burn it all down and dance in the ashes!

Say you and your partner have established strong points of view and your scene is cruising along, but you aren’t getting many laughs. Your scene may be believable, but it’s not surprising. You may be playing safe or sticking to the stereotypes your left-brain calls to mind about the context you are in. My advice: get specific.

If you want to get 20% funnier immediately, just be more specific in everything you say, starting right now. Instead of your left-brain worrying about where the scene is going next, focus your left-brain into thinking of all the ways you can show your character’s deal through specifics. See the world through your character’s deal — like you’re wearing colored sunglasses and your deal is that color. If the color is hot pink, then everything you see or do or say makes your character think more “hot pink.” Listen through your deal and respond the way your character would as specifically as possible. Be more specific! Many mediocre improvisers think they’ve reached the horizon of how specific they can be in a scene, but great improvisers go over that horizon. There’s always more to explore. Even with simple phrases: you could say, “Shake my hand” or say, “Shake my right hand with your left hand” (try this and you’ll see what a weird handshake this creates). If you mention you just came from your hotel, invent an imaginary name of a hotel. I like to twist proper nouns slightly before I say them, to skew my brain; for example, “Yes, I went shopping today at the Hot Misanthropic” (my left-brain thought to name the store “Hot Topic,” but I twisted it in real-time into something unrecognizable that I can now play with). Suddenly, you’ve discovered an unusually specific choice.

I dislike the improv maxim of “play to the top of your intelligence.” First of all, I find it condescending to the actor. Who walks onstage and isn’t trying to play to the top of his or her personal intellect? We’re not trying to be idiots up here. We’re usually trying to be clever as we can. But unless you possess super-human joke-making skills, I can only heighten cleverness so far in a scene. But you can heighten specifics along the lines of your deal forever! I want to see you play to the top of your character’s integrity. I want to see how your specific character responds to this specific context. A simple example: say your deal is “Mr. Sad, the saddest man of all,” and someone says you won the lottery. Many people would “Yes, and” that idea and celebrate the lottery-win and drop their initial choice of sadness. But I want to see what happens if this lottery news makes Mr. Sad 1,000 times sadder. To this man, winning the lottery — for whatever surprising reason you choose to justify — is the death knell in his life. It’s over. Time to die! This gets us out of stereotypes and into right-brain discovery-land. When you fall into stereotypes, your left brain is trying to control the chaos via recognizable, referential choices that will keep your improv tied to the connotation behind each reference. It will trap you into ‘performing’ the reference correctly. Whether it be referencing facts, trivia, accents, imitations, whatever — now, both you and the audience expect you to do your improv ‘right,’ which is the death to freedom and creativity in improv. The way to break free of ambiguous or generic stereotypes is by pushing specificity. Susan Messing told a story once about how someone initiated by saying, “I’m so sorry; I heard about your abortion,” and Susan responded by lighting a cigarette, inhaling a drag, and saying, “Not me! Can’t wait to have another.” Surprise right off the bat! For those who worry about screwing with base reality and the logic of it all, no one is going to come up to after your improv show and compliment how logical you were, or how much you made sense, or stuck to what the audience anticipated or direction they thought it was going in. They are going to say, “God! You were so surprising! I didn’t see that coming!”

If you’re being specific, and still you’re not getting laughs, your scene may need an even bigger surprise. This is when you can use the power of curve balls to reignite your improv and pull an idea straight out of your right-brain. If you want to pull the rug out from under your scene or kickstart it, you can allowing yourself to slip, for a moment, into pure ideation. Then say the first thing that comes into your mind — like “word vomit.” This creates a curve ball. It can be something you say, it can be something you do, it can be a revelation you’re character has. It just has to be said all of a sudden and purposely unfiltered. The funniest things I’ve ever said in improv, I didn’t mean to say — they just came out in the moment spontaneously. Look — my brain provided a wonderful delight without me having time to censor or pre-think it. The audience can recognize this — they can always see when someone is improvising in the present. I think audiences are grateful — oh man, he/she really IS improvising, honey, there’s indisputable proof that this wasn’t written ahead of time! He/she took the risk. It’s dangerous improv. It’s fun. You can read some great examples of curve-balling in Mick Napier’s first book Improvise — this is where I learned the concept. You throw out a random idea, and then simply rope it into your character’s deal with justification. Easy, and fun. Improv would be a lot more fun if people surprised themselves and each other more onstage.

The attraction of this equation of believability + surprise applies to more than just improv. My friend and writer who I admire Derek Thompson recently wrote this essay in the Atlantic about what draws people to new inventions and design: a combination of familiarity and newness. We like our buttons to be pushed and imaginations stretched, but we want to know the ground we stand on.

Believability + Surprise = Laughter.