19 December 2006

Three is funny.

There are quite a few axioms in Comedy. (I choose here to make a distinction between "comedy" and "Comedy"; comedy is when you pay $10.75 for the privilege of seeing the other half of the jokes, those not exposed in the trailers, and Comedy is the process of making the funny sans benefit of editing and CGI [I briefly considered making the distinction between the terms the way we {read: Americans} do with theater/theatre, but "comedye" looks too much like an emo band name.]) Some axioms that spring readily to mind:
  • Three is funny. Generally speaking, there's something about repetition in threes that just works.
  • It's all in the timing. Both an axiom and a warning akin to "Starve a cold, feed a fever." Some people think the funny relies on volume and energy, and these so-called people should be dragged into the street and shot.
  • Never work with children or animals. They will always upstage you.
  • Always work with children and/or animals. They are often unpredictable, hence always funny. This is a producer's rule, and, therefore, inherently flawed.
  • Wear a funny hat. Ridiculous? Cheap? What are you, Richelieu?
So we have these "rules," wheresoever they may spring from. Some are fond of saying they definitively come from the vaudeville tradition but, frankly, I think vaudeville is more likely responsible for developing them into one-liner phrasing. Chances are that these ideas stretch about as far back as any oral tradition. My opinion in this is, of course, biased by the fact that I have devoted a certain percentage of my adult (HA!) career (HA-HA!) studying Commedia dell'arte and adapting it into a contemporary context. So I have become a little concrete in my views of evolving performance traditions, at least insofar as my belief that everything-steals-from-everything goes.

As a result of my associations, I began to wonder yesterday (yesterday's when I thought in actual language, the idea's been floating about in me for sometime in the form of a mental, "Huh...") if a particular axiom of comedy and a certain law of improvisation weren't existing in conflict to one another.

(Interestingly enough [to me, anyway], yesterday I also impulse-bought a movie, Imagine Me and You, that I had impulse-seen about a year ago. One of the cleverer bits of dialogue involves a paradox: What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object? This leads me to be more willing to accept that the question I'm about to pose is unanswerable, which, in turn, leads me to question how much credence romantic comedies bear in my worldview.)

So here they are:
In improvisation, the players must say "yes" to one another in all things.
In comedy, contradiction and reversal of expectation are funny.
Sew. Perhaps it isn't an omnipotence paradox, but if you've ever been on stage and trying to make a scene fly, it sure as hell can feel omni-important. I'd be curious to hear anyone's comments on this. I'm aware that it's not directly contradictory. In a given improvisation, you can introduce elements that defy expectation, and your scene partner(s) can support that choice, and/or supplement it with more surprises. The contradiction humor, however, is virtually impossible to incorporate into free-form improv. As an (admittedly stilted) example of what I mean:
"Konstantine, we've got to get to Moscow."
"I've got the perfect solution."
"You know how you've always been good at yodelling?"
"And I've always been an excellent knitter?"
"And we are descended from the Czars, and our favorite band is The Exploding Yurts, and we can seduce any woman so long as Saturn is in retrograde?"
"Da, da and da!"
"Then all we have to do is invent a knitted iPod that fits into a woman's hiking pack and comes preloaded with The Exploding Yurts covering 'Styurgenburginfjordinhewt-yay-hee-hoo,' stamp it with the royal seal, and we'll make enough to finally, finally get to Moscow. Whadaya say?"
"What? For God's sake, why not?"
"You never say 'please' anymore."
I wish I had enough of a grasp of Russian vernacular to translate "whadaya."

Okay, admittedly, the dialogue sucks. But I assure you the structure is classic. And in a free-form improvisation, you can't use it. Why? Because negation of ideas in an improvised scene that has no underlying structure almost guarantees that you'll send the scene into a dizzying downward spiral of bickery and waffling (sounds like excellent UK cuisine, but terrible to happen on stage). Now, sure, if you have pre-agreement that the scene will end in a particular way or something will be accomplished by the end (structured improvisation, see Commedia dell'arte) you can certainly bicker, because your characters are nice and established, and the goal is imminent and agreed. Creating all on the fly, however, is another matter.

Normally, what happens in this scenario is the "yes" law trumps the "contradiction" axiom. The object continues to exist. And that's fine. But I find it fascinating that rules of comedy and rules of improvisation may be in conflict. In this sense, we prioritize of necessity the scene above the laugh. That's as well as may be (theatre teachers from my past are bristling with potential indignation) but are we, in some cases, gypping our audiences? Is there one among us who is not guilty of breaking that cardinal rule once (or twice) because s/he could practically precognate the uproariousness of their audience?

Another rule of comedy is:
  • Defy all rules.
That one rather speaks for itself.

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