LIFTING THE LID


There are many skills to learn in improv and some people use the metaphor of a 'tool belt' - IO legend Bill Arnett says this is an unhelpful way to look at our training as having the tool isn't as important as recognising when we need to use the tool. Learning improve therefor is more like archaeology, when you first find a bone you need to work out what it is for and where it goes, then look for all of the rest of the bones that you are looking for. 

There’s a saying about dissecting jokes, it goes something like this.


Frogs hate being dissected. When a frog is dissected it dies a slow and painful death, and as you rip out its insides you might hear it plead for its life with one final shallow lifeless croak. The only way you can ever really understand how a frog hops around is by killing it. The only downside is that you are left holding a dead frog in your hands, and some people will try to make you feel guilty about your scientific investigation.


I feel strongly that within comedy is a truth which we fail to see under normal circumstances, written between the words, said between the sentences, we hear a message, and our laughter is the key to identifying these truths. From this truth we find meaning, purpose and expression. 


Laughter can be voluntary, but for this post I am only concerned with involuntary laughter. It is that which is not said, but that which plays out in our minds which makes us laugh. We will often laugh at a joke and then question our own taste if the subject seems harsh - but beneath this something more simple is going on, there is an underlying truth. We all experience a voice in our heads telling us what we ‘should’ do, but this voice robs us of our freedom and our creativity.


Physical consciousness is separation, we are alone in our bodies. In order to survive one another we must find and agree on rules for society. From birth we are trained to behave in a way which benefits us all as a group. There are behaviours expected on grounds of social decorum, and behaviours which are not. Comedy is about noticing the expected pattern of behaviour and interrupting it. As Robert Provine explains in his book ‘Laughter’ - with his benign violation model (adapted below).




Throughout history it has been the job of the shaman and the trickster to travel to other worlds and return to tell stories of their experiences.


For something to be funny, it requires 3 things. Expected boundaries - ie a premise which is broadly expected to be recognised as what we would do or what we would recognise someone else doing. This is our benign reality and is the platform from which we must start, in improv we might call this the base reality or the who, what where. When considering a premise, it is important to remember that all meaning is fluid depending on context. The context is set up in a certain direction, along which it is expected to continue, like a car on a motorway.


Think about what it feels like to drive a car, we feel a connection to the ground as we turn, as if we are the car or the car is an extension of us. We use cutlery as an extension of our own arms, we are cyborgs. We create a world inside of our heads to process information. When we hear a premise, we create our own mental model. The degree to which the audience can identify with the premise, the more involved they become.


Next, we need an ‘interruption’ to this pattern, something unexpected and unusual to throw us off course. Key to this though is the third requirement. Safety or survival, anything which guides us back to the original path, perhaps with a new perspective. Walking down the road may be benign, walking down the road and tripping over a banana skin would be unexpected but it wouldn't be as funny if the person split their skull open and their brain fell out. This reinterpretation causes us stress, our model for the world is wrong and needs to be brought back to reality with the punch. In between the premise and the punch is the space where the magic happens. The power of the joke is locked within the words, and unlocked within the audiences mind.  


In recreating laughter we must be sensitive of its parts. Without a premise, safety and reinterpretation are abstract. Without safety, expectation and reinterpretation are offensive, and without a reinterpretation our expectation and safety are boring. These processes happen inside of the mind of the viewer. To that end we can say that laughter has an evolutionary function, all primates laugh and laughing behaviours tend to happen within socialised groups to build trust and community. Laughter then is a social tool.

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