On Comedy

UCB Theatre, New York CityAs my dedicated fans are already aware (hi Mom!), for the last several months I’ve been heavily involved at the UCB Theatre here in New York. Basically I’ve gone from hiding behind the page to walking the boards without a net– but enough metaphorical mixology. Let’s talk about what I’ve learned over the last six months, shall we?

Point Uno: Three is a magic number.

Not four, not five, noither two (excepting that thou then proceedst to three). It’s the golden rule at UCB that every joke or “game” in a scene gets hit three times before the scene is over, and in the long-form improv structure known as The Harold each scene gets to make an appearance three times. Yes, it’s threes nesting in threes and while it seems a bit pedantic to count it out while you’re writing it sure helps to punch up an otherwise fuzzy scene.

Find the three strongest beats and pare the rest to the bone.”

Personally I’ve found it to be yet another weapon in the unceasing war on my “darlings.” I know some writers balk at Faulkner’s famous advice but I’ve found it to be a useful Occam’s Razor for getting at the heart of what I want to accomplish with a given piece of writing. In fact I think it pairs well with the advice Dr. Dorn offers the doomed playwright Konstantin in the opening act of Chekhov’s The Seagull: “Every work of art should have a definite object in view. You should know why you are writing, for if you follow the road of art without a goal before your eyes, you will lose yourself, and your genius will be your ruin.” (Project Gutenberg Translation)

The Rule of Threes is a gift that allows you to count the beats of a scene, find the three strongest and pare the rest to the bone. In so doing you clarify the scene for yourself and your audience. Use it and watch your writing become more like a one-two combo to uppercut and less like a series of pithy jabs.

Punto Due: You can’t write comedy.

The worst improv scenes happen when people are trying to crack jokes with the audience. Often this is because the improviser is uncomfortable and trying to distance themselves from the scene they are in, or they’re not really committed to the reality they’ve created. The crowd can sense that fear and lack of commitment and it doesn’t matter how funny your rant about airline food is, they will hate you for stepping outside of the stage-world.

The analogy in writing is that when you’re trying to write a “funny” scene, you’re going to end up with a bunch of hack jokes, stock characters and very likely some pretty offensive stuff. Not that comedy can’t jolt us out of our everyday reality with a coprophilic janitor bit every now and then, just that when you try to create distance between yourself and the characters on your page you’re going to piss off your audience.

It doesn’t matter how funny
your rant about airline food is.”

Write a scene actually exploring the horrible guilt and shame which coprophiliacs must deal with, such as when the janitor’s partner finds out what they’ve been up to and now you’ve got something. Why? Because everyone can relate to being ashamed, to hiding things from their loved ones, and to a hundred other terrible traits that make us all so damn human.

Now all you need are the three pieces of increasingly-undeniable evidence which the partner will find and you’ve got the makings of a funny/painful coprophiliac janitor scene on your hands.

All over your hands, in fact.

Point Three: What the scene isn’t about.

In improv scenes it’s REAL easy to get confused. Think about it: you’re on stage without a script, so at every moment you’re trying to communicate to your scene partner the vague images and ideas which are flashing through your head while simultaneously trying to keep up with the vague images they’re spitting back at you and of course all the while remaining in character, in location, and so forth. One mistake that’s REAL easy to make in all that confusion is letting a scene become about something besides the two characters onstage.

But you know what? As soon as the scene stops being about the two people on stage and starts being about “How do we get to Texas from here?” or “What did your wife say to you yesterday?” the audience is going to get REAL bored, REAL fast. Here’s why: those other things don’t matter. What matters are the feelings the two people on stage have for each other and how they are negotiating those feelings.

Ask yourself if your character is
trying to change the current situation.”

That’s drama. That’s the way we paint emotion into each other’s minds with the words we choose. We can say “Texas is that way, dummy” or “I thought you knew!” and those are both going to keep the scene cooking. But the moment we say “Let’s pack the car! What should we bring?” we’re talking about what a road trip looks like and not what we mean to each other.

Same thing happens on the page. I’ve been guilty of it many times, so for me it’s one of the classic signs of an amateur script. If I find myself getting bored as I read I’ll think, “What do these characters want? Do I know?” Nine times out of ten I don’t, either because the character’s don’t want anything in particular or– most often– because the author doesn’t know what they want, either.

When you’re heading into that second draft, take the time to look over each scene and assess whether your characters are really relating to each other. Of course a character can talk about the past or make a plan for the future — that’s what people do! But if your character isn’t trying to CHANGE THE CURRENT SITUATION by saying those things, consider putting that nice little monologue about their mother’s hands on the cutting room floor.

1 Comment

  1. Good advice all around. And what’s amazes me is that the stronger the craft becomes the more it disappears from the reader. Well, maybe a writer always reads analytically, but the “average” reader is not counting, yet s/he feels gut-level satisfaction in the balance of threes. It feels “right.”

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