When Wrong is Right

When playing with my young nephews, I notice there is something universal about the appeal of misbehavior.  Whether it’s Adam and Eve eating from the Tree of Knowledge, Pandora opening that box or Dorothy fleeing the Yellow Brick Road, the excitement begins when a character simply does the opposite of what they’re told.

My nephews.

With the boys, it’s as simple as telling them (playfully) not to do something.  When they do it, and I pretend to be mad, they always laugh.  Always.

In polite society, we usually do what we’re told.  There are consequences to rule-breaking.

In comedy, rule-breaking is fundamental.  The Three Stooges.  Bugs Bunny.  The Marx Brothers.  Animal House.  We love the vicarious thrill of seeing a character doing something we would never do in real life.  Importantly, there are no lasting consequences for the misbehavior and these characters always get away with it in the end.

Check out this amazing scene with Liam Neeson from Life’s Too Short.

What’s funny about that?  Neeson states his objective is comedy.  Then he fails at comedy over and over.  Stephen Merchant and Ricky Gervais repeatedly tell him AIDS isn’t funny.  Over and over, Neeson mentions AIDS.

When I coach, I repeatedly tell improvisers, “Don’t do that,” means, “YOU MUST do that.”  The audience desperately wants to see the consequence.  Often, the person issuing the command is in higher authority and audiences love seeing the superiors suffer.

It’s important to note that misbehavior for misbehavior’s sake is rarely funny.  Tom Green humping a dead moose reeks of desperation.  The key to humor is the explicit (or occasionally implicit) request or command from one character and the direct violation from another character.

Doing exactly what is requested of you is helpful to advance a scene, especially if it’s a low-stakes request (e.g. passing the salt, washing the dishes, providing customers with the food they ordered).  But if it’s a high-stakes request (e.g. never shake a baby, don’t feed the Gremlin after midnight, never push the History Eraser Button), the entire audience will lean forward in anticipation of the consequences.  Use that to your advantage.

Got an improv question?  E-mail me at boilingpointimprov[at]gmail.com

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