A gym filled with bored-looking teenagers. An alienated 3-man rock band screaming about the desire for entertainment. It sounds like this.
A man trying to spook his date with a scary story. Dancing zombies. It sounds like this.
A strong woman declaring her worth and rallying others to do the same. It sounds like this.
Why do these music videos work so well? Why do we get scared by those shrieking Psycho violins or the Jaws bass? Why does that Benny Hill music suit a goofy sped-up chase sequence? In each case, we have an excellent marriage of image and music. The combination lifts both to a higher level.
Whether you know it or not, every scene you’re in also has music. Your voice is the instrument. Its tone, its volume and its pace communicate an enormous amount of information.
Don’t believe me? Watch a really bad actor. His words, his voice and his body are all saying different things. Not to pick on Hayden Christensen, but this is brutal.
This fails on nearly every level. He’s supposed to be seducing Natalie Portman. This scene has all the sexual tension of, well, sand. What he says isn’t sexy and the way he says it isn’t sexy. He doesn’t look at her. He flicks a rock (or something) in a really weird way. His cadence is off.
Contrast that to this.
Holy smokes. It doesn’t even matter what these two are saying to each other. Just ignore the words and listen to the cadence and the tone. You can hear Jennifer Lopez is playful, but Clooney is calm and steady. Eventually, J Lo matches his calm and steady tone. They’re ready to bone.
The Out of Sight scene will work if you close your eyes and listen. It would even work if you didn’t speak the language. It would also work if you turned down the sound. Note the falling snow, the soft lighting and the fact that Clooney almost never blinks. This is straight-up seduction. And when you marry the sound and the image, it works perfectly.
If you purposely choose to make your words incongruous to your tone and cadence, you can easily create comedy. The Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker team was expert at this. Many of their characters said absurd things straight. The incongruity results in a big laugh.
While directing a rehearsal of a sketch show, I noticed my performers had lost the music of their scene. While they stood in the right places and said the lines correctly, they’d done the scenes so many times, all the energy had fallen out of them.
To fix this energy lapse, I had them run the entire show, replacing their normal lines with gibberish words. They had to get me to believe their scenes without the crutch of funny lines. Suddenly, they relied much more heavily on their body language, as well as their volume, tone and cadence to convey the comedy. The characters and the scenes came alive again. I told them that as long as they played the “song” of each scene, the words were merely an added bonus.
Ask yourself if your scene would be funny if muted. Ask yourself if it would be funny in the dark. You don’t have to have both, but it sure helps. Why tie a hand behind your back?
When performing a scene, make sure to use your physicality, your voice and your words efficiently. Be sure to switch up which gets more attention from scene to scene. If you’re going to be incongruous, be so deliberately.
If you perform the song of your scene well enough, the audience will go home humming your tune.
Got an improv question? E-mail me at boilingpointimprov[at]gmail.com