The Comedy Equation

What makes people laugh? I believe it can be boiled down to an equation:

Surprise + Believability = Laughter.

The most obvious answer is Surprise. “I didn’t see that coming! Who ever thought he’d do that? Woah! Can you believe that’s how it went down?!” We laugh when we are caught off-guard, our anticipations subverted or paid off in an unexpected way.

But surprise in a vacuum is like watching too many episodes of Family Guy. I can only process random for the sake of being random so long before I check out.

We need the other part of the equation to make truly gut-wrenching comedy—and that’s believability.

In improv, this manifests as the audience truly believing in what’s going on. Suspending their disbelief to the point where they buy into your reality and the characters inhabiting it. What makes a character and context believable? I believe in The Annoyance Theatre’s philosophy of finding your character’s ‘deal’ at the top of an improv scene. What’s a ‘deal?’ It’s a contract you make with the audience about how your character is going to exist in the world. It can be described as finding a point of view (“I think…”) or an emotional state (“I feel…”) or an objective (“I need…”) or a desire (“I want…”). These are all equally great ways of describing a strong ‘deal’ at the top of the scene.

Because whether you like it or not, your audience is writing a story about who you are and how you are the moment you walk onstage. They are desperate to make meaning out of your actions; after all, watching improv is the most terrifying thing in the world. It is terrifying beacuse public speaking is the #1 reported fear of the human race, and improv is public speaking without the safety net of having a script. It is also the only art form where process is presented as product. In other art forms, a finished product is presented: the dance has been choreographed, the play has been written and rehearsed, the canvas of the painting has dried and been framed. Bad improv is the equivalent to strolling into an art gallery full of nervous artists poised over blank easels, waiting for the onlookers to give them a suggestion of what to paint and then looking over their shoulder to see if what they are painting is landing. So, the audience is intensely ascribing meaning to your choices the second you begin to improvise. That’s why the first thing you say or do and how you express it is a “deal” — you are creating a contract with the audience that your character will be such-and-such type of person.

When improvisers bail on their initial choices (sometimes out of wish to “yes, and” their partner’s choices or the context of the scene), the audience feels confused, even betrayed. They resent you because you didn’t stick to your end of the bargain, and it will be hard to get them back on your side. Sometimes they will even hate you for the rest of the show, even if later you are committing to your characters, because you broke their initial trust. Imagine if the artists improvising in that art gallery began painting only to crumple up the canvas 15 seconds in when their first brush strokes didn’t elicit a positive response. How frustrating would that be?!

(Quick sidebar: Bailing on a choice is different than a character organically evolving over time based on what happens in a scene. I’m referring to improvisers arbitrarily changing their ‘deal’ because they didn’t think it was good enough or working with the scene. It’s a surefire way to kill your improv — and your believability.)

And practically speaking, what’s the only thing you actually have control over in the whole wide world of improv? Your state of being — at the top of a scene. So while many improv schools teach walking on from a neutral point of view — to be open to anything — I find myself unable these days to not assume a point of view within three seconds of the scene beginning. I tend to get in my head if I stay in neutral too long, and the longer you wait to make a choice, the more overwhelming it feels to to create one. The improv train starts pulling out of the station the moment the scene begins; the longer you wait to get on-board, the harder it is to catch up. So, I start with an emotionally-driven ‘deal’ at the top of every scene I play.

If you are worried that committing to a personal ‘deal’ may not work with the context of the scene or your partner’s initial choices, imagine this: you walk on feeling like you are ‘hyperactive toddler,’ and someone says, “Mr. President, the Russians are on the phone.” This seems to be in direct conflict with your ‘deal.’ But it’s not. Now, you get to now play the ‘hyperactive toddler’ version of a President and gleefully ask, “Ok! Where’s the red button!!” If you enter and assume the physicality of a hormone-raging bully, and someone first says, “Yes, little girl, I’d like some thin mints,” then you get to now play the most monstrous, abusive girl scout of all time. In both examples, lucky you! You got gifted into an unusual context at the top of the scene and are improvising from an imaginative frame of mind! So, I always find it empowering to begin with a strong choice and know that I can make my ‘deal’ work with whatever happens in the scene.

Do you have to pre-think of a ‘deal’? I believe you can discover one in your body the moment you take a step onstage. There’s always something there if you just pay attention to what’s going on inside you for a split-second. Perhaps your right pinky is raised just ever so slightly…ah, of course you are the French Count De Felatio. Susan Messing told me a story of how she developed the character of Alice in Co-Ed Prison Sluts: The Musical at The Annoyance simply by improvising with eyes wide open. Her character’s ‘deal’ was “wide-eyed wonder,” and from that strong choice she aggressively created the content of her scenes in Co-Ed. So, while I think it’s OK to pre-think of a ‘deal’ before you walk on-stage; you also don’t have to — it is just as easy to slip into the ever-present impulses of your body onstage.

So, now you are playing a character believably. How do you surprise your audience? When talking about creating surprising content, it’s worth it to define the left and right hemispheres of our brain. Disclaimer: This is a little pseudo-science-y these days, but for our purposes in describing our state of mind while improvising, it works for me:

  • Left brain: rational, logical, the Excel spreadsheet, the part that wants to get improv “right” and do it “correctly.”
  • Right brain: goo-goo-ga-ga, baby brain, lizard brain, guttural, pure creativity, who just wants to have fun. When I want to demonstrate what the right brain feels like I make the sound I make when I play with my dog and shout, “qwwwwoooooooouhhh!!!” and literally make the motion of throwing a curve ball with my right hand.

Most of us in this age of information overflow allow our left brains to bully our right into daily submission. This happens frequently onstage in the act of ‘make-em-ups.’ It’s sad because most of us probably got into improv for the pure joy feeling of spontaneity and creativity that source from our right brains. Your left brain is a worrier and wants to control the chaos. It wants to play safe, keep you driving in the lane, find “the game of the scene” and stick to it. Your right brain wants to burn it all down and dance in the ashes!

So let’s look at how our left and right brains can serve us when it comes to specificity and suprise. Say you and your partner have established strong points of view and your scene is cruising along, but you aren’t getting many laughs. Your scene may be believable, but it’s not surprising. Perhaps you are playing safe, by sticking to the stereotypes your left-brain calls to mind about the context you are in. My advice: get unusually specific.

Instead of your left-brain worrying about where the scene is going next, focus your left-brain into thinking of all the ways you can show your character’s deal through specifics. See the world through your character’s emotionally driven, right-brain fueled ‘deal’ — like you’re wearing colored sunglasses and your ‘deal’ is that color. If the color is hot pink, then everything you see or do or say is filtered through the feeling of “hot pink.” Listen through your ‘deal’ and respond the way your character would as specifically as possible. Many mediocre improvisers think they’ve reached the horizon of how specific they can be in a scene, but great improvisers go over that horizon. There’s always more to explore. Even with simple phrases: you could say, “Shake my hand” or say, “Shake my right hand with your left hand” (try this and you’ll see what a weird handshake this creates). If you mention you just came from your hotel, invent an imaginary name of a hotel on the spot. I like to twist proper nouns before I say them, to skew my brain; for example, “Yes, I went shopping today at the Hot Misanthropic” (my left-brain thought of the store “Hot Topic,” but I twisted it in real-time into something unrecognizable and new that I can now play with). Suddenly, you’ve discovered an unusually specific choice.

I find this approach more helpful then the typical advice of “playing to the top of your intelligence.” First of all, I find that phrase condescending to the actor. Who walks onstage and isn’t trying to play to the top of his or her personal intellect? We’re not trying to be idiots up here. We’re trying to be clever as we can. But unless you possess super-human joke-making skills, I can only heighten cleverness so far in a scene. But I can heighten specifics along the lines of my deal forever! I want to see you play to the top of your character’s integrity. I want to see how your specific character responds to this specific context.

A simple example: say your deal is “Mr. Sad, the saddest man of all,” and someone says you won the lottery. Many people would “Yes, and” that idea and celebrate the lottery-win and drop their initial choice of sadness. But I want to see what happens if this lottery news makes Mr. Sad 1,000 times sadder. To this man, winning the lottery — for whatever surprising reason you choose to justify — is the death knell in his life. It’s over. Time to die! This gets us out of stereotypes and into right-brain discovery-land. When you fall into stereotypes, your left brain is trying to control the chaos via recognizable, referential choices that will keep your improv tied to the connotation behind each reference. It will trap you. The way to break free of generic stereotypes is by pushing unusual specificity. Susan Messing told a story once about how someone initiated by saying, “I’m so sorry; I heard about your abortion,” and Susan responded by lighting a cigarette, inhaling a drag, and saying, “Not me! Can’t wait to have another.” Surprise right off the bat! For those who worry about screwing with base reality and the logic of it all, no one is going to come up to after your improv show and compliment how logical you were, or how much you made sense, or stuck to what the audience anticipated or direction they thought it was going in. They are going to say, “God! You were so surprising! I didn’t see that coming!” And the weirder or crazier your character or context of the scene, the more I instruct performers to ground down into their characters so there is not a smidge of doubt you are indeed that cum-guzzling troll under the bridge who speaks in a French accent and wishes he could find love in his life.

What if you’re being specific and you’re still not getting laughs? Your scene may need an even bigger surprise. This is when you can use the power of curve balls to reignite your improv and pull an idea straight out of your right-brain. If you want to pull the rug out from under your scene or kickstart it, you can allowing yourself to slip, for a moment, into pure ideation. Unleash the first thing that comes into your mind — like “word vomit.” This creates a curve ball. It can be something you say, it can be something you do, it can be a revelation you’re character has. It just has to be said all of a sudden and unfiltered. The funniest things I’ve ever said in improv, I didn’t mean to say — they just came out in the moment spontaneously. My brain provided a wonderful delight without me having time to censor or pre-think it. The audience can recognize this — they can always see when someone is improvising in the present. I think audiences are grateful. They see that someone really IS improvising and doesn’t know what he or she will say next. It’s dangerous improv. It’s fun. You can read some great examples of curve-balling in Mick Napier’s first book Improvise — this is where I learned the concept. You throw out a random idea, and then simply rope it into your character’s deal via justification. Improv would be a lot more fun if people surprised themselves and each other more onstage.

One can even diagnose mid-scene why an audience isn’t laughing. It is likely either because the scene is too predictable and the audience knows where it’s headed (it’s not surprising), or it’s too random or the audience doesn’t believe in what’s going on (it’s not believable). There is a beautiful, sweet spot in improv where the scene is both believable but spontaneous, dangerous but with real stakes, confident yet unpredictable.

The attraction of this equation of believability + surprise applies to more than just improv. My friend and writer Derek Thompson recently wrote this essay in the Atlantic about what draws people to new inventions and design: a combination of familiarity and newness. We like our buttons to be pushed and imaginations stretched, but we want to know the ground we stand on.

Believability + Surprise = Laughter.

I teach improv in NYC and abroad. For more info, visit www.philipmarkle.com

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