Friday, May 06, 2011

Difference Between Reality and Absurdity is Comedy

One of the benefits of teaching both adult improv classes (next starting May 16th) classes and children's improv camps (next starting June 20th) is seeing the strengths and weaknesses in both. The obvious difference is in energy. Kids can literally do improv games for 4 hours, run around for an hour at lunch, and be ready for another 4 hours afterward. It's tough to get a solid 3 hours of physical and mental effort out of adults. But below that difference is something deeper.

In a recent NPR story on what makes something funny, improviser Neil Casey from the renowned Death by Roo Roo discusses how patterns, what improvisers call "game", makes us laugh. But what kind of repeated patterns does our brain not only follow, but find amusing? The unexpected reality.

Children love to do absurd scenes. Give them the suggestion of kitchen and they'll be astronauts on sun trying to stop a bacon attack. Give that same suggestion to adults and they'll argue about whether there is too much flour in the cake. Adults love to do boring, often argumentative scenes. They like to play themselves. Where as kids like to play any but. Somewhere in the middle lies the ideal.

The title of this post is a quote from Bill Arnett, the director of the training center at Chicago's most famous improv theater, iO. In every scene we should establish a basic reality, but within that reality there should be a little absurdity. By my own calculation you need 99% real with 1% absurd. It isn't about astronauts fighting bacon. Or adults arguing about flour. But it can't be about married astronauts arguing about who's going to cook breakfast. A normal couple having a normal fight, just in space.

Here's an article the neuroscience behind it. Our brain is always trying to make sense about the present and the future. When those predictions are simultaneously affirmed and surprised, you have comedy. I know what an argument with my wife is like. Check. I don't know what space is like. Check. Let the comedy begin (tonight).

1 comment:

  1. From commenter Paul on Facebook:

    A lot of scientists think the EEG signal n400 is a neurological way of explaining how comedy and humor work. This signal is stimulated by a response to the semantics of language or signs. It could explain why children, with a more limited vocabulary of words and signs would be stimulated by absurd relations while adults would take a bit longer to process the information. In unscientific parlance, the n400 signal is the brain throwing his hands up and saying "huh?"


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