Laughter Builds


I've been doing a bit of work lately that has required me to articulate some work I'm accustomed to doing instinctively. Specifically, building comic structure.

[Big, protracted, pet-peevy sidenote: I do not understand the need for the word "comedic." It's very existence irritates me. There's probably some very specific, distinct reasoning behind its use, and I'd love for somebody to explain it to me, but even given a reasoned explanation I'll probably continue to literally cringe every time I hear it. Do we hear "tragedic"? No; we hear "tragic." Comic. Comic comic COMIC!]

So -- building comic structure. At some later date I'll address what's gotten me started so specifically on this subject, but it also looks to be useful work in preparation for our new curriculum for In Bocca al Lupo. Friend Heather and I have had to modify our lesson plans owing to two factors: 1) having students enrolled who have taken our workshops previously, and 2) having master classes with Italian actors who can certainly offer more insightful training in commedia dell'arte than we can. When we took a look at what we could offer that was new, relevant and supportive of the lessons others would be teaching, techniques for building comic (COMIC!) structures and sequencing came out at the top of the list.

It's funny (See what I did there?): This is the sort of thing that's generally considered to be a talent or instinct, similar to singing, or mathematics. We tend to equate the ability to construct comedy to one's sense of humor -- an intangible mix of givens and environmental influences that somehow result in one person "being funny," and another, not so much. AND we tend to equate "having a sense of humor" with being funny, which is right off. After all, you can be completely incapable of telling a joke or pulling off a fall, yet still enjoy a fine appreciation of others' comedy. In other words, we are adrift in a mire of assumptions and generality when it comes to the larger subject of humor. Sure, there are comic prodigies, just as there are mathematical ones. The fact is, however, that building comic structure is an ability, a skill, and it can be learned and honed.

But how do you teach that?

I've put together a lot of theories, and some are more tested than others. Certainly the bulk of the work we've done in Zuppa del Giorno has given me experience to draw from, both in the form of what's helpful to building a comic story, and what's more of a "what not to do" lesson. We have developed many exercises and guiding principles in our work that apply to this more-general challenge, and we are lacking in some areas due to the specificity of our work. We're never focused solely on "making something funny"; rather the emphasis is on "making a contemporary commedia dell'arte story," or "making a new story in the style of silent film." This is an interesting point to notice in and of itself -- that once the techniques are ingrained, you need a specific focus in order to use them effectively. Breaking down the techniques themselves, however, takes some new, encompassing thoughts and actions. The danger here is in over-generalizing.

To my mind, the ultimate goal is to offer to the students as many useful ways as possible to get them in a mode in which they are excited to build the story. When that enthusiasm sets in("enthusiasm" is a better word for it), creating a comedy becomes more about communication and the collaboration than it is about fear or getting it "right." This can be said of any collaborative effort, but I find it particularly essential to comic storytelling. For all my perceived poo-pooing of the role of instinct in developing comedy, there is a very distinctive feeling that overcomes us when we really hook into a fruitful collaboration, and the better taste of that we can offer the students the better they'll understand what to aim for and how to guide themselves in future efforts. Teaching that is the way to teach them to fish for themselves, rather than simply slapping a fish down on the table.

Of course, there's more to it than that, especially if you're aiming for (as we are) teaching how to build good comedy. There's the rhythm, and the notion of threes, and contrast, and reversal of expectation, and separation of beats, and the logical absurdity (thank you, Gary C. Hopper) . . . and a bunch more, I'm sure. There is, in other words, no shortage of theory and technique to be instructed and applied, which is very good for us. But the thing to focus on in on, it seems to me, is the build. Find the build, and the comedy follows.
 
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