Status Anxiety for Fun and Profit

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Status based comedy is some of my very favorite comedy, and yet I don’t see it played as the primary dynamic in improv often. So here are my ideas on main ways status can comprise the driving force for a scene.

1) A race to the top/bottom

2) A comedy of errors

3) Mixed status as character

Ok, the basics of “status” in comedy is the idea that a person can have high or low status: a king or a beggar, the CEO or the cleaning lady. In learning about status we take it further; noting that there are not only 10s (sultan, quarterback, secretary of state) and 1s (urchin, terminally ill hobo) but all shades in between. A high status character may be surprisingly low status when put in a different situation; the intern suddenly has higher status than a senator when she reveals a tape with which to blackmail him.

The point is that there are a variety of factors which control status. Status is also a quality which can exist independently of other characters in a scene. Some high status characters are low-status with regard to objects or parts of themselves: the quarterback has trouble with his computer, the editor is very clumsy, the vicious boss can’t console her infant son when he is brought in to the boardroom, or the prince has an uncontrollable lisp –which puts him at odds with himself, even as he is in control of others.

With status as the basis for comedy we laugh at two things: unexpected reversals of status or the status pattern of a character that continually heightens the repercussions of their own weaknesses. Put another way; your luck changes relative to someone else’s luck or you keep bringing the same kind of luck upon yourself because of personal flaws like hubris, cowardice, greed, perversion, or stupidity. Yes, we all laugh at these things.

1)      A Race to the Top/Bottom: the competition dynamic

We often caution ourselves against getting caught on stage in an unfunny conflict over who is higher status. This is something we try to avoid because it is rarely done with any intention. If no one understood the underlying joys of a Straight/Absurd dynamic it is easy to imagine that we’d try to avoid going “too crazy” on stage. “Don’t go too crazy!” we’d say “You don’t want to alienate your scene partner by being unfathomably outlandish or weird.” – but, of course, we don’t say these things because we understand that the Absurd character and the Straight character both have responsibilities in heightening the scene intelligently. The same is absolutely true of a scene about the competition to be top dog.

Status reversals are at the heart of the race to the top/bottom type of comedy. A good example of a race to the top is the episode of 30 Rock where Kenneth the page is competing with the head page to get the job with the Olympics, or the episode of Michael and Michael Have Issues where the two Michaels compete with each other to impress their intern. In these scripted sketches it is paramount that one character “win” a point, only to be bested by the next heightening move. The trade off, the reversals, are what keep the dynamic alive and fascinating. This seems simple to say, but if you are in a scene where old-school your mama jokes are being exchanged and neither character is stung by their sparing partner’s insults, you do not have a funny scene. If, on the other hand, each insult completely changes who is top dog – something amusing is likely to be happening. If you are in a scene where two law men want control of this here El Paso outpost, each has to be vulnerable and tough; if one man insists that he is the fastest draw in the west he is. And that is a problem. Good thing you’re the most efficient cup-cake maker in the west, and most importantly, that this is an equally devastating revelation for your competitor.

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So what is the race to the bottom? It is the twin of the race to the top: it is always a race toward a valued position of debasement. Two peasants might compete to be servile, two priests to be self-sacrificing, or two girls-gone-wild to be objectified. A wonderful example is this Monty Python sketch:

(also, it is a fact that the grandmasters of status comedy are Larry David and the whole of the British people).

2) Comedy of Errors,aka you do it to yourself, you do and that’s what really hurts

This type of comedy is based on providing extreme discomfort. Ricky Gervais’ character will always lose at life. Something very bad, that is over half his fault, will happen to Larry David at least five times every episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm. Everyone on Pulling will make it worse till it don’t get no worse, then find a new kind of terrible to fall to.

Losers losing makes us laugh when they BRING IT ON THEMSELVES. We normally don’t laugh when a character is just “picked on” by everyone – we laugh when they invite it, or their own error continually brings them down.

However, we also laugh at the comedy of errors that involves those that shouldn’t win, winning anyway. Ron Burgundy, Ricky Bobby, Jack Donaghy are the American flavor of this dynamic. They make us laugh just as hard when they are on top as when they hit bottom. We laugh at winners wining when they inexplicably overcome the obstacles of their own flaws. A king ruling won’t make us laugh; though a foolish king overcoming the (justified) derision of others will make us laugh. Eastbound and Down is proof positive that the only thing funnier than a loser bringing catastrophe onto themselves, is a loser driven to win and his unlikely triumphs. Also see, “Homer Simpson.”

3)Mixed Status as Character

By its self high status isn’t funny. Low status isn’t funny. But, mixed statuses ARE funny.

Outside of the type of scenes enumerated above, scenarios in which status cracks us up are often based on the fact that no one is a 10 or a 1 really in life: all people have high status parts and low status parts. Common types are successful because they pair high and low status in a way that delights us.

Dumb Blonds /Sexually Desirable and Stupid

Joey (friends), Cerie (30 Rock), Vince Noir (The Mighty Boosh)

Absent Minded Professor/ Socially Inept Intellectual

Dr. Zoidburg (Futurama), Dr. Fink (The Simpsons), Moss (The IT Crowd)

Impotent Rich Man/ Wealthy and Powerless

Mr. Burns (The Simpsons), Andy Bernard (The Office),  Helen Harris (Bridesmaids)

Brilliant Child/ Wise or Clever + Naive

Kenneth (30 Rock), Lisa Simpson, Southpark (the whole show)

In Summation: look and be aware if you are in a race to the top or bottom scene. If you are in that scene, remember that the laughs come from reversals, so you have to trade off to make laughs. If you are in a comedy of errors you are either a wining loser or a loosing loser: a winning loser overcomes obstacles (that they brought on themselves) while a losing loser fails gloriously and has himself to blame. If you are just playing status as a character choice, mix it up. Complex status (a 10 status quality + a 1 status quality)  = Comedy. A simple high or low status won’t stand on its own as a driving force for a scene.

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Do you have a wiwii?

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I wanted to begin this post with a video of the song Mission 1: Avoid Job Working with Assholes. But I couldn’t find a video of that.

 

 

Ok, back on the point of why I wanted to post Mission 1: Avoid Job Working with Assholes. That song has the most gleeful refrain regarding ambition I have ever heard. The weird nasally-voiced singer croons “These are Ambitions! Goals! Goals!” and anytime I am trying to get pumped up about the things I want in life I sing that to myself. Goals are exciting and fulfilling them is one of life’s greatest pleasures.

Improv is a world where it is very important to keep your goals in mind; paradoxically, few improvisers seem to have well articulated goals. While you are in classes the standard of what growth and achievement look like are pretty set for you, but as soon as you are in a troupe or have graduated the picture gets more complex. Does your group want to perform at festivals, tour, make videos, or have a run of shows at the theater? If you have been performing for a while what personal performance goals do you have? What goals do you have about your involvement in the improv community beyond performing?

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We are all very lucky to be part of an improv community that provides workshop opportunities, performance opportunities, and all kinds of other ways to heighten our personal improv game at every level, but it is also invaluable to look ahead.

So we all could use a WiWii: a written out plan of What I Want In Improv. It is your list of big picture goals. I update mine every few months and have a genuine feeling of accomplishment when things occur that I’ve long looked forward to, such as taking an improv intensive in Chicago or teaching a workshop. I also get to remind myself about ideas I’ve had that are harder to work on or that get pushed to the periphery (writing scripts). When a wonderful opportunity shows up out of the blue, I add it to my plan and then immediately cross it off! That way I keep a running tally of both accomplishments I planed for, and those that happened spontaneously.

In a collaborative atmosphere like the New Movement you will be presented with a wide array of options and requests for involvement. Without a WiWii it will be tempting to say either “yes” or “no” to things on a whim. Looking back you may wonder “Why did I say I would be in six side troupes?” or “I wish I had said that I would like to do that poetry-show in the future. I only said ‘no’ because I was busy that week.” A compass is valuable in this collaborative territory.

I really recommend writing or typing out a list of what you want. The physical act will help you feel satisfaction, and it will force you to think of this whole adventure as one that you’re leading, toward your own glorious objectives.
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I wish I could get Hafiz to Coach Improv.

This one poem reminds me of the moment when people get on stage and make eye contact with each other at the tipy-top of a scene. Each asks the other for guidance and trust with that look. If only we could use our eyes to give instead of request.

With That Moon Language

Admit something:
Everyone you see, you say to them, “Love me.”
Of course you do not do this out loud, otherwise someone would call the cops.
Still, though, think about this, this great pull in us to connect.
Why not become the one who lives with a full moon in each eye
that is always saying,
with that sweet moon language,
what every other eye in this world is dying to hear?

-Hafiz