22 July 2013

How Two: How To How Too

I recently took part in the Providence Improv Festival with some crazy people. It was great— good food, cool hangs, fun shows. Even some cool food (late night Haven Bros milkshake) and good hangs and really fun shows (it was hot out, so there weren't any cool shows). Some guys got tattoos.

ANYWAY, "What's the deal with meta humor?" is what I kept asking myself. I was uncomfortable hearing joke after joke in an improv show about the improv show that was happening right at that moment.

I'm talking someone sits and is driving and says some lines and their scene partner says some lines and then the first person interrupts what they're saying to point out how they're going to take the car off cruise control and use their foot because they just remembered that even though tons of people drive with cruise control all the time you have to use your foot because that's the "right" kind of object work for driving a car during an improv show.

Was that painful to read? It was painful to write. I'll be more succinct. I knew you were driving a car. It wasn't clear you knew how to steer the scene.

Worse, I was in a scene that my partner initiated about not being sure which web browser to use. Before I had a chance to respond, two other improvisers stepped off the line to start commenting on the scene as people listening in, talking about how bored they were. I packed up my tablet in my shoulder bag. I realized I forgot my pen and put that away. I fidgeted. I checked my phone. Finally, there was a pause and I said the thing I knew from the moment I sat down, that my partner was the President.

I shouldn't complain. I promised a friend I'd try harder not to. It's always good for an audience to get these little personal bits, don't you think? Helps the pathos. Hey, that wasn't fun to read either, was it?

Trust me, fellow improvisers. You don't have to save a scene that hasn't even started.

ANYWAY, what's the deal with all the meta humor? I like it, I think. I used to. I didn't like it this past weekend. Turns out it limits the art form by not allowing people to discover meaning through mistakes. It doesn't show anybody anything, it just tells them what they already saw.

Think about what meta humor does to you internally. It takes you outside the moment, outside of the group mind you and your team just built, and makes you a commentator. You're not down on the field making a play, you're up in the booth with a matching shirt and tie set you bought at Sears talking about a play someone else made. Is that where you want to be?

Think about what meta humor does to your team. You just made fun of one of them. Did you just instill them with fear that's going to keep one of their great ideas stuffed up in their head? Are they going to support your great idea (if you have one)? Or are they going to lock you in the trunk while everyone else has pizza and beer?

Think about what meta humor does to your audience. They're supposed to be poets and geniuses, and maybe they feel like they are because they know some of the conventions and follow what you're saying. But that's only because they respect the art form and like to feel connected to the performers. They feel like they're part of the in crowd. Great! Except that has nothing to do with being poets or geniuses.

Worse, if your audience, or some of them, don't know conventions, you're now talking over them. That's pretty condescending, asshole. Or, at least, confusing. But they're certainly not going to make some crazy connections the performers didn't even see because you pedantically drew attention to something they'd a) already fucking seen and b) already fucking forgotten. They're creating meaning, just let them do it.

Hey, did you see how I did three paragraphs that all started the same way? That's funny, because if you do three things, it's the magic incantation ritual for making funniness.

On a more ethereal, heady level, what'd you just do to the piece of art your team was creating? That piece of art is made up of all that stuff, you, your team, the audience, your great ideas, your teams great ideas, your audience's great ideas, and everyone's mistakes. Except you cut down all of that down to put in a parking lot.

An improv show is a pretty tough cookie, like the kind you have to dunk in milk for the entirety of watching a VHS copy of Titanic with your mom. You probably had fun. So did your team and your audience. B+ level shows will do that. But maybe nobody had the fucking most fucking fun they've ever fucking had. Almost certainly, nobody had their mind blown out of one side and then back into and then back out of the other side of their head.

I liked that cookie joke, you guys.

Commenting on something rarely ever changes, improves, flips, twists, double-spit-takes, alters, heightens, wobbles, recasts, or fucking moves anything. It just saran wraps it so we can all be like, "well, even if I want to, I'm not going to be the first one to break into this delicious looking bundt cake."

I'm not saying don't do meta humor. I'm not saying it's unfunny. I'm saying it's a thing that can make what could have been an amazing show into just a decent show. You're not going to lose ticket sales or friends over it. But you're not going to get a whole lot of new ones.

Meta humor robs potential from the show, from you, your team, and your audience. You miss a chance for new meaning to just happen on its own. Maybe it was going to smell awful. I don't know, you didn't let me check it out. But maybe it was going to smell like a banquet that would make Christmas at Hogwarts blush.

Yeah, I know that was an awkward mixed metaphor/anthropomorphism thing, but we got through it together.

ANYWAY, one more story, because those are relatable or something.

During a show at this festival, some improvisers flubbed a tag-out and didn't leave the stage smoothly as they're expected to when tagged out. So another improviser entered, tagged everyone, and when they all started actually leaving the "right" way, said, "Hey, where's everyone going?" The theme I saw before that in the show was people leaving. Yeah, it was meta humor, but it served the show, because they had a scene started about everyone always leaving this lonely guy.

And THAT is the subtle thing I hope everyone keeps in mind about meta humor. It's not bad. It's not against the rules. But it can, and usually does, take you and everyone present outside of what's happening. If you can stay inside with meta humor, go ahead and enjoy that sweet spot, like the sweet spot at the center of a cookie that's been soaking in milk for four hours (it's kind to rewind).


TJS said...

Yes and meta can be a cheesy way to negate partners.
Yes and inside jokes are a great way to take an inside scene outside.

Unknown said...

Well said, Tobias.

Unknown said...

"Worse, if your audience, or some of them, don't know conventions, you're now talking over them. That's pretty condescending, asshole. Or, at least, confusing"

Does that sort of statement continue to work with regard to history or culture in place of convention that is used succinctly but the audience doesn't know the referent?

Unknown said...

I think it does, to an extent. The difference is that meta humor functions like an inside joke because it's about what you're doing. A reference isn't an inside joke. Your audience, or even one person, might know way more about it than you do.

Probably good to keep in mind that if we spend too much time worrying about what audiences potentially know and don't know, we're not going to get a lot of actual performing done.