Slamming Into the Side of a Boat

I snorted during the Super Bowl.

Melissa McCarthy’s Kia spot was to blame. I haven’t snorted at an ad in a long while. (Now I just need to dislodge that bit of carrot lodged way up in my nasal passages.)

The snort happened when Melissa hit the side of the boat. It’s not just the outrageous and unreasonable violence that miraculously doesn’t end in injury – a comedy staple. It was that my assumptions were snapped into reverse.

Stand-up comedians get that a joke is a reversal of assumption. The audience things they know where things are going. They have a lot invested in that direction and when it’s reversed, they experience a sudden awakening.

In the 1.5 seconds she was flying through the air, my mind said, “Oh, she’s going to land on the ship.” She doesn’t. She slams into the side of the ship. Leaving a body-shaped mark. 

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Audience assumptions are so powerful in comedy. It’s like judo where practitioners use the their opponent’s power against them.

In comedy, we don’t have to work so hard. Just give them something simultaneously obvious and unexpected. This isn’t an argument for absurdity or non sequitur. In this world, Melissa would of course hit the boat. We just don't see it coming.

And then there’s the body-shaped mark. I love that, too. Of course, she’d leave a body-shaped mark. That's what happens when you slam into the side of an ocean trawler.

 

If I Just Keep Trying...

Comedy is preposterous optimism.

Who does this in real life? Who gets up every morning, showers, shaves, breakfasts, gets into a car, goes to work, comes home, dinners, sleeps, repeats -  all while dreaming of another life?

If we just keep trying, we’ll succeed. Things will be different. We just need to keep trying.

Austin Powers just wants to turn around. Mr. Bean just wants to hold the bar of soap. This guy just wants to retrieve a rag. Simple needs. Made complicated by not knowing it's not going to work. So industrious. So blind. So optimistic.

Funny because at least it’s not us.  Wait, it is us. Hmmm...

There are still spots open for this February’s Comedy Isn’t Funny workshop ­– comedic performance, improv, spontaneous writing and absurd creative exercises designed to help comedy spring forth.  Hope you can join us!

When: Four Wednesday nights, 2/1-2/22 – 6:30-9:30

Where: FeelGood Studios, 307 5th St. San Francisco

 

Comedy Isn't Funny February Workshop

Are you an advertising creative looking to expand your comedic skill set? 

An actor or voice actor looking to embody comedic characters more authentically? 

Or a film/video director seeking to build your comedic powers?

Comedy Isn’t Funny is a weekly exploration into authentic comedy. Join us as we blend comedic performance, improv, spontaneous writing and absurd creative exercises, all designed to help comedy spring forth.

The course is based on Sam’s unique approach to comedy – the celebration of misguided human beings doing their best and never giving up hope. Laughter is appreciated but never assumed. And never, ever used as a marker of success.

When: Four Wednesday nights in February, 2/1-2/22 – 6:30-9:30

Where: FeelGood Studios, 307 5th St. San Francisco

How much: Special introductory rate of $280/session or $75/class

Secure your place today! Class is limited to 15 people! Email sam@pondsf.com

Guys, Shut Up Already

Authentic comedy is so easy.

1 - Take a human being.

2- Give them a misguided notion. (Here, a man's belief his ear for dialect is sexy.)

3 - Then pull the string.

Characters try hard. Authentic comedy doesn’t.

And look at her helplessness. She does what most of us would do. She sits there, stunned.

This spot had to be created by women. (Turns out it was.) Guys just don’t know that jabbering is the opposite of sexy.

And that’s why this is such a short post.

Tom Hanks and Compassionate Comedy

Like any decent liberal guy, I subscribe to Occupy Democrats on Facebook in order to get force-fed the latest Trump insanities. So when Occupy Democrats chucked this headline into my Facebook face, an electric current of giddy delight charged through me…

Tom Hanks Just Nailed Trump Fans In This Hilarious “Jeopardy” Skit!

Tom Hanks nailing Trump supporters? How great is that!? I was about to feel good about my cozy liberal agenda by laughing at the “deplorables” with Tom Hanks!  

But the SNL sketch was far different. Hanks plays a man who shares far more with the black community than either ever knew. He knows the answers to Black Jeopardy – answers that only black people were suppose to know.

Wait, I wanted the black folk to eviscerate a racist bumpkin. And what happens is the opposite – respect, common ground, laughter, mutual appreciation. And laughs.

According to screenwriting teacher Robert McKee, comedy exists to expose hypocrisy in institutions that need to be exposed. Comedy tells the truth. And in this sketch, the truth is not that black people have an interesting and entertainingly specific culture. Nor that disenfranchised white people are ignorant racists.

No.

The truth being revealed is these two groups have more in common with each other than they do with me. Tom Hanks’ Trump supporter isn’t the butt of the joke. It’s us liberals, leaning towards our screen, licking our chops, waiting the good hick-skewering. But Hanks delivers something so different – tenderness, confusion, wonder. It’s our own assumptions that black folk are going make a fool out of a hick that creates this wonderfully compassionate piece of comedy.

The art of comedy holds the absurd truth up to the mirror. We’re all in this together. Black people, Trump supporters and liberals. We’re all being stirred into a big murky stew. However, the first two ingredients are blending and the third is waiting for the next Occupy Democrats post.

Time to unsubscribe.

 

Peter Griffin Schools Advertising

Hey, advertising! Look at this! Something is happening!

I know, I’m always yammering on about how nothing happens in commercials.

Something happening doesn’t happen. Comedy depends on something happening. If something is not happening, all we have to look forward to is a slogan and a logo. And how entertaining is that? It’s not fucking entertaining.

Comedy depends on what comics call the second story. The first story – Peter Griffin complaining about a new kind of spit ball – fills us with assumptions. A really big spitball? A spitball with a homing device. With a face? 

The Family Guy writers know we’re in Peter Griffin’s world and we expect something un-spitball-like to happen, know they have to take it to the next level. Not a spitball -- rather an angry, insane, bucking, full-sized bull. 

 

When the story we make up is blown up beyond our assumptions, laughter happens. (I snorted the first time I saw this.)

I blame Judd Apatow and the ten-year wave of improvisational dialogue comedy. Nothing happens because the absurdity of arguing over nothing can be pretty damn delightful. (Seth Rogen and Paul Rudd in the “You’re so gay…” argument while playing Halo.) We’re caught in a world of mild absurdity. Something not happening is the joke.

But advertising has taken this ironic absurdity way, way too far -  into the world of safety. Where no one will be offended if nothing happens.

No one’s laughing either.

Vaporizing Dan

I love assholes in TV spots. There aren’t enough of them. They make us feel so… superior. We can’t help feeling that way. We’re socialized human beings.

Dan says very little but we know everything about him. In just eight or nine words. And the actor playing Dan doesn’t try to be an asshole. He just says his lines in the same way he’d say, “Hi. Can I get you a smoothie?” Assholes don’t know they’re assholes. They’re just doing their best.

Now most spots would end with the line, “Whatever you do, don’t marry Dan.” Followed by a knowingly wry smile by the heroine. And if they’re feeling really courageous, an eye-roll.

But no. Dan comes back and she kills him. (Well, vaporizes him. Same thing.) And it happens fast. While our brains are making the assumption the spot is over. Which caused me to snort. It’s the visual equivalent of falling out of the bottom of the frame. Which also makes me snort.

And notice the camera keeps the frame. Visual gags work best from one angle. Nothing kills comedy faster than a roaming camera. And notice in the wide shot, when she’s on the treadmill, there’s a space for Dan to fill. This unfilled space creates tension.

Great spot from Droga5. Now I’m going to meditate on all the choices I’d like to have back. I’ll be back to you in a year or so. 

Gene Wilder's Big Pause

Advertising has always done its best to kill comedic timing. And not just kill it. Give it a curb job. Real greaseball shit. Sure, we’re constrained by media but we fill it with features and benefits and cleverness and jabber. We need to create some space for characters to live, to breathe, to react.

In my classes, we don’t call it comic timing, rather comedic timing. Comic timing is designed to get a laugh. Comedic timing is the amount of time it takes a character to work through his/her thoughts. 

Some say you’re born with it. That can be true. Garry Shandling was once asked why he was so good at reacting. He replied, “If you grew up in my household, you’d be good at reacting too.”  If you grow up in madness, you get really good at waiting it out, making sure things are safe, digesting the insanity.

This paean to Gene Wilder’s timing is worth watching again and again. (If you can bear the appalling music which fills all the beautiful silence Mr. Wilder created.) His patience, his listening, the fearlessness he displays. You can see the wheels turning. Look at his eyes at 1:15. They’re telling us, “I want to make sure the sheriff understands so I’m going to pick my words carefully.” And when that word is “morons”… well, I don’t know how Cleavon Little kept a straight face. Actually, he didn’t.

 

Comedic timing is that moment when we figure something out. Sometimes in life, we’re so shocked we don’t know what to say. Sometimes we’re so angry we stammer. Sometimes we’re so in love we open out mouths and nothing comes out.

As a performer, silence can be scary. Pausing to digest what the hell is going on around you, feels like death. Action, on the other hand, feels like you’re accomplishing something. And all too often we’re not listening, we’re pushing through the moment.

In dying, Gene Wilder has created the ultimate comedic pause. No more talk, just silence. It would be funny if he weren’t so dead. He’s one of my heroes.

"I can't believe I ate that whole thing."

I felt like this last night. After a reunion of my high school drama club. When you don’t hold back on the hollandaise sauce, you pay the piper. Or maybe it was the singing of show tunes.

When you have an upset stomach, the world sucks. Your wife’s voice is grating. You can’t move. You can barely speak, let alone form unique sentences.

Isn’t it great?

And this spot would never have been made today.

Never would a character like this – heavy, not establishment-attractive, mired in bad mood, sounding like a dying bullfrog  – be allowed on screen.

Which is too bad.

Because this is what most of look and sound like. And it's funny. 

I just wish I'd gone easy on the hollandaise sauce.

 

Isadora Duncan Would Be Proud

I love it when I'm rewarded by something happening.

Most spots these days, nothing really happens. We’re treated to an absurd situation (often clever -- advertising is really good at this) which goes on and on and on. What are we rewarded by? A goddamned logo.

A true comedic hero has a goal and will do what makes sense to them to achieve that goal. I call it “taking it to the end of the line.” 

In this spot, a little girl performs a heartfelt dance embodying her unfathomable ennui over waiting eight more days to go to Great Wolf Lodge. She pulls out a full Isadora Duncan.

Now, if this were most spots, she’d just keep dancing until the logo is rudely thrown in our faces. But here, something happens -- she falls to the floor, the ultimate expression of her pain.

That would be incredibly satisfying to see. But here, we see it through the eyes of her fellow students as they watch her fall, the camera discovering her lifeless body on the classroom floor.   

These kinds of things make me happy. Now you know.