When writing or performing a comedy scene, you might be ok with the audience calling it weird. Or confusing. Or even off-putting.
But whatever they do, don’t call it predictable.
The label of being “repetitive” is something that writing and improv students try to avoid harder than they try to avoid booing audiences. If I were to make the heinous suggestion “that thing you just did—do it again” to a student, I know often times I’m going to get the stink-eye in return.
Sally creates a mortician character who makes a gruesome pun (“I’m kinda in a rotten mood today.”). And it works. And the audience loves it. What does Sally do next with the mortician character? Maybe she has her say she’s leaving the funeral business to become an archaeologist. Or has her order a ridiculous amount of food from Uber Eats. Or have has her put music on and start flossing.
Anything but make another gruesome pun.
None of those alternatives to it really work, though, and Sally can’t quite figure out why.
Just do one thing
So I’ll give the answer, and you can give me all the stink eye you want: we, the audience, want that mortician character to keep doing what she’s doing. Make that next pun (“I’m getting buried in my work”).
The key to comedy scenes is focusing on that one funny thing. And that’s it!
Look at this clip from the sketch show Whitest Kids U Know:
Trevor Moore keeps doing the same thing of blatantly saying phrases about how he wants to kill the president. The writers could have definitely taken him on a different journey after saying it once, and have him do impressions of the president or visit a band and start asking them for more cowbell, but that would have been a disappointment, and it would have been an unmemorable sketch.
Here’s one of the most famous TV movements ever from I Love Lucy, where Lucy is auditioning for a commercial. The vitameatavegimin drink gets her more and more wasted with every take of her audition:
If they would have had her do one take and then had her do ANYTHING else (eating chocolate from an assembly line included), it would have ruined the scene, and we would not be talking about it today.
How to avoid the predictable trap?
I do sympathize with the fear of being too predictable and repetitive. In fact, if Trevor Moore would have kept saying the exact same phrase or if Lucy would have stayed the same level of inebriated throughout, it would have been those things.
There are some ways to make sure you stay out of the trap of the audience knowing your next move before you know it.
I talked all about this concept in my article, Visiting Crazy Town, so read more there if you want a full plan on how to do it. But the short of heightening is that it’s doing something, and then doing it again in a bigger way.
A man who hates surprises is given a surprise birthday party and hates it. He’s then given a surprise trip to Ikea. Then a surprise visit to the dentist’s office. In this case, the thing that’s being heightened is the ridiculousness of the event he’s being surprised with.
Look at one of the most classic comedy scenes ever: the mirror scene from the Marx Brothers movie, Duck Soup.
If Groucho would have continued to do different arm movements and faces to try to trick Harpo (his image), then yeah, it would have been repetitive. But him going from the butt wiggle to the spin to the hat (and Harpo doing some necessary cheats) makes the scene have a natural build, and it’s why it’s been imitated so many times over the years.
2. Take a break
If you did a one-minute scene, then you could have the joke go on non-stop, and then then SMASH, it’s over. But if you’re having something go on longer, you need to take a break from the main joke every so often, otherwise risk it burning out. The good news is this will make the funniness land even harder when you return to it.
Duck Soup did this in the moments where Groucho was plotting his next way to trick his “image.” Lucy did this in between commercial takes.
Look at this Saturday Night Live sketch, “Get off the Shed,” which has the incredibly simple concept of Will Ferrell yelling at his kid to get off the shed. It’s almost five minutes long (as is almost all their sketches), but what keeps it going is the downtime between his yelling.
This downtime allows for tension to grow, so every time he screams again and makes a more heightened threat, it’s even funnier.
Let’s talk about surprise, and no, not a trip to the dentist’s office.
The best way to avoid being predictable in a comedy scene is…to not be predictable.
Stink eye coming!! I’ll explain!
You have to anticipate what the audience is thinking, and then break that expectation in some sort of way. Keep in mind that the audience isn’t dumb. We know that Lucy is going to mess up the commercial again. We know that Will Ferrell is going to yell at his son to get off the shed. We know that Harpo has something up his sleeve for Groucho’s hat trick.
What throws us off guard is how it’s done. Harpo coming in with his own hat, and it working, breaks the expectation. And also Chico coming in at the end dressed like another Groucho is a surprise that ends the scene in a funny AF way.
Sometimes the other techniques used in conjunction creates that surprise. We have a break from the funny thing in the scene, we’re anticipating it, maybe we’re even thrown a fake-out, and then we’re hit with a heightened move we’re not expecting.
This Key and Peele sketch does it well:
We know Jordan Peele is somehow going to “get” his co-worker again. But when it’s revealed that he’s under him on the toilet, the shock makes it way funnier. We also know him dying isn’t going to be the end of the trick. We think maybe he’ll get Key. Maybe when he’s looking at his shirt in the funeral…but it doesn’t happen. Maybe he faked his death and he’ll get him when he’s walking to the grave…but again no. Then when it does happen, the surprise of the skeleton arm emerging from the grave to “get him” adds so much to the scene.
So really it’s striking that balance between repeating what you’re doing and keeping it fresh. It’s focusing on that one thing, pacing yourself, and finding ways to do it bigger. This will ensure your work won’t go stiff (mortician pun!).
Do this, and you’ll be in some good company.
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