Friday, October 29, 2010

Mary Scruggs on Humor at OCWW

The Off-Campus Writers' Workshop hosted comedienne and writer Mary Scruggs yesterday. Mary is currently the head of Writing and Education Programs for The Second City Training Center in Chicago. Her work has been produced in Chicago at Live Bait, the Annoyance Theater and the Circuit Court of Cook County, as well as at the New York Fringe Fest, the LA Women's Theater Festival and LA's Sherry Theater.

Some of Mary's tips:

Separate creation work from revision mode. Improvisers can't second guess themselves. Let the first draft be a mess, a discovery. If it's different than you expected, follow that path.

(At the front of the room, Mary beautifully personified these ideas and the old improvisation adage to "never say no" - every audience suggestion and question was greeted by her with delight. Her glee was absolutely infectious.)

One of the reasons we all get annoyed with our dear old friend Saturday Night Live is that often the skits fade away rather than have a punch line. Mary's take is that the SNL formula has become Premise + Gimmick, and repeat.

Her secret to a satisfyingly comic ending: Figure out what the character wants. This is the "character objective," or the engine that drives the plot. (Works in all narrative, actually, not just the comedic.) A good ending for comedy will be when the character gets what she wants or is definitively thwarted.

What makes for rich comedy is when the character goes about getting what she wants in the worst of ways. (See Steve Carrell's character in The Forty Year Old Virgin looking for love in all the wrong places.)

Our writing job as creators of these characters is Exploring and Heightening the process of their endeavors. Looking for "comic traction," as Mary put it. Exploit it. Traditionally, three times. ("Three guys walk into a bar...") During all this exploring and heightening, Mary urged us to "feel the fear and do it anyway," advice I particularly love.

A comic character has (of course these "rules" are meant to be broken):

- that necessary objective

- a skewed perspective

- flaws ("Heighten them," said Mary. "Hit them hard.")

- a redeeming feature we can relate to. Here is where Empathy is created, where the character's flaws and essential humanity collide.

The set up of a scene, or the exposition, is typically where non-comic or new comic writers spend lots of time, said Mary, to the nods of our description-loving group. (My last short story spent its first 25% just setting the scene. Yeah, I counted.) At Second City, the writer-performers will typically give the audience the least, rather than the most, amount of info that the audience needs to enjoy the scene - Who, What and Where in, at most, three lines. In a two character scene, the first line establishes who one character is, the second line who the other speaker is and what they are doing, the third line raises the stakes. Our spontaneous OCWW example:

"The take-out guy didn't give us potatoes with the order!"
"But that's our last seventy-five cents!"
"What about our hungry kids?"

Not terribly funny, but pretty efficient at setting the scene and conflict, don't you think?

A classic Second City skit has two sisters and their husbands playing a game of Pictionary. "It'll be fun! It'll bring us closer!" say the women. (Can't you already see where this is going to go? Don't you want to see the disaster?) Instead of couple vs. couple, the women and men group up. When one woman draws an X on the board, her sister yells, "Tuna salad!" - the right answer - and the two tell together a story about when they were kids, each chiming in, one hated tuna salad, the other warned her when it was in the fridge with a post-it note, etc. etc. Cute. The men get "Around the World in 80 Days" and bomb, the man drawing taking it all hilariously literally, drawing a big round circle, then starting what you realize, to big laughs, will be eighty hash-marks around it. Cute.

Here's the story point where the scene can go on too long. We've established setting, characters and their objectives, now is the time for a "transformational midpoint" to reframe the scene. The "now it's personal" moment, to borrow from cop movie trailers. In "Pictionary," the men decide they want to actually win. Game on.

"It'll bring us closer." Ha ha.

To end the scene, you need a second turning point, a break of some kind. You don't need to resolve everything - as Mary suggested, "Don't be afraid of leaving a lingering stink in the air." Just break the tension by answering the prevailing question. Using the interminable (to all but Lord of the Rings fanatics) thirty-minute denoument AFTER the famous ring's fate was determined, Mary warned us of the energy slump immediately after climax (giggle, giggle, sorry.) Second City will bring it back up with what they call a "run out" or a "blow" - it's a final punchline before the blackout that gets the comic energy up again, a version of "here we go again!"

Mary's example sounded like one of the character-driven pieces that Second City does really well but whose moderate pace and lack of hard punch would never work on sketch-based TV shows.

(Randy and I saw one of these in Spoiler Alert: Everybody Dies in July where a couple of food tent workers in Grant Park, the man recently from Senegal, the woman from Eastern Europe, take down their restaurant booths and compare notes on the Chicago institution of Taste of Chicago. Charming, lovely, funny. TV-friendly? No way.)

In Mary's example, a woman flips through an invisible rack of clothes when another enters and says, "Honey, I've been looking for you all over the mall!" (Lightening quick exposition.) The mom and teenage daughter spend the scene disagreeing over clothing choices and you come to realize it's one of the last places where they will come together - the daughter moves farther away as the mother criticizes and clings to her declining ability to exact influence over her daughter. Opportunities for funny here, of course, (the daughter's slutty clothes choices, the mom's shock) and also empathy and emotion. The "run-out" line encapsulates all these poignant themes, but also hits a comic high point.

Daughter, as they leave the store: Will you buy me some beer?

Mom: I told you, it was just that one time!


Mary Scruggs generously shared much more, but I'll cut it off with this - "K" words are funny. "Kentucky Fried Chicken" just makes us laugh, for some reason. (For my girls these days, it's all about the "P.")

1 comment:

Susan Bearman said...

Great summary of a wonderful OCWW Workshop. I keep telling people that you never know what you'll miss if you miss an OCWW Thursday. Everything Mary said applies to virtually all kinds of writing. OK, maybe not scientific writing, but those people could really use a few more laughs. Sharing this on the OCWW Facebook page. And Twitter.