The Basics #2: Surprising Truth
Why Is This Funny?
Imagine this sketch: A woman thinks she is a ficus. Her friends try to convince her she’s not, but despite all their evidence she keeps insisting: “My feet are roots,” “My hands are fronds,” “I am easy to care for in an office setting.” She says she needs water, but pours it on her feet. Eventually she stands in the corner and slowly collapses, fully committed to her plant-y life. The end.
This sketch sucks.
I don’t know about you, but when I read that description, I feel a deep exhaustion seep into my bones. It’s boring, uninteresting, and unfunny. But why? Doesn’t it have all the elements we talked about in the last post? There’s unusual behavior (a woman thinks she’s a plant), that’s repeated (the different ways she’s a plant), and heightened (she commits to her plantiness so much that she dies for it). Why doesn’t this work?
The problem is that this sketch lacks a point of view. If you recall from the last post, the benefit of building a sketch around a game is that it nurtures an environment where the unexpected meets the inevitable. But your initial premise must have these “unexpected” and “inevitable” elements baked into it as well. Put another way, your game must grow from a place that is, by itself, surprising yet true. Put yet another way, your core idea must be funny.
The “Woman is a Ficus” sketch may be surprising — we don’t expect people to think they are plants — but it lacks the kernel of truth that makes us care. It feels irrelevant. Invented. What is the point?
Compare this awful ficus idea to last week’s Key & Peele sketch. The weirdness in that sketch extends from a surprising truth that anyone who has been to an airport would know: Boarding group 1 is somehow not the first group to board the plane. In fact, many other groups get priority boarding. This bit of truth makes the sketch feel more meaningful. It gives us something real to hang on to as the sketch rockets to absurdity.
Surprising but true. This, to me, is the beating heart of comedy. Surprise by itself is just weirdness, truth by itself is boring, together they make something funny. Strong games are logical extensions of surprising truths. You start with a funny idea, and the game replicates and exaggerates it to create even more comedy. “Okay,” you might say, somehow convinced by my vague, hyper-technical writing, “but where do I find surprising truth? How do I know my truths are surprising and my surprises are truthful?”
Ah. Yes. Well. That’s the hard bit.
This is the part of comedy that some people think can’t be taught. How do you teach someone to notice a truth that no one else has? How do you explain how to transform the everyday into the surprising? I do believe you can train yourself to think more comedically, and I’ll talk more about that in next week’s post on generating ideas. For now, I want to focus on how strong games and surprising truths frequently appear in sketches. What follows is an exercise in overly reductive categorization. Not every sketch falls into one of these buckets, but recognizing them can help guide your thinking as you start coming up with ideas.
Frequently, sketches present a surprising truth by exploiting existing patterns or juxtaposing contrasting elements. Here are some examples.
Existing Patterns: Continuing the Pattern
Games are all about repeating patterns, and patterns occur in real life all the time. Most of these are too banal to be the focus of a sketch, but sometimes a natural pattern will appear that is so specific it feels unusual. Why does this thing of all things keep happening? And why is no one talking about it? If you notice something like this, the world has gifted you a ready-made game. You simply have to continue the pattern and exaggerate it. Let’s say, for example, it’s the early 2010s and you’ve noticed a lot of British crime dramas in which the characters have incomprehensibly thick accents. This is so weirdly specific it’s surprising, but the truth is there in front of your face. You can highlight the existence of this surprising truth by exaggerating it and creating the most incomprehensible British crime drama…
Notice that this sketch explicitly tells you what the existing pattern is (0:50), just in case you couldn’t identify the truth the sketch is based in.
Existing Patterns: Subverting the Pattern
Some patterns resist exaggeration. Genre parody is a good example of this. Here’s a moment you may have seen in a movie: a band hoping for their big break fails to impress the executive who can make their dreams come true. In one last-ditch effort, they improvise a song straight from the heart — a song with raw energy and honest lyrics. The power of the performance is what finally impresses the executive. He sees their talent for the first time. The band wins this day!
You’ve probably seen some version of this scene before. It has occurred enough times to be an existing pattern, but it’s already an exaggerated scene of high drama. Instead of trying to heighten an already heightened pattern, you can break it. What if the band doesn’t improvise a great song? What if the song they sing is absolute dog shit. This is surprising because movies has trained us to expect the trope to play out one way, but this time it doesn’t. Crucially, there’s also a truthful logic to this version — in real life an improvised song would, in all likelihood, sound awful.
(A quick note that this is not the complete version of the sketch, and if you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend watching this sketch from I Think You Should Leave on Netflix).
Juxtaposition: Paradox and Hypocrisy
Juxtaposition of contrasts is a highly effective comedic tool used in almost every sketch. It exists in both the sketches above. “Don’ You Go Rounin’ Roun to Re Ro” contrasts serious, angry tones with goofy nonsense gibberish. “The Day that Robert Palins Murdered Me” contrasts smooth, competent musicianship with floundering musical failure. Seeing silly next to serious makes the silly seem even sillier. Juxtaposition of contrasts is so effective that it can form the basis of a sketch all by itself. One particular way is by highlighting paradox or hypocrisy.
When you point out a paradox or a piece of hypocrisy you are showing the audience how two opposites somehow manage to coexist. It seems impossible, but there it is. The mere existence of paradox and hypocrisy feels like a surprising truth.
As you might imagine, a lot of political sketches rely on this because politics are rife with hypocrisy, but this category includes pure silliness as well. The Mr. Show sketch “The Audition” featured in last week’s post is a sketch based in paradox: an audition is so true-to-life that it ruins the audition. Paradox is also the core of other confusion-based sketches like Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on First?” and Monty' Python’s “Argument Clinic.”
The Key & Peele sketch below revels in the absurdity of hypocrisy. These characters boast about arguing with their wives in order to seem big, but are simultaneously terrified of their wives overhearing them. They act small as they talk big. It’s surprising to see these opposites coexist, but it feels truthful because it feels like it’s growing from recognizable behavior. Even if you haven’t seen someone demonstrate this exact behavior in real life, you’ve likely met the kind of person who might. We recognize both the ridiculousness and the truth at the same time.
Juxtaposition: Unexpected Connection
Sketches that rely on unexpected connections create a heightened fantasy from two things that shouldn’t go together. These are things that at first seem wildly different but actually have a surprising commonality. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens is a novella from 1843 about a miserly old man who learns the value of charity. Terminator is a 1984 action movie about a woman being hunted by a murderous cyborg.1 These two stories could not be more different, AND YET they do have something in common: both stories feature time traveling entities with dark warnings of the future. And if they share that commonality it makes sense to ask the question, “couldn’t a sci-fi time traveller have visited Scrooge instead?”
Notice how many funny moments in this sketch come from juxtaposing terrifying sci-fi specifics with cozy Victorian ones. The laughs come from the juxtaposition, and the juxtaposition is earned by the surprising truth.
I’m going to belabor that last point a bit. There MUST be an element of truth connecting the two disparate things. You can’t just blend any two things together and call it a day.2 But all you need is one! That’s not much. Just one measly commonality grants you permission to get as crazy as you want. Even an emotional connection can be enough to link two things together. For example, trying to stop someone from sending a drunk text can truly feel like a terrorist negotiation. The juxtaposition of high stakes negotiation and low stakes dating is surprising, but it is earned by the truth of the feeling that binds them.
How Are These Categories Useful?
Truth be told: all this is bullshit. Well, okay, that’s a bit of an exaggeration. But don’t treat these categories as gospel. These are just some ideas I lumped together to try to make the idea of “truth and surprise” digestible. Nobody sits down and says, “I think I will write an Unexpected Connections™ sketch today.” There is no value in identifying what category a specific sketch falls into. Couldn’t you just as easily say that the Scrooge sketch is a “continuation of a pattern” by continuing the timeline of the ghosts that visit him? Yes, absolutely. That logic tracks as well. The main point is that truth and surprise must exist at the core of your sketch in some way.
My hope is that these categories can help you start to answer the question “why is this funny?” This is something you should ask yourself when you come up with an idea for a sketch. We usually know that something is funny before we know why it’s funny. If something seems funny to you there’s probably already an element of surprising truth there. So ask yourself: What contrasts are being juxtaposed (if any)? What pattern is this idea exploiting (if any)? What is surprising? What is the truth? Can I explain to someone else why this is funny? If you know why your idea makes you laugh you’ll know what to heighten to keep people laughing for the rest of the sketch.
Why is this funny? Though you don’t need to answer this about any sketch but your own, try it on someone else’s. Watch a few sketches and see if you can verbalize exactly what is making you laugh. Why is this funny? Are there patterns or contrasting juxtapositions, or something else? Is there a surprising truth at the heart of the sketch?
What is this sketch really about? Is this sketch about something other than the specifics of the sketch? Is it just being silly or is it pointing out something about a specific piece of media, about society, or about humanity? Is there a point to all the nonsense?
Sketch Fixer: Remember that awful sketch idea at the top of this post? The Lady Who Thinks She’s a Ficus. Is it salvageable? We know it’s missing an element of truth. A point of view. What might you do to make this idea funny? What seed of a surprising truth might exist buried somewhere in this pile of shit? Or, how might you change the surprising behavior to make it reflect truth? There is no right answer here. Treat this bad idea as a jumping off point and feel free to change as much of the idea as you want until you you’ve found something that feels funny.
I am certain that there’s a different sci-fi story being referenced here about a warrior from the future needing help from the past, but I’m totally blanking. It is, at the very least, a recognizable sci-fi trope.
Personal Bias Alert: Lots of people and outlets have made sketches like this, that combine two things for absolutely no reason. I absolutely hate them. They often feel like pointless and desperate bids for clicks, combining two popular things with no logic to explain why they’re being combined. So when I say you can’t do it… I mean, clearly you CAN. There’s nothing stopping you. People do it. But it’s my position that these sketches are bad and uninteresting.