You’re watching a TV show. A young woman, Sonia, somewhere in her 20s, sits her parents down. She’s holding a Tickle-Me Elmo doll. She explains to them that she’s marrying the doll. Her parents smile and tell her how proud they are. She is exasperated by this.
Maybe it’s a little funny, but it doesn’t quite work, right? It’s too weird for us as an audience connect with it. As I talk about in the LOL Formula, something like that doesn’t have the grounding to work.
Now imagine if earlier in the episode, also to piss her parents off, she brings home a deadbeat musician, telling them she’s going to marry him, and she’s met with that same happy reaction. She then brings home a creepy guy who lives in a van (not a Candivan). She then gives it a go with her second cousin. Each time her parents give her the pleased reaction, and it always drives her crazy.
Now when she brings home that Elmo doll, it’s still as weird as it was before, but it’s become more of an earned weird.
It’s the same with a scene from Some Like It Hot, a scene often considered by movie critics to be one of the funniest scenes in the funniest movie ever.
In case you’ve gone your entire life without seeing the film, here’s some context, (*spoiler alert): Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis get dressed like women to evade the Mafia, which is after them. While they are disguised, a millionaire guy falls in love with the female version of Jack Lemmon. In the below scene, the millionaire is whisking Jack Lemmon off so they can get married, and Lemmon is trying to find a way out of it.
If the scene had begun with Jack Lemmon confessing that he’s a man, and the millionaire guy responding with “nobody’s perfect,” it would have not been nearly as funny as it is with the build-up (although it would have shown the millionaire was an original proponent of gender-fluidity).
This all goes to show that you can have these big moments; you just have to earn them.
Heightening and how it’s different from repetition
You can repeat yourself a lot more in comedy than you probably think you can. In fact, you should.
If you look at all great comedy sketches, scenes, and sequences, they’re almost always focused on one specific thing.
“Who’s on First”, a comedy routine made famous by Abbott and Costello, doesn’t start with the name confusion and then move away into a slapstick routine, it continues to focus on the name confusion. The Black Knight scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail is about how the knight won’t give in during the fight no matter how much he’s losing (even when he’s lost both arms and legs). The “More Cowbell” sketch is purely about Christopher Walken wanting more cowbell. That’s it, one specific thing!
I’ve had a lot of improv students who resist doing what they’ve already done. They’re worried it would be too repetitive. And they’re kind of right. If they repeated verbatim what they just did, it would be boring. That’s how scenes flatline.
What you need to do is something similar to but better than repeating: heightening.
Look at the original example. If Sonia kept bringing home musicians, the scene would get old fast. If everyone on the "Who’s on First" team was named “who” it also would have flatlined. Instead the sketch builds it up from "who's on first", to "what's on second" and finally "I don't know's on third".
Straight up repetition just leads to predictability. Heightening does imply a repeated pattern, but each step is unexpected and it is the surprise that leads to laughs and delighting your audience.
How heightening works
You could look at heightening as doing the same thing you just did, only somehow doing it bigger each time. Or perhaps it’s more helpful to think of heightening as going on a journey.
Take this Key and Peele sketch about two friends misreading each other’s texts:
The journey goes from misinterpreting some simple texts, all the way to Key showing up at a bar with a spiked baseball bat while Peele is getting him drinks.
There’s a classic improv expression: “don’t go right to Crazy Town, take the local train.”
Essentially, you can’t go to your craziest moment too fast, you have to earn it. Like I mentioned before, you can’t go right to the woman marrying Elmo. You can’t have Peele’s first text being “I’ve got the first round” and then having the bar scene. It couldn’t even be the second or third text. Like Waze, these scenes take the audience on the most optimal journey possible to achieve comedy.
And you can go far in that direction. I was part of an improv set that culminated in an “Egg Wizard” causing chaos in a town, all due to the manipulation of a bar owner trying to get a bunch of bananas. Yeah, I agree, bat shit! But you know what? The audience completely bought into this reality, and we were only able to get there because we started in a normal place and got there organically.
There are two important things to keep in mind for your journey though: you must stay on pace, and you must keep on the right trajectory.
Staying on pace
To get all mathematical about comedy again, you want to keep your heightening on a gradient. You must start with something on the normal side of things and it should gradually get crazier, moving only in the crazy direction and never backwards.
For example: watch this stressed airline tower supervisor from the movie Airplane!:
The first line, “looks like I picked the wrong week to quit smoking,” is normal enough. When it goes to drinking, it heightens it since it looks a bit more like he’s working through things (not to mention quitting two things in a week is more interesting than just one). When he gets to amphetamines, it starts to become “wow…this guy is hardcore!” And then when it’s glue, it’s off the rails since it’s so unexpected from this guy.
Now, say he got to amphetamines, and then later said “it looks like I picked the wrong week to quit chewing tobacco,” it would be funny(ish) in the sense that it’s another example of the “thing”, but I think we all can sense that it wouldn’t be as good. It's like blowing up a balloon, it takes multiple breaths to get it full or make it burst, and letting air out or sucking air out is counterproductive to the goal! You don't ever want to move backwards in a scene, as it deflates the energy and can ruin the laugh.
On a scale from 1-10, with 1 being normal and 10 being balls-out crazy, the original Key and Peele text misinterpretation is a fairly routine thing and probably at a 1 or a 2. Each text gets progressively “bigger”. By the time they get to calling each other priceless, it’s at a 5 or 6, and the last scene at the bar is up to a 10 on the crazy scale.
You’ve got to take your time with your journey, and go one step at a time, but get crazier with each step.
You might think it’s the first interesting or unusual thing that determines where the journey is going. But it’s actually the second thing, let me explain.
Sticking to math and comedy, as I mentioned in the last section, the way you heighten something is using a linear function, (because going back down inevitably kills the build-up). When you put one dot on a graph, you have no idea where that line is going to go. It’s not until you put that second dot down, that you know exactly where that line is headed.
Let’s say the second scene of our pretend show was not Sonia bringing home the creepy van guy; instead, it was her bringing back the musician and making out hardcore with him in front of her parents, while, to her dismay, they are totally supportive.
That still works. It’s still heightening off of the last thing. However, the third scene will no longer be her taking her cousin home. The trajectory is now her doing more and more lewd acts with her musician boyfriend to piss her parents off. I’ll let your imagination decide where it might go from there.
Let's look at the Abbott and Costello sketch again. If after the original confusion with the name “Who,” the scene had cut away from talking about baseball to “Who” trying to put his name in at a restaurant, (“What name should I put it under? ”, “Who.”, “Your name.”), the rest of the sketch would be completely different. We’re now following the trajectory of “Who” causing more and more confusion with his specific name. “Crazy Town” might be him getting elected president, and the public never getting an answer to who won.
See if you get the heightening trajectory in this Simpsons clip here:
Moe keeps getting closer to the sad truth, but not wanting to admit it. The heightening is how sad the truth actually is (he can’t even get a Victoria Secret catalogue, he has to settle for Sears). There might be a temptation for some people to veer a different direction and have him do something illegal or incredibly weird, but that would be going off the path. The direction is sadder and sadder, so it should stay that way.
Crazy Town is a glorious place. It’s where “I don’t give a darn” is a shortstop, and Lloyd Bridges is trying to save lives while sniffing glue.
It’s the subtext conversation between Woody Allen and Diane Keaton in Annie Hall.
It’s John Goodman shouting “shut the fuck up Donny” in The Big Lebowski.
It’s where some of the best quotes and scenes in movie, TV, sketch, and improv history come from.
Crazy Town is great because not only is it a perfect ending, but your audience will love that you took them to this place and that they were in on the ride the entire way.
But as great as the destination is, you must put the right focus on the journey, or it’ll never feel quite right.