Friday, February 14, 2014

Comedy, Conflict, and Character: What We Can Learn from Sesame Street

I confess. I am a grown man who still enjoys Sesame Street. Not all of it of course. Not the tedious, repetitive stuff on the Letter A or whatnot. What I love are the short comedy scenes that have been a part of the show since its inception. This is not because I am a sucker for Muppets (even though I am). This is because they are classic bits of comedy writing that continue to be amusing even though my tastes in entertainment have greatly matured. There is a lot that can be learned from these little segments. I strongly believe that if one wishes to master sophisticated forms of storytelling such as screenwriting for film and television, it does one much good to first study the principles of storytelling in its simplest of forms. In this regard, Sesame Street demonstrates little nuggets of gold for anyone who wants to write funny scenes.

Here is one of my all-time favorite bits. Give it a watch:

Now what, as a grown adult, makes me still find this scene amusing? Sure, it is zany. Sure, the song is catchy. Sure, Ernie has a lot of charisma. But for me, what really makes this scene is Bert. The scene could have done fine with Ernie singing and dancing on his own, but the inclusion of Bert is what takes its comedy to a higher level. Why is this? This is because Bert supplies the scene with conflict. Everyone should know by now that conflict is the lifeblood of a dramatic scene. It is also the lifeblood of comedic scene. Bert and Ernie have conflicting goals. Bert wants peace and quiet so he can go to sleep. Ernie wants to sing and dance the night away. The scene then develops from this conflict.

However, conflict in itself is not necessarily funny. If this were so, every scene in every movie would be a laugh riot. What makes a conflict funny?

First, let's define our terms a little more clearly. “Comedy” is a very broad term, so for the sake of this article we are only interested in what we can call “dramatic comedy,” which is humor intended to emerge from interactions between two or more characters in a situational context. It is late at night. Bert wants to sleep, but Ernie is wide awake. That is the situational context of the scene. In such a context, conflicting story goals may drive the action of the scene, but the humor really comes from a conflict between the wildly different PERSONALITIES who created those goals. The more wide the difference between personalities, the more potential there will be for conflict.

The Bert & Ernie duo make use of a very common character dynamic known as “Straight Man/Funny Man.” One character, the Straight Man, is serious, down-to-earth, and tends to see things in terms of established rules and order. The Funny Man is the exact opposite. He is flighty, irrational, and usually handles situations by his own rules – rules he often makes up on the spot. Observe an even more extreme example of Straight Man/Funny Man in this segment between Kermit the Frog (the most rational of the Sesame Street Muppets) and Cookie Monster (the most irrational). (BTW, I don't understand why the show stopped teaming Kermit with Cookie Monster. They have great chemistry.)

Once again, Kermit and Cookie Monster have different scene goals. However, all the laughs come from how Cookie Monster's irrational nature causes him to refuse to cooperate with the rules and order Kermit wishes him to operate by. The humor comes from the conflict of two clashing personalities.

Comedic personality conflicts – and any personality conflict for that matter – are based on what are known as character paradigms. A PARADIGM is the personal lens through which an individual views their reality. It is a mental translation key a person uses to interpret events to decide how they should feel out the situation and how best to react. If we say a person is optimistic or pessimistic, if we call someone idealist or pragmatic, we are talking about the paradigms through which the person views the world. Differing paradigms are the reason why a dozen people can look at the same event and interpret it in a dozen different ways.

When paradigms amongst individuals are too different, it can cause a lot of friction. When characters are polar opposites, such as in the Straight Man/Funny Man dynamic, the smallest of conflicts can easily spiral ludicrously out of control because each character is facing off with someone whose interpretation of reality is so different from their own that both come to believe that the other is a raving lunatic. To demonstrate, here is a scene between Grover and the character known as “Bald Blue.” (That may not be his real name. I'm not even sure if the character has a name.) In this scene, both Grover and Bald Blue are in the same situation, but operate under very different paradigms regarding what should be considered a proper interaction between customer and waiter.

Once again we must ask, why do we find this conflict funny? Neither Grover nor Bald Blue find their interaction amusing. Rather, both are quite serious and soon become very irritated with each other. This is fun for neither of them. So are we laughing at their frustrations out of cruelty? No, not really. We are not laughing at the characters themselves, but what is created between the characters.

Dramatic comedy typically pits a character possessing a relatively rational/logical paradigm with a character possessing a paradigm that is irrational/illogical. When the logic collides with illogic, they react like matter and anti-matter. They annihilate each other, and in their wake leave an ambiguous psychological state called THE ABSURD. The Absurd is a state of mind in which our human abilities to think and reason prove completely useless. Something makes no sense at all, yet still exists. Unable to move forward in its cognitive processing, our brains register a big flashing ERROR message. But rather than freeze up or crash the way a computer would in this situation, our brains have evolved a unique way to release this cognitive logjam. We LAUGH. Laughter is a physiological response used to dismiss the tension caused by logical inconsistencies that the mind considers meaningless (aka, the Absurd). Luckily for the entire field of comedy, this reaction is accompanied by a release of endorphins, making laughter a pleasurable experience.

So in summary, comedy is about presenting an audience with moments of absurdity. In dramatic comedy, this is done by pitting two or more characters against each other with logically irreconcilable paradigms. This creates conflict, both situational and personality-based, making the scene both dramatic and humorous.

Or you can just throw in some boogie-woogie sheep. Now THAT is absurd.

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