Friday 2 October 2015

Two Shades of Funny

There are two sorts of funny in improv: Constructive and destructive.

Constructive comedy comes directly from the situations, characters. It comes from within the scene. It emerges from making natural connections with the information we have. It is discovered in following the story and the progression of the characters. Constructive laughs sweep the audience along with the story, make them connect with the characters more and make them understand a little more.

Destructive comedy comes from outside the scene. It comes from the ego of the actor and a desire to be the funny one. It comes from ideas and references that are being forced where they are not wanted. Destructive laughs, make the actors stop and following the story and characters. It makes the whole edifice constructed in the brain of the audience member to start to crumble, and in some cases become destroyed completely. It makes us care less about the characters.

Stand-up can embrace both forms much better than improv, because it is about the laughter. Comedic plays or films almost never have the destructive type unless they are absurdist or “screwball.”

Improv, as ever, falls somewhere between these two mediums. In fact one possible definition for short form and long form could be to which end of the standup-theatre line people are trying for. And of course, short form can take destructive comedy. Whatever you are doing it’ll be over in a couple of minutes, nobody is emotionally invested, so why not gag the hell out of what you (or someone else) started.

But if you are trying to do something longer, and want to bring the audience along with you, you don’t want to be destroying what you’ve set up. Because if you are fine with destroying it, why should the audience care anything about it? They won’t. You don’t care, they don’t care.

Birdsong at the Comedy Theatre, London. Photograph: Tristram Kenton
And believe me, you are not reducing the comedy by not going for the destructive humour, not at all. Comic plays and movies are still funny. Not destroying the scene means you allow yourself the chance to find the constructive comedy. You allow characters to develop that allows you to find deeper comedy traits than simply a catchphrase or silly walk. It allows comic situations develop that are funny because they came about organically rather than just being contrived and forced on a scene. They allow us to find comedy in moments that are not inherently comic and still remain true to the predominant emotions in the scene.

In fact, I deliberately emphasised the destructive term because it really is that. It shuts of so many doors for things that would take a show from being merely funny to being amazing.


  1. I would love to see some actual examples of each of these types of comedy. You know, YouTube clips or something. I sort of get what you're saying from your descriptions but it'd be neat to actually see each of them in action.


  2. Thanks for the idea. I'll see what I can find. Most comedy in written pieces is constructive I think, except for more experimental pieces. With Stand-up a lot of punchlines are destructive in terms of them reversing or completely changing what the audience was thinking in a way that means the joke could not continue - which it isn't. Sketches also can end on a destructive punchline, but it's okay - it's the end.