Irony: Exercises

Last entry I talked about irony as a thing to look for in order to find strong games. It’s hard to practice something that seems as subtle as irony. But here are two exercises that do it. They’re very strictly structured and definitely meant to be exercises that demonstrate a point rather than be strong scenes all by themselves.

And they’re meant to be simple! In each case, let’s have a case of a type of person acting the opposite way than we expect!

They are also good if students are making unusual scenes that are more just random weird things rather good solid games.

EXERCISE 1: CHANGE THE SUBJECT

Two people up. Someone initiates as a character, preferably a bit broad and definitely with a distinctive tone in their speech. The other player matches so we have two peas in a pod. They start with a conversation we expect them to have and then partway through change the subject to something that feels like the exact opposite of what we expect.

Two fratty dudes are talking about homecoming, and then they start talking about the beauty of Keats poetry.

Two Latinas are on the corner complaining about their mothers when they change the subject to get very passionate about the latest Wes Anderson movie.

Two Buddhist monks begin by calming discussion meditation and then start worrying about how big their asses are getting.

Go ahead and play these characters a bit more broad and silly than we might normally want, so that the tone is very palpable.

Their tone should not change. If it’s two people being Buddhist monks, and they are affecting that tone by speaking in a low, slow monotone and nodding towards each other in a humble, submissive way — they should keep doing that even after the subject changes. Someone who doesn’t speak English shouldn’t even be able to tell the subject was changed.

Another way to think of this is that the music stays the same, but the lyrics change. If that doesn’t make sense, please ignore this paragraph.

EXERCISE 2: YOU WANTED TO SEE ME?

Two people in chairs. One says “You wanted to see me, OCCUPATION?” where occupation is anything from the very general “farmer” to “head chef at the best restaurant in town.”

Then the other person has to make three EXPECTED requests and the a fourth one that is the exact opposite of what we’d expect. So it should go like this:

Person A: You wanted to see me, farmer?
Person B: Yes, thanks. We need to order more grain, we need to get the tractor fixed, I’d like to lay off some of the hired help for budget reasons and also, I’d like us to stop growing food.

Then Person A “straight mans” it, meaning he/she tries to respond like a rational person would. “Uh, but that’s all we do is grow food. We’re a farm.”

Person B then has to come up with a reason why they want to do the weird thing. But for the purposes of this exercise, it doesn’t even matter if they have a good reason. We’re getting used to having an ironic agenda.

The straight man should ask why, and then the person with the occupation should come up with a reason why. Don’t worry about this too much. Although there are a lot of exercises that focus on the WHY, this one is actually more about enjoying it when there’s someone behaving in the exact opposite way as we expect.

It shouldn’t be random. This wouldn’t be as good:

Person A: You wanted to see me, farmer?
Person B: Yes, thanks. We need to order more grain, we need to get the tractor fixed, I’d like to lay off some of the hired help for budget reasons and also, I’d like a pet dolphin living in my house.

That’s kinda funny, but it’s sloppy.

Once you’d done a few, you can broad the occupation to be a short description of a character. Like this:

Person A: You wanted to see me, guy going through a hostile divorce?
Person B: Yes, come in. I’d like to make an appointment with my lawyer. I’d also like to set up some therapy for myself. Call me friends to see who wants to hang out with me for a drink. And then hire a poet to write a love sonnet about my marriage.

Most Important Part

Choosing the opposite of something reveals what you think the most important aspect of something is. For the “You wanted to see me?” exercise, I saw one like this:

Person A: You wanted to see me, Stevie Wonder?
Person B: (not worrying about doing a vocal impersonation, by the way) Yes, sit down. I’d like to have my piano cleaned for the upcoming concert, let’s call the venue to make sure everything is in order. I’d like to hire some different session musicians to rehearse with. And then I want to start painting.

And this person was seizing on the fact that Stevie Wonder is blind. And yes, that’ can work — it is well-known that Stevie is blind.

But is that Stevie Wonder’s PRIMARY quality? Is he known PRIMARILY for being someone who is blind, in the way that, say, Louise Braille or Helen Keller was? No, he’s known primarily for being a musician.

The student tried again, and did this:

Person B: Okay, have my piano cleaned. Let’s get some studio time soon. I’d like a new tour manager. And then I’d like to talk to someone about getting my hands removed.
Person A: But you’re a musician! You need your hands to play the piano, or anything!
Person B: Come on! People were impressed that I could be a recording star while being blind, think how impressed they’ll be when I do it without hands!

It was better. And this isn’t meant to be a lecture on political correctness, but it’s pointing out the importance of being precise. Or at least, that the way you make something ironic reveals what you think the most important aspect of something is.

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