In a joke that was popularized by Lynne Truss a few years ago, a panda walks into a restaurant, orders dinner, and, at the end of her meal, pulls out a pistol, fires it a few times into the air, and makes her way to the exit. A man stops her on the why and asks, “What’s the meaning of this?” The panda shrugs, takes out a dictionary, and hands it to the man open to a page with the following definition underlined:
panda. n. Eats, shoots and leaves.
Even if we ignore the anthropomorphic panda and any debates surrounding the use of an Oxford comma, it requires quite the suspension of disbelief to think that the panda would take this dictionary definition so seriously.
I feel like some of the scenes that fall flat for me are a bit like the panda joke. There might be a clever premise underneath it, but there isn’t enough there “to justify the weird,” a phrase I’ve heard at least one veteran improviser use.
Based on notes that have been given to me and what I’ve seen work in other peoples’ scenes, stronger emotional choices appear to increase the range of outcomes that could strike the audience as plausible. For instance, if a character expresses mild disappointment at bad news, it’s harder to believe said character would want to take an action to try and fix the situation when compared against one who expresses a stronger emotion like anger. Conversely, if a character takes no action in result to the bad news, it is still plausible the character could have had a strong emotional reaction without it being any less believable.
Let’s return to the panda. If the bar scene had been a second beat to a scene in which the same panda character had somehow been told to worship the dictionary by an authority figure, and we see the panda start prostrating herself in front of the dictionary, I’d be willing to buy into the second beat.