Memorable Scenes

I’ve had conversations with Avi and Mike M about our aesthetics in scenework and have wondered whether there’s an inherent pattern by which the scenes I like most emerge.

Specifically, my favorite scenes aren’t the ones in which the audience laughs the most but the ones that I still remember months later. Since I’m not aware of an improv manual that explains how to optimize for this (full disclosure: I’m only partway through the TJ and Dave book), I would have to figure it out myself.

Songs offer a clue as to how one might go about this, and the next part of this post might be familiar to those who have taken classes or workshops with Jason Pardo. Songs consist of multiple patterns complete with their own vocabulary for the different types of patterns. For the purposes of this post, a chorus refers to repeated lyrics and melody, a verse refers to a repeated melody but with changing lyrics, and a bridge refers to a departure from the melodies in the verse and chorus.

Given this musical vocabulary, Jason’s workshop talked about how to map the chorus to character choices, the verse to the pattern of interaction between the two characters (i.e. the relationship), and the bridge as a break from the typical pattern of interaction between the two characters and the character traits they have established.

We can follow a basic song structure of verse, chorus, verse, chorus, verse, bridge, chorus and apply it to scenes, but even if we ignore the fact that some memorable songs break this pattern, not all songs that follow that pattern are equally memorable, so we can’t conclude that the structure is either necessary or sufficient for a memorable scene. This is where we have to go beyond Jason’s workshop and consider examples.

Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s in the Cradle” is an example of a memorable song that can also be analyzed as a two person scene with time dashes. Thus, it provides a case study to start thinking about what features might make memorable scenes. The verses establish the relationship of the two characters as two people unable to spend time with each other. The chorus establishes how the characters are forgoing time together in the present because of their optimism that they will have time in the future. Thus, the song is effectively a two peas in a pod scene.

However, I think what makes “Cats in the Cradle” memorable is the part I would call the bridge, in which the father realizes the fact that because he and his son really are these two peas in a pod, they never will have time together that each had been optimistic about until that point. I would conjecture there is something about the truthfulness of that moment in the song that accounts for why it is so memorable.

There are at least a couple points to note. First, if one were to simply make this humorous, the joke would be two characters who are constantly optimistic about seeing one another despite the fact that they never do, like two friends exchanging texts to plan drinks that they always have to cancel last minute. In fact, there’s a New Yorker Shouts and Murmurs piece with that exact premise, but I doubt people will remember the New Yorker piece nearly as well as the Harry Chapin song a few years from now. Second, the realization that they won’t meet is tragic, potentially removing some of the comedic joy. The truth doesn’t necessarily have to be tragic, but it is in this case, adding an element of truthfulness doesn’t necessarily mean a laugh.

Of course, one may not like the Harry Chapin song or want their improv scenes to resemble it in structure, and that’s fine, but if there are aesthetic considerations beyond mere laughs, I think exercises like this are helpful in understanding why. When I think back to my most memorable scenes from over a year ago, there was a moment in each that was truthful, often later in the scene after the pattern of the relationship had been played and the grooves of the characters well understood. My memory is subject to confirmation bias, and I concede that truthfulness is unlikely to be either a guaranteed way or only way to make a scene memorable, but it’s a starting point for me to start thinking about characteristics I like in an improv scene and what makes it easier for a scene to have those qualities.

What are the scenes you played/watched last week, last month, or last year that you still remember? What about them makes them memorable to you?

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