Negative Space Humor

Avi and I tried out something we’ve been calling negative space improv at Endgames’s Laboratory show, a forum for experimental improv. By our definition, negative space improv refers to the idea that the improviser can also be a character, allowing additional humor to be derived from the interplay among the improviser’s character, the character that character plays in scenes, and the scenes themselves. SoCal improv troupe Jetzo is a great example of this, where the duo is introduced as being “from the tiny fishing village of Nagoya, Japan.” The same idea also appears in a lot of semi-scripted content on television, from the hosts of Da Ali G Show are characters, as are the news correspondents on the Daily Show and the eponymous host of Nathan For You. One can also find this in scripted shows, including Liam Neeson’s improv scene from Life’s Too Short.

In our negative space set, Avi and I played fathers doing improv, where the fathers we played did scenes inspired by an audience suggestion, and elements from those scenes influenced the fathers playing those scenes. We discovered one pattern in how the fathers were influenced by the scenes they played, and given more time or practice, I wonder if richer ideas could have emerged from the interplay.

It was a surprise to discover how prevalent the concept was throughout the Laboratory, from improvisers playing children performing an improvised school play, to improvisers playing a group of improvising Sarah Palins and Donald Trump, to improvising puppets. Those sets all relied on the same device as ours, which was the interplay between the scenes and the characters playing them.

While all this was great for the Laboratory, one question that arises is how to keep the negative space component fresh for multiple shows. This is something Jetzo has succeeded in, partly because they use their improviser characters to justify “their trademark Kabuki-inspired improv form.” Another example of repeatability comes from the sitcom Roseanne. Avi pointed out that the one-liner jokes on the show land better than most other sitcoms from that era. After talking it through, our working hypothesis is that it’s because the characters on the show have relationships governed by sarcasm and ribbing each other, which would justify their one-liner jokes. To test such hypotheses require experiments, and those experiments require a laboratory. Until the next one!

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