All comedy is opposites
Let’s say that all comedy in improv (or “games” — i.e. “game of the scene”) falls into one of two categories:
Heightened Reality vs Topsy-Turvy
“Heightened Reality” are games in which people are behaving as they normally do, but to an exaggerated degree.
“Topsy-Turvy” are games where people are behaving the opposite of what we expect.
Example of “Heightened Reality”: A mom meets her kids third grade teacher in the grocery store. She appreciates all the teacher does, and to express this, she bows down, low to the ground. The teacher responds, no no — YOU are the one that I admire, and she too bows low to the ground. They begin trying to out-bow each other as the scene continues…
Okay? It’s silly. But at its core, the behavior is normal. The mom and the teacher respect each other. It’s reality, just heightened.
Example of a“topsy-turvy” game: The parent is UPSET at the teacher for giving her child got an A+. She thinks it makes her kid a nerd.
To Why Or Not To Why
Heightened reality scenes don’t need a why. The audience “gets” them because they are “normal” behavior, just made bigger.
But topsy-turvy scenes need a why. They are unrealistic until a good improviser makes them human by giving them a nice internal reason.
For the parent who wants their kid getting good grades: maybe she wants her kid to be cool. Is that so bad, she asks, wanting your kid to have a cool life? In fact, she vows to buy her kid a guitar and a six-pack of beer. “At least he can have a cool drinking problem.”
All Comedy Is Just Opposites
My brother Kevin teaches improv. Once he needed a medical procedure done on his back that costs a few thousand dollars. To save up for this (thank you, America) he had to temporarily teach six classes a week. After two months of this punishing schedule in which he was watching 18 hours of improv a week, not to mention his own shows at night, he stepped into the lobby of our theater where I was sitting. He sat in a chair next to me, completely exhausted.
He sighed, looked up with eyes nearly glazed over and said “All comedy is just opposites.”
It was like it wasn’t him speaking, but a spirit from beyond. I was being told a comedic truth from a man beaten down into a primal state.
Topsy-turvy behavior is just good ‘ol comedy opposites. A good improviser finds a way to say yes to it, and then makes it relatable.
Both Heightened and Topsy-Turvy
Sometimes a game is kinda BOTH heightened reality and topsy-turvy. Say you have a scene where Santa Claus is leaving gifts under a tree. A child sees him and screams in terror. It’s topsy-turvy for a kid to not like Santa, but it also in my opinion feels realistic — it’s normal to be scared of a strange person in your home. We all of course know lots of toddlers who cry when they are brought to see Santa Claus in the mall.
So is that game topsy-turvy or heightened reality? Both, I say! Which is fine!
Neither “heightened reality” or “topsy turvy” is any better than the other, but some people tend to avoid topsy-turvy so I’m making the argument for it here. Enjoy it!
Is this the most exciting essay you have ever read on anything? Thank you for being here.
“Topsy-turvy” inspired by the 1999 movie of the same name about Gilbert and Sullivan. Good movie!