Dramatic Foolery

How to Steal Material Without Getting Caught


This exercise for physical comedy creation was sparked by Edward De Bono's book, Serious Creativity. I highly recommend this book if you are interested in going more in depth with Concepts and other lateral thinking tools. I also recently discovered that Comedy Writing Genius Scott Meltzer has been teaching a similar technique in his comedy writing classes.

1. Write the question “What’s the concept behind the gag?” on the questions page of your notebook.

2. Act out the gag again. Sit down and visualize it.

3. However you can detach best, put some distance between the details of the gag and write down five abstractions.

Once again, there is no right answer to this question. Step back from the specific details and find the framework upon which you can build a new gag.

Look at it from different perspectives. These are some other questions that might help:
What is the essential action of the gag?
What happens to the audience during this gag?
Why is this gag happening?
What’s the joke? Why is this funny?
What is the character thinking during the gag?
What are the generic parts of the gag?

Here are some abstracted premises I worked out for the Bill Irwin coat hanger gag:
Absent-mindedness causes objects to be where they are not supposed to be.
A coat can hide things.
A gesture of scratching can mean something else besides an itch.
Surprise the audience with unexpected but logical objects.
Before he goes onstage, the performer forgets to take something out of an article of clothing that makes him uncomfortable.

You will probably come up with completely different abstractions. You may not relate to any of my concepts at all. This exercise has a lot to do with how we individually perceive the world and your abstractions can sometimes be a good starting point for revealing aspects of your personal style and character.

4. Time to improvise. Pick one of the concepts and play around with situations that fit the abstract. When you get an idea write it down, labeling the idea with the concept that inspired it. Come up with at least five ideas per concept. Hopefully you’ll even get ideas completely unrelated to the concept. It will help to have a bunch of random objects around to play with.

For the voyeurs here’s a rough transcript of my own process with this exercise:

Start with the Question
The first thing I do is write down the question, “What’s the concept behind the coat hanger gag?” and answer it with one of the example concepts I listed above. I pick “A coat can hide things.”

Why do I pick this concept, which seems to be more of an aspect than a concept? It’s probably the most vague and general of the bunch. It does not suggest much structure. It seems like just the challenge I need.

I figure this concept will generate gags as different from the original gag as possible. And if this concept can work, almost any abstraction can be a worthwhile start.

Of course, this simple concept immediately reminds me of at least two clowns and their acts—Harpo Marx and The Banana Man. The character and situation has a lot to do with a gag’s originality, especially a physical/visual gag.

I grab a bunch of different objects and props for further inspiration and head downstairs to my rehearsal space. I put on the tailcoat and select a book as the first object to play with. A coat can hide things, so I put the book under my armpit. It’s easy to release tension on the book and let it drop into my hand. I write down the idea that if my character needs something to read because the situation demands it, a book can appear. I also note some objections to this idea, which is probably a negative way to start this session.

I remember the last exercise (The New Switcharoo) and put the book under the coat and on my upper back. It drops out as soon as I move. This mishap once again gives me an idea. What if I had some sort of release mechanism or mechanisms under the coat so that props I need for a routine or an act drop onto the floor right before the point in time when I need them? I would stumble across them as if they had been there all along.

I put the book under my coat, the book hidden and pinned to my side with my elbow. I see my reflection in a mirror and get the notion to show myself that both my hands are empty and there’s nothing up my sleeves. I reach inside the coat and produce the book with all the sincerity of a cheesy magician. I note that this would be more effective if my naïve persona really believed he was fooling the audience, or even that real magic was taking place. I also write, “bad magic—dumb idea.”

I can be so stupidly judgmental and critical. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.

Back to the concept that a coat can hide things. Can it hide me? Yes it can! I put the coat over my head and crouch real low. I feel sneaky, like a kid who thinks no one can see him. In performance I could enter onstage covered like this, with my arms crossing each other and with my hands in the sleeves so that when I get center stage I can stand up and uncross my arms to quickly put on the coat. Ta Da!

No Hand
I look in the mirror again and have the urge hide my right hand inside the coat sleeve. A coat can hide things after all. How can I build on this? How can I take it further? What if:
I reach into the coat with my other hand and pull out a rubber hand. I put this hand in the cuff of the other sleeve to replace the missing hand. The fake hand does not stay attached, so I reach into the coat and pull out another fake hand, but it doesn’t want to stay either. I reach in again but this time only pretend to pull out a fake hand. I attach this pantomimed hand to the cuff at the same time I uncover my real hand. I try to shake this new hand off, but it stays, and I am very pleased by this great new hand.

Impure Improv
I had no rubber hands with me when I just came up with this routine (they were all upstairs). I just pretended I had pretend hands. This isn’t pure improv, but more of a conversation between at least two sides of my brain or between my body and my imagination. It’s a process that goes from acting out ideas while on my feet to daydreaming to writing in my notebook— not necessarily in that order.

What Else?
The coat makes me think of other articles of clothing such as a pair of pants. I run upstairs and get some pants. When the pants are under my coat it looks like I have a hunchback. I walk around Igor-like and then remove the coat as if I’ve just gotten home from work. If I was wearing tights I could then put on the revealed pants (they don’t fit over the pants I am currently wearing). I could even stuff the coat into the pants in a strange but clown-logical act.

And Finally
I look at the objects I brought down for inspiration. A pack of gum looks interesting. What if I pulled out a piece of chewed chewing gum from my mouth and put it in my mouth? The audience would most likely groan. Then I realize they might want some gum too. I open my coat to show dozens of pieces of chewed gum stuck to the coat’s lining which I graciously offer to the audience. I can picture Harpo doing this gag.

I stop now because I have guests arriving soon and I have to get ready.

The exercise was certainly helped by the fact that I was doing it for an imaginary audience—I didn’t give up so easily or censor myself so quickly. I’ll have to use that ruse again.

More ideas
Here are some ideas I had for each of the other concepts I came up with for the coat hanger gag:

Absent-mindedness causes objects to be where they are not supposed to be—
The performer is making faces because the inside of his mouth is uncomfortable. He reaches in and pulls out the toothbrush he was using to brush his teeth earlier.

A gesture of scratching can mean something else besides an itch—
Performer has a piece of sandpaper attached to his back and he’s doing his nails on it.

Surprise the audience with unexpected but logical objects—
A box of chocolates has a toothbrush, some toothpaste, and dental floss inside.

Before he goes onstage, the performer forgets to take something out of an article of clothing that makes him uncomfortable—
Performer enters limping, stops, and pulls cane out of pants. He walks with cane, but doesn’t need it, because it was the cane that was making him limp.

Coming soon: More comic burglary

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Copyright ©1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, and 2004 by Drew Richardson