Comedy Timing

I’ve been thinking about comedy timing and how I can help my local group improve there’s. A scan round the internet provided very few useful sources on the subject. Lots of people think timing is unteachable, and many can’t even adequately describe what it is. So I’ve pretty much had to work from ground up on this, and have put together some idea, which I’ll share here.

As will all things comedic, nothing is a fact, all of it is theory. Mostly it’s untested theory that comes from nothing more than my experience, combined with conjecture and assumption. So we’re on solid ground people!

Firstly we need to separate out comic timing, from the timing of performing a joke. The former is about rhythm, and the patterns of speech that effect how funny a joke is. The latter is about logistics of performing a joke to an audience. This last one is easier to get to grips with.

Performance Timing

Audiences have this horrible habit of interrupting you. There you are in a scene having a conversation with another actor pretending to be a duck talking to it’s psychiatrist, when suddenly the people watching make this horrendous laughing sound. It’s every bit as invasive as a phone ringing, a dog barking, or a 3 year old screaming at you because they want you to give them a biscuit or put a fire out or what ever. In the reality of your character there is no audience. You’re a duck, the other person is the psychiatrist and you’re talking. That’s the reality of the scene. Some lines you say might be amusing to the characters in the scene – a joke between patient and client, but for the most part humour arising is outside of that reality, and should not really be part of the scene. There by lies the problem. As with the phone ringing or the ambulance going by, you cannot talk over invasive noises. You the actor is aware of the laugh (or should be) and as performers we need to let the noise die away before we speak. A laughing audience is distracted, and makes a racket and you need to let them have their laugh and shut up before you can continue. Thus as performers you leave a gap. Just enough of a gap to let the laugh ride, until you’re able to talk again. And if we’re being basic – you don’t acknowledge the gap. It’s an alien life form to be ignored.

So performance timing is simply making sure you don’t talk when the audience is laughing. But I want to illustrate this further. Imagine you’re talking to your doctor, and the conversation goes like this:

You: Doctor. In the waiting room there was a woman with a wooden leg called Clare.
Doctor: Really? What was her other leg called? [Laugh]
You: No, the woman’s name was Clare. I think she said the leg was called Peg. [Small Laugh]
Doctor: Was the wooden leg shorter than the real leg.
You: Yes it was.
Doctor: That’s not Clare that’s Eileen. [Laugh] She’s surprisingly level headed. [Small Laugh]

OK – Rubbish. Lets not pretend. Very poor. But forget that for a minute. Here’s the point. If this were a real conversation, it would have only minimal pauses. It’s a conversation. It would have conversation pauses as the people involved considered and formed a response – so no real pauses at all. But during a show (and lets flatter ourselves and pretend the lines are hilarious) there would be laughs where indicated. So imagine this conversation three ways:

  • As a real life conversation. No real pauses, just a continuous stream of deadpan talking. (Lets call this Reality)
  • As a comedy scene, with laughs where indicated. The performers pause to let the laughs happen. (Lets call this Performance Timing)
  • As the reality of the scene as performed, and this is where it gets trippy. Imagine the characters talking and leaving in the laugh pauses, but there is no laugh. That’s the reality inside the scene. There is no laughter in the reality of the scene, It’s a doctor and patient talking. The people talking stop for no reason to allow for laughter, but in the scenes reality the audience and the laughter doesn’t exist.  (lets call this Performance Reality).

That third way of viewing it is the deceit of performing a comedy; that you pretend to be in a reality, but covertly allow in the world beyond the 4th wall – and you need to not acknowledge that you’ve done it. That reality brings us to the following observations…

  • You need to limit your pauses to allow for the laughs, but no more and no less. Start talking again to quick, and the audience will be distracted and won’t hear what you’re saying.
  • If you pause for too long the pause because more than the break required for laughter. It becomes part of the conversation, and instead of the whole thing feeling normal, it becomes a conversation with weird awkward pauses in. That includes pausing when there is no laugh.
  • To get the timing right you need to listen to the audience. Luckily laughter is usually a bell curve, with a rise and a fall to it. That means you can hear when it has peaked and cut back in just as it tails off.
  • You can practice this pausing by inserting any sort of pause after a potential laugh. Better yet, get a third party to say a bell shaped nonsense word like “oooo-tangle-oo” at the end of lines, and to vary the length of the word, to help you practice variable sized pauses.
  • Pausing involves your whole body. Your facial gestures, your whole manner. Same is true of your other performers. On a really long laugh this can be hard, and can itself illicit a laugh.
  • If the joke is a joke within the reality of the scene, your character would laugh, so do that. But only when it’s humour that the characters think is humour (which shouldn’t be often – people who laugh at their own jokes are idiots).

This whole performance piece is true of all comedy including stand up. The decision to laugh at your own jokes is a performance style and takes a particular type of comedian to pull it off. That’s coupled with the fact that looking like you’re realistically laughing at your own joke night after night after night, is a feat of acting I certainly never mastered. Not stabbing your own eyes out in disgust at the repetition is hard enough. Much stand up takes the form of a conversation to the audience, a valid real conversation, and as such the reality of that conversation would be without laughs, thus Performance Reality still stands. It’s a blurrier line because stand-ups constantly break the 4th wall (stand up is a conversation with people who are actually there).

Comic timing

Now we get the actually meaty animal. Comic timing. This is the sucker that is far harder to explain/teach etc. Firstly it’s not performance timing – that’s why I went to such length to describe that above. Performance timing can get you a laugh in it’s own right as it’s a deceit that that the audience can experience and enjoy. But comic timing is very different. Comic timing is about the pauses and rhythms that make a joke work.

We shall start by making sure we understand that a joke has two parts; a setup, and a punchline:

The Setup is the boring bit. If you just said the setup no one would ever know it was a joke. Their is a sensible answer to “Why did the chicken cross the road?”, is “the other animals on the farm mean that there’s a lot of competition for food on this side of the road, but the chicken is small enough to get through the fence and it can have the verge on the other side of the road all to itself, so of course it tries to get there”. Not funny. True.

The punchline is the bit that transforms the meaning of the setup in a mystical way that causes laughter. (With the famous chicken road crossing joke I actually can’t figure out why it’s funny – I suspect it was hilarious at a time when people kept free range poultry).  In a lot of cases the setup creates a question in the listeners mind. If not a question, then sometimes an in-mind tangible reality of some sort (an imagined situation, or even a predictable conversational topic). In broadest terms the punchline re-frames the reality created by the setup, so the question is turned into a question about a different topic (“woman with wooden leg called Clare – what’s the other leg called”), or the reality gets changed, or the conversation goes off it’s predictable course. These reality changes need to be coupled with an emotional context as well, particularly one that is taboo or uncomfortable. If the listener thought they where talking about someones name (socially acceptable) and suddenly realise they are making an inappropriate reference to that persons disability (“Eileen”)  – they get tense. But the context keeps them safe (“I was just talking about her name”), and as such the tension can be dispersed, and in comes laughter.

Comic Timing relates to how you link the setup and the punchline together. The most credible explanation is that the pause between a setup and punchline increases tension. ”

What do you get when you kiss a sick bird?”… Tension. Waiting. What will come next? I’m guessing it’s going to be funny, but how? Do I know this one? What is it? “Cherpies”.

Some observations…

  • When does a tension enhancing pause become a weird pause that irritates the listener? Irritated listeners don’t laugh. A laugh is a gift, and who gives gifts to people who make you hang around waiting, so they can get a gift off you.
  • Anything that flags you’re telling a joke tends to distract from the joke. Jokes work best when the mind is surprised. That’s why the whole tell us a joke cohersion thing is so tricky and horrible. So really you want to sneak in the pauses. Keep them as short as you can to keep things natural, but tense.
  • The length of pause needs to be natural, so it needs to fit the rhythms of your speech. How long would a pause be if you were trying to scold someone? “Is that your pencil” [Pause to let kid squirm] “No it’s not is it?” [pause – more squirming] “What happens to kids who steal?” [Drag it out] “They loose a finger don’t they” etc.
  • Tension is not always the best mechanism. Confusion can be a great mechanism. The meaning behind the joke matters. “I’m going to give you all my money. Most of my money. Some money. I’ve got a voucher for toothpaste you can have a lend of”. This line could have pauses as we watch the teller back out of the gift giving, but it might also work very well as constant un-paused stream – conveying that he teller took milli seconds (no thought required) in deciding to back out of the gift. The circumstances, the characters, and the type of relationship would all play into which effect was best.
  • Pauses are white space. White space is very important in all art forms. But the shape and size of white space depends on the material it surrounds. Put it this way – the power of white space is how it related together the none white space around it. So you need to consider all context.

So – none of this is that helpful for tangibles of how to learn timing. So I’ll leave you with some ideas:

  • Listen to comedy. Like listening to a foriegn language you will pick up on the rhythms. But remember all comedians are different, so all timing is different. You need to find your own.
  • Pick a short but loved comedy routine and listen to it over a few times. If on video watch it without sound, and listen without watching. Then you do the set. Try it and record it. Play both the original and your version together. Listen for differences. Practice against the original timing and get familiar with how different it feels. Can you be slower than you imagine, can you be faster.
  • Get a list of jokes and practice each one with different timings. Try them out on friends, or record, and leave for a couple of weeks before you replay.
  • Run sets in neutral with no timing. Then surgically insert timing – this makes the whole thing a cerebral exercise.
  • Listen to 2 or 3 comedians and practice there timing, and then run your material with there timing.
  • Sing your material.
  • Run sets in neutral, set your timing to a 1-2-3 pause, and then practice altering the speed of the words around the timing.
  • Perform, perform, perform.

Good luck!


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Panto script writing continues

Still working on a new panto script. In my last post I had done a lot of initial work on storyline structure. Shortly after that I switched gears and began to think about characters motivation. That instantly changed things up. There were two main characters that needed to have a former relationship, and that alone changed how the whole thing had to work. As a result my story structure is now less solid, but in a weird way better, as the change made it more interesting. (sorry it’s rubbish talking without specific details, but don’t want to say too much about the specific script until I’m into it further).

The second thing that changed was my desire to start working on actual scenes and dialog. My gut suddenly told me it was time to write. I still don’t really know the full story, but I know there’s enough ideas that I’ll work it out.

I’ve not had any long sessions writing yet, time and inclination have been an issue. I love writing when I get started and am on a role, but I hate getting started. I’ve had some 20 minute sessions late at night just to move things along. Better to do frequent and short and make progress than wait for the perfect time, which will never come. I also know I need to push this one out, and I can rework it later – but I’ll feel better as progress gets made.

As soon as I started writing new ideas came in, and some holes appeared in my “envisaging” of the characters. (I basically sat down to write and nothing came out when I hit certain points). At this stage that’s fine, and subsequent musing has lead to two break throughs – a new child character that will help move the introduction forward, and a revelation as to my silly run on/run off character.

I’ve also sat down and searched the internet for jokes. I browse joke sites for particular subjects, and write down any that I like or that have potential to be re-written. This is where most of the kids jokes will come from. I’ll write my own as well, but 50/50 will just be standards. Only way to keep the joke rate up.

Finally I started to think about comic timing. It’s something I want to give lessons on for the new season of rehearsals. I did an internet search and there is surprisingly little out there. Most people don’t know what it is (or rather confuse timing with other time related comic issues). Some people know what it is, but don’t think it can be taught, and I found no one offering tangible exercises or lessons. I’ve had some ideas, so I might put them in a separate blog post.

This post is heartening, cause I am making more progress than I thought. I’m really struggling with confidence. I’m OK, but I spend a lot of time dwelling on whether I’ll make it through the script in time, and will it be any good. Will I get too big for my boots and write something too grown up, or not funny enough. Where will the laughs come from. Am I making something too complex to stage. etc. I have a lot of self doubt. Just need to ignore the end, and get into the now. Keep writing and trust that it will work itself out.

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Pantomime: Starting a new script

Last year I was given the chance to write and direct my local Amateur Dramatics group’s yearly Pantomime. We did Treasure Island, and it went very well. It was a fantastic experience for me, and the first time I’d written and directed in many years. My one regret is that I didn’t record any of the journey. I don’t often feel the need to broadcast my experiences, but in this case it would have been helpful – for myself, if for no one else.

Well, it seems they’d like me to write and direct again (formal decision pending), so I’m preempting it all, and I’ve already started on a second script. That’s what I want to write about on this blog. At this stage I don’t want to talk about the specifics (for instance I feel weird actually naming the story I’ve picked at this point), it’s more the process I want to talk about and remember.

I’ve already made a fair amount of progress with the plotting (which is the bit I like and do best – it’s the actual writing I hate), so here’s a flashback to what I’ve done so far.

The inspiration came from the idea of combining a traditional panto with a modern genre. Kind of like “What is you combined Cinderella with A beautiful mind and it turned out the whole thing was in her head” – Not that idea specifically (it would be way too downer for a village panto), but suffice to say it was a combination that got me excited. I think that is the key. You need to get a buzz off the potential of the idea. No matter how much it turns into trash later. A story with a genre I like, combined with a complementary category of twist/idea that I like.

Next I started a fresh notebook, which is a must for me. Last year I discovered something personal about my writing style. I need to write by hand with a pen in a book. And I need plenty of white space to fill with thoughts. Tried on laptop, and didn’t do it for me. I can of course write that way, but it ends up being turgid. I block up quicker, and the typing is enough of a distraction (even though I work with computers every day) that I didn’t disappear into the writing. It’s just a me thing, but important.

Next came a lot of free form ideas – pure lists of associations. Fantasies of what we might do. We could have horses, jugglers, wouldn’t it be great if there was an animated griffin. What if the main character could do a bank heist. Just lots of random ideas. All written down with no judgement. I also added constraints I should consider. We have a more female cast than male. We have fewer performers in the middle age bracket. We hope to have more kids this year. It can’t be too long. We have restricted space. Last year scene changes were an issue (I put them in bad places). I also started to free form add idea for visual things that might work, and things that might be funny. What if the character Buttons was called zippers, or if the Ugly sisters pronounced there names “Oooglay” to cover it up. (No it’s not Cinderella – just examples). Last year as I wrote I had a section in the script I called the cutting room floor. I put any jokes I found in there. By the end there was tonnes of rubbish that never made it in, but it was good to have that pile to go to, and pull stuff out.

OK – so as I free formed over a couple of days, some ideas started to crystalise. Particularly around how it would be possible to pull of the main idea of combining two genres (Beautiful minded Cinderella – but not that).  I drew a lot of mind map/tree maps (ideas lined to other ideas) on how things might flow, and came up fairly quickly with two possible halves to the story. At this stage very general. Here’s the kind of thing I’m talking about – First Act Cinderella as normal, but in first half have one or two moments outside of reality – include some item that is incongruous to the genre, or one scene that is repeated identically – End with loosing shoe on steps. Second half Cinderella all up and excited, but no one has heard of the ball, and it’s her welly that is missing. – I’m not doing Cinderella, and my outline was more detailed/better – but not much.

OK… From that point I could see where there was meat and where there wasn’t. I could see that it desperately needed a clever device to satisfy my idea. (how do we transition Cinders into madness for example). So I put some effort into the guts of that. In my case I needed to work out how a heist could be pulled off (can’t talk about this without giving away that much). I did plenty of thinking, but the most useful exercise was drawing a map of location in question, and filling in lots of extraneous detail. I don’t intend for the map to be part of the show, but it did give me ideas about what was in that location that I could use, and from that came a breakthrough. In the Cinderella idea I think the equivalent might be a map of where she lives, and maybe a days itinerary. 5am Woken up by rooster, 15 mins by herself to get up. Probably no water in the house, so just pulling on clothes, or maybe sleeps in clothes. First down into the kitchen, so cold. Sticks already collected the night before for the fire. Maybe hoping the coals from previous night remain. When fire going then first task to draw water from outside, probably a well. Would need shoes, would need bucket. etc. This exercise is a fishing trip. Have to see what jumps out, but no guarantees. I’m thinking in this example maybe Cinders morning depends so much on what gets done the night before, maybe one of the people she imagines in her head says he’ll do the work for her, so she can go to bed, then in the morning it’s not done at all. That kind of thing. The output is a mechanism to drive story.

In the real script I collected 3 or 4 mechanisms over a couple of weeks. Next came characters. The mechanisms suggested a collection of required characters (so in our example Cinders would need someone to say he’d help out with the nighttime tasks – so maybe that’s the Buttons character). Also the story has some required characters (Cinders, prince, sisters etc). Then there are some character ideas that I think would be funny (someone who says nothing understandable, someone who smells). I had enough story structure that I could make a list of cast members, and importantly compare it to a very rough and impossible list of who we have in our Am Dram group. For instance we currently only have 4 men. This again give a very rough map of where we were. From this I could see where we looked good and where we were lacking.

I repeated the rough skeleton exercise for scenes and scenery. I made a rough draft of scenes needed to carry the story as it was, stage sets, major props etc. I also compared that to the list of funny things I’d like to happen (panto cow, someone getting bucket of water on head etc), and panto things that we needed (sing along with audience, ghost scene, trap door moment etc).

So far the process has felt a lot like sculpting. Very general shape (the silhouette). Then mark in major details (head, hand, legs, arms). Then create a palette of detailed ideas (skin textures, eye shapes, hair effects) – but not married to any of them. Now I’m at the stage when I need to start making solid decisions; those eyes, with that kind of hair etc.

Hmmm… This is where I’m at. I need to make some solid high level decisions, so I can start to build. But I’m still clawing away with a few more ideas, in the hope that one of them will unify the whole thing. I’m also at a stage where making a decision will involve getting rid of bad ideas. Some of which I’m already invested in, but which might not be the best. This is a part I’m not good at. Listening to my inner editor.

I’m also very aware that in the writing ideas will come out and the whole thing will flex and change. At this point I only have very basic ideas around character motivation, and I’m a huge believer in that (what do people want). I also know that characters must be able to react freely. So everything to this point is bubble gum and tape that might well get thrown away. But I need it to make sure I have a general map and will hit enough of the stuff that I need to make it happen.

OK… enough for now. More when I get there.




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Teaching Juggling

I started to teach my five year old how to juggle. The first step, and most important, is to simply throw a ball from one hand to the other. It’s the exercise that you have to master. I’ve been juggling for almost 30 years and I still come back to it time and time again.

After 5 minutes she managed 3 throws and catches in a row. “I can do it! I can Juggle!” I was very proud. (It took me about 6 hours to get that far aged 13). But unfortunately I had to break the news that there was a little while longer for her to go until she mastered the one ball from one hand to another.

The reason this exercise is so fantastic is because it feels simple and achievable. Most people will give it a try; Some people are so convinced that they are rubbish, they just toss the ball up into the air and fail to catch it because they’re explaining how they knew they couldn’t do it. Some people are too scared to let the ball leave their hand, and cling to it, even though they make the tossing motion. Sometimes they cling and throw with such vigor that you can imagine there hand flying off at the wrist.

Most people can pull the exercise off if they persevere. You rest a ball in the palm of your hand, and then throw it up and across, so it arks up to about eye level, and lands splat in your other hand. Then back again. Simple.

The exercise is simple, but it has many nuances. So here now are the many complications that you never point out to someone who is learning…

  • When you’re finally juggling you can’t focus on a ball, you have to focus on all balls at once (which you can’t do), so instead you have to learn to focus on no balls. You learn to look straight past the ball and be aware of it, but not involved with it. (You can get a student to practice the throw while reading a poster on the wall, or watching birds out the window).
  • Your hands can’t be chasing around catching stray balls all the time, they need to be in certain places at certain times, so the throw must be accurate. Each ball must follow a similar path, so as to take the same amount of time to reach it’s destination, and so it makes the desired pattern in the air.
  • When you juggle you don’t so much catch, as much as cushion and accompany the object in flight, and then redirect it’s motion. Hands need to be palm up for beginner juggling.  This can be one of the hardest things to get a beginning juggler to do, their hands and wrists twist and turn to try and compensate for the probably inaccurate throws.
  • The juggling pattern relies on you balls running round a course. They mostly loop round an infinity sign, which means as one ball comes into your hand, the outbound ball needs to go round it, not collide with it. So you need to throw high on the outside, and catch low on the inside. This is a very slight adjustment, and overdoing it is as bad as under doing it.  (Best left until they master throwing one ball and are throwing two).
  • You need a rhythm, you can’t stop to think about it before each throw. This also means you don’t have time to reset your hands.

I’m sure there are others, but already that’s a decent list.

Now remember the first point in the list. You need all of these precise requirements to be happening simultaneously, but also happening automatically. You need to surrender control of the ball to your subconscious. That surrender is (as far as I’m concerned) the greatest thing you learn in juggling. It’s not a nicety, it’s a necessity.

Juggling success is learning to surrender your conscious control. I’d never experienced that at age 13. I never realised my body and mind could do that. I should have understood it, because it happened all the time; No adult really knows how they walk, or how they swallow. You take sitting down and standing up for granted, but only 4 years ago I was teaching my daughter how to do that for the first time. We learn to do all sorts of things and then surrender them to the back of our brain to take care of the details. It happens with practice, and with repeatition. Doing something time and time again. By 13 I’d forgotten all about that, and was deep of the mind set that I, the logical conscious part of my brain, had to do everything round here.

It was summer holidays, and I’d shut myself up with a juggling book (the complete juggler by Dave Finnigan) for 3 days. I don’t really know where the urge to make it happen had come from, my older sister had bought me all the stuff. I was determined, so I followed the steps in the book, and step one was throwing back and forth. Luckily Dave’s book was full of positivity, at a time in my life where very was little of that. I worked at it solidly. I can remember by arms and legs killing me at the end of the first night (less from throwing and more from picking the damn things up). I went from one to two balls, and then finally to three. I’ll never forget the feeling when it clicked. I stopped thinking. You can’t tell yourself to stop thinking, it just has to happen. Suddenly I was juggling and wasn’t putting in an ounce of cerebral effort. My science/math/paranoia cogs weren’t turning (which never happened) and yet I was doing something brilliant. I was never physically inclined. I am not in anyway in touch with my body (and to a none juggler this will maybe sound stupid), so this was a life changing moment for me.

Refinement matters. Reaching the unconscious state of flow, that means your unconscious does the work, matters. Both of these require repetition. Repetition requires perseverance, which requires desire (desire is a subject in it’s own right). Often the subject of desire is the end state. We’re really not interested in the steps on the way, they’re to be delegated to the montage. We don’t know that we’re going to pull the end state off, so sometimes the desire is beat down by the sense of doom. The feeling that we’ll never make it to that place we’re looking for. Occasionally we do hit walls that we can’t see a way round, sometimes those walls are real and sometimes in our heads, or a result of a lack of practice. Determination is the thing that gets us through.

When you’re teaching others it is hard to control their determination. If they have none you can push them yourself. Make them learn by repetition, and drill things into them. Force them to do it. Push them past there apathy. That might pay off if they come out with their own drive. But what if they don’t. What if you kill there drive, and extinguish any motivation.
Instead you can be positive, dress up the training in a way that helps them see their progress. Reward tiny steps, set small goals that are achievable. That makes the learner feel good as they constantly attain, and are always reassured that they can be successful. That’s what the one ball from hand to hand exercise is. A little step that you can achieve. But it’s a two edged sword: If you tell someone that by throwing from hand to hand they will be able to juggle, and then fail to help them learn the nuance, fail to add in all the other parts, the consistency of throw, or the shape of there hands, or the letting go of their attention – then you do them a great disservice. You rob them of the skill. You cheapen it too much. You can leave them stuck when they wanted to go further.

Simplicity is a beautiful motivator, and makes for an easy first step. But it’s for nothing if not accompanied with the second, third and forth steps that continue and continue into the full journey. Put another way, a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step, but there are about 2,249,999 steps you’ll need to get there.

Epilogue (ohh dig me)… If you give someone a test and ask for the answers, it doesn’t mean they understand the subject. I did engineering for 4 years at university and still get nervous putting oil in the car. Recalling facts and understanding are as different as throwing and catching a ball, and being able to juggle. The same is true of measurements of success. Success measurement may have a place, but most goals can be achieved without any understanding of the nuance that made those goals worthwhile in the first place.

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Taking a look at CommandBox

Drifted into CommandBox, command line interface for running CFML. Useful intro video on the same page. In short…

  • Multiplatform (Windows, Mac etc) and seemingly CFML engine independent, with a slight bias to Railo/Lucee.
  • Creates a command line window from which you can run commands.
  • Run CFML from the command line
  • They’ve put a lot of time into simple help system, and an intuitive interface (albeit one that feels like an early 80’s text adventure). Kudos to them for taking the time to make it easy.
  • Packaging system (Need to read more, but for brief glimpse a had aspects of Maven)
  • Deployment system, with caching of artifacts for quicker installs
  • Create the equivalent of batch files
  • Lots of built in gumph for automating the use of  other Ortus solutions (which I’m not familiar with as I don’t really use 3rd party)
  • Very easy install

I will play with this thing and see what I find.

On another topic finding this caused me to do a quick search for what’s out there for CFML as a whole – if I was new what would I find. It’s a really fractured landscape. Lots of good stuff, but it really does feel like a tonne of isolated tribes. That’s a shame.

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The other reason for having a character

In impro we’re taught that character and scene work  is important.

I think that most people think about this from the point of view of the audience, what it does for the show, how it helps propel a story line, or makes things funny. There is another way to look at it.

Being funny is hard work. Getting on stage for an show requires concentration, and when you’re also steering a story and trying to invent funny, that’s a lot of brain work. A show is brain work on demand; It’s a fixed point in time, for a fixed period in which you have to be “On”. It’s like taking an exam or test. Doesn’t matter that your dolphin just got stuck in a wind turbine, or that your mother found your gynecology report (“but how did you catch it?”), good day or bad – it is time to perform.

Lets also note that being funny is hard. Even the best comedians have to work at it. They look like they strolled up there, and just made it up on the spot, but they didn’t. The best raconteurs have years of experience, story lines they have played out time and time before, and pre-canned material hidden up there sleeve. There is repetition and honing of jokes. Chris Rock may do two specials  year, but even that’s 6 months of planning for a couple of hours of material. To believe as improvisors that we can come up with an hour show based on our shear comic genius alone is unrealistic.

Improvised Comedy based on brainy wit alone is not enough. We need to make it easier on ourselves. On stage we need to give our cerebral humour space to think, and we need to proof ourselves against hangovers and bad days. We need fallbacks and shortcuts, we need to find any advantage we can. In comes character.

Forgetting the humour potential of being a good character, pretending to be someone is very low effort. It’s easy and it takes very little brain power. That’s mainly because we are someone all the time. We don’t think about being ourselves, we just are. We’re ourselves when we’re angry or sad. We react to things all the time, we emote all the time. We just do. It just is. If you don’t you’re what’s called “dead”. When I’m thirsty I pick up a drink. When I’m horny I make a face that’s concerning to my co-workers. When I see my shoelace is untied I bend down and untie it (albeit very slowly of late).

If you’re onstage and can throw a character over yourself, and pretend to be that person. It’s very low effort, and it brings you the space and time you need to think.

There are some rules here:

You’re doing the character to free up your intellect. It has to be a minimally resource intensive activity. Think how much effort you put into sitting on a bus being vacant, that’s how much effort we’re looking for. 9am alone on  autopilot making your what ever breakfast level of attention. It’s pointless if you’re thinking about how the character will do things. Here are things that you might think about that will NOT help:

What will I do next?: People on autopilot don’t think that, they live in the moment. I’m writing this, and later I’ll probably check my phone. When I sneeze I hunt for tissues, and when decide to get a drink I sort of just do it. I might make some porridge in a bit, but I can honestly say when I do it I won’t pre-plan the whole thing. I’ll just open the door and go to the kitchen etc. So don’t plan on stage. Do. This is made much easier if you can feel (not think) the characters motivations and act on them.What are those motivations – your call. What emotional state are they in, your call. The only caviate is pick them at the start and don’t change them, mostly because it’ll be confusing to the audience, but B), who has the energy to keep rethinking. Make a choice stick to it.

Where is everything?: It’s much easier if you decide what shape you’re environment is. Now – you’re probably thinking, I don’t have time to plot our a whole world, I’m on stage. The truth is that you do. For one thing, if you’re doing something in this world, the audience will find it interesting (try it, they will, go round your space making shit up by doing stuff). For seconds, you’re a god, If you want the kitchen to be a double wide granite counter with six massive potato mashing machines driven by skunks in wheels – it is (don’t forget to notify you’re co-performers). Just be decisive and make it that way. See it in your minds eye, play lets pretend and be there.

React: If in the next 10 minutes a minotaur opens the door and flashes at me, I will react. I won’t be together when it happens. I will probably kack my pants, and I might scream. I won’t continue writing this post. I won’t instantly find a sword, or say thank “god I brought spare under pants”. I will need to get my shit together and then I will react on instinct, not with witty one liners (“three horns!”, or a witty one liner). Be… damnit. Be the character. Don’t freeze by intellectually thinking “how can I make this into a funny moment”. Emotionally react. Give your mind space. Harvest more material to work with. Maybe the situation is enough. If nothing else you’ll have completely committed to what ever huge offer has come your way. There is no better way to support a fellow performer than doing that.

Is this right?: This old sock. For a skill that has no rules, and where everything is correct, there’s a lot of rules in impro. Go back to the god principal. Bring into existence what ever you want. But consider this. The world you create needs to hang together. If it doesn’t it will be hard to be in. If it’s hard to be in, you’ll have to start expending mental energy; how do I cope with a world where 2 minutes ago I was a captain on a ship, but now I’m in a penguin in the desert. How do I function within that? The answer is that you justify. The ship hit the Bermuda triangle and you where transported, or you were always a Penguin, but you have a very vivid fantasy life. Those kinds of justifications are core to making a funny situation – they validate strangeness that you can then live off and make comedy with. But the more crazy the change the harder the justification. Going back on what is already established is one of the hardest ones to deal with, which is why blocking is such a problem (That chair was a duck 10 seconds, how! But we fed it bread and everything!). Johnstone’s book (can’t remember which one) talked about circles of possibility. The badly remembered quote that stuck with me was “if you’re going to have a supermarket in an enchanted forest, it better be staffed by elves”. Why – cause that’s easier.

Normal is easy. If what you’re doing is normal to your character (ergo low effort) then do it. Just make sure that you explain (in impro speak) to your co performers why it is (if they have that mystified look on their faces). Don’t think about what is right. Normal people don’t function like that. When I make the porridge, I use a spoon, I wash my bowl and put the stuff in a microwave and sit down, and wipe my mouth and start to wash up. All without permission. If I am a psychopath I kill the person, and clean their skin, and cut it off and start to sew the flesh bikini. If I live in the trenches, I clean my gun, and flinch when the bombs fall, and check the lines and dig a toilet pit blah blah. Just do.

Special note on this one, that being self conscious is the act of questioning if your behaviour is correct. In that case in a social situation. If your character is self conscious then do that. If they are not, don’t. You have the permission of the stage to do what ever. If you let your underlying emotions seep through into your on stage characters emotions they will produce a mixed up character. Giving yourself permission to be, is the essence of success. That’s a hump to get over, and if I think of a way to teach that I’ll be a billionaire. Let the situation of being on stage fall away. Forget about the audience and play. Best way i know to do that is to stop attending to the intellectual side of the problem, the “Think of a funny side” and again – just be a character. You have to trust that when you neglect the audience and attend to the made up world, the audience will stay with you, and that the process will work. It’s like trusting the scuba gear and attending to the swimming and the fishes, rather than constantly obsessing about the equipment and the potential for death 40 meters under the sea.

So there – be a character to free you up. To allow yourself to be on auto pilot. It will do 70% of the work for you. You make the world, relationships, perform tasks, have emotions, have desires, to help make it easy to submerge into a character. To reduce the effort, not as additional things you have to do for the audiences benefit. The character will make the decisions and drive things forward, and then your intellect can sit somewhere at the back of your mind, take its time, and simply nudge you in good directions.



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Pointless people

What if we could tangibly measure happiness, and also tangibly measure productivity. Some defacto scale that actually meant something. You are happy, you are productive.
Then what if we discovered that all the morons who spend their days strolling around doing nothing. All the people attached to iPhones wandering around shops spending money of BS… what is we measured their productivity (low) and happiness, and discovered they where very unhappy, as well as pointless. (there’s some value judgements going on here).
If those people are happy I can sort of cope with them, but if they’re unhappy and unproductive, then what would be the point of them. Would it be kindest to just… I don’t know… round them up and dump them in the wilderness with bears?

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At 38, as a father of 2 and under some of the heaviest stress possibly of my life, now, only now do I realise just how much I need my Dad.

There’s a voice in your head that you summon up under specific circumstance to help you be something you need to be. As much as you hate it, often that voice is an echo of your parents. I wish his voice was louder now…

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Creativity, thinking and dissatisfaction

OK… I found this summary on – it’s way better than any a summary I could produce.

Our ignorance of our wants and desires is well-established in psychology. Several years ago Timothy Wilson conducted one of the first studies to illustrated this. He asked female college students to pick their favorite posters from five options: a van Gogh, a Monet and three humorous cat posters. He divided them into two groups: The first (non-thinkers) was instructed to rate each poster on a scale from 1 to 9. The second (analyzers) answered questionnaires asking them to explain why they liked or disliked each of them. Finally, Wilson gave each subject her favorite poster to take home.

Wilson discovered that the preferences of the two groups were quite different. About 95 percent of the non-thinkers went with van Gogh or Monet. On the other hand, the analyzers went with the humorous cat poster about 50 percent of the time. The surprising results of the experiment showed themselves a few weeks later. In a series of follow-up interviews, Wilson found that the non-thinkers were much more satisfied with their posters. What explains this? One author says that, “the women who listened to their emotions ended up making much better decisions than the women who relied on their reasoning powers. The more people thought about which posters they wanted, the more misleading their thoughts became. Self-analysis resulted in less self-awareness.”

I got to thinking about this recently, because it came up on an NPR radio program. There’s a key thing here is that gut instinct decisions make the chooser happier, which are also sophisticated choices. Or conversely over analytical choices don’t make the chooser happy, and are often dumber choices.

I over analysed comedy to death when I was a stand up. With time it stopped making me happy, and nothing I wrote or did seemed good enough.

Impro kept me happier for longer. I tried to over analyse it, but it’s improvised. There is only so much cold logical decision making you can do in the spur of the moment.

It’s a not a huge leap to say that maybe the analysis was what killed comedy for me. I’m sure many would say “duh – of course”. It’s maybe a surprise for me though. I know I was too into the why’s and what’s, but I liked that. It was boring for others, but I loved thinking about the material in a more logic way. The surprise for me is how tangibly that over thinking can be tied to disliking the end material.

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You can’t please everyone, and neither should you…


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