If you’ve ever taken an art class you might be familiar with the term “negative space.” It’s used to describe the area in a painting that surrounds the subject: the parts that aren’t supposed to draw our eye. The dull trees and hills that frame Mona Lisa’s face, the grey clouds and brick wall behind that bowler hat dude with the apple up in his face.
The power of negative space is often underestimated. Rarely is this space left unintentionally empty by an artist; it’s still important that the viewer sees these captivating subjects framed by a world they recognise as their own. It’s the everyday backdrop upon which a subject’s uniqueness appears all the more shiny & unusual
Every artform has its own version of negative space. Music has silence. Dance has stillness. And longform improv has base reality.
Base reality is the elements of a scene which function how we would expect them to against which the absurdity can stand out. It’s something that is commonly neglected in talking about comedy: we’re often so pre-occupied with examining whether that old-timey prospector on roller skates is funny or not that we don’t zoom out and ask whether or not the character has been framed properly in the bigger picture.
What makes negative space so important for longform improv is the fact that we start creating without knowing what our subject is going to be. Imagine if Da Vinci had been improv-painting his masterpiece, not knowing where he would make each brushstroke until after the last. Would the viewer still be drawn to Mona Lisa’s cheeky lil smile if it had been inserted in front of a scene of a windmill being demolished?
A mistake I often see made by emerging but genuinely funny improvisers is reaching for absurdity too soon. They’re good at thinking up fun, juicy comedic premises, but by introducing them to the mixture too soon they spoil the batter.
Sure: it’s very possible to be funny right from the word go, and the audience will love you for it. But improv is like building a car while you’re driving it, and by honking the novelty horn at the start your audience is gonna be a lot less patient watching you bolting wheel axles to a chassis for the next few minutes, even though that’s invariably what a car needs to go anywhere.
In all good comedy there has to be an establishment of expectations in order for a subversion of expectations to follow. A set-up before a punchline. The straight man almost always gets introduced before the funny man. So I like to encourage students to not be afraid of being ordinary in the beginning of their scenes.
It doesn’t have to necessarily be “boring” – two pirates in a high seas cannonball battle might be par-for-the-course in the lives of pirates. But we always need to agree on some form of what is “usual” in order for the UN-usual thing to be visible to everyone.
And what do you do once you find that unusual thing? To find out, come along to my Shiny & Unusual Things workshop this weekend! Places are filling up fast.