Comedy, Absurdism, and Farce for Interactive Theatre
Updated: Aug 7
While I’ve seen light-hearted and schlocky interactive theatre, I’ve never seen something that I’d class as comedy-comedy.
Mockery of genres, yes, but never… I don’t know. I think Viper Squad came closest to what I mean, but was still aiming at simulation of a larger-than-life genre more than… whatever I outline below.
I’d love to make such a work, but I’m not sure where to start. Thus this blog.
Because yes, I’d like to make a show that’s tonally entirely opposite to the very sombre, ritualistic world of Come Bargain With Uncanny Things.
Comedy’s really hard to define, but let’s be broad and excuse definitions later.
Joke-based comedy usually centres around timing and a degree control (via form or charisma). Pre-scripted forms certainly do; improv less so, but still requires willing participants and collaborators to really shine.
So let’s wipe that off the board for now.
Character comedy seems be easier to do; most interactive shows have at least one slightly absurd character. The challenge comes in making them able to facilitate while being funny - conveying information clearly can be a challenge if a character’s humour comes from ambiguity and puckishness.
Clowning humour is a better reference for the kind of character comedy that seems to work really well; characters who are doomed to their lot in life, but keep trying.
So maybe character comedy.
But how to make there be room for genuine audience engagement?
What Do The Audience Do?
First, there must be something for the audience to do that meaningfully shapes the show.
Let’s be clear: many forms of comedy already have this. The Alternative Comedy Memorial Society has permitted heckles, bizarre traditions, and all sorts of ways that the audience influence what happens. It might be something to come back to.
So to refine this notion, let’s say meaningfully shapes the narrative and world.
That being what I’d usually expect in interactive theatre.
Second, the situations and tools must lead to comedy.
This is something the design of certain tabletop roleplaying games demonstrates well. Mörk Bork makes it easy to create situations dripping with death metal vibes, Monsterhearts automatically leads to teenage monster highschool drama.
If the tools and situations are well defined, then the farcical outcomes can pile up.
And I do think farce is a good place to go. Let the audience tangle themselves up in a terrible web of obligations and responsibilities, then try to get themselves out of it.
However, in all of this, two dangers emerge.
Chaos and Heart
Let’s presume that this show lasts for at least two hours.
Comedy is most easily found in subversion and rule-breaking. Here’s the Great General, let’s pull down his trousers. We’ve been told to negotiate a deal with these Very Important Businesspeople, let’s sell them this corporation for a chicken.
Comedy comes from chaos.
Chaos creates risk, and the chance that amid total anarchy and lack of structure, we’d find the dreaded realms of not-fun.
After all, if the audience keep undercutting the show to get a laugh, soon there’ll be no show. It’s a card that can be played only so many times.
The solution in those games above I mentioned is having tools so appealing that the audience want to use them. Peer pressure is a great tool.
The other challenge is heart.
It’s definitely possible, but amid all of this humour, there’ll need to be genuine feeling.
Or, at least, I’d say that’s part of most of my favourite comedy and interactive theatre.
That sadsack butler genuinely wants to do well, but stutters terribly under pressure.
The overbearing Great General is utterly convinced he’ll bring universal peace, if only… and never quite gets there, and can’t understand it’s always his fault.
Hence clowning as a reference.
Because with that feeling, you both create something for the comedy to come from other than undercutting and absurdity, and something to hook players into the farce.
Things You Could Do
The first thing, to my mind, is changing the situation room model currently fashionable to one based more on games like Fiasco (rather than the current unwritten default of Dungeons & Dragons).
Let the audience generate problems, then let them try to resolve them.
The fun and humour comes from the situation and tone, not punchlines.
The second thing would be more strongly character-oriented mechanics.
The real goal isn’t necessarily triumphing in the race to space, but helping the sadsack write a letter to their terrible boss.
Or it’s in tying the Great General’s shoelaces together so he falls together at an important meeting.
Or leaving a trail of chocolates so the hopelessly romantic yet terrible Flibblesnout, the jolly and horrifying spiderlike being at the heart of the entire escapade, gets lured into a cupboard.
Because yes, if I’m really leaning into this aesthetic, maybe it’s an Alice In Wonderland-esque where every room’s very different, yet talking to one another via a wide variety of bizarre and arcane rules.
Underpinning it all might be rules about how the tools (i.e. characters) work for the audience to uncover: if the Great General ever tries to conquer a country, he will overreach himself and fail.
If the sadsack tries to advance themselves in life, they will sabotage themselves in the worst way possible.
However hard the Flibblesnout tries to get the sadsack to see them as a potential love interest, they will always be interrupted by urgent business that sets the fate of the universe.
Finally, a fun challenge that might emerge is shaping energy levels. Because this kind of show could end up being 100% WOO!!! BELLS WHISTLES AND FIREWORKS!!!! !!!!!
But I reckon it might be more fun trying to find quiet comedy as well. The delightful humour in tension, fear, and intensity, yet requiring the craft of making those moments.
Yet all of this is for another time. But I’d like to get the ideas here now. And hopefully, if you’re interested, I’d like to talk to you about them sometime too.